On August 30, 1914, the tugboat Lorne is steaming from Seattle through Haro Strait along the west side of San Juan Island in a heavy fog, towing the barge America with a load of coal destined for Vancouver, British Columbia, when both vessels pile up on a reef just off the island. No lives are lost, but the cargo cannot be retrieved. The Lorne is eventually raised and repaired, but the America cannot be saved and still lies where she sank. Both ships had illustrious careers. The America was built in 1874 as a sailing bark, similar in design to a clipper ship, for fast transport of trade goods. She was converted to a barge in 1907 and saw seven years of heavy service before her demise. Built in Victoria, B.C., the Lorne, the most powerful tugboat in the Salish Sea for many years, was launched in 1889. She will continue years of additional service after being salvaged and repaired until also being converted to a barge and then finally scrapped. In 1959, San Juan Island scuba divers will explore the sunken America and salvage some of the nearly 50-year-old remains.
A Journey's Abrupt End
The fog usually lifted by noon, but on this August Sunday it had persisted long into the afternoon, making it impossible to see the waters of Haro Strait from the farm field high on the west side of San Juan Island where Ed Hannah (1898-1986) and his father were working. But there was no missing the sudden, harsh sound of ship hulls grinding on the rocks below, and Hannah and his father hurried to see what assistance they could render. When they arrived at the water's edge, what they saw not far away were two ships just feet apart, a tugboat and a barge, both firmly aground on the reef. Because the wreck was so close to shore, and the ships initially remained largely upright in the high tide and heavy currents, the crew was able to safely evacuate from the tug with some of the gear, but there was no hope of off-loading the barge and its shipment of coal. As the tide ebbed, both ships listed heavily and took on water, slowly subsiding to the bottom.
Partly because both were well-known ships, within a week of the August 30, 1914, wreck the news was reported in papers around the country, including Alaska, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and even the small logging town of Ladysmith, Wisconsin. For the barge, named America, it was the end of its final journey. However, Captain M. F. Cutler (1861-1936) of the Lorne was confident that the tug could be refloated and taken to Victoria for repair. Plans for salvaging the Lorne were put on temporary hold, but neither ship was forgotten.
Robert Moran (1857-1943), shipbuilder and former mayor of Seattle (1888-1890), had purchased property on neighboring Orcas Island and built Rosario, a mansion with much of the ambiance of a sea-going vessel. Knowing the history of the America and the beauty of the figurehead representing Liberty that had adorned her bow when she was a three-masted sailing ship, Moran asked the ship's owner to allow him to salvage the figurehead, which he took to decorate the garden of his new home. Rosario later became a resort, and as of 2023 the figurehead, carved from a single white-pine log, still greets visitors on the lawn near the entrance drive. The explanatory inscription nearby notes that one of the America's captains found the figurehead to be "a source of much pride ... and in many ports ... remarked upon as being one of the most artistic figureheads that ever graced the bow of a ship" (Peacock). It is a fitting testimonial, as well, for the ship itself that once had been a vessel of great beauty and outstanding performance.
George Thomas (ca. 1795-1885), whose name was almost always preceded by the honorific "Deacon" in recognition of his strong religious faith and service as a deacon of his Baptist church in Rockland, Maine, was a shipbuilder who had a long-established enterprise in Rockland from which 42 ships had been launched. In 1854 at age 59 he decided to move operations to the Boston area and developed a new shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he continued to produce a variety of ocean-going vessels. It was the end of the clipper-ship-building era in New England, but Thomas had plans for a very special vessel that, while not a clipper, would have many of the characteristics of those fastest of sailing ships. When it was launched in 1874 the America was the largest ship ever built in Quincy. It was a three-masted bark, designed to carry square sails except for the rear-most mast, which would have fore-and-aft sails for steering and stability. Built of oak and southern pine, the 1,908-ton ship was long (232 feet) and narrow and built for speed.
Originally owned by Thayer & Co. of Boston, it was as swift as had been planned, making, for example, notable voyages from New York to San Francisco in 89 days and San Francisco to Liverpool in 102 days. When the ship was later employed along the West Coast, it frequently raced the Glory of the Seas (a medium-sized clipper ship) when both were carrying coal from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island to San Francisco. Two years after it had been launched, the "America was considered such a beautiful specimen of marine architecture that a picture of it was painted for the Centennial Exposition of 1876 at Philadelphia to represent the ideal ship of the United States" (Miller, 42). Just five years later, now owned by H. Trowbridge's Sons, the America, commanded by Captain R. W. Armstrong (d. 1917), successfully demonstrated its maneuverability and stability when approaching New York harbor in a devastating storm that sank another large vessel. That stability was to be tested often in the future.
By the late 1880s the America was moving heavy ores and materials all up and down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to San Francisco, but steam-driven ships were less dependent on the weather, and sailing ships were quickly outliving their usefulness. However, there were not enough steamships in service to carry all the cargo that needed transporting. So, as an experiment, in 1907 the Pacific Coal Company converted two sailing ships into barges. One was the once-noble America, although her three strong masts were kept intact. The barge America was subsequently much in demand to ferry copper from the mines in the Ketchikan region of Alaska to smelters, to carry equipment north and coal south, or even to transport 2,100 tons of cured herring at the end of a season's catch.
The America was a familiar ship in Puget Sound waters as she made frequent trips from Seattle, where she was now owned by James Griffiths & Sons, to points north all the way to Alaska. Early in 1914 the America was due in Alaskan waters to deliver 2,600 tons of merchandise and supplies for the Granby Consolidated Smelting and Mining Company in Valdez. Newspapers in both Seattle and Alaska ran numerous articles for days noting with concern that the America was very late in arriving and speculating on causes. It was with relief that the barge, having endured weather challenges and high seas, was announced as finally having safely arrived with its cargo intact, 16 days out of Seattle. On several of her trips over the years up and down the inland passage she was towed by the powerful tugboat Lorne.
British Columbia coal barons James Dunsmuir (1851-1920) and his brother Alexander (ca. 1854-1900) wanted a tugboat that could easily and swiftly move barges carrying large quantities of coal from the mines to markets along the West Coast and that could escort ocean-going transport ships out to sea. The ship they commissioned would become among the most well-known vessels in today's Salish Sea and Alaskan waters. The 151-foot wooden tugboat, designed by George Middlemass of San Francisco, was built in Victoria and launched in 1889. She was named the Lorne in honor of the Marquis of Lorne, John Douglas Sutherland Campbell (1845-1914), who had served as governor general of Canada from 1878 to 1883. The largest and strongest tugboat in Puget Sound and British Columbian seas, she was designed to be a supremely efficient towing vessel -- sturdy, powerful, and worked by a large crew, but without space wasted for passengers or cargo.
No expense was spared, and the cost of the ship was reported to be $60,000. An observer at the launch noted that "the hull of the new boat has been painted a splendid black, relieved with carving at the bow and moldings and ornaments in rich gilding. The name 'Lorne' is also carved and gilded at the bow and stern," and, as for performance, "she sped around Esquimalt Harbour like an 'ocean greyhound'" (Paterson). She became one of the busiest of the 11 tugboats (nine American and two Canadian) working in the Salish Sea, and soon developed a reputation for speed, reportedly traveling at 13 knots when not towing and 10 knots with a heavy load. In one two-week period in 1897 she undertook more than a dozen towing assignments and completed one of the best tugboat runs on record, in just 13.5 hours assisting on its way from Nanaimo to the sea a 1,700-ton vessel and its shipment of coal destined for San Francisco. With her large crew and steady work, the Victoria newspaper reported in 1904 that her monthly wage bill exceeded $1,000. Her name, it is said, became "a household word ... when boats and the sea figured large in the day-to-day conversation of most Victorians" (Victoria Harbour History website). Over the next years the Lorne worked almost continuously. In 1906 she joined in the search for survivors of the tragic sinking of the SS Valencia off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.
In 1909 the Lorne was brought to the Puget Sound Tugboat Company in Seattle (although she retained her Canadian registration) for a major overhaul that included installation of electric-lighting equipment, a new $9,000 boiler that was 16 feet in diameter and had four furnaces, and other improvements and updates. She was so much improved that it cost $4,000 in government import duties when she was taken across the border back to Victoria. By the following year she was additionally outfitted with a powerful wireless telegraph plant and an operator for the extremely useful communications equipment that was becoming more common on sea-going vessels. The appearance of the tugboat was changed substantially, as she now had two tall spars to carry all the necessary apparatus.
In August 1914 the Lorne was assigned to transport the America with its load of coal to Vancouver, B.C. Both vessels were now owned by James Griffiths & Sons, a large Seattle ship-brokerage firm that had diversified and developed important steamship, barge, stevedoring and shipbuilding companies. The voyage of the Lorne and the America ended on the rocks near San Juan Island on August 30. However, the 25-year-old Lorne had better prospects than the older America. Less than two months after the wreck, the Lorne was raised and taken to Esquimalt Harbor at Victoria where it was kept afloat with compressed air, the first such use of the technology to maintain a damaged ship until repairs could be made.
Eventually the tugboat was restored, and it went on to provide service for many additional years, but it, too, was finally converted to a barge when its enormous engines were removed by British Columbia Marine Engineering and Shipbuilding. After a half-century of service and hundreds of thousands of miles of travel, the Lorne was scrapped, but she is remembered as one of the finest ships ever built in Victoria. In 1964 one of her captains, who had saved the Lorne's bell before her dismantling, presented it to the Vancouver Maritime Museum, an enduring remembrance of the renowned ship.
Ed Hannah never forgot hearing the awful scraping of the ships' hulls on the rocks or the sight of the America and Lorne grounded on the reef near his home in 1914. Through the years he often told the story about what he saw and about going out in a skiff when the water on the reef was calm and clear and seeing the America just out of reach in about 30 feet of water. He even could see a compass but wasn't able to retrieve it. One listener fascinated by Hannah's tales was young San Juan islander Roger Loring (1931-2015). As a teen he had worked on fishing boats in the summer, and he eventually became a math and science teacher at Friday Harbor High School. When San Juan Island National Historical Park was established in 1966, he and a friend became the first local rangers at American and English camps.
But all his adult life, Loring's real passions were scuba diving and exploring local waters. He bought his first equipment at 26 and was entirely self-taught, but he and several friends were always up for adventure and finding the wreck of the America was a challenge too tempting to pass up. In 1959, based on Hannah's description of where he remembered the wreck to be, Loring and Carl Nielsen (b. 1927) dove the cold waters of Haro Strait in search of the vessel, which had then been submerged for almost 50 years. Peering through the depths, they eventually saw one of the tall masts and followed it down to the wreck, which was positioned, it was later determined, at 48 degrees 29' 30.8" North and 123 degrees 07' 07.0" West. Ocean flora and fauna had taken up residence on the ship over the decades, but there were still many remnants of the contents of the barge and even some from the Lorne scattered on the rocks below. The oak-planked hull was covered in copper fastened on with square copper nails. Piles of the barge's load of coal surrounded the vessel. Lengths of chain and other artifacts remained.
Over the next few years Loring and another friend, Jim Rhine (b. 1936), visited the wreck on many more dives, bringing up some of the copper sheathing, a capstan, bilge pump, lamp holder, parts of the rigging for the sails, cables, an anchor chain, a set of china dishes, the compass from the Lorne, and other items. In 1974 Loring presented a program for the community at the San Juan Historical Museum on his adventures and finds. The rudder and some other salvaged objects from the America are now part of the museum's collections. The America continues her slow disintegration in the Strait, but her story and that of the tugboat Lorne have become part of the history of San Juan Island that is being preserved for future generations.