The SS Clallam founders in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on January 8, 1904, with a loss of 56 lives.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 1/11/2005
  • Essay 7203
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On Friday, January 8, 1904, the inland passenger steamer SS Clallam sails from Seattle for Victoria B.C., via Port Townsend with 92 passengers and crew on board. Upon entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Clallam encounters heavy seas and gale-force winds, and within sight of Victoria Harbor, begins to founder. Fearing the vessel is sinking, the captain orders three lifeboats launched, with all the women, all the children, and some men. Within minutes the lifeboats capsize or are wrecked and all are lost into the sea. The remaining passengers and crew manage to keep the Clallam afloat until the early morning of January 9, when she begins to sink. The tugboats Richard Holyoke and Sea Lion rescue 36 survivors, but 56 persons are drowned. This is the greatest maritime disaster involving a Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet steamer ever recorded.

A Jinxed Ship?

The SS Clallam was a 657-ton, 168-foot, wooden-hulled steamship built at the E. W. Heath shipyard in Tacoma for $80,000.  The vessel had 44 elegant staterooms and a cruising speed of 13 knots.  On the day she was launched, April 15, 1903, two incidents occurred that marked her, in the eyes of superstitious mariners, as a jinxed ship. 

The first incident happened just prior to launching. The man responsible for raising the U.S. ensign over the Clallam for the first time, hauled it up the mainmast upside down, the universal distress signal.  The second happened during the launching ceremony.  Clallam County residents delegated Hazel L. Beahan to christen the ship. She was the 14-year-old daughter of Francis "Frank" Beahan (1862-1936), a meteorologist stationed at the U. S. Army Signal Corps Weather Station on Tatoosh Island.  When the blocks were knocked away, the vessel slid down the ways so quickly that Miss Beahan missed breaking the bottle of champagne across the bow for good luck.

The Clallam was owned by the Puget Sound Navigation Company, known as the Black Ball Line.  Commissioned on July 3, 1903, the new Mosquito Fleet steamer, the fastest and most modern ship in the fleet, was put on the run from Seattle to Victoria, B.C., via Port Townsend.  The steamer was licensed to carry 250 passengers and freight or 500 passengers on excursions without freight.  She carried 6 large lifeboats, 530 life preservers, 25 fire buckets, 4 life buoys, 6 axes, and 6 emergency lanterns.  The Clallam’s master and pilot was Captain George Roberts, one of the founders of the Black Ball Line, who had been navigating the inland waters of Puget Sound for more than three decades.

A Stormy Day

On Friday, January 8, 1904, the Puget Sound area was buffeted by strong winds from early in the morning until late evening.  It was the most severe storm experienced in months.  Winds were gusting from the southwest at up to 36 miles per hour on Puget Sound’s inland waters and up to 60 miles per hour at Tatoosh Island, accompanied by snow and heavy rainfall. 

But, the Clallam was new, fast, and regarded as seaworthy in every respect. Plus, she was running with the wind in a following sea.

The Bell Sheep's Premonition

On this same morning, another strange incident happened to the Clallam in Seattle as she was loading northbound passengers and freight at Pier 1, at the foot of Yesler Way.  Black Ball Line steamers often carried sheep bound for Port Townsend and Victoria and a trained mascot or bell sheep always led the herd aboard.  On this occasion, the bell sheep that usually made the voyage absolutely refused to board the vessel and was finally left behind when the ship departed Seattle at 8:30 a.m.

The voyage to Port Townsend took about three hours, leaving ample time for the Clallam to exchange passengers and freight and prepare for the noon departure to Victoria, B.C.  Fortunately, she carried an unusually small number of passengers.  The voyage from Seattle had been uneventful and everything, other than the weather, seemed normal when the steamer departed Port Townsend. 

The Emergency Begins

However, after rounding Point Wilson and entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Clallam encountered gale force winds from the west and heavy seas.  The steamship fought her way across 35 miles of open water to within site of Clover Point and Victoria Harbor, less than three miles away.

About 2:00 p.m., Chief Engineer Scott A. DeLaunay reported to Captain Roberts that the vessel was taking water and flooding the engine room.  The problem seemed to be a broken dead light (port hole) located amidships on the starboard side and only three feet above the waterline in a calm sea.  The bilge pumps had been activated and a damage control party plugged the dead light with blankets held in place by boards nailed across the opening, stopping the rush of sea water.  However, water continued flooding the engine room and DeLaunay could not find the source of the leak. 

Watertight compartments temporarily kept the problem from spreading, but the flooding was in the worst possible place, the engine and boiler room.  Soon the coal bunkers were awash with water, spilling coal into the bilge and fouling the pumps.

Water continued rising in the engine room. At about 3:00 p.m., Captain Roberts was advised that it had reached the boilers, extinguishing the fires.  Without steam, the ship was dead in the water, wallowing in the heavy seas.  The crew rushed to man the hand pumps in an attempt to keep the ship afloat.  Then the stay and jib sails were set, giving the ship a degree of maneuverability.

A Fateful Decision

About 3:30 p.m., Captain Roberts, fearing that the Clallam was breaking apart, ordered the crew to launch the three lee-side lifeboats.  Since it was still daylight and Discovery Island was only about two miles away, he believed it was their best chance of survival. 

The first lifeboat launched, filled with women and children, was under the command of Captain Thomas Lawrence of the Yukon riverboat SS Scotia, accompanied by four crewmen. The lifeboat was struck by the guardrail on the side of the ship, nearly capsized, and spilled the occupants into the sea, where they drowned.  The second lifeboat, containing the remaining women and children and some male passengers, cleared the side of the ship. The boat had gone about 600 feet when a huge wave swamped it and washed the occupants overboard.  They also drowned. The third lifeboat was upended when the forward fall became tangled, throwing all onboard into the water.  From the three lifeboats, there were no survivors.

Vessel in Distress

The remaining lifeboats on the steamer’s weather side could not be launched, so were held in reserve.  Although there was not much cargo on deck, First Officer George W. Doney decided to throw it overboard to keep the ship from listing. The remaining passengers and crew set to bailing out the flooded compartments with fire buckets.  The Clallam was still afloat mainly because her forward compartments were still relatively dry, but water continued to increase in the hold.  Although the wind had blown the ship’s stay sail to shreds, the jib sail kept her bow mostly before the wind, driving her slowly northeast toward Smith Island and San Juan Island.

At about 3:45 p.m., Edward E. Blackwood, the Puget Sound Navigation Company’s agent in Victoria, went to Clover Point looking for the overdue steamship and spotted the Clallam about four miles from Victoria with her sails set and distress flags flying.  Blackwood attempted to find a tugboat to assist the Clallam but none was available and there were no steamships in Victoria Harbor ready to sail.  As darkness fell, the storm intensified with raging seas and gale force winds blowing from the west.

At about 5:00 p.m., Blackwood finally contacted the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) agent in Sidney, B.C. who sent the steamship Iroquois out into the storm to search for the disabled Clallam.  The Iroquois searched around Smith Island, San Juan Island, and Haro Strait, but returned to Sidney at 11:00 p.m. with nothing to show for the effort but some storm damage.

Attempt to Rescue

At about 5:30 p.m., Captain John B. Libby, general manager of the Puget Sound Tugboat Company in Seattle, received a dispatch telling of the Clallam’s plight.  He immediate sent the seagoing tugboats Richard Holyoke, commanded by Captain Robert Hall, from Port Townsend, and the Sea Lion, commanded by Captain Charles C. Manter, from Seattle to rescue the Clallam.

The Richard Holyoke finally found the Clallam about 10:35 p.m. drifting midway between Smith Island and San Juan Island and passed her a towing hawser.  Captain Roberts requested a tow to the nearest port.  Captain Hall chose Port Townsend because it was as close as Victoria Harbor and the wind direction was more favorable, making it an easier tow for the tugboat.  Although Captain Roberts advised the Richard Holyoke that the Clallam was leaking, he neglected to mention that she was sinking.

Further Disaster

The Sea Lion arrived on scene about 1:00 a.m. Saturday morning, and pulled along side the foundering vessel.  Captain Roberts shouted to the Sea Lion to tell the Richard Holyoke to let go the towing hawser, the Clallam was sinking.  He told the men below to come on deck, put on life belts to prepare for rescue.

As soon as the towing hawser slackened, the Clallam veered, went over on her port beam and the stern began to sink.  First Officer Doney crawled to the boat deck and launched the life raft by chopping the lines securing it to the deck with an ax.  The men scrambled forward onto the steamer’s exposed side, and clung to the starboard rail until huge waves washed them into the sea.  About 1:15 a.m., the steamer settled and went down stern first, sinking into 65 fathoms of water approximately eight miles north of Point Wilson.  As the Clallam broke apart, the main deck, upper works, and pilot house separated from the hull and floated away.

The tugboats immediately came about, lowered their lifeboats and started picking up survivors.  Several men climbed onto the life raft including First Officer Doney, who then saved Captain Roberts from drowning by pulling him aboard.  The Sea Lion threw out lifelines, hauling aboard 12 survivors.  Seven men were able to scramble onto the floating pilothouse, hanging on until saved.  The tugboat crews, having rescued 34 survivors (14 passengers and 22 crewmen), continued searching the area until daylight, then sailed to Port Townsend.  The survivors were taken to Seattle by the Alaska Steamship Company steamer SS Dirigo.  How many men drowned when the Clallam foundered is unknown.

The Wreckage

On January 12, 1904, the C.P.R steamer Princess Beatrice spotted a considerable amount of wreckage on Darcy Island in the Trial Islands and sent a boat ashore to investigate.  The crew found that the entire main deck of the Clallam, complete with pilot house and upper works intact, had washed ashore.  They searched the wreckage and beach for victims but found none. One body wearing a life belt was found floating off Clover Point near Victoria Harbor.  Agent Blackwood engaged the B.C. Salvage Company steamer Maude to tow the wreckage to Esquimalt B. C.

Most of the Clallam’s wreckage, found over the following weeks, was sold at auction in Victoria on March 15, 1904, for $296.  The entire main deck and upper works was purchased by the owners of the Lyceum Theater for $25. They intended to exhibit it in Victoria, B.C.

On January 18, 1904, Captains Bion B. Whitney and Robert A. Turner, U. S. Marine Inspection Service, commenced an investigation into the causes of the Clallam disaster.  Since the vessel was sitting in 65 fathoms of water in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the inspectors relied on testimony from officers, crew members, and a dozen passengers to reconstruct the accident. 

The investigation concluded February 3, with the official report issued February 13, 1904, concluding primarily that the ship was flooded by open bilge and sea cocks, which extinguished the boiler room fires, not by taking water through the broken dead light or leaks in the hull.  Later, while being towed by the tugboat Richard Holyoke, huge waves smashed all the windows in the dining room and galley on the main deck, completely filling the compartments and hold, causing her to founder.  The inspectors also questioned why the Clallam had no signal flares or rockets onboard as required by law.

Chief Engineer Scott A. DeLaunay was held responsible for leaving the cocks open when the bilge pumps became fouled and ceased to operate, eventually sinking the ship.  Captain Roberts was criticized for launching lifeboats without a ship’s officer onboard, for not requesting the Richard Holyoke to tow the steamer to the nearest shelter on the lee side of Lopez Island and for not notifying the tugboat that the Clallam was not just leaking but sinking.

The U. S. Marine Inspection Board revoked DeLaunay’s Marine Engineers License, while suspending Captain Roberts’ Masters and Pilots License for only one year. The press in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest called the investigation a farce, stating that both officers should be charged with manslaughter.  They stated that DeLaunay had been made the scapegoat for the entire disaster while Captain Roberts escaped with a minor penalty. 

DeLaunay immediately appealed to the U. S. Marine Inspection Service in San Francisco, claiming new evidence, but the Board’s decision was upheld.  Captain Roberts went into seclusion at his Seattle home, saying that he may have misjudged the situation, but had tried to do his best.

On February 11, 1904, a Coroner’s Inquest was held in Victoria, B. C. to investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths from the Clallam disaster.  The inquest focused only on the passengers who were lost from the lifeboats and drowned in Canadian waters.  On February 19, 1904, the coroner’s jury declared that Captain Roberts was guilty of manslaughter by virtue of gross negligence. However an arrest warrant was never issued.  The jurors censured Chief Engineer DeLaunay for being negligent and incompetent in his duties but also found that the steamer was in an unseaworthy condition, having defective dead lights, a defective rudder, and improperly equipped lifeboats.

On the day of the disaster, January 8, 1904, the Clallam was sailing to Victoria, B.C. with nine officers, 22 crewmen and 61 passengers (40 men, 17 women and 4 children). The official death toll from the disaster was 56 persons: 2 officers, 7 crewmen, 26 men, 17 women and 4 children. There were 36 survivors: 7 officers, 15 crewmen and 14 male passengers. All the women and children drowned. An exhaustive search of the area by ship and of the islands and shorelines by search parties produced the bodies of only 28 victims; the rest were never found.

The Black Ball Line steamer Dolphin was temporarily put on the Seattle-Victoria run, then replaced by the Clallam’s sister ship Majestic, renamed the Whatcom.

List of Clallam Disaster Victims

Men (26):

H. Buckner, C. J. Burney, Robert J. Campbell, William Cherrett, Guy Daniels, William R. Gibbons, Charles Green, W. H. Grimes, Eugene Hicks, George Hyson, George J. Jeffs, C. F. Johnson, E. Harvey Joy, Peter LaPlant, Capt. Thomas Lawrence, Bruno Lehman, Edward Lennon, Albert K. Prince, W. E. Rookledge, Homer M. Swaney, Nathaniel P. Shaw, Charles Thomas, Col. Charles W. Thompson, Capt. Livingston W. Thompson, R. Turner, A. Vandemeet.

Women (17):

Eleanor Bolton, Mrs. Charles Cox, Ethel Diprose, Jeannie G. Galletly, Jessie M. Galletly, Margaret I. Gill, Louise Harris, Carrie LaPlant, Hattie Moore, Minnie Murdock, Annie Murray, Mary Reynolds, Lenora Carter Creed Richards, Mrs. Rouin, Dellie C. Sullins, R. Turner, Miss Wylie.

Children (4):

Verna LaPlant. Leonard Sullins, Lewis Sullins, Violet Sullins.

Crew members (9):

Robert Currie, Alexander Harvey, George Hudson, Joseph Jewell, R. Lindholm, Edward Lockwood, Charles Manson, Harvey Sears, James J. Smith.

List of Clallam Disaster Survivors: (36)

Men (14):

Hall D. Baney, Charles G. Bennett, Samuel E. Bolton, R. Case, Lester W. David, John Davis, E. E. Farris, Isaac Hewett, William King, H. William LaPlant, Peter Larsen, Thomas Morris, Thomas L. Sullins, John Sweeney.

Crew Members (22):

J. Anderson,. M. Arnold, John Atkins, James Caldwell, A. Davis, Scott A. DeLaunay, George W. Doney, Frank G. Freer, Richard S. Griffith, J. Jefferies, Harold Johnson, W. Jones, Archibald King, Ching Ling, Toy Look, Patrick Matlock Allan P. McKeon, Louis Meyer, Edward Parker, Capt. George Roberts, J. R. Watson, Chan Wing.

The wreck of the Clallam remains the greatest maritime disaster involving a Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet steamer ever recorded.


Herbert Hunt, Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders (Chicago: S. J. Clark Publishing Co., 1916); The H. W. McCurdy Maritime History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by Gordon R. Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1966); Gordon R. Newell, Ships of the Inland Sea (Portland, Oregon: Binfords and Mort, 1951); Gordon R. Newell, Pacific Steamboats (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1958); “Adrift in the Strait,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 9, 1904, p. 1; “Fifty Four Drown in Wreck of the Clallam,” Ibid., January 10, 1904, p. 1; “Capt. Roberts’ Narrative of What Occurred,” Ibid., January 10, 1904, p. 12; “Five Corpses From the Wreck,” Ibid., January 10, 1904, p. 12; “Searching for Bodies of Victims,” Ibid., January 11, 1904, p. 1; “Sea Holds Its Dead,” Ibid., January 12, 1904, p. 1; “Capt. Bermingham Forces Inquiry,” Ibid., January 13, 1904, p. 1; “Both Men Punished,” Ibid., February 14, 1904, p. 1; “Roberts Accused of Manslaughter,” Ibid., February 20, 1904, p. 8; “Steamers,” The Seattle Times, January 8, 1904, p. 14; “Blame Is Placed On The Chief Engineer,” Ibid., February 14, 1904, p. 1; Ross Cunningham, “Women, Children 'Drowned Before Our Eyes,' ” Ibid, November 14, 1977, p. A12; “Clallam Founder: Fifty Six Lives Lost as Result of Friday’s Storm,” Port Townsend Morning Leader, January 10, 1904, p. 1; “Much Gossip About Clallam Disaster,” Ibid., January 12, 1904, p. 1; “Evidence in Clallam Still Continues,” Ibid., January 29, 1904, p. 1; “Captain Roberts Was Sorry He Launched Boats,” Ibid., January 31, 1904, p. 1; “Effort to Raise Clallam Talked,” Ibid., January 31, 1904, p. 1; “Clallam Helpless in Straits,” Victoria Daily Colonist, January 9, 1904, p. 1; “Fifty Six Find Watery Graves,” Ibid., January 10, 1904, p. 1; “Captain Roberts Story of the Wreck,”Ibid., January 10, 1904, p. 3; “Superstitious Tales,” Ibid., January 12, 1904, p. 8; “From Every Direction,” Ibid., January 13, 1904, p. 1; “Saved Upper Works,” Ibid., January 13, 1904, p. 1; “Clallam’s Inspection,” Ibid., January 15, 1904, p. 1; “DeLaunay’s Version,” Ibid., January 30, 1904, p. 1; “The Clallam Investigation: Evidence of Chief Officer of Ill-Fated Steamer Taken Yesterday,” Ibid., February 13, 1904, p. 3; “Seattle Inquiry Into Clallam Wreck,” Ibid., February 16, 1904, p. 8; “Sea Gives Up More Dead,” Ibid, January 17, 1904, p. 1; “More Bodies Found from Sea,” Ibid, January 19, 1904, p. 1; “Seattle Is Far From Satisfied,” Ibid, February 17, 1904, p. 8; “Verdict of Jury Is Manslaughter,” Ibid, February 20, 1904, p. 8; “Wreckage Sold,” Ibid, March 16, 1904, p. 5; “Freed of Claims,” Ibid, August 11, 1904, p. 5; “Clallam Disaster; Decision of Inspectors Is Sustained Closing Case,” Ibid, September 22, 1904, p. 8; “The Clallam Disaster,” British Columbia GenWeb website accessed November 2004 (
Note: This essay was revised on September 11, 2013, to give the correct full name of Lenora Carter Creed Richards provided by her great grandson.

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