History

Alaska's Ghost Ship The Clara Nevada

Written by
Steven Levi

Introduction

No saga of the Alaska Gold Rush would be complete without a touch of the mysterious. Every rush has its eerie events and the Alaska Gold Rush was no exception. Perhaps the most perplexing incident of that era was the saga of the Clara Nevada. Here was a tale of greed, robbery and murder along with a ghostly re-visitation. But it was more than that. It is also one of the largest successful robberies in American history combined with the third largest mass murder in American history as well, surpassed only by the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the 911 attack on the World Trade Center.

The Clara Nevada

Hardly noteworthy in life, in death the Clara Nevada has become immortal. She was built in 1872 as a survey vessel for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (USGS). Originally named the Hassler in honor of Ferdinand Hassler, the first Superintendent of the USGS, the ship plied the waters of Alaska surveying the coastline for more than two decades. Then, when her usefulness had been extinguished, she was condemned. In the normal course of events, she would have been reduced to scrap and recycled into another steamship but, in 1897, gold had been discovered along the Klondike River and before the Hassler could be destroyed, she was purchased for $15,700 by the Pacific & Alaska Transportation Company.

Based in Portland, the Pacific & Alaska Transportation Company was one of the many rapidly forming companies that were taking advantage of the sudden demand for transportation to the gold fields of the north. Marine transportation between the Pacific Northwest and the twin cities of Skagway and Dyea at the top of the Lynn Canal was the perfect business opportunity for entrepreneurs with ice water in their veins. Passengers going north were those who could afford to pay for their passage in cash. Coming south, the cargo would be Argonauts returning home laden with tens of thousand of dollars in gold dust and nuggets, men and women who could pay for their passage in cash. If they couldn’t pay, they couldn’t get on board. As the owner of the Pacific & Alaska Transportation Company viewed it, their ship would be filled both ways—with customers paying cash.

Coming south, the cargo would be Argonauts returning home laden with tens of thousand of dollars in gold dust and nuggets, men and women who could pay for their passage in cash. If they couldn’t pay, they couldn’t get on board.

The maiden voyage of the Clara Nevada was not fated to be without incident. She collided with the Revenue Cutter Grant as she was backing out of her berth in Seattle and, upon arrival in Port Townsend the next day, she rammed the dock and damaged her bowsprit. It was her return south, however, that placed her in the history books. Leaving Dyea on February 5, 1898, on a proverbial dark and stormy night, she headed south out into the Lynn Canal.

What happened next is a matter of speculation. A witness on a wharf at Seward City—now named Comet—related that he had seen a ship on fire near Eldred Rock—now a lighthouse—and suddenly there had been an orange fireball on the water. Then all was black. He assumed that a ship had exploded. There was a gale of near hurricane force blasting down Lynn Canal that night and thus it was impossible for any craft to reach the site of the fireball. A week later, the steamer Rustler of Juneau reported a wreck on a reef off Eldred Rock. As only the spars could be seen above the water at low tide, there was no way of positively identifying the wreck. The Rustler later recovered one body, identified as that of the Clara Nevada’s purser, George Foster Beck. The identification of the body, combined with the fact that the Clara Nevada never made port, led officials to the conclusion that the wreck in the shallow waters off Eldred Rock was that of the Clara Nevada. No one knew how many people had perished in the disaster. In the wreck report, the President of the Pacific & Alaska Transportation Company stated that he had “no knowledge who was on board” as the passenger list had been lost with the purser. This was not, it should be added, unusual. This was the beginning of a gold rush and the emphasis was on making money, not keeping records. Estimates of the dead ran from a low of 65 to 165.[i]

Eldred Rock USCG, photograph courtesy of the United States Coast Guard.


It didn’t take long for recriminations to begin. Federal investigators re-examined the collision between the Clara Nevada and the United States Revenue Cutter Grant. While at the time the accident was considered no more than an embarrassment to the captain on his maiden voyage. Later, after the Clara Nevada was wrecked, it was assumed to be proof positive of the captain’s incompetence. It was also revealed that the engine room telegraph cable had been inoperable prior to that incident and that communication wires had been broken—and probably not repaired—prior to the incident at the Port Townsend dock.

Passengers who had taken passage on the vessel between Seattle and Alaska—the trip before the ship went down—were questioned and many of them did not have kind words for either the ship or crew. Some claimed that the crew was incompetent, “intoxicated” or both, and the ship unseaworthy. One of the passengers, Charles Jones of The Dalles, reported that

I was afraid the Clara Nevada would be wrecked from the time she left Seattle until Skagway was reached. We smashed into the Revenue Cutter Grant when we were backing out of Yesler’s Dock; we rammed into almost every wharf at which we tried to land; we blew out three [boiler] flues; we floundered around in rough waters until all the passengers were scared almost to death; we witnessed intoxication among the officers and heard them cursing each other until it was sickening.[ii]

The Clara Nevada also became the cornerstone of a political battle as well. The vitriolic Col. Alden J. Blethen of the Seattle Times, then a Populist newspaper, tried to use the Clara Nevada incident to attack the Steamboat Inspection Service as a means of embarrassing the Republican administration of the Governor of Washington. Though his attack was politically motivated, his facts were accurate. Many in the shipping business were tarnishing the good name of Seattle, as Blethen had charged, and now the city was acquiring a reputation as a “haven for decrepit and unsafe ships” and businessmen who were more interested in profits than human lives. The flood of humanity to the gold fields seemed to bring out the wolf in some maritime companies and more disaster was destined to follow the Clara Nevada, Blethen predicted. The New York Times clearly felt the same way when it editorialized that the Clara Nevada incident simply emphasizes the conditions that prevail in Northern waters. Ships of all sorts and conditions are being pressed into the service to carry crowds to the gold fields.[iii]

The flood of humanity to the gold fields seemed to bring out the wolf in some maritime companies and more disaster was destined to follow the Clara Nevada, Blethen predicted.

Charges produced counter-charges which generated further insinuations of misconduct and incompetence. On March 5, the Seattle Times went so far as to attack the steamboat inspectors saying they “should decorate the end of an elevated rope.”[iv]  Since witnesses had related seeing a fireball, it was generally assumed that dynamite was being transported with passengers, a clear violation of good sense not to mention maritime law.

The controversy only ended in August of 1898 when the conclusion was reached that the Clara Nevada had caught fire “and during the frantic fight to keep the flames from the place where was stored powder and dynamite the officers lost their bearing and, incidentally, control of the ship.” The storm drove the vessel up on the reef of Eldred Rock, “broadside on,” where the ship split open. The primary evidence for the fire theory was that fire hoses had been found on the sunken ship’s deck and the hoses were “attached to the hydrants and coupled to the pumps.”[v] 

As the flow of Argonauts grew from a trickle to a river to a flood, the number of maritime sinking's rose. Before the end of 1898, 16 ships had gone to the bottom of the Inside Passage. Then the recriminations finally faded, the Clara Nevada became just another ship lost at sea. It appeared that the book was finally closed on the disaster.

But what was singular about the Clara Nevada was not so much the ship’s death but its revivification. Ten years later, almost to the day, another hurricane force gale boiled the waters of Lynn Canal. Ships scattered for the cover of bays and bights and on Eldred Rock, the lighthouse keeper could feel the earth shifting beneath the tower. Though it was almost brand new, built in 1902, the structure shook violently. All night long the wind screamed as it powered its way south. Waves rose to staggering heights and threatened to sweep over the small island. 

It was not until morning that the wind died and the waves settled. Only then did the lighthouse keeper venture outside.

What a sight he saw! There, on a pinnacle off the northern end of the island, was the Clara Nevada, high and dry, while the bones of her late crew and passengers were scattered on the beach. The storm had dragged the ship from its watery grave. The next night, the storm took the ship back.[vi]

But the story of the Clara Nevada continued, as Alice in Wonderland noted, “curiouser and curiouser.” Scrambling the chronology, in June of 1916, 18 years after the Clara Nevada had gone down, Alaskan hard-hat diver C. F. Stagger spent two days on the wreck. In addition to cutting and “farming the kelp” that had entombed the vessel, he salvaged about half a ton of copper and brass. Though he could not make it below decks, he was “positive from the examination made that the vessel had not caught on fire as [was] generally supposed and the wreck was caused by something else, most likely a submerged rock.”[vii]

It is also interesting to note that the wrecker’s conclusion contradicted that of the witness who swore he saw a fireball. Careful examination of the fireball theory, however, revealed some other flaws. While it would be reasonable for a ship to be transporting dynamite north to a boomtown, it is hard to believe that dynamite would be shipped south to Seattle. If all mining equipment brought high price in the gold country, why was the dynamite being transported south? Further, if there was as much as 15 tons of dynamite on board, why didn’t the ship completely disintegrate when the explosive went off? And, if dynamite had been the cause of the ship’s demise, why was the hole in the Clara Nevada’s hull found in the area of the boiler room and not the cargo hold? 

In March of 1898, the Dyea Trail reported that an investigator at the site, Sanderson Reed, believed that the Clara Nevada had gone aground and that fire might have occurred when lamps were tipped over spilling fiery kerosene. Reed did notice a large hole in the side of the vessel but believed that the boiler was intact. He also guessed that the striking of the reef had overturned the lamps and thus caused conflagrations to erupt in different parts of the ship making it impossible for the passengers to fight all of the fires at the same time. This corroborated testimony by a Lloyds of London surveyor who stated categorically that there had been no boiler explosion. Interestingly Reed noted that there had probably been an attempt to lower the lifeboats.[viii]

This raised another perplexing question. If there were as many as 165 people on board, how was it that only one body was ever found and that body, according to several newspapers, was not even in the immediate vicinity of the Clara Nevada’s watery grave? It was found up wind from the ship’s final resting place.

Headline from the Seattle Post Intelligencer from the author’s
personal collection

Adding more mud to the water, in an article that appeared in the Dyea Trail on May 7, 1898, there was the appearance of a lifeboat. A small coastal craft, the Seaolin, spotted a boat near Seward City, seven miles from Eldred Rock. It sent a crew ashore and found an abandoned craft that was “neither a lifeboat nor a sealing boat.” There was a life preserver from the Clara Nevada on board as well as a roll of blanket containing clothes “which a Yukoner would take along with him.” Another blanket roll with clothing inside was found about 60 yards away and close by were the remains of a fire. A careful examination of the newspaper accounts of the Clara Nevada’s last trip raises yet another rather striking question. The lifeboat that was found does not match the description of any of the lifeboats which were on board.[ix]

But there was one piece of evidence that bursts open the doors of speculation. Comparing the names of the passengers and crew of the Clara Nevada against the 1900 Census, there was one clear match: C. H. Lewis. The captain of the Clara Nevada who supposedly had gone down with his ship was working as a steam ship captain on a brand new steamship on the Yukon River barely 18 months later.

Then there is the question of the Clara Nevada’s cargo. According to a number of sources, it was estimated that about $165,000—$16 million in today’s dollars—in untraceable, raw gold had gone down with the Clara Nevada. There were a number of published sources for the statement. The first was the February 25th Seattle Times, which estimated the gold at “$90,000 to $120,000.” The June 5th Seattle Post-Intelligencer listed the gold as amounting to “$100,000.” Another Seattle Times article even indicated that one passenger was carrying $165,000 on him. Other articles in Seattle papers listed the amount of gold as high as $300,000. 

It is intriguing that the gold from the Clara Nevada was never reported found. Oddly—or perhaps purposefully—the Clara Nevada’s final resting place is in 24 feet of water. Considering that the surrounding waters are 1,500 feet deep, the Clara Nevada was resting on the very top of a submarine mountain. Would someone bent on stealing 110,000 ounces of gold know exactly where to sink a ship so that he could return to plunder the gold later? Ironically, it was Clara Nevada in her previous life as the Hassler that had surveyed these waters and perhaps planted the seed of her own destruction.

The Clara Nevada is probably America’s coldest cold case file. It is also the largest robbery in American history, twice the size of the Brink’s Job, and was the largest mass murder in American history until the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. It is also a grim reminder that getting the gold was not anywhere near as dangerous as getting it home.

References
[The complete story of the Clara Nevada, and possibly where the gold is today, is contained in THE CLARA NEVADA, Gold Greed, Murder and Alaska’s Inside Passage by Steven C. Levi, The History Press.]
[i] Newspaper accounts of the actual number of passengers varies. The official Wreck Report, filed April 25, l898, lists passengers as “from 30 to 40” and crew of “about 42.”  The Wreck Report can be found in the Alaska Packers Association Records, microfiche, in the possession of the Z. J. Loussac Library in Anchorage. The San Francisco Call noted in “Vain Quest for Bodies of the Lost,” March 5, 1898, that
It is the rule that bodies of people drowned in Alaska seas are never recovered. Once drowned they never rise to the surface. It is impossible to tell into what subterranean cavern the deep undertow and currents take them and then the waters are filled with sharks which swim in both depths and shallows.
However, according to the United States Coast Guard, April 20, 1993, the primary reason that corpses in Alaskan waters are not recovered is that “cold water doesn’t allow them to decompose.  Decomposition creates gases which bloat bodies and make[s] them buoyant enough to float to the surface.”
[ii]”None to Tell the Story,” Post-Intelligence, February 18, l898.
[iii]”Klondike Steamer Lost,” New York Times, February 15, l898.
[iv]”The Eliza Anderson,” Seattle Times, March 31, 1898.
[v]”About the Clara Nevada,” Seattle Times, April 5, l898 and April 7, l898.
[vi]”Solving Mystery of Clara Nevada,Post-Intelligencer, March 13, 1908.
[vii]”Relics from Clara Nevada Brought Here,” Daily Alaska Dispatch, June 28, 1916.
[viii] “The Clara Nevada,” Dyea Trail, March 11, 1898 and “Boilers did not Explode,” Post-Intelligencer, March 3, l898.
[ix]”An Echo from the Clara Nevada,Dyea Trail, May 7, 1898; “An Echo from the Clara Nevada,” Alaska Miner, April 23, 1898.  Interestingly, some sources assume that the name of the ship which made the discovery was the Sea Lion, not the Seaolin.
No items found.

Alaska's Ghost Ship The Clara Nevada

History

Author

Steven Levi

Steven C. Levi is an Alaskan historian and writer. ... His nonfiction books on Alaska history include BOOM TO BUST IN THE ALASKA GOLD FIELDS, an historical forensic investigation into the sinking of Alaska's ghost ship, the Clara Nevada, as well as a history of Alaska's bush pilot heritage, COWBOYS OF THE SKY.

Introduction

No saga of the Alaska Gold Rush would be complete without a touch of the mysterious. Every rush has its eerie events and the Alaska Gold Rush was no exception. Perhaps the most perplexing incident of that era was the saga of the Clara Nevada. Here was a tale of greed, robbery and murder along with a ghostly re-visitation. But it was more than that. It is also one of the largest successful robberies in American history combined with the third largest mass murder in American history as well, surpassed only by the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the 911 attack on the World Trade Center.

The Clara Nevada

Hardly noteworthy in life, in death the Clara Nevada has become immortal. She was built in 1872 as a survey vessel for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (USGS). Originally named the Hassler in honor of Ferdinand Hassler, the first Superintendent of the USGS, the ship plied the waters of Alaska surveying the coastline for more than two decades. Then, when her usefulness had been extinguished, she was condemned. In the normal course of events, she would have been reduced to scrap and recycled into another steamship but, in 1897, gold had been discovered along the Klondike River and before the Hassler could be destroyed, she was purchased for $15,700 by the Pacific & Alaska Transportation Company.

Based in Portland, the Pacific & Alaska Transportation Company was one of the many rapidly forming companies that were taking advantage of the sudden demand for transportation to the gold fields of the north. Marine transportation between the Pacific Northwest and the twin cities of Skagway and Dyea at the top of the Lynn Canal was the perfect business opportunity for entrepreneurs with ice water in their veins. Passengers going north were those who could afford to pay for their passage in cash. Coming south, the cargo would be Argonauts returning home laden with tens of thousand of dollars in gold dust and nuggets, men and women who could pay for their passage in cash. If they couldn’t pay, they couldn’t get on board. As the owner of the Pacific & Alaska Transportation Company viewed it, their ship would be filled both ways—with customers paying cash.

Coming south, the cargo would be Argonauts returning home laden with tens of thousand of dollars in gold dust and nuggets, men and women who could pay for their passage in cash. If they couldn’t pay, they couldn’t get on board.

The maiden voyage of the Clara Nevada was not fated to be without incident. She collided with the Revenue Cutter Grant as she was backing out of her berth in Seattle and, upon arrival in Port Townsend the next day, she rammed the dock and damaged her bowsprit. It was her return south, however, that placed her in the history books. Leaving Dyea on February 5, 1898, on a proverbial dark and stormy night, she headed south out into the Lynn Canal.

What happened next is a matter of speculation. A witness on a wharf at Seward City—now named Comet—related that he had seen a ship on fire near Eldred Rock—now a lighthouse—and suddenly there had been an orange fireball on the water. Then all was black. He assumed that a ship had exploded. There was a gale of near hurricane force blasting down Lynn Canal that night and thus it was impossible for any craft to reach the site of the fireball. A week later, the steamer Rustler of Juneau reported a wreck on a reef off Eldred Rock. As only the spars could be seen above the water at low tide, there was no way of positively identifying the wreck. The Rustler later recovered one body, identified as that of the Clara Nevada’s purser, George Foster Beck. The identification of the body, combined with the fact that the Clara Nevada never made port, led officials to the conclusion that the wreck in the shallow waters off Eldred Rock was that of the Clara Nevada. No one knew how many people had perished in the disaster. In the wreck report, the President of the Pacific & Alaska Transportation Company stated that he had “no knowledge who was on board” as the passenger list had been lost with the purser. This was not, it should be added, unusual. This was the beginning of a gold rush and the emphasis was on making money, not keeping records. Estimates of the dead ran from a low of 65 to 165.[i]

Eldred Rock USCG, photograph courtesy of the United States Coast Guard.


It didn’t take long for recriminations to begin. Federal investigators re-examined the collision between the Clara Nevada and the United States Revenue Cutter Grant. While at the time the accident was considered no more than an embarrassment to the captain on his maiden voyage. Later, after the Clara Nevada was wrecked, it was assumed to be proof positive of the captain’s incompetence. It was also revealed that the engine room telegraph cable had been inoperable prior to that incident and that communication wires had been broken—and probably not repaired—prior to the incident at the Port Townsend dock.

Passengers who had taken passage on the vessel between Seattle and Alaska—the trip before the ship went down—were questioned and many of them did not have kind words for either the ship or crew. Some claimed that the crew was incompetent, “intoxicated” or both, and the ship unseaworthy. One of the passengers, Charles Jones of The Dalles, reported that

I was afraid the Clara Nevada would be wrecked from the time she left Seattle until Skagway was reached. We smashed into the Revenue Cutter Grant when we were backing out of Yesler’s Dock; we rammed into almost every wharf at which we tried to land; we blew out three [boiler] flues; we floundered around in rough waters until all the passengers were scared almost to death; we witnessed intoxication among the officers and heard them cursing each other until it was sickening.[ii]

The Clara Nevada also became the cornerstone of a political battle as well. The vitriolic Col. Alden J. Blethen of the Seattle Times, then a Populist newspaper, tried to use the Clara Nevada incident to attack the Steamboat Inspection Service as a means of embarrassing the Republican administration of the Governor of Washington. Though his attack was politically motivated, his facts were accurate. Many in the shipping business were tarnishing the good name of Seattle, as Blethen had charged, and now the city was acquiring a reputation as a “haven for decrepit and unsafe ships” and businessmen who were more interested in profits than human lives. The flood of humanity to the gold fields seemed to bring out the wolf in some maritime companies and more disaster was destined to follow the Clara Nevada, Blethen predicted. The New York Times clearly felt the same way when it editorialized that the Clara Nevada incident simply emphasizes the conditions that prevail in Northern waters. Ships of all sorts and conditions are being pressed into the service to carry crowds to the gold fields.[iii]

The flood of humanity to the gold fields seemed to bring out the wolf in some maritime companies and more disaster was destined to follow the Clara Nevada, Blethen predicted.

Charges produced counter-charges which generated further insinuations of misconduct and incompetence. On March 5, the Seattle Times went so far as to attack the steamboat inspectors saying they “should decorate the end of an elevated rope.”[iv]  Since witnesses had related seeing a fireball, it was generally assumed that dynamite was being transported with passengers, a clear violation of good sense not to mention maritime law.

The controversy only ended in August of 1898 when the conclusion was reached that the Clara Nevada had caught fire “and during the frantic fight to keep the flames from the place where was stored powder and dynamite the officers lost their bearing and, incidentally, control of the ship.” The storm drove the vessel up on the reef of Eldred Rock, “broadside on,” where the ship split open. The primary evidence for the fire theory was that fire hoses had been found on the sunken ship’s deck and the hoses were “attached to the hydrants and coupled to the pumps.”[v] 

As the flow of Argonauts grew from a trickle to a river to a flood, the number of maritime sinking's rose. Before the end of 1898, 16 ships had gone to the bottom of the Inside Passage. Then the recriminations finally faded, the Clara Nevada became just another ship lost at sea. It appeared that the book was finally closed on the disaster.

But what was singular about the Clara Nevada was not so much the ship’s death but its revivification. Ten years later, almost to the day, another hurricane force gale boiled the waters of Lynn Canal. Ships scattered for the cover of bays and bights and on Eldred Rock, the lighthouse keeper could feel the earth shifting beneath the tower. Though it was almost brand new, built in 1902, the structure shook violently. All night long the wind screamed as it powered its way south. Waves rose to staggering heights and threatened to sweep over the small island. 

It was not until morning that the wind died and the waves settled. Only then did the lighthouse keeper venture outside.

What a sight he saw! There, on a pinnacle off the northern end of the island, was the Clara Nevada, high and dry, while the bones of her late crew and passengers were scattered on the beach. The storm had dragged the ship from its watery grave. The next night, the storm took the ship back.[vi]

But the story of the Clara Nevada continued, as Alice in Wonderland noted, “curiouser and curiouser.” Scrambling the chronology, in June of 1916, 18 years after the Clara Nevada had gone down, Alaskan hard-hat diver C. F. Stagger spent two days on the wreck. In addition to cutting and “farming the kelp” that had entombed the vessel, he salvaged about half a ton of copper and brass. Though he could not make it below decks, he was “positive from the examination made that the vessel had not caught on fire as [was] generally supposed and the wreck was caused by something else, most likely a submerged rock.”[vii]

It is also interesting to note that the wrecker’s conclusion contradicted that of the witness who swore he saw a fireball. Careful examination of the fireball theory, however, revealed some other flaws. While it would be reasonable for a ship to be transporting dynamite north to a boomtown, it is hard to believe that dynamite would be shipped south to Seattle. If all mining equipment brought high price in the gold country, why was the dynamite being transported south? Further, if there was as much as 15 tons of dynamite on board, why didn’t the ship completely disintegrate when the explosive went off? And, if dynamite had been the cause of the ship’s demise, why was the hole in the Clara Nevada’s hull found in the area of the boiler room and not the cargo hold? 

In March of 1898, the Dyea Trail reported that an investigator at the site, Sanderson Reed, believed that the Clara Nevada had gone aground and that fire might have occurred when lamps were tipped over spilling fiery kerosene. Reed did notice a large hole in the side of the vessel but believed that the boiler was intact. He also guessed that the striking of the reef had overturned the lamps and thus caused conflagrations to erupt in different parts of the ship making it impossible for the passengers to fight all of the fires at the same time. This corroborated testimony by a Lloyds of London surveyor who stated categorically that there had been no boiler explosion. Interestingly Reed noted that there had probably been an attempt to lower the lifeboats.[viii]

This raised another perplexing question. If there were as many as 165 people on board, how was it that only one body was ever found and that body, according to several newspapers, was not even in the immediate vicinity of the Clara Nevada’s watery grave? It was found up wind from the ship’s final resting place.

Headline from the Seattle Post Intelligencer from the author’s
personal collection

Adding more mud to the water, in an article that appeared in the Dyea Trail on May 7, 1898, there was the appearance of a lifeboat. A small coastal craft, the Seaolin, spotted a boat near Seward City, seven miles from Eldred Rock. It sent a crew ashore and found an abandoned craft that was “neither a lifeboat nor a sealing boat.” There was a life preserver from the Clara Nevada on board as well as a roll of blanket containing clothes “which a Yukoner would take along with him.” Another blanket roll with clothing inside was found about 60 yards away and close by were the remains of a fire. A careful examination of the newspaper accounts of the Clara Nevada’s last trip raises yet another rather striking question. The lifeboat that was found does not match the description of any of the lifeboats which were on board.[ix]

But there was one piece of evidence that bursts open the doors of speculation. Comparing the names of the passengers and crew of the Clara Nevada against the 1900 Census, there was one clear match: C. H. Lewis. The captain of the Clara Nevada who supposedly had gone down with his ship was working as a steam ship captain on a brand new steamship on the Yukon River barely 18 months later.

Then there is the question of the Clara Nevada’s cargo. According to a number of sources, it was estimated that about $165,000—$16 million in today’s dollars—in untraceable, raw gold had gone down with the Clara Nevada. There were a number of published sources for the statement. The first was the February 25th Seattle Times, which estimated the gold at “$90,000 to $120,000.” The June 5th Seattle Post-Intelligencer listed the gold as amounting to “$100,000.” Another Seattle Times article even indicated that one passenger was carrying $165,000 on him. Other articles in Seattle papers listed the amount of gold as high as $300,000. 

It is intriguing that the gold from the Clara Nevada was never reported found. Oddly—or perhaps purposefully—the Clara Nevada’s final resting place is in 24 feet of water. Considering that the surrounding waters are 1,500 feet deep, the Clara Nevada was resting on the very top of a submarine mountain. Would someone bent on stealing 110,000 ounces of gold know exactly where to sink a ship so that he could return to plunder the gold later? Ironically, it was Clara Nevada in her previous life as the Hassler that had surveyed these waters and perhaps planted the seed of her own destruction.

The Clara Nevada is probably America’s coldest cold case file. It is also the largest robbery in American history, twice the size of the Brink’s Job, and was the largest mass murder in American history until the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. It is also a grim reminder that getting the gold was not anywhere near as dangerous as getting it home.

References
[The complete story of the Clara Nevada, and possibly where the gold is today, is contained in THE CLARA NEVADA, Gold Greed, Murder and Alaska’s Inside Passage by Steven C. Levi, The History Press.]
[i] Newspaper accounts of the actual number of passengers varies. The official Wreck Report, filed April 25, l898, lists passengers as “from 30 to 40” and crew of “about 42.”  The Wreck Report can be found in the Alaska Packers Association Records, microfiche, in the possession of the Z. J. Loussac Library in Anchorage. The San Francisco Call noted in “Vain Quest for Bodies of the Lost,” March 5, 1898, that
It is the rule that bodies of people drowned in Alaska seas are never recovered. Once drowned they never rise to the surface. It is impossible to tell into what subterranean cavern the deep undertow and currents take them and then the waters are filled with sharks which swim in both depths and shallows.
However, according to the United States Coast Guard, April 20, 1993, the primary reason that corpses in Alaskan waters are not recovered is that “cold water doesn’t allow them to decompose.  Decomposition creates gases which bloat bodies and make[s] them buoyant enough to float to the surface.”
[ii]”None to Tell the Story,” Post-Intelligence, February 18, l898.
[iii]”Klondike Steamer Lost,” New York Times, February 15, l898.
[iv]”The Eliza Anderson,” Seattle Times, March 31, 1898.
[v]”About the Clara Nevada,” Seattle Times, April 5, l898 and April 7, l898.
[vi]”Solving Mystery of Clara Nevada,Post-Intelligencer, March 13, 1908.
[vii]”Relics from Clara Nevada Brought Here,” Daily Alaska Dispatch, June 28, 1916.
[viii] “The Clara Nevada,” Dyea Trail, March 11, 1898 and “Boilers did not Explode,” Post-Intelligencer, March 3, l898.
[ix]”An Echo from the Clara Nevada,Dyea Trail, May 7, 1898; “An Echo from the Clara Nevada,” Alaska Miner, April 23, 1898.  Interestingly, some sources assume that the name of the ship which made the discovery was the Sea Lion, not the Seaolin.
No items found.

Author

Steven Levi

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