Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

 
 

Gold at Mud Bay? Shipwreck book divides historians

 


A recent book about a Gold Rush-era shipwreck at Eldred Rock speculates that as much as $17 million in gold stolen from it may lie near the shore of Chilkoot Inlet, between Mud Bay and Seduction Point.

“While the boxes may have long since rotted away, the gold is most likely still there, all 11,000 Troy ounces of it, waiting for some lucky skin diver to stumble upon it,” Anchorage historian Steven C. Levi wrote in “The Clara Nevada: Gold, Greed, Murder and Alaska’s Inside Passage.”

The 100-page book was published in June by The History Press. In it, Levi theorizes that the Clara Nevada’s captain and fireman conspired to wreck the vessel, and that they escaped a watery grave by launching a skiff well before the ship went down in a storm on Feb. 5, 1898.

Levi further speculates the 900-pound load of booty swamped their skiff in rough seas, but that the pair made it to shore, as evidenced by records of their activities in later census reports and other documents.

That neither of the two became wealthy in the wake of the wreck suggests the stolen gold was not retrieved, Levi wrote.

Levi describes his theory as “an amalgam of circumstantial evidence,” “a reasonable scenario of events, backed by source material to support my speculation.”

The 151-foot steam and sailing ship sank in about 25 feet of water after a fire and explosion, killing an estimated 60 people. The wreck today is a popular dive site, but no gold has ever been reported found in the area.

Levi’s book has met with both skepticism and support. Its theory contrasts with press accounts at the time that everyone aboard died, but appears consistent with the personal histories of captain C.H. Lewis and fireman Paddy MacDonald, whose names appear in historical records after the wreck.

Pam Randles, a Haines amateur historian who has researched the saga of the Clara Nevada in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, Seattle and Baltimore, Md ., said Levi’s theory is plausible.

“I agree with him. I do. But it’s all serious circumstantial evidence. It’s all deduction from what little is known, and there’s little known in terms of factual stuff. But I think that same thing,” Randles said this week.

But Dr. John Jensen, an oceanographer and marine historian who has dived on the wreck, described Levi’s book in a published review last fall as “an attempt at a ‘who done it’ of a robbery for gold that probably did not exist, and for murders that almost surely never occurred.”

Jensen, who has also written about the Clara Nevada, attributes its wreck to poor maintenance by a woefully incompetent crew. Problems with the vessel’s design and workmanship predate its 1871 launching, he wrote in “The Twin Faces of the Clara Nevada.”

“Levi dutifully recounts the range of published rumors. At virtually every juncture he embraces the one, no matter how unsupported or unlikely, that fits his conspiracy scenario,” Jensen wrote in the fall edition of “Alaska History,” a publication of the Alaska Historical Society.

Jensen zeroes in on the unlikelihood of anyone escaping a ship in Lynn Canal during a February storm with winds reported up to 90 mph. “(Levi) demonstrates serious unfamiliarity with the realities of navigating a ship or small boat in the midst of an angry winter storm … and no serious explanation of how anyone would have expected to survive a winter wrecking … (at) one of the most exposed and inhospitable places in Lynn Canal.”

Author Levi this week said he’s “half willing to agree” with Jensen that no one could have survived in a small boat in such conditions, but the census and other records say otherwise. “All I can do is go by the documents I found,” he said. “I think they were the luckiest guys in the world to be able to live through that.”

Levi acknowledges in his book that his research material included newspaper accounts that did not cite sources for information they published. The value of gold on board, for example, was reported by various sources as between $90,000 and $300,000, and Levi himself describes “the thought of gold being on board” as “intriguing” and “unusual.”

Most Klondike gold went south on the Yukon River, not through Skagway, and institutional owners like banks would have used established shipping lines, not a tramp steamer like Clara Nevada, he wrote.

Levi reported that for two years he “checked archive holdings, government reports, diaries, personal correspondence, business records and court files and sent letters to genealogical societies and maritime museums” researching the book.

Randles said on some matters involving the wreck, printed records are contradictory. “You can’t find anything but newspapers, and a lot of that was word of mouth. It’s like a game of telephone. You hear something in Skagway and it becomes something else in Vancouver… You’re piecing together a bunch of soft evidence and trying to make judgment calls about how true each thing is.”

But other questions, like the survival of MacDonald and Lewis – as well as two stowaways – she feels more confident about.

“I traced all four of them after the wreck and found paper trails for all four of them. I know there were survivors,” Randles said.

A question Levi doesn’t answer is why there’s no record of C.H. Lewis – who apparently stayed in Alaska, and remained a prominent ship captain – being questioned about the Clara Nevada, after the press reported there were no survivors. “That’s the elephant in the room,” Randles said. Levi said this week he’s also puzzled there’s no record of Lewis being held accountable.

Randles said the relative absence of news sources in the era may help explain how survivors escaped scrutiny. Records show two of the stowaways found work at the nearby Comet mine, then returned to Indiana after the gold rush, she said.

“People would talk and stuff, and there were newspapers in Juneau and Skagway but there weren’t any local newspapers at Haines or at Comet mine. It was pretty easy for pieces to get lost,” she said. “There was never a thorough investigation and the only hearing on (the wreck) was in Seattle.”

Jensen said in an interview this week that it’s obvious why the matter is shrouded in mystery.

“It’s a very speculative thing. There were no primary resources available to tell what would have or wouldn’t have been. People were aware of that at the time (of the wreck),” Jensen said.

“If there was gold, there’s no record of it ever being discovered. There could have been. If it’s still there, it could be anywhere in a large area,” Jensen said.