Alaska Life

The last voyage of the Eliza Anderson: A gold rush tale of the worst ship to ever sail to Alaska

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

In many ways, the Klondike gold rush was a type of temporary insanity. Tens of thousands of wannabe prospectors abandoned their preexisting lives, occupations and families for the chance, the rumor of a chance really, at a quick and easy fortune. The far, far majority of the rushers were utterly unprepared, ignorant even, of what life was like in the remote Klondike. Some starved, were killed by outlaws or died of exposure. Only around half of the gold rushers ever made it as far as the Yukon goldfields, and nearly all of them returned home worse off than when they started.

The mania of the Klondike gold rush infected both the prospectors and individuals involved in the ancillary businesses, those that mined the miners. Nowhere is this attitude more clearly visible than with the Eliza Anderson, an essentially abandoned steamship pressed into service to carry gold rushers north to Alaska. Rotting, underpowered and crewed by novices, the Eliza Anderson is likely the least capable ship to ever sail the open waters around Alaska. The steamer’s doomed 1897 journey north was marked by a series of barely survived disasters before its eminently foreseeable demise, a narrative so ridiculous that the appearance of a “ghost helmsman” is merely a footnote.

The sidewheeler Eliza Anderson, named for the daughter of a Hudson Bay Company fur trader, launched on Nov. 27, 1858, out of Portland, Oregon. The largest ship built in Oregon to that date, she measured 134-feet long with a hull made of Douglas fir. The steamer was designed for river service, to ply the length of the Columbia River. However, shortly after her trials, she was sold and placed on a coastal schedule, making regular runs between Olympia, Washington, and Victoria, British Columbia.

As one of the most notable ships in the Pacific Northwest, the Eliza Anderson appears in several anecdotes. Among its more unique attributes, the steamer had a calliope, a steam whistle organ. While in the Canadian port of Victoria on one Fourth of July, the ship’s resident keyboardist drunkenly played American patriotic songs in the middle of the night. Unamused, the local constable raced to the docks to arrest him. Instead of compliance, the ship moved into the harbor. The sounds of “Yankee Doodle” continued to echo about the town until the musician passed out in a drunken stupor.

Another time, the steamer was caught in a storm with a load of pianos and whiskey. The ship was taking on water, and the captain ordered the crew to dump the pianos instead of the liquor. Asked about it later, the captain allegedly replied, “Hell man, you can’t drink pianos.”

In 1860, escaped 13-year-old slave Charley Mitchell stowed away on the Eliza Anderson, hoping to make his way into Canada. He was soon discovered, and the ship’s captain planned on returning him to America in chains once the steamer had completed its itinerary. That journey included the typical stop in Victoria, which prompted a minor diplomatic incident.

Slavery had been abolished throughout the British Empire, including Canada, in 1834. Once residents in Victoria learned of Mitchell’s plight, a standoff ensued, including a Canadian court order for Mitchell’s release. As the confrontation intensified, the newspaper editor in the Eliza Anderson’s homeport of Olympia called for direct American military intervention. Yet, thanks to the intervention of Victoria’s residents, Mitchell was set free.

The Eliza Anderson’s original heyday ended in 1870 when it was replaced on its circuit by a larger, newer vessel. By 1877, the outdated steamer was rotting away unused at a Seattle wharf, even sinking in 1882 and left resting on the mud for a year. In 1883, she was refloated, refitted and returned to service for a few years. But by 1890, she was laid up on the Duwamish River, employed as a roadhouse with a reputation for illegal gambling. This should have been the end of its story, for the ship to linger in memories while falling apart physically.

Then came the Klondike gold rush. On Aug. 16, 1896, miners found gold on a Klondike River tributary. On July 14, 1897, the Excelsior steamed into San Francisco with a load of prospectors heavily laden with gold from the same region. On July 17, 1897, the Portland landed at Seattle with a similar story. The news spread like fire on dry kindling, lighting a nationwide craze. Thousands of fortune hunters descended upon the West Coast in a seeming instant, all demanding their ride to Alaska and the goldfields beyond. Their fevered imaginations of near-instant wealth made them impatient, eager to spend whatever was necessary for a steamer ticket.

This scenario had many issues, but a logistical problem was perhaps the most pressing. There were far more gold rushers than spots on ships to carry them north. The sheer number of vessels was insufficient for the sudden, lucrative demand. And it would take too long to build new ones.

On July 22, just five days after its momentous arrival in Seattle, the Portland left for St. Michael, Alaska, crammed full of gold rushers. That same day, negotiations neared completion to transfer ownership of the Eliza Anderson to a new company. Any old vessel that could float was considered for runs to Alaska, but none were as notoriously derelict as the Eliza Anderson, known as the “oldest steamship on the Sound.”

Longtime residents of the coast openly mocked the Eliza Anderson’s rebirth. The San Francisco Call, one of the more sarcastic newspapers of the era, noted, “She has been given a new coat of paint to strengthen her for the voyage.” As to the likelihood of the venture, the paper said, “It is unlikely that any of those having tickets will ever be heard to complain.”

The Dalles Daily Chronicle described the Anderson as “built so long ago that most steamboat people have forgotten her.” The unnamed author added, “She was in the boneyard for a dozen years and lay at the bottoms of the Sound for a year or two, a sunken wreck; but she is good enough for the gold-seekers.” The latter comment was definitely meant to insult the intelligence and worth of the gold rushers.

Regarding the general state of ships bound for Alaska, the Port Townsend Morning Leader declared, “The miners who are engaging passage on these antiquated craft are ignorant of the unsafe conditions of the vessels.” Regarding the Eliza Anderson specifically, the same newspaper said, “the old steamer Eliza Anderson, for many years a picturesque exhibition of outlived usefulness and decay in the Tacoma boneyard ... that she would ever again be called upon to carry freight or passengers never entered the heads of the habitués of the (water) front.”

The Eliza Anderson was quickly and inadequately refitted. On Aug. 10, 1897, only 24 days after the Portland landed in Seattle, and after seven years of rotting in place on the Duwamish River, the old steamer left Seattle as part of a similarly motley fleet. The flotilla included an even older ship, a former Russian gunboat named the Politkofsky reduced into a coal barge. Their destination was St. Michael, where their gold rush passengers would board riverboats to travel up the Yukon River.

When the Eliza Anderson pulled away from the docks that day, she had no bilge pumps, electricity, water condenser or compass. Her coal bunkers were insufficient for the journey. Many of the crew had never been to sea before. Even at her decades-gone peak, no captain would have taken the steamer away from the coast and into open water. The San Francisco Bulletin asked, “When the owners of the Eliza Anderson sent that luckless vessel to sea without any pumps, were they actuated by a spirit of criminal economy, or should they be praised for the possession of a sublime faith in providence?”

As soon as the steamer left port, she began leaking “like a barrel in the sun all summer.” Anyone with carpentry experience, crew or passenger, was pressed into action, patching holes and building makeshift pumps. The ship broke down three times before reaching Vancouver Island. Provisions and coal were already running short, and they had to stop at creeks to take on freshwater repeatedly.

At Comox, British Columbia, the likely inebriated crew stowed the coal incorrectly while topping off the bunkers, causing the ship to list. Out of control, the steamer crashed into an anchored clipper ship, and the Eliza Anderson’s galley flooded. The captain of this floating coffin, Thomas Powers, overrode passenger complaints, ignored the advice of more seasoned sailors, and ordered the ship onward. After a couple more stops near the coast, he directed his crew to cross the open sea toward Dutch Harbor.

On Aug. 24, they entered a nasty gale west of Kodiak Island. Massive waves punched at the decrepit sidewheeler. Seams and joints split and tore. The waves ripped off part of the smokestack and swept away all but one of the lifeboats. The portside rudder chain broke. They ran out of coal. Everyone aboard took turns manning the pumps or removing parts of the wooden ship to feed the boilers. Some passengers hurriedly scrawled what they thought would be their final words, stuffed them into empty whiskey bottles, and tossed them into the sea.

Amidst the fury, the steamer was separated from the rest of its convoy. The formerly steady updates in the newspapers dwindled into an ominous silence. Beginning on Sept. 12, reports spread that the steamer “was wrecked in the vicinity of Kodiak with all hands lost.” But that’s not what happened.

In the ship’s darkest moment, while at the mercy of the sea, a savior arrived. As the Eliza Anderson bobbed in the waves, a small canoe improbably appeared off the starboard side, 30 miles from land, and in the middle of the massive storm. A weather-beaten man wrapped in oilskins guided it alongside the steamer and boarded. He spoke little but appeared to be Swedish. Per an 1899 Seattle Post-Intelligencer account, he told the rapt audience, “There is an abandoned cannery over there, with coal in plenty under one of its sheds. You can have that fuel. I’ll pilot you there.” The stranger then silently took to the pilothouse, directed them to the abandoned cannery, and disappeared in his canoe as suddenly as he had appeared.

No one aboard the steamer knew his identity. Some versions of the story elevated the narrative so that the stranger was a “phantom pilot,” a specter who faded out of view when no longer needed. More than 40 years later, a third-hand account claimed the stranger was no more than a stowaway with area cannery experience. The story is no less mysterious in even its most mundane version.

Regardless, the Eliza Anderson had been gifted a reprieve. The bunkers were refilled, and minor repairs completed. On Sept. 4, the Eliza Anderson finally limped into Dutch Harbor at Unalaska Island. The rest of its convoy had long since given up hope and departed for St. Michael. A U.S. Revenue Cutter Service captain took one look at the old sidewheeler and forbade her to go any farther. The visible leaks and single lifeboat were enough reason, but the engine was also falling apart in addition to other severe, if less obvious damage. As the Olympia Washington Standard put it, “There is no doubt now, if there ever was, of her utter unseaworthiness.”

Most of the passengers — none of whom would have reboarded the steamer anyway — hired a whaling schooner to take them to St. Michael. A few of the gold rushers had seen enough of Alaska and decided to return south. The crew abandoned the ship in the harbor. A storm in early March 1898 tore it from its moorings and onto the beach. A visitor in 1899 described the wreckage: “At Unalaska we saw the hull of the Eliza Anderson. The previous winter the old sidewheeler had been blown upon the beach and wrecked. The lumber from her superstructure has been used as fuel and for the construction of shacks by beachcombers.” Over the next few years, locals slowly stripped the ship of anything that could be repurposed.

Today, the remaining evidence of the Eliza Anderson is scattered across the bottom of Dutch Harbor. Many of those who partook in the Klondike gold rush were lost in the daydreams of what might be. Though the last voyage of the Eliza Anderson reflects much of this attitude, at least no lives were lost in what was perhaps the most predictable disaster of the Gold Rush.

Key sources:

“The Anderson is Safe.” [Olympia] Washington Standard, September 17, 1897, 2.

“The Eliza Anderson.” [Sacramento] Record-Union, September 13, 1897, 1.

“The Eliza Anderson.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 22, 1897, 2.

“From the North.” [Olympia] Washington Standard, October 1, 1897, 2.

“Hundreds Crowd the Collier.” San Francisco Call, August 10, 1897, 3.

“Make Slow Progress.” San Francisco Call, August 18, 1897, 3.

“The Portland Sails Today.” Los Angeles Herald, July 22, 1897, 1.

Pulkkinen, Levi. “Seattle’s Freedom Ship: A Ghost Story” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 29, 2015

Rogers, Jason S. “Steamer Eliza Anderson: An Early Puget Sound Steamer Shipwrecked in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.” The Sea Chest: Journal of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society (2009): 51-61.

“A Savior Rode the Storm.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 17, 1899, 10.

“Some Wild Day-Dreams.” Dalles Daily Chronicle, August 11, 1897, 2.

David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.