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.
In 1969, a group of Inupiat people on the northern shores of Alaska, between Icy Cape and Point Barrow, spotted a rusting hulk caught in the ice. There was no visible name, but there was only one ship it could be, 38 years after its crew abandoned it as a lost cause. That, however, was its last sighting. In the 54 years since, that old steamship long became another ruin on the seafloor. That is, it should have sunk, given the decades of ice and strain, but no one saw it happen. No wreck has been found. In other words, there is no body, only the damning absence of its presence. It was or is the ghost ship of the Arctic, the Baychimo.
The steel-hulled cargo steamship Baychimo began life in Sweden, a product of the Gothenburg shipyards, built for German owners and launched in 1914. First christened as the Ångermanälven after a Swedish river, the 230-foot-long steamer featured a bluff, reinforced bow capable of plowing through the ice-laden seas around the northern European ports. Thus, she worked around the year, traveling a circuit of Baltic ports through the end of World War I.
As a German-owned vessel, the ship’s fate changed with the end of the war. As per the conflict-ending Treaty of Versailles, “Germany recognizes the right of the Allied and Associated Powers to the replacement, ton for ton (gross tonnage) and class for class, of all merchant ships and fishing boats lost and damaged owing to the war.” In older times, it would have been called spoils of war. In more modern, diplomatic terms, the Ångermanälven was part of the reparations granted to Great Britain.
Britain quickly sold the newly acquired vessels back to the private sector. In 1920, the Ångermanälven was formally ceded to the British. Early the next year, the Hudson’s Bay Company, or HBC, purchased the ship for 15,000 pounds, far less than the cost of a new steamship, let alone one already strengthened to withstand the frigid, icy waters where HBC fur traders operated. The HBC renamed the steamer Baychimo after a Quebec trading post. After some seasons spent around Quebec and Siberia, the ship was reassigned in 1924 to the western Arctic of Canada, typically making a route from Vancouver around Alaska to the Canadian Yukon and Northwest Territories.
At a glance, or even a stare, the Baychimo was nothing special, an unassuming and lumbering cargo ship. As a crewmember described her, “She was a strange and disappointing craft. I looked desperately for some redeeming feature ... She bore no resemblance to the traditional barque-rigged steam whalers. She hardly differed from a hundred other coasting tramps. She was iron and steam, all bulk, not designed to fly with canvas ... She was no beauty.”
At a cruising speed of roughly nine to ten miles per hour, it was slightly slower than the steamers that plied the Inside Passage. Rust soon decorated the hull. Its most notable visible feature was the single funnel pushed far to the stern.
The storms and shifting ice of the Arctic were constant threats for all ships that braved its waters. The creaks and groans of the rumbling, sometimes hauntingly musical icepack permeated the thoughts and dreams of sailors. Every trip north was a risk-laden gamble. In 1924, another HBC ship, the three-masted schooner Lady Kindersley, was trapped off Point Barrow in an ice pack that slowly and ominously drifted north. Days, then weeks passed as the crew helplessly stared at the passing sea. With no other options, they made regular trips onto the ice to exercise and plant food caches in case they had to suddenly abandon the ship.
After nearly a month trapped in the ice, the captain capitulated, surrendering to the well-established reality of the situation. The crew walked across the ice to another ship that had approached as close as possible, at great risk to itself. On its first voyage around Alaska, the Baychimo arrived too late to rescue the people but stayed to recover the cargo inside the schooner. For six days in snow and wind, the Baychimo circled the ice, but no path appeared. Frustrated, they turned around and carried some of the Lady Kindersley crew back to Vancouver. Some of the more colorful newspapers conjured descriptions of a lost million-dollar load of furs that floated away into the Arctic.
Over the next six years, the Baychimo and its hardened crew successfully threaded the needle of survival around Alaska and the northern shores of Canada. There was either no such thing as a routine trip into the Arctic, where the conditions changed from hour to hour, or terrifyingly variable conditions were routine. As such, every voyage was an adventure, including a particularly narrow escape in 1925 when the steamer cut a path through cliffs of ice taller than its deck. Captain Sidney Cornwell, master of the Baychimo from 1922 to 1931, wrote in 1930, “On several occasions, I have only got the ship out by a margin of a few hours.”
For the crew, life aboard was either dull or exciting, and they never knew when the situation would abruptly change. The ship itself was a floating warehouse with all the day-to-day fun that description suggests. The crew members were also rarely allowed on shore except on official business. Hudson’s Bay Co. rules stated, “no member or members of the crew except for the Ice Pilot must be allowed on shore on ‘leave’ nor must any member or members of the crew be allowed to remain on shore (after unloading) unless it is absolutely necessary.”
Then came the fateful, for the Baychimo, year of 1931. Before setting out for the season, Captain Cornwell wrote to his superiors, “The Baychimo, Gentlemen, is not strong enough to work through heavy Arctic ice without an amount of damage done to the ship.” Undeterred, the company ordered the ship out. His words were the carefully considered opinion of an experienced and wary captain but in hindsight might also have a prophetic aspect.
On July 24, the steamship reached Nome and then passed the Arctic Circle the following day. On July 26, she reached solid icepack at Wainwright, and Cornwell was forced to drop anchor. Despite repeated attempts to continue toward Point Barrow, they were still there on the morning of Aug. 3. That afternoon, Cornwell ordered them on, and the ship carefully proceeded up the coast to Point Belcher, where ice again stopped them.
Through Aug. 20, Cornwell guided the steamer back and forth from one safe anchorage to another, always alert to the jagged ice surrounding them. No matter their best efforts, sheets of ice still slowly careened off the hull, massive slabs that pressed the sides or momentarily slid underneath. The propeller spun constantly if slowly, the better to preserve it in case of collision. The crew slept when they could, for as little as a few minutes, between alerts. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, returning to America after a tour of Asia, flew low over the Baychimo after crossing from Siberia to Alaska.
Finally, on Aug. 21, a shift in the wind opened a way forward, and the ship dropped anchor off Point Barrow that morning. They were a month behind schedule and dangerously late in the season. Everyone on board was presumably attached to their lives. Everyone on board also asked themselves the same question. If the passage was so tortuous in July and August, what would it be like in September and October? Yet, they continued forward, determined to complete their route, such was the economic pressure on them to finish the job. That year notably fell deep within the Great Depression and amid rapidly falling fur prices.
Cornwell pressed his crew through their itinerary as fast as possible, and on Sept. 12, they made their last stop at Herschel Island, north of the Yukon coast. The hold was full of furs, and all aboard were eagerly prepared for the long journey back to Vancouver. The weather once again fouled their plans.
Another storm pressed the ice westward, blocking their path. Again, the steamer worked its way slowly, breaking through ice when it could, reversing its course when the sheets grew too thick. Between Herschel Island and Point Barrow were 400 miles of sea. At the end of Sept. 15, they were still 85 miles away. Far worse, one of the propeller blades snapped off. The remaining blades and unbalanced shaft strained with the absence.
The unifying spirit to finish the trading route had faded. All anyone could think of was home, of loved ones and friends, of warm fires and fiery spirits. That which prevented them from home was the enemy. Richard Bonnycastle, the senior company representative on board, wrote that day in his diary, “A man with a little guts could have had us on the other side of Point Barrow today. I can see no reason why he couldn’t have kept going.”
His emotions heightened by fear and anxiety, Bonnycastle was unfair regarding Cornwell. Apart from the damaged propeller, the storm blinded the ship in the swirling snow. The ice ground against the hull, shrieks that echoed through the ship, a perpetual reminder of the relatively thin steel skin that separated life from death.
On Sept. 18, an opening in the ice allowed them to reach Barrow, but that was the end of their good fortune. Cornwell’s temper frayed as any optimism once held was gone. He yelled and cursed at the crew. By Sept. 24, they were down to nine days’ worth of coal at full steam. The next day, Cornwell ordered power rationing and began plans to abandon ship. On Sept. 29, they learned that the ice was solid all the way to the Bering Strait. The crew could leave by land or plane, but there would be no escape for the Baychimo.
At best, the steamer was trapped for the winter. In early October, the crew began disassembling parts of the ship for a shelter on land, a necessary precaution as the Baychimo was perilously close to wrecking against the shore. On Oct. 15, the Hudson’s Bay Co. dispatched aircraft that ultimately recovered 22 members of the 37-person crew. The rest, including Cornwell, stayed with the ship. By late October, they had been there so long that newspapers arrived featuring articles informing them of their peril.
On Nov. 24, another blizzard struck, raging for three days. When it was over, the bedraggled remnants of the crew poked their heads outside to check on their ship, but it was gone. In its place was a mound of ice. They halfheartedly climbed the ice and walked the shore, but the steamship was nowhere to be seen. It had, they all assumed, finally succumbed to the ice, shattered, and sank.
A few unfortunate ships are the accumulation of hundreds of imperfections in material, manufacture, and maintenance that are mostly imperceptible individually but which, in combination, make a ship unreliable and prone to repeated failures small and large. Most ships are dependable within reason. Operate them within their limits with the prescribed care and sail with confidence. And for a few ships, everything goes just right. The components come from the best batches. Enough of the workers just happened to have their best days during its construction. The Baychimo appears to have been an example of the latter.
She wasn’t pretty, but she also wasn’t a wreck at the bottom of the sea. The Lady Kindersley was never seen again, but the Baychimo survived as a ghost. About a week after the first disappearance, some trappers saw her about 70 miles from the crew’s shelter. Cornwell took a few men to investigate and found their steamer but could not board due to the broken ice between them and the ship. When they next returned, the ship had vanished again.
This established a pattern. The derelict seemed almost willful, appearing and disappearing as if to create a reputation. However, it was no longer Cornwell’s problem. In February 1932, the HBC flew him and the remaining crew out of Barrow, now Utqiaġvik.
In December 1931, a distant observer claimed the Baychimo had a hole in one side, a detail proven wrong in the decades to come. Sometime around Jan. 1, 1932, prospector Leslie Melvin passed by the steamer on his way while mushing from Herschel Island to Nome. He allegedly made off with Cornwell’s uniform, some flags, and perhaps some contraband liquor.
On Feb. 7, 1932, pilot Frank Dorbrandt of Anchorage spent two and a half hours flying over the Arctic ice north of Barrow without sighting the vessel. Due to a recent storm, the ice was especially jagged, and he believed that colliding sheets must have crushed the ship. Conditions were such that even if he had seen the Baychimo, he would have been unable to land. In May, pilot Bill Graham tried his hand but likewise failed to find the ship.
In August 1932, 28 Inupiat men found the Baychimo and boarded her before a storm pushed the ship out to sea. For a week, they were trapped on board before rescue boats arrived. They reported that the steamer was in good condition except for a crack on one side, which obviously did impair the boat’s ability to gallivant around the Arctic. Accounts of this sighting and interaction are consistent in timing and setting but vary significantly in other details.
The leading theories by Alaskans, Arctic explorers, and scholars was that the Baychimo would drift either toward Russia or be carried by current around Canada, past the eastern coast of Greenland, and into the Atlantic Ocean. Fletcher’s Ice Island, also known as T-3, followed the latter course in the 1980s. Regardless, the expectations were that she would float away from Alaska if she were to survive at all. So, the crew and single passenger of the small wooden schooner Trader were shocked when they came across the steamer in August 1933, locked in ice near Wainwright.
Isobel Hutchison, a botanist and the sole passenger, described the scene. “Baychimo was poised, her giant hull, rust-stained and battered by the frozen seas, looming tower-like above the little Trader. She was riding upon a pan of ice which looked already almost on the verge of breaking up.” They boarded and noted some remaining bales of furs and personal belongings untouched despite repeated plunderings.
In late 1934, movie director Ewing Scott proposed to blow up the Baychimo as a central set piece in his latest Alaska feature, “Renegades.” His first film, “Igloo” (1932), was filmed in Alaska and featured a cast of Alaska Native performers, including notable Inupiaq actor Ray Mala, who is buried in the Anchorage Memorial Cemetery. “Renegades” was never produced, perhaps due to a failure to locate the coy old steamer.
Meanwhile, the steamship lingered and limped around the northernmost shores of Alaska, encased in solid ice. She was spotted several times through the 1930s. Some sources claim that in 1939, a Capt. Hugh Polson boarded the steamer, which would be the last such documented boarding. However, the incident is of dubious legitimacy. For example, there is no record of a “Captain Hugh Polson” active in the region.
No one manned the crow’s nest. No one stoked the engines. No one stood at the wheel. But the ship nonetheless continued to tour the Arctic, carried on a palanquin of ice like northern royalty. There were sightings in 1962 and 1969 before the Baychimo disappeared for good, the last encounters with Alaska’s true ghost ship. While its final grave is unknown, Alaskans can see relics from the steamship. Some of the items gathered by the Trader were ultimately delivered to the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where they remain.
“Baychimo Crew Here and Says Ship Has No Fur.” [Juneau] Daily Alaska Empire, March 7, 1932, 3.
“Big Plans Are Being Made for Filming Alaska Scenes.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 31, 1934, 7.
“Crew Wrecked in Arctic Ice Safe Outside.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 3, 1924, 1.
Dalton, Anthony. Baychimo: Arctic Ghost Ship. Custer, WA: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2006.
Fay, Amelia. “Baychimo: The Adventures of the Ghost Ship of the Arctic.” Manitoba Museum, May 12, 2020.
“Fliers Unable to Sight Ship in Arctic Ice.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 8, 1932, 1.
Gillingham, Donald W. Umiak! London: Museum Press, 1955.
“Melvin Safe at Kotzebue; Going South.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 23, 1932, 1.
“Natives Back From Trip to Trading Ship.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 26, 1932, 1.
Rozell, Ned. “How Artifacts From Alaska’s Ghost Ship Mysteriously Wound Up in a Fairbanks Museum.” Anchorage Daily News, March 26, 2016.