Alaska Life

Pillaged in its final days, the SS Al-Ki was one of the legendary vessels of the Klondike gold rush

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.

The SS Al-Ki was one of the legendary vessels of the Klondike gold rush, entrenched for its early role in the mad dash for mostly illusory fortunes. When the Portland, the “ton of gold” ship that kickstarted the rush, arrived in 1897 Seattle with news of fabulous gold fields, the Al-Ki was the next transport scheduled for Alaska. In this way, the Al-Ki was a historical standout, the first ship north. Yet, the rest of the steamer’s history was more typical of its era, including extensive smuggling, cutthroat interactions far from law enforcement, and maritime disasters in the treacherous Alaska waterways.

The New England Shipbuilding Co. in Bath, Maine built both the AL-Ki and Portland, the former launched in 1884 and the latter in 1885. The 200-foot-long, 1,259-ton Al-Ki, initially owned by the Border Line Transportation Co., featured room for 50 passengers but was intended more as a West Coast freighter. Its name comes from Chinook Jargon, a Pacific Northwest trade language that melds Indigenous and settler languages. The term translates as “soon” or “later” with the connotation of a promising future. It was featured on the Washington territorial seal and is the state’s unofficial motto. After a few years of unremarkable service, the wooden steamship entered Alaska trade around 1896, reportedly the first ship in Alaska with news of William McKinley’s election that year as president. The steamer wound a route between Seattle and the small Alaska towns and canneries, thus ensuring its position for the momentous events of the following year.

On July 17, 1897, the SS Portland arrived to a cheering crowd at Seattle’s Schwabacher Dock. The rumors of a massive gold discovery in a fantastical-sounding place called the Klondike had spread in advance like wildfire. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran an extra edition that day with the details. As the newspaper declared, “This morning the steamship Portland, from St. Michaels for Seattle, passed up Sound with more than a ton of solid gold on board.” Of the 68 passengers, “hardly a man has less than $7,000 and one or two have more than $100,000 in yellow nuggets.” When one of the prospectors tried to lift his leather sack of gold off the deck, the handle snapped off in his hand.

The Portland forever became the “ton of gold” ship, and the dream of easy riches spread across the country, igniting the great Klondike gold rush. At that time, the United States was still entrenched in an economic depression after the Panic of 1893. For some people, the choice was easy. They weighed the familiar financial insecurity against the chance — a great chance as some newspapers reported it — to leave their money problems behind forever after a short stint as a prospector. So, around 100,000 people abandoned their lives for the rush north.

The impact in Seattle was immediate as thousands of future millionaires demanded tickets to Alaska and the goldfields beyond. From March 1897 to March 1898, the number of unique ships stopping there rose from 18 to 173. To meet the passenger and cargo demands, every available ship in the region converted for the profit-making cause with little concern for their condition. Some of the half-rotted hulls, like the infamous Eliza Anderson, failed to finish their first run.

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


As a treasury agent new to Seattle in 1897 noted, “nearly every vessel arriving here carries twice the passengers the law allows it to carry and many of them are condemned craft that have been fitted up for this trade.” In some cases, they were also captained by inexperienced sailors. The 1966 H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest mentions the 45-foot launch Rustler that carried 70 passengers north in 1897 under the questionable leadership of a “former milk wagon driver.”

While not the fanciest steamship on the Seattle-Alaska circuit, the Al-Ki was still a fully operational and seaworthy vessel. Moreover, when the Portland landed at Seattle on July 17, 1897, the Al-Ki was the next ship scheduled to depart for Alaska, suddenly the hottest ticket in town. It was advertised to depart at 9 a.m. on July 18. Amid the frantic attempts to pack more people and goods on board, it did not actually pull away from the dock until 5 p.m.

Ten-year-old Edith Feero boarded the Al-Ki that August with her mother, brothers, and sister. Her father, John, had already rushed to Alaska and was waiting for them at Skagway. The jubilant atmosphere at the Seattle dock stood out for her. As she later recalled, “When we got onto the boat, everybody was standing, the dock was lined (with people). Everybody yelled, ‘Bring me a stocking full of gold!’ They didn’t even think of sacks then, they always wanted a stocking full of gold.”

As for the Al-Ki itself, she said, “We had a little room with three single berths for five of us ... There were no conveniences, you know, like today.” Her foremost memory of the voyage was the press of stampeders packed onto the steamer. “I don’t remember how many people were on the boat. There were so many (that) you took turns going down to the dining room. If you had the first table, you’d better be there! They did feed good.”

Some histories and most fictional accounts depict the Klondike gold rush romantically with noble, rugged prospectors waging wars against the land itself to find a fortune. The reality was grimmer. Extremely few gold rush prospectors made money on the adventure. Only around half of the stampeders made it as far as the Klondike. Even there, the average experience around the gold fields was of exorbitant prices for goods, food shortages, and disease outbreaks due to the unsanitary conditions. There is little nobility in shivering while diseased and poor, thousands of miles from home. To be fair, there was little nobility in remaining poor in the Lower 48 either.

The steamships of the era are likewise often portrayed as vessels brimming with hope and ambition. Here again, the reality was more complicated. Apart from their varying seagoing quality and overpopulation, the steamships of this era doubled as smuggling vessels, answering demand in Alaska for banned Chinese laborers, liquor, and other, more illicit products.

According to some writing on bits of paper, alcohol was illegal in Alaska then, but most visitors might not have noticed. For years, the steamships plying the lanes to Alaska were regularly packed with booze. The smaller communities and canneries would occasionally run dry between visits, leading to unhinged celebrations when resupplied. As one Alaska cannery manager said, “For twenty-four hours (after a steamship visit), there is simply the deuce to pay with drunken fishermen and crazed people of both sexes. All the manager can do is to select one or two reliable assistants and be on the alert until the effects of the whisky has passed away.”

The increased traffic to Alaska during the Klondike gold rush meant a similar increase in demand for alcohol, sometimes to the exclusion of necessities. In late 1897, customs agents in Seattle noted repeated complaints from Alaska that the freighters carried “too much whiskey and not enough food.” Inspired to new levels of vigilance, the customs agents planned to rigorously inspect the next ship in port, which was none other than the Al-Ki. The Oct. 2 inspection discovered vast amounts of undeclared wine and liquor in crates marked as innocuous products like sugar or coffee.

Since 1897, the Al-Ki had operated for the Pacific Coast Steamship Co., but in 1909, the veteran steamer was laid up to be stripped down into a barge. Instead, it was sold to a new shipping operation that refitted the ship with oil burners. When first launched, the Al-Ki had a top speed of about eight knots. After the refit, it could surprisingly hit 11 knots, impressive for the old boat, if still slower than other notable ships of the era, like the Princess May and Princess Sophia. In a bit of whimsy, some Alaskans nicknamed her the Sitka Flyer.

Smaller and older than most other ships on the Alaska runs, the Al-Ki survived longer than many, including years past the 1910 demise of its sister ship, the Portland. Even after the gold rushes to Alaska faded, the shipping and passenger demand made the service wildly profitable. With dollar signs floating in their eyes, the steamer’s owners were compelled to push the old boat out, year and year, pressing their luck for a little more return.

On Oct. 31, 1917, the Al-Ki headed south from Juneau amid snow and wind, and cold. She reached Hoonah, departing late in the morning of Nov. 1 for Sitka. Around 12:30 p.m., a sudden, heavy gust blew the steamship onto rocks by Chichagof Island near Point Augusta, southwest of Juneau. The news came so quickly that the Nov. 1 Alaska Daily Empire, now the Juneau Empire, carried two articles on the Al-Ki, an innocuous notice on page five about it leaving town and the front-page piece about its wreck.

Captain C. L. McGregor of the Al-Ki told the Empire, “As the steamer was rounding Point Augusta, a northwest gale was raging and the snow was blinding. We could not see a thing. The steamer was proceeding under a slow bell and the wind drifted here too close to shore. As I realized we were in too close, I signaled to reverse the engines, and just at that minute she struck amidships.”

While trapped on a reef, no one on board suffered injuries or was in immediate danger. Per McGregor, “There was no excitement and the passengers were calm. The crew continued their duties as usual. At 6 o’clock the regular course dinner was served to the passengers in the dining room.” Such dalliances with the rocky hazards of the Alaska waterways were a familiar experience for the crew and likely most of the passengers, either first or second-hand. While McGregor might have overstated the lack of excitement, modern Alaskans would probably be surprised at the relative calm of the people aboard a ship trapped on a reef in a driving winter storm.

Around 7 p.m. that same day, while the crew took their turn at dinner, a sharp crack sounded through the hull, and the steamship lurched to the side. From age and strain, the Al-Ki’s back had broken. The rocks at Point Augusta were no longer a temporary inconvenience but a final resting place. As the Wrangell Sentinel described, “When abandoned the Al-Ki was sitting on a pinnacle of rock amidship with the bow and stern in deep water. The backbone of the ship was broken and the boat was sagging so badly it was unsafe for anyone to stay on board.”

Updated SOS messages were dispatched, and the passengers and crew relocated to land. Of course, the cargo, mail, and most of the personal belongings remained on the Al-Ki, the assumption for passengers being that they would have a later opportunity to retrieve their property. To their great relief, a ship soon appeared, the Canadian-flagged fishing boat Manhattan. Yet, the new arrival paid no mind to the people but instead boarded the wreck of the Al-Ki and began merrily looting the vessel. As testified by witnesses at the subsequent trial, the crew of the Manhattan ransacked rooms, opened baggage, and generally stole everything of value, including sacks of mail. What they could not lift, they willfully mutilated, even kicking apart a piano too heavy to carry over. Then, the Manhattan simply left.

Some supposed aspects of old settler Alaska, like the “pioneer spirit” and “golden rule,” are weakly evidenced at best. This is not to say that all old-time Alaskans were criminals. By and large, people avoided significant violations of the social contract, if only from a fear of reprisals. The same lack of law enforcement that enabled the worst offenders failed to protect the more moral segment of the population. But the easy path always tempts. For the crew of the Manhattan, it was easier and more financially rewarding to steal a fortune in cargo than assist the stranded, shivering passengers. Some Alaskans even defended the Manhattan crew, claiming that all fault, if it existed, lay with its captain.

Thankfully for the people of the Al-Ki, the fishing steamer San Juan and cableship Burnside came to their aid soon after the Manhattan disappeared. By the next day, the passengers and crew were all safely delivered to Juneau. A few days later, most crew members were already back in Seattle, reporting to ownership.


Then there was the twist. On Nov. 15, 1917, just two weeks after the Al-Ki hit a reef at Point Augusta, the Manhattan hit an uncharted rock near Lituya Bay and sank within minutes. It was the middle of the night, and the crew barely made it to the ship’s small boats. The 90,000 pounds of fish on board were lost entirely. After the crew reached land, they were set upon by an especially enraged, sizeable brown bear.

The crew had no weapons and retreated to their boats again, yet the bear chased them even into the water. And so, they moved farther from shore, shivering in wet, insufficient clothing during a snowstorm. They drifted like this for hours, likely with little hope of salvation. Suddenly, the lights of the steamer Mariposa appeared in the distance. One man tore off a piece of his oilskin coat and lit it with his last remaining dry match, successfully attracting their rescue.

The Mariposa carried the surviving crew of the Manhattan to Juneau, where they were promptly arrested for looting the Al-Ki. A trial ensued, but in January 1918, the charges were dismissed for the most logical, if disappointing, reason. The evidence, the items from the Al-Ki, went down with the Manhattan. Said District Attorney J. A. Smiser, “They admit taking a few blankets but claim that they saved them for salvage. We have no evidence to warrant spending the government’s money to bring them back when we couldn’t convict them.”

The Al-Ki was lost and pillaged, though the passengers and crew survived. The Manhattan was also lost, though its crew was saved and escaped criminal convictions. And the Mariposa, the ship that rescued the Manhattan crew, sank three days after the Manhattan, on Nov. 18, 1917. She hit a reef off the coast of British Columbia. Sometimes, it is challenging to derive reason or lessons from the past, except that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.

Key sources:

“Al-Ki is a Total Loss.” Wrangell Sentinel, November 8, 1917, 1.

“Al-Ki Will Be Total Loss Is Now Believed.” Alaska Daily Empire, November 2, 1917, 1, 5.

“Latest News from the Klondike.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Klondike Edition, July 17, 1897, 1.


Mayer, Melanie J. Klondike Women: True Tales of the 1897-1898 Gold Rush. Athens, OH: Swallow Press and Ohio University Press, 1989.

McCurdy, H. W. The H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1966.

Porsild, Charlene. Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.

“Trial Today of Alleged Al-Ki Looters.” Alaska Daily Empire, November 22, 1917, 6.

“The Women of Alaska.” San Francisco Examiner, December 21, 1888, 1-2.

“Will Dismiss Cases Against Crew Members.” Alaska Daily Empire, January 12, 1918, 7.

“Wrecked and Arrested and Chased by Bear.” Alaska Daily Empire, November 17, 1917, 6.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

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.