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Fire on the Yukon:
The Wreck of the Columbian
© By Sam Holloway


The Columbian

Little Phil Murray, the deckboy, loved guns. Whenever the sternwheeler Columbian stopped to take on cargo or firewood, little Phil would sneak away to shoot at squirrels, rabbits, anything that moved.

On September 25, l906, as the steamer made its first voyage of the season between Whitehorse and Dawson, Phil was entranced by the flocks of geese and ducks that settled onto the river surface for the night. Against orders, he took out his repeating rifle and slipped in a cartridge. Standing beside him on the bow of the ship was another gun lover: Morgan, the fireman.

"Let me take a shot, Phil," he said.

Morgan grasped the rifle and took a step forward. His foot caught on a gangplank and he fell, right up against a stack of blasting powder. The gun went off.

Altogether, three tons of powder stacked in iron kegs covered the front cargo deck of the Columbian.

The sternwheeler, which belonged to White Pass, had no passengers this trip because of the dangerous cargo—except for one: a stowaway named Wynstanley. He had sneaked aboard with 25 cattle, pretending to be their caretaker. He was to be thrown off at Tantalus.

Captain J.O. WilliamsUp in the wheelhouse, the skipper, J. O. Williams, contemplated the next stop at the Tantalus Coal Mine (near Carmacks) where he would get rid of the explosives. In appearance, Captain Williams was very ordinary: slim build, medium height, with a slightly oversized moustache. The captain of a ship, whether it floats on a river or on the rolling ocean, plays the part of a minor god. Nothing happens without his orders or plan. Along with this authority goes the ultimate responsibility. He is to blame for the mistakes of his crew. He is in charge of all disasters.

Without warning, a great blast of heat and flame blew in the windows of the wheelhouse and knocked Captain Williams backward onto the floor. Quickly, though singed and covered with broken glass, he sprang to his feet and tried to steer the boat ashore. Nothing worked—the steering gear, the voice tube to the engine room, the engine signal—all were dead in his hands.

And so the Columbian, 147 feet long, 33 feet wide, capable of carrying 175 passengers plus freight, sped downstream in the evening twilight with every deck ablaze. All around her debris from the shattered power kegs splashed onto the surface of the river. Captain Williams kicked the wheelhouse door open. Out on the "Texas" deck he met the pilot who had climbed up from the galley (dining room) to be at his fire station. Down below, members of the crew of 25 fought the blaze at their fire stations while others tried to free the lifeboats. The lifeboats were already afire and the canvas fire hoses burned and burst in the hands of the crew. The ship's engines hadn't missed a beat and kept her steaming full speed ahead. The engineer, dashing about midst the smoke and fire, awaited orders from his captain.

The captain knew if he couldn't land his ship within a few minutes, all aboard would roast or else drown in the freezing waters of the Yukon. He grabbed a rope and slid down it to land amongst flames and smoke on the lower deck. Somewhere he heard the muffled screams of a man in terrible agony. He ran to the engine room and shouted for Mavis the engineer to stop the engines.

"Be ready to give her half-speed when I yell," said the captain.

Just downstream was a bend in the river. As they came into it, Captain Williams yelled and in a moment the bow of the boat crashed into the shore. The men still alive on the bow jumped ashore before the current swung the boat around.

"Full speed astern! Keep her there even if you tear the buckets out of her!" screamed the captain to the engineer.

The great paddlewheel clawed its way up onto the bank. The skipper and two deckhands grabbed a wire cable and jumped overboard with it. They floundered to shore in the chest-high water and fastened the cable to a tree. Then the captain rushed back to the ship to give his last order to the engineer.

"Shut her down and get yourself to hell out of there!"

Up on shore Captain Williams counted the survivors. Morgan, the man who had fired the fateful shot, and Welch, the mate, were the only ones who hadn't made it out. The captain started for the boat to look for them but some of his men held onto him. As they tussled on the bank, the texas deck caved in and crashed through the main deck, making further search useless.

All of the six crewmen who had been standing closest to the blasting powder were mortally damaged by the flames. Rather than a terrific explosion, the powder had created a firestorm which sent a blinding sheet of flame racing the full length of the ship. Luckily, most of the men stood out of the direct path of the flame.

Little Phil and Woods the deckhand had all of their clothing blown off them by the blast and their bodies horribly blackened. Coal trimmer Smith had stumbled into the engine room, on fire from head to foot. The engineer coated his body with cylinder oil and helped carry Smith ashore. Cowper the purser and Wynstanley the stowaway were the least injured of the group. Of the two men unaccounted for, no trace of Morgan was ever found, but Welch's body turned up the river two months later.

The captain looked around at his little group, at the men lying among the willows moaning from their terrible wounds. They had no blankets, food, medicine, boats, lanterns, nothing at all. He sent two men upstream to Little Salmon, nine miles away. They returned in the morning with a boat and a few supplies. The big job was to get to the telegraph station, 30 miles away at Tantalus.

For this task he picked Second Mate Smith and two others. They followed the riverbank on foot for a couple of miles and realized they were travelling too slow. Using belts and suspenders, they rigged a tiny raft upon which Smith floated downstream with most of the raft submerged and with his legs dangling in the icy water. He nearly made it to Tantalus but was overtaken by Captain Williams and Engineer Mavis riding in a canoe they had borrowed from a woodcutter.

They hauled Smith aboard and pushed on for Tantalus, arriving there shortly after midnight. They woke up the telegraph operator who immediately tapped out the terrible news over the line. They waited anxiously for a response—but none came.

All the operators were asleep, even at the metropolis of Dawson City. The first to receive the story and the call for help was the operator at Whitehorse but it was nine o'clock in the morning.

Having done all he could, Captain Williams decided to return to the Columbian with supplies and medicine in the middle of the night. The people from the coal mine made up three packs of 50 pounds each for the captain and his crew of two. The canoe would not carry them and their load upstream so they went overland through brush and muskeg and timber, there being no trail at all.

First, though, they tried to borrow a horse from the local Mounted Police constable. The Mountie said, "No way, not without orders from headquarters." Disgusted, they left him wishing they had just taken a horse (the Mountie had several) and asked later. The constable slammed the door and went back to his sleep.

Two miners accompanied them for five miles and then the sailors were on their own. They fought their way through thick brush, across small creeks, through dense bush full of deadfalls, staying close to the river so as not to lose their way in the semi-darkness. Ten hours after setting out they arrived at the wreck.

Coal trimmer Smith and Woods, the deckhand, had died during the night. Little Phil Murray, still a favourite among the crew in spite of being responsible for their plight, hung on though suffering terrible. His father, pilot on the Bonanza King, was on his way to see Phil, they told him, and he made no complaint except to ask, "Is my daddy here yet?"

But it was the sternwheeler Victorian that arrived first. Bound upstream with a barge, she received the news only that afternoon and had raced full speed to pick up the survivors. It was now 7.00 p. m., the day after the explosion. From Whitehorse another boat, the Dawson, was dispatched carrying a doctor and nurses.

When little Phil heard the chugging of the Victorian he brightened, expecting to see his father. After being carried aboard and realizing it was not his father's boat, he seemed to lose interest in living. His breaths came slower and slower and he died a few minutes later.

Meanwhile the Dawson was racing downstream under every pound of steam her boiler could carry. Her captain had not received the news until he and his ship arrived at Whitehorse at one o'clock that afternoon, September 26. With pilot George Raabe at the wheel, the Dawson ran the Thirty-mile River (the stretch of the Yukon between Lake Laberge and the Teslin River) at full speed and without a single "slow bell." No other steamboat made the run as fast as the Dawson did that day. At one o'clock the following morning, September 27, the Dawson met the Victorian and took the crew of the Columbian on board.

Purser Cowper died soon after arriving at Whitehorse. Of the seven men who had been standing close to the powder kegs, only Wynstanley, the stowaway, survived.

In the Whitehorse Cemetery, a monument was erected bearing the names of the men who died.

It was said that great packs of wolves came along to fight over and devour the dead cattle from the Columbian, and that folks salvaged supplies for months afterward.

The Columbian wreckage

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