David H Grover
Sea Classics

Mar 31, 2008 20:00 EDT

Conventional wisdom seems to hold that many of the fron ships which at the beginning of the 20th Century plied the waters of the Northwest Coast of the United States, including those that ventured into the dangerous waters of Alaska, were structurally unsound, and as such were particularly vulnerable to serious accidents.

A classic version of this opinion appeared in the Seattle Times for 23 July 1907. Bylined New York City and attributed to a Capt. William Norton who was identified as a mariner who spent many years on West Coast ships, it read, in part:

"The passenger ships of the Pacific Coast are with few exceptions so rotten that the least accident crushes them ' like eggshells and sends them to the bottom. The vessels used on this coast are the cast-offs from the East Coast, where they have been practically worn out and are sold for a song to the Pacific shipping companies."

The tirade concluded, "Most of the passenger ships on this coast are so old that one can throw a rivet hammer through them."

Those who have tried to write Pacific Northwest maritime history might initially be tempted to agree. Age and rust and obsolescence do seem to have played a major role in the demise of many, indeed most, of the ships whose final hours have been researched by these historians. But, perhaps in being influenced by the indictment made by the critics of those ships, the historians have not thoroughly examined the numerous exceptions that tend to invalidate the generalization. Indeed, one of these exceptions was so stunningly resilient and long-lived as to raise serious questions about the wisdom of the critics in trying to discredit these ships.

Those critics, including Capt. Norton quoted above, have generally singled out one shipyard for producing the bulk of the ships in question: The John Roach yard at Chester, Pennsylvania. That yard did produce most of these Northwestern ships, to be sure, but other Delaware River yards such as Cramps, Neafie & Levy, and Harlan & Hollingsworth produced the same type of ship as did Roach, albeit in much smaller numbers.

Before considering the vessel that spoke most eloquently for the old much-traveled Roach ships, we need to establish the kind of vessel we are we talking about. Virtually all the ships built at the Delaware River yards during this period had a distinctive look. They were transitional ships in every sense of the word; their hulls were generally constructed of iron which served as a transition between the wooden hulls of the centuries-old past and the steel hulls of the future which were beginning to appear on the West Coast. Many of the ships built in the 1870s still had provisions for sail, sometimes schooner-rigged but often brigantine-rigged with the forward mast carrying square sails and an after mast utilizing a fore-and-aft sail.

Apparently this deference to sail influenced the hull design of this generation of ships because most of them were flushdeckers, built with only a one-level deckhouse on the main deck. These height limitations may have been imposed originally in order to keep any sails from becoming fouled in the superstructure of the vessel. However, stacks were not included in this lower-is-better approach, and were often conspicuously high to improve the draft of the coal-fed fires under the boilers that drove the reciprocating engines.

Wheelhouses were commonly placed on the main deck itself, sometimes separated into a free-standing structure, or in other designs a few feet higher than the main deck. Deck houses were generally made of wood, and were often re-configured during the life of the ship resulting in a different profile at various times in the vessel's history. On smaller ships, a long foredeck devoted to cargo space reduced the size of the deckhouse, but on the larger vessels of this era the foredecks were short, and the cargo hatches were crammed between units of the deckhouse. Sideports were in common use because of the limited space available for hatches.

This arrangement produced a long sleek look to the hull, but it also meant that the watch-standing personnel were denied the greater visibility which could be provided by a higher bridge structure of the type which developed later. That, in itself, may have contributed to the vulnerability of some of these ships.

Most of the coastal passenger liners built at the Delaware River yards were of this long sleek design, and were a distinct contrast to the ships produced in other East Coast yards. The ships of these other yards were more in the night-boat tradition; they were designed for bays and sounds, although they were sturdy enough for ocean voyages of several hundred miles. They had a different profile, somewhat higher with several decks extending all the way to the stern. A few of these vessels reached the Pacific Northwest, but far more common was the Roach-type ship.

If there was ever a ship that personified the ships of the northwest coast, as well as the Roach design, it was the George W. Elder. She was the original "been there, done that" vessel. Built in 1874, she had first carried a brigantine rig while sailing as a nightboat for the Old Dominion Steamship Company between New York and Chesapeake Bay. Her rated capacity of first-class passengers listed at 149 seemed to belie her seemingly modest size. She was 250-ft long, 38-ft in beam, and measured out at 1709-gross tons. She drew 16-ft of water which permitted her to visit a wide variety of small ports. She had a triple-expansion steam engine rated at an initial horsepower which was listed variously at 900 or 1000.

After she came west around Cape Horn in 1876 she worked for only a few owners but for a succession of charterers, reflecting to her growing reputation.

With 126 aboard as passengers and crew, the ship departed Seattle on 31 May 1899. Over the next two months, she steamed almost 9000-mi up the coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, across to the Aleutians and out the island chain, and finally to the coast of Russia. Although the brevity of the visits was uncharacteristic of a scientific expedition, the interdisciplinary nature of the research conducted was in the tradition of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and did much to rekindle interest in the inter-relationship of the various disciplines of science.

When this glamorous experience ended, life went on for the George W. Elder. In the fall of 1899 she was chartered briefly by the Army for service as a troopship to the Philippines, with Goodall, Perkins, & Company listed as her owners. This contractual arrangement was a bit odd since the latter firm was the agent for Pacific Coast Steamship, and not a shipowner itself. In any case, the charter lasted only from September to November, probably representing just a single voyage, but it was enough to provide an additional cachet to her growing resum as a ship of many talents.

The ownership of the George W. Elder during the first few years of the new century is a matter of some disagreement.

Apparently, she was still owned by Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, and her charter to Pacific Coast Steamship remained in force. But in 1904, E.H. Harriman rearranged his holdings and created the San Francisco and Portland Steamship Company to operate his ships, and the Elder began sailing under that house flag.

During this time, she continued to add to her reputation as a safe - or lucky - vessel that stayed out of trouble. However, her luck deserted her momentarily early in 1905 when, at age 31, while outbound on the Columbia River, she struck a rock and sank in 16-ft of water. Her salvage proved to be a difficult job, and ultimately she was abandoned to the underwriters. At auction, she was acquired by Capt. J.H. Peterson who, a year and a half later after she had been rehabilitated in Portland, apparently sold her to a new owner, the North Pacific Steamship Company.

In 1907, she had an ironic reunion with a figure from her past, when she rescued a number of survivors of her former running mate, the Columbia of Pacific Coast Steamship, which sank in a collision with a steam schooner on the Northern California Coast. The captain of the Columbia, who was lost in her sinking, was P.A. Doran who had been the popular master of the Elder on the Harrison Expedition.

The newspaper outcry over the fragility of passenger vessels on the West Coast had been loudest immediately after the loss of the Columbia. This ship was, as one might expect, a product of the Roach yard in 1880. It was easy to blame Roach for her loss; the shipyard had gone bankrupt in 1887, and had not produced a ship since then, giving an additional aura of obsolescence to the remaining ships that had been built there.

If her 1899 expedition days and her rescue work in 1899 and 1907 marked the zenith of her career, then the Elder's 1916 activities must be considered the nadir, eclipsing even her sinking. For a decade, she had been working for North Pacific Steamship which was evolving into a niche company concentrating on the smaller West Coast ports. By 1915, this company was in bad shape financially, due largely to the loss of its Santa Clara on the Coos Bay bar the previous year. Consequently, the company management was seriously considering shutting down.

A lucrative charter opportunity came along, however, so the company put its two remaining ships, the Roanoke and the George W. Elder into the service of an outfit called the California South Seas Navigation Company, operating to Central and South America. The Roanoke was remarkably similar to the Elder, she had been built at the Roach yard, had been a nightboat for the Old Dominion Line, and had spent a number of years in Alaskan service. Under this new charter, no passengers were carried by the two ships, which was fortunate since operating procedures became careless to the point of being dangerous. On her second voyage, the over-loaded Roanoke capsized and sank off the California Coast with only three survivors. While the Elder's luck held, her prestige and that of the company suffered during this unfortunate period.

Wartime demand for shipping kept the George W. Elder busy, and North Pacific Steamship reasonably solvent. Another charter was worked out, this time with the Pacific Mail Line which had been acquired by the highly respectable Grace Line. For the balance of WWI, the Elder filled in as a sort of a supernumerary in a four-ship feeder service to Central American and Mexican ports. When the war ended, the ship was sold abroad at the age of 44, not as scrap but as an operating vessel.

Her new and final owners, Artigas Riolrio Cia of Valparaiso, Chile, renamed her America, and put her into service along the 2700-mi-long coast of that country. It was a fitting name for a ship that had visited literally scores of the smaller ports of North and South America, from the Arctic Circle to the tip of Cape Horn. She served that company until 1935, at which time at age 61, she was finally retired after compiling a record for length and diversity of service that would be difficult to challenge. Some sources say she was then scrapped in Japan; others say she was dismantled in Valparaiso.

Not only did the George W. Elder disprove the allegations of the rivet hammer critics, but she showed the world that the lack of fancy credentials was no more of a barrier to a long and successful career for a ship than it was for a shipmaster.

© 2008 Challenge Publications Inc. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Source: Sea Classics


Related Stories