Alaska Life

Mutiny and ice: A treacherous 1908 journey from Seattle to Nome

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

On June 1, 1908, the crowd watched and waved as the S.S. Ohio pulled away from its Seattle berth. The steamship was bound for Nome, loaded with a fresh batch of fortune seekers, mail and cargo. For its experienced captain, Charles G. Conradi, the fanfare, departure and route were routine. He had done it before and surely expected to do it again. However, this time was different. Weeks late and considered lost, the ship endured a near mutiny and the crashing ice of the Bering Sea before finally reaching its destination. Aided by the letters of a passenger, the journey of the Ohio illuminates the realities and difficulties of travel in the waning days of gold rush-era Alaska.

Launched in 1872, the Ohio was one of four massive iron ships — the largest such in American history at the time — commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. The 343-foot-long steamer began her career as a trans-Atlantic liner, working a circuit between Philadelphia and Liverpool, England. For more than 20 years, this loop was her life, but the discovery of gold on the other side of the continent changed everything.

When the S.S. Portland sidled up to Seattle’s Schwabacher Dock on July 17, 1897, it contained several successful miners and reports of fabulous gold fields in the Canadian Klondike. The news ran wild and sparked gold fever across the nation. Thousands of hopeful prospectors flooded into the West Coast ports, all looking for a ride north. And here, their demand bottlenecked, hindered by the few available ships.

There was no time for new construction, so shipping firms either refitted older hulls or purchased seaworthy vessels from elsewhere. The Eliza Anderson was the worst-case example of this rush, a formerly rotting and abandoned steamer that failed to complete its first voyage north. The Ohio represented a better option. In 1898, the aging yet rugged ship traveled to the West Coast and was placed on the Seattle to Nome loop.

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

The first nine years of the Ohio’s tenure on the Nome run passed without significant incident, remarkable for an older ship that repeatedly traversed the treacherous waters off Alaska. The first tragedy came in 1907 when the steamer collided with an iceberg in the Bering Sea. Rather than becoming trapped on what they thought was a sinking ship, around 75 passengers leapt into the frigid sea. Four of them died before they could be recovered. The deaths almost certainly haunted Captain Conradi and informed his decisions a year later.


With good weather, a ship could complete the journey from Seattle to Nome in nine or 10 days. The circumstances in the summer of 1908 were a bit more complicated. When the Ohio left Seattle on June 1, there were roughly 600 passengers on board. Accounts vary. On June 7, the steamer was still roughly on schedule as it passed through the Unimak Pass and into the Bering Sea. The next day, however, they encountered thick ice and anchored out of sight of land. From June 8 to 14, the ship drifted as Captain Conradi waited for an opening to appear.

For young Max Loudon, the Ohio was a steppingstone to what he hoped would be a lucrative new life in Nome. During the journey, he wrote two lengthy letters to his mother that captured many details that would otherwise have been lost. As they drifted, the passengers had “nothing to do but eat and sleep.” On June 14, he noted, “Some of the boys brought out some boxing gloves and almost everybody on board was boxing. We had lots of fun. We ran out of tobacco and matches about a week ago.” The meals also became simpler as the ship began to run out of certain foods.

Over the next three days, the ship made slow progress before suddenly breaking through the ice and reaching Sledge Island late on June 17. Nome was a little more than 20 miles away, and the passengers packed loose belongings with the expectation of a landing early the next day. In the middle of the night, the captain spied two other ships caught in the ice and retreated south. For the next week, the Ohio drifted, waiting for a storm to break up and move the ice. During this time, they communicated with the captain of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Thetis but declined his offer of assistance through the ice.

Loudon wrote, “we ran out of our regular (meat) stock Thursday (June 18) and had to draw on our cargo, so we don’t get much meat. But what we do get is the best.” By now, the passengers were restless and increasingly critical of Captain Conradi. Loudon saw his opportunities in Nome evaporating: “it means a good deal to me because I want to get a job checking freight at $1.00 per hour for a few weeks to get a start. And if they are all unloaded when we get there, I will have to rustle something else.”

As they bobbed up and down in the Bering Sea, they were far from alone. Several other ships were caught in the same predicament, yet most of them waited at the edge of the ice, prepared to seize upon the first opportunity to make Nome. Conradi kept his steamer closer to St. Lawrence Island, which began to anger the passengers. Per Loudon, the captain was “afraid of being surrounded by ice and carried into the Arctic Ocean. The ice always drifts there, you see. We will have to wait to see whether or not he is right.”

By June 28, those aboard the Ohio were reduced to two meals a day. “All the men are getting very dirty now, and we will be lucky if sickness doesn’t break out,” noted Loudon. “I expect by this time people think we have sunk.” By the beginning of July and three weeks late, those in Nome indeed considered the steamer lost. The word soon spread, and several newspapers printed the news that the ship had sunk with all aboard assumed dead.

By June 29, the ship was out of sugar, flour, and salt. On July 1, Conradi ordered the Ohio back to Dutch Harbor for supplies, to the complete dismay of the passengers. “Every time (Conradi) saw a cake of ice he turned and ran for open water,” wrote Loudon. “The passengers were the angriest lot of men you ever saw.”

On July 4, the Ohio left Dutch Harbor for Nome, though the captain considered returning to Seattle. When the steamship reached the ice, it once again met the Thetis and another revenue cutter, the McCulloch. Despite their offers of assistance, Conradi again refused to follow them into the ice and on to Nome. He told the cutter captains, “Will the United States be responsible for my ship if she is lost?”

It was at this point that the passengers began an evolution into a mob. They had spent unplanned weeks aboard the Ohio, increasingly filthy and hungry. Passing ships and shops at Dutch Harbor gouged them on prices. To add insult to increasing injury, they had paid for the experience while also losing out on opportunities at Nome.

They mocked Conradi at every turn, singing songs about his perceived cowardice, penning new lyrics to popular melodies. One of the songs stated, “I do not blame the captain, Bill; he’s cautious, safe, and slow. And should have been in an Old Folks Home some sixty years ago.” Another song declared, “‘No ice water we’ll drink,’ says Con, ‘for its clink in the glass makes me just want to cry oh; If she touched no ice I’ve a bonus that’s nice, Till the flow melts I’ll hold the Ohio.’” Conradi, in turn, openly despised the passengers, calling them a “degraded bunch.”

Moreover, the passengers became mutinous. They plotted to place Conradi in chains and force the crew to finish the journey with guns at their heads if necessary. In a last-ditch attempt to avoid outright piracy, the passengers sent formal petitions to the Thetis and McCulloch, begging for their intervention. The Nome postmaster also filed a complaint demanding the immediate transfer of the mail to a ship willing to attempt a landing.

The revenue cutter captains were similarly tired of Conradi’s inaction. Captain A.J. Henderson of the Thetis ordered the Ohio’s master, “If you will not follow, I command you to remain here until I can take part of your passengers to Nome. I will return for the remainder of them, and the McCulloch will stay by you to see that you obey.” Henderson also ordered Conradi to hand over the mail. Backed into a corner, Conradi reluctantly agreed to follow the Thetis into Nome. On July 11, 1908, 40 days after they left Seattle and around 30 days overdue, the harried trip was finally at its end.

In many ways, life was slower over a century ago. News and trends, let alone cargo, took their time reaching this far north. However, life was still not so slow as the Ohio. The delay negatively affected nearly everyone aboard. Jobs had been filled. Contract terms were failed. Thirty days lost was thirty days of labor and wages lost, more than enough to wreck the finances of the average passenger. Loudon noted, “I expected to have made $100 by this time.” His mother depended on the money he sent home; “Mama may have some trouble till I can get started making money. I have been awfully delayed.”

Several passengers and others negatively affected by the delay immediately filed lawsuits against the Ohio’s parent company, Frank Waterhouse and Co. For example, a Nome grocer lost most of a produce shipment. The fruit and vegetables had rotted or been eaten. The ship was seized but soon allowed to leave, a deal that allowed the steamer to return to its home port. On July 29, nearly two months after departing, the Ohio arrived back in Seattle with 19 passengers, 10 tons of freight, and $29,322 in gold.

Conradi swore that he acted under explicit orders from ownership. To be fair, his reputation to that point had been sterling, but with the ship unable to sail due to the ongoing legal battles, he was relieved of his command and fired. He continued to sail the Pacific Northwest until his retirement. He died in Seattle in 1941. The Ohio was sold to the Alaska Steamship Co. On Aug. 26, 1909, the elderly steamer’s career ended when it hit rocks off British Columbia. Three crewmembers and one passenger died.

Though the conditions were sometimes dire, Loudon made the best of his time in Nome. For a time, he was a laborer in the construction of a mining ditch. He described the experience, how the workers “would go to the stable where they slept, and would take off our boots, pour the water out of them, wring the water out of our sox and roll up in our blankets with the rest of our wet clothes on and in the morning, they would be dry and ready to be wet again.”

When the season was over, and with a bit of money in his pockets, he considered returning home, but the memory of the Ohio gave him pause. He wrote, “The way the waves pound on the beach in a storm is simply awful. I bet I have a stormy trip back. I only hope it doesn’t take 40 days.”


Key Sources:

“Almost a Mutiny on Ohio.” Nome Nugget, July 11, 1908, 1.

“At Nome on Bering Sea.” Nome Nugget, July 11, 1908, 4.

“Capt. Conradi is Not Explaining.” Seattle Star, July 30, 1908, 7.

Dorpat, Paul. “Looking for Luck.” Seattle Times Magazine, August 29, 2004.

Loudon, Max A. “Forty Days and Forty Nights to Nome: Icebound on the Bering Sea in 1908.” In The Alaska Journal 1986, edited by Terrence Cole, 94-101. Anchorage: Northwest Publishing Company, 1986.

“Mystery of Ohio’s Delay is Cleared.” Fairbanks Daily News, July 20, 1908, 2.

“Ohio at Dutch Harbor July 4.” Nome Nugget, July 10, 1908, 1.


“Ohio Libeled Again.” Nome Daily Nugget, July 17, 1908, 4.

“Ohio Lost with Over 600 Passengers.” Fairbanks Daily News, July 8, 1908, 1.

“Postmaster Takes Action.” Nome Nugget, July 7, 1908, 1.

David Reamer | Alaska history

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.