Remembering the Clara Nevada – A Ghost of Lynn Canal

By , February 6, 2010

Either last night or tonight (sources differ) 103 years ago, the steam/sail ship Clara Nevada sank near Eldred Rock, south of our homestead.

Eldred Rock Lighthouse, Lynn Canal. The wreck led to building a lighthouse here. (Photo: Mark or Beth Zeiger)

This should not be considered an online information source on the wreck of the Clara Nevada–I don’t have the resources at hand to research it properly. This is merely a remembrance of an incident that happened near our home—something to think about today as I sit and watch the cold, gray waters of Lynn Canal, beneath which the Clara Nevada and her victims sleep.

The Clara Nevada, like many other less than seaworthy ships of the time, got pressed into service to carry prospectors to Alaska during the Gold Rush. Her owners had a shady reputation; her trip north started badly and continued that way. She collided with a revenue cutter while departing the dock in Seattle. She bounced off just about any dock with which she came in close proximity between there and Skagway. Her steam boilers behaved poorly on the trip north. The crew apparently spent much of their time drunk and unruly.

On February 5 or 6, 1898, she left Skagway headed south with an unknown number of passengers—supposedly 25 to 40, although later accounts report up to 150. She supposedly carried a fair amount of gold as passenger cargo.

A northerly gale blew up, with winds reportedly 50-80 mph. That night Clara Nevada struck a submerged pinnacle off Eldred Rock. Witnesses reported an explosion, which some said was her boilers; others said it was dynamite. Later dives on the wreck found no boiler damage; a ship carrying miners north seems unlikely to carry dynamite on the return journey. At any rate, the reported explosion prompted theories that the incident may have been deliberate sabotage in an attempt to steal the gold on board.

Officially, no one survived the wreck. Later, people reported seeing the captain and members of the crew alive elsewhere in Alaska, adding fuel to the sabotage theory. We’ll probably never learn the truth.

In 1907 Eldred Rock lighthouse began operation, having been built as a direct result of the wreck of the Clara Nevada.

The next year, within a month of the date of Clara Nevada’s demise, she returned to Eldred Rock. The morning following a violent gale, Assistant Keeper Currie found the ship beached on the north end of the rock. The storm had brought Clara Nevada back up from the deep briefly before she sank once again.

That’s the part of the story I love. Poor Mr. Currie! It would be bad enough for a lighthouse keeper to discover a ship hanging on the rocks, but to realize it was a ghostly wreck must have really given him a scare!

4 Responses to “Remembering the Clara Nevada – A Ghost of Lynn Canal”

  1. Steven Levi says:

    I enjoyed the write-up on the CLARA NEVADA on your web page but there is SO MUCH MORE. So much, in fact, that I wrote a book on it. How about a plug on your website? [My generic sales pitch is below.]

    Steven C. Levi

    Here’s a story that comes along once in a century. I have discovered and solved the coldest cold case in North American history. It also the largest unreported robbery in North American history – twice the size of the Brink’s Job – AND the largest mass murder in North American history up until the Oklahoma City Bombing. Not only that, it’s a ghost story and finishes with a lead to where $13.6 million is right now. Best of all, I have the documents to prove it.

    Truth is stranger than fiction.

    The CLARA NEVADA is Alaska’s ghost ship and it sank just off Eldred Rock in February of 1898 – when there was no lighthouse. IT CAME BACK UP ten years later, almost to the day when there was a lighthouse and the witness was the lighthouse keeper. Today, courtesy of historical records and my research, we now know that the sinking of the CLARA NEVADA was a robbery ($13.6 million in today’s dollars) and mass murder (165 people, the largest mass murder in North American history up until the Oklahoma City Bombing.)

    You can find a review of the book on Amazon.com.
    Oh, the book includes every known picture of the CLARA NEVADA and historical photos of the lighthouse from the Coast Guard archives.

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Steven,

    Wow! This is exciting! I’d be very interested in reading your book. I’ve heard the theory of the survivor, but I’ve also read that all evidence of his survival, or that the CLARA NEVADA’s sinking was a robbery and cover up, has been discredited. You definitely had your work cut out for you, and I’m interested to see the evidence and analysis.

    On a more basic level, though, were you able to fix the date of the sinking? As you read in my blog post, I could not.

    Consider your book plugged–best of luck with it!

    Mark

  3. Dick Jacobs says:

    My g-grandfather, Wm A. Jacobs, was head carpenter on the Clara Nevada. I have his letters written on the voyage from Seattle to Skagway, but there are no letters posted during the return trip. His wife was told after the sinking that he had survived the sinking and took the opportunity to skip out on his family. I have often wondered if i have distant cousins in Alaska!

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    Fascinating, Mr. Jacobs! I see Wm A. Jacobs on the crew list. I’ll watch for his name on the re-read (no index, alas) but I’d bet he’s mentioned, as he would have been very involved in assessing the damage to the ship from the explosion.

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