Pacific Steel Barge Company and the whaleback City of Everett (Part 2)

  • By Denise Ohio
  • Posted 1/21/2021
  • Essay 21164
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From 1888 to 1893, as the Great Northern Railway made its way to Puget Sound, speculators flocked to Washington Territory anticipating fortunes to be made in land, mining, and timber. Railroad-connected financiers, sons of wealth and social connection known for their friendships with John D. Rockefeller, teamed up with a Midwesterner living in Tacoma to create a new city near the mouth of the Snohomish River. The group platted a town, slapping their own names on as-yet unbuilt streets, and began to entice industries to expand to their piece of the frontier. They managed to start four new industries -- a smelter to serve their nearby mining interests, a wire nail works that they also owned, a paper mill in which they had an interest, and their own shipyard. Incorporated on September 28, 1891, the Pacific Steel Barge Company, an offshoot of the American Steel Barge Company of West Superior, Wisconsin, would build a single ship, an oceangoing whaleback named after its home port, the City of Everett. That ship would have a long and remarkable history.

In Part 1, Rockefeller learns of financial improprieties as the Everett shipyard nears completion. 

Somehow a Ship Got Built

Superintendent G. J. Anderson and Financial Agent William Ross announced in March 1892 that the Pacific Steel Barge Company had almost finished building the barge works. One hundred and fifty-six men were busy at work and the population around the shipyard was growing, though a floating saloon had tied up nearby. Anderson let the workers know they'd be fired if they patronized the establishment.

On May 1, 1892, the steel barge works were finished, built on 2,000 piles topped with planking 1,000 feet long and 300 feet wide. The works occupied 75 acres of ground, with four large buildings containing a floor area of 53,000 square feet and one of the largest dry-docks in the United States still under construction. On July 1, 1892, a large group of men left the American Steel Barge Company in West Superior, Wisconsin for Everett and started the new whaleback soon after their arrival. The new steamship would be named the City of Everett, possibly following the tradition of Colgate Hoyt's Puget Sound & Alaska Steamship Company, which named its ships after Puget Sound cities, such as City of Kingston and City of Seattle, both built in 1890.

Construction was immediately delayed when the Homestead strike began on July 1, 1892. The Carnegie-owned steel company had won the contract to supply steel for the whalebacks in 1890. When the strike began, the Homestead Steel Works hired scab labor to produce the plates that were loaded on Northern Pacific cars and shipped to Tacoma, and then loaded on steamers for Everett. Work resumed on the whaleback steamship on September 1, 1892.

Hugh Calderwood arrived at Everett from West Superior, accompanied by Daniel Brown, on December 1, 1892, to superintend the building of the City of Everett. Calderwood had served an apprenticeship in England and had spent several years with Alexander McDougall's operations in West Superior before being sent west to manage the Pacific Steel Barge Company.

At about the same time in late 1892, Colgate Hoyt was determined to take an extended break. McDougall would later say that Hoyt was suffering from typhus and was warned by doctors that if he didn't rest, he may not survive. This may have been true, but Hoyt's timing was suspect. Before leaving for Europe, Hoyt warned that a financial crash was coming, quite possibly because, as a director of the Northern Pacific, he knew how overextended the enormous transcontinental railroad was. Members of a Northern Pacific stockholders committee formed in 1892 were surveying not only the railroad's involvement in the Pacific Northwest, but also various deals including the one involving the Wisconsin Central. Hoyt may have left the country to publicly distance himself from railroads. On his December 8, 1892, passport application, Hoyt, under "Occupation," scratched out "Railroad officer" and wrote beneath it, "Steamship Co. President."

The trip to Europe meant that Hoyt missed the excitement when the City of Everett's keel was laid in March 1893. McDougall returned to Everett in April to superintend the completion of the hull before traveling back to West Superior.

Hoyt also missed Frederick T. Gates' effort to remove both him and Charles Colby from every Rockefeller investment, especially those connected with Everett. When Hoyt returned to the United States in April 1893, he found that Gates had curtailed operations at the American Steel Barge Company without any discussion with him, the president.

Then on May 3, 1893, the stock market crashed, just as Hoyt had predicted. Incredibly, in the midst of an epic financial disaster, James J. Hill's Great Northern Railroad, an effort requiring tremendous capital at a time there was no credit to be had, touched saltwater at Everett in 1893 — but then turned south. Everett would not be the Great Northern's terminus, despite the efforts of Colby, Hoyt, and Hewitt. By midsummer 1893, Great Northern rail service terminated in Seattle, not Everett.

But work on the City of Everett went on. The whaleback's engines were built by the Frontier Iron Works of Detroit. It took 10 rail cars to ship the whaleback's triple-expansion marine engine in July 1893. Despite uncertain economic times, everyone expected the ship to launch in August as planned. Then Hugh Calderwood received the order to lay off everyone but himself, the cashier, and a watchman.

On February 21, 1894, McDougall sent a dispatch to Everett: "The branch yard at Everett, Wash., will be opened, and the ocean steamer begun there will be finished this summer" ("New Steel Barge Company Officers," 10). The Pacific Steel Barge Company resumed work on the City of Everett on April 1. This good news was soon followed with bad news: In July 1894, a deed from the Pacific Steel Barge Company to the American Steel Barge Company was filed, covering the Everett barge works and the unfinished ship. The American Steel Barge Company was mortgaged to a New York trust for $4 million, covering all of the property in Everett and West Superior. In effect, the Pacific Steel Barge Company no longer existed.

Launching the City of Everett

On September 23, 1894, Hoyt returned to the Pacific Northwest. He told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "I'm on my way to Everett to look after my interests there and to hasten the building of the City of Everett, which is under construction at the barge works. Capt. McDougall, general manager of the American Steel Barge Company, of which I am president, is already at Everett looking after our affairs" ("The Finest In The Land"). When asked about the as-yet unfinished City of Everett, Hoyt responded, "She will probably transport coastwise freight, though it is possible that she may sail to the Orient."

By then, McDougall had been in Everett a week. He told reporters they intended to have the City of Everett ready to launch around October 24 or 25, during high tide. He was right. The City of Everett was launched on October 24, 1894, though the ship lacked engines, crew quarters, the bridge, and even the ship's wheel.

The Los Angeles Times reported that 10,000 people witnessed the launch of the City of Everett. Whitfield quoted the Snohomish Eye, saying, "A procession, headed by carriages containing the speakers of the day, consisted of thirty floats, descriptive of Everett industries, together with citizens, members of secret societies, the fire department and two bands." After the mayor, the governor, and others spoke, everyone proceeded to the barge works. It took four seconds for the City of Everett to slide down the ways and into the water (Whitfield, 352). The Everett Times called it "The Greatest Day In Our History" ("Greatest Day ...").

The ship's launch offered hope to those suffering from the financial Panic of 1893 that left one in three people out of work. There were rumors that there was enough material to build a small whaleback passenger steamship to operate between Everett, Tacoma, and Seattle, and of interested parties arriving to examine the City of Everett and ready to place orders, but nothing materialized. Economic recovery was still in the future.

Frederick T. Gates arrived in Everett for the first time in November 1894 to begin disentangling Rockefeller from Everett. Gates' actions forced Hewitt, Hoyt, and Colby out of most of their Everett investments through a combination of financial maneuvers. Hewitt gave up everything in Everett but some land, mortgages, and $14,000, and went back to Tacoma, chastened but still rich. Colby and Hoyt retained their Puget Sound holdings that didn't involve the Standard Oil millionaire, but they were cut off from both Rockefeller's money and his friendship.

Rockefeller's anger was personal. He had known both men for years and had worked with them on behalf of the Baptist church. Charles Colby's son, Everett, and John D. Rockefeller Jr., now students at Brown University, had been friends since boyhood. While it appears Hoyt and Rockefeller eventually rebuilt their friendship, Colby died in 1896, unreconciled.

But Gates didn't get rid of everything. Though he sold many properties at a loss, Gates hung on to the Everett Timber & Investment Company, another Colby-Hoyt syndicate property incorporated in 1891 by Hewitt. Gates then bought up all the timberland he could, and when he sold to the Weyerhausers in 1905, he netted five or six times their purchase price, compensating Rockefeller for all of his Pacific Northwest losses.

Gates also allowed the barge works to finish the only ship it would ever build, the whaleback steamship City of Everett.

An Auspicious Start

At high tide on February 22, 1895, the whaleback left the barge works to sail down the Snohomish River for the bay. The vessel failed to make saltwater before the tide went out and was stranded until high tide returned.

Nevertheless, the City of Everett started its promising career in March 1895, sailing to Nanaimo, British Columbia, to take on a cargo of coal for San Francisco. Ransford Dodsworth Bucknam was captain, though he would soon leave the City of Everett to serve in the Turkish Navy as Admiral Bucknam Pasha. At 365 feet long, 42 feet at its beam, almost 23 feet deep, and with a capacity of 4,350 tons, the ship was the largest vessel afloat in the Pacific at the time.

Captain Louis Laverge relieved Bucknam as master of the City of Everett on July 15, 1895. Laverge was born in France in 1865 and was 11 when he started aboard ship. He would be master of the City of Everett on its most noteworthy voyage: a relief mission to India organized by the Home and Foreign Relief Commission. In June 1897, the ship was chartered by the U.S. government for $40,000 to carry 2,600 tons of grain to aid victims of a famine in India that had begun in 1895. By late 1897, starvation and the diseases that accompany it like bubonic plague, cholera, and malaria would claim more than a million lives. "It is a far cry from San Francisco to Calcutta," Frank Norris wrote about the relief effort in The Wave, "But not so far apparently as to be beyond the sound of an appeal for help" (Norris, 7).

The City of Everett left San Francisco on June 12, 1897, crossing the Pacific, stopping in Manila to take on water and fuel, and arriving at Singapore on July 27, 1897. The City of Everett then found a berth at the Khidirpur Docks at Kolkata on August 9. After discharging the relief supplies, the City of Everett made a trip to Madras with coal, returned to Kolkata, then took on a load of jute for Valencia and Bilboa, sailing by way of the Suez Canal. After unloading the jute in Spain, the City of Everett took on a load of iron ore and started across the Atlantic for Charleston, South Carolina. According to The New York Times, this was the first time a US steamship passed through the Suez Canal and circumnavigated the globe.

Though the Marine Review would later report the City of Everett was the last U.S. ship out of a Spanish port before the outbreak of the April-August 1898 Spanish-American War ("The City of Everett"), in a letter dated November 23, 1899, Laverge wrote that the India voyage in 1897 was his last foreign trip aboard the City of Everett ("The Merchant Marine"). It appears that the whaleback spent its time during the Spanish-American War carrying cargo along the Eastern seaboard before being chartered as a collier for the Atlantic Transportation Company, sailing between Boston and Newport News, Virginia.

The ship began revealing a serious flaw. For the loading and unloading of cargo, each whaleback had a number of steel hatches, each with a rubber gasket made to match the curve of the deck. Each hatch was bolted with almost 100 stud bolts and the entire crew, on or off duty, would work for hours to close or open the hatches each time they came into or left port. Captain Merwin Stone Thompson, crew member aboard the whaleback John Ericsson, wrote in his memoir: "The stud bolts were stored at each end of the ship. Shortly after leaving port on one trip, I was off watch working on these bolts at the end of the number three hatch, when a deckhand appeared with two small buckets of bolts, one in each hand. When about opposite me with the ship rolling slightly, he slipped and fell. One of the buckets went overboard and he was on his way when I fortunately could pull him back from the rounding top side of the ship. This news spread like wildfire around the [Great Lakes] and it was soon getting easy to get a job on the Ericsson. That was the reason for her nickname, the floating workhouse" (Stone, 46).

Since each hatch had to be unbolted, moved, and re-bolted by hand, they had to be limited in size or the crew would be unable to move them. The clamshell-shaped buckets used for unloading the ships barely cleared the hatch opening and often damaged deck plates, which caused the hatch covers to leak. The hatches couldn't be enlarged because each hatch and its bolts made up part of the steel hull. The time the ship saved by slipping through water was lost during loading.

McDougall had also designed his whalebacks thinking that most shipping would use a series of small barges towed by a single consort. But by the late 1890s larger and faster ships could be built more cheaply than a whaleback, whose D-shaped interior framing ribs would work only up to a width of 43 feet. Beyond that, the structure required heavy support beams that made loading and unloading, already a challenge, even harder. And the whaleback's rounded hulls permitted water to run off, but they also allowed spilled cargo (and people who slipped) to fall into the water.

The New York Times reported on April 30, 1900 that the whaleback was overhauled from stem to stern under Laverge's supervision in the Erie Basin Dry Dock at Brooklyn, New York. The City of Everett was back at work when the Great Galveston hurricane of September 8, 1900, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, struck. According to the National Park Service, the storm's sustained wind velocity, before the anemometer blew away, was 84 mph, with gusts of 140 mph. The storm surge reached over 15 feet; Galveston's highest elevation was less than nine feet. Estimated casualties for the entire island were 10,000 to 12,000. Sixteen ships anchored in the harbor suffered extensive damage; one of those was the City of Everett, which sank where it was anchored for quarantine.

The whaleback was salvaged and in 1901, Standard Oil bought the City of Everett and converted it into an oil tanker for use in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Atlantic coast. On September 8, 1903, loaded with 12 million gallons of oil, the ship suffered an explosion while loading at Port Arthur, Texas, seriously injuring several crew members.

By then, Captain Thomas Fenlon (1867-1958) was master of the City of Everett. Born in New York City, Fenlon ran away from an orphanage at the age of 8 and had to eat out of garbage cans and sleep in an empty piano box until he got a job tending mules that hauled barges on the Erie Canal. He later worked as a steersman on a canal boat, a deckhand on a clipper ship that stranded him in China, and an oyster pirate in Chesapeake Bay. By 25, he had a master's license for both sail and steam.

Fenlon seemed to enjoy telling tales about his maritime career. In Captain Thomas Fenlon, Master Mariner, a fictionalized account of Fenlon's life by Garland Roark, Fenlon claimed he was the master of the City of Everett when it captured the Spanish city of Málaga without firing a shot (Roark, 122-127). But not only was Fenlon not in command of the whaleback then, there's no evidence — no newspaper reports, official documents, or letters home — that Málaga surrendered to the City of Everett.

But the explosion at Port Arthur, Texas, did happen. The only water available to fight the fire came from a tugboat, and even a fire engine brought out on a barge the next day wasn't enough. On the third day, a hose from a second ship was also used to get the fire under control. The oil was mostly burned, the dock where the ship was berthed was destroyed, and the ship was so heavily damaged, it was written off as a total loss. Fenlon managed to close up the crack in the ship's hull with railroad rails and concrete, then sailed back to New York for repairs.

In 1905, off Cape Romain, South Carolina, the City of Everett collided with the Leif Erikson, a Norwegian steamship carrying sugar from Matanzas, Cuba, bound for Philadelphia. Several of the whaleback's deck plates had minor damage, but the Leif Erikson's hull was torn from top deck to below the waterline, and the steamship was sinking fast. Its crew abandoned ship in a heavy gale and thick fog. Some newspaper reports say that a man named Bunting was master of the City of Everett, but it was Tom Fenlon who directed his crew to pick up the survivors. Two men from the Leif Erikson, second engineer Oster Ostersen and seaman Johan Johanssen, were never found and presumed drowned. For more than 100 years, the Leif Erikson would be known only as the Anchor Wreck, a favorite place for those who like to dive and fish, until identified in 2007.

In the early morning hours of January 23, 1909, the 570-foot-long RMS Republic, sailing from New York to Liverpool, was struck on its port side by the Italian steamer Florida while off Nantucket. The bow of the Florida pierced deep into the liner's side, into the engine room, and below the Republic's waterline. At 6:38 a.m., the Republic's radioman broadcast a CQD signal, the forerunner of the SOS, and all the passengers were taken aboard the Florida. The RMS Baltic was the first ship to finally locate the heavily damaged Republic, drifting in heavy fog, around 6 p.m. Captain Fenlon and the City of Everett, towing a consort barge, arrived on the scene two hours later to offer assistance to the crippled ship. The offer was repeatedly declined by Captain Inman Sealby of the Republic, so the City of Everett left around 9 a.m. the next morning. The Republic sank in 250 feet of water less than 12 hours later.

The Republic belonged to the White Star Line, one of the most prominent shipping lines in the world, known for transatlantic passenger service on spectacular ships like Oceanic and the doomed Titanic. Fenlon was sure that the Republic refused his assistance because no ship of the White Star Line would ever deign to accept help from a lowly whaleback ("Could Have Saved Republic").

The City of Everett made another dramatic rescue in 1911 when the three-masted schooner Sarah D. Fell left Belfast, Georgia, for Boston and ran into a hurricane. The City of Everett saw the sailing ship's distress signal, and Captain Frederick Ornberg took the crew aboard and sailed for Staten Island.

The City of Everett had been towing barges across the North Atlantic when the whaleback was purchased by Abram I. Kaplan of the New York-based Sugar Company on November 10, 1922. Almost a year later, on the morning of October 11, 1923, while carrying molasses from Santiago de Cuba to New Orleans, the City of Everett foundered during a storm. The newspaper Capital Times reported that on October 12, 1923, the steamer managed a broadcast at 7:30 a.m., which read, "Am lowering boats; will sink soon, latitude 24°30' north; longitude 86° west." The City of Everett's radio operator detailed the crew's fate 25 minutes later, revealing, "Going down stern first." One last SOS was sent out before the radio went silent. Rescue ships arrived at the coordinates to find nothing but sea and no sign of the ship or its crew of 26 ("Sinking Ship Puts Out Call ...").

On January 18, 1924, the London Times reported that a bottle washed up on a beach near Miami with a note stuffed inside. It read, "S.S. Everett. This is the last of us. To dear friends who find this, good-bye for ever and ever."

On September 11, 2010, divers from the Association of Underwater Explorers thought they had found the wreck of the City of Everett resting in 400 feet of water 120 nautical miles off Naples, Florida. On a later dive the team found the engine manufacturing plaque with a serial number linking it to the steamer Munisla.

The City of Everett remains missing.


Alexander McDougall, The Autobiography of Capt. Alexander McDougall (Great Lakes Historical Society, 1968); "Alexander McDougall," in Dictionary of American Biography ed. by Dumas Malone, Allen Johnson, and American Council of Learned Societies (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), 22-23; Blue Book of American Shipping: Marine and Naval Directory of the United States; Statistics of Shipping And Shipbuilding In America ed. by Mulrooney & Barton (Cleveland, Ohio: Marine Review Publishing Co., 1896); C. Roger Pellett, Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2018); Ron Chernow, Titan: The life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Second Edition (New York: Vintage Books, 2004); "On a Pleasure Trip," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 16, 1890, p. 1; William Whitfield, History of Snohomish County, Washington (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Pub. Co., 1926); David A. Cameron, Charles P. LeWarne, M. Allen May, Jack C. O'Donnell, and Lawrence E. O'Donnell, Snohomish County: An Illustrated History (Index, Washington: Kelcema Books LLC, 2005); "Personal Mention," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 21, 1891, p. 8; "The Steel Barge Company," Ibid., January 29, 1891, p. 8; "Excursionist at Sumas," Ibid., July 22, 1891, p. 2; Everett News, September 18, 1891; "A Novel Vessel Among the Chileans: The Whaleback Wetmore Reaches Santiago in Safety," Chicago Daily Tribune, November 8, 1891, p. 1; "Barge Works Site: Colby-Hoyt Party Returns From Whaleback Town," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 21, 1891. p. 8; "The Great Northwest," Wall Street Journal, December 11, 1891, p. 1; Alfred Lomax, "Distinctive Whaleback Steamship Promised Greatness for Everett," The Seattle Times, December 3, 1961, p. 10; drederick Taylor Gates and Robert S. Morison, Chapters In My Life (New York: Free Press, 1977); "Awarded to the Carnegie Company: The Pittsburg Firm to Furnish the Steel for Three New Lake Vessels," Chicago Daily Tribune, February 18, 1890, p. 8; Alfred Lomax, "Whaleback Promised a Shining Future for Early-Day Everett," The Seattle Times, November 11, 1962, p. 12; Louis Tuck Renz, The History of the Northern Pacific Railroad (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press 1980); "New Steel Barge Company Officers: Rockefeller to Advance Money to Carry Out Projected Enterprises," Chicago Daily Tribune, February 15, 1894, p. 10; "The Finest in the Land: Colgate Hoyt's Opinion of Snoqualmie Falls - Everett and Monte Cristo," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 23, 1894, p. 5; "Whaleback Launched," The Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1894, p. 3; "Greatest Day In Our History," Everett Times, October 24, 1894, p. 1; Norman Clark, Mill Town: A Social History of Everett, Washington, from Its Earliest Beginnings on the Shores of Puget Sound to the Tragic and Infamous Event Known as the Everett Massacre (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1970); "An Old Breton Seaman," Pacific Marine Review, December 1936, pp. 437, 439; Frank Norris, "A Strange Relief-Ship: The Queer-Built Everett Sailing for India This Week," The Wave, June 12, 1897, p. 7; George Lambert, India, the horror-stricken empire: containing a full account of the famine, plague, and earthquake of 1896-7, including a complete narration of the relief work through the Home and Foreign Relief Commission (Elkhart, Indiana: Mennonite Publishing, 1898), 181; "The City of Everett’s Wanderings," The New York Times, December 28, 1897, p. 11; "The City of Everett," Marine Review, February 11, 1909, p. 28; "The Merchant Marine: An Interesting Letter from Capt. Laverge of the City of Everett," Daily Press, December 3, 1899, p. 7; Merwin Stone Thompson, An Ancient Mariner Reflects (Oxford, Ohio: Typoprint, 1967), 46; Richard J. Wright, Freshwater Whales: The History of the American Shipbuilding Company and Its Predecessors (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1969), 43; "Galveston Hurricane of 1900," Coastal Geomorphology—Storms of Record, National Park Service, last updated: May 30, 2019. Last accessed December 4, 2020 (; "Vessels at Galveston: Steamships that Are Supposed to Have Been at the Devastated Port," The New York Times, September 11, 1900, p. 2; Garland Roark, Captain Thomas Fenlon: Master Mariner (New York: Julian Messner, 1958), 122-127; "Tank Ship Burns," Marine Engineering, December 1903, p. 647; "Ocean Steamers Collide: Leif Erikssen Sent to Bottom and Two of Crew …," The Washington Post, February 10, 1905, p. 3; Brian Hicks, "Anchor Wreck: A Century After the Leif Eriksson Was Lost to the Sea, Divers Think They Have Solved a Shipwreck Mystery," The Post and Courier, October 20, 2007, p. A1; "Could Have Saved Republic: Captain of the Everett Declares He Had Apparatus That Would Have Kept the Steamer Afloat," The New York Times, January 27, 1909, p. 1; "Saved By Oil Steamer," Ibid., August 31, 1911, p. 3; "Sinking Ship Puts Out Call For Help," New Britain Herald, October 11, 1923. p. 1; Michael C. Barnette, personal communication, May 2019.


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