The 650-ton passenger steamboat Clallam foundered in a storm in the Strait of Juan de Fuca while passing between Port Townsend, USA and Victoria, Canada on January 8, 1904. Of the ninety or more people on the Clallam, more than fifty died. Late in the afternoon within sight of Victoria’s rocky shores a living nightmare unfolded. Before dark the occupants of three lifeboats were delivered to their deaths. The remainder, all men, mostly crew, kept the vessel afloat for another nine hours. Some died in the frigid waters after it sank. The toll makes the Clallam disaster the worst in the maritime history of the Salish Sea.
Legends, falsehoods and silences have accumulated around the terrible event. My research assembles the reports of the survivors, both published in newspapers (as far away as London, but mainly in Seattle and Victoria) and testimony recovered from handwritten transcripts of the inquest, and will shape them into a single narrative. My sense is that no-one had to die that day. There was a perfect storm of negligence — unfixed broken rudder, unfixed broken deadlights, botched pumping operations, poor communications, especially between captain and crew, dismal lack of signalling devices, and — here I believe lies the crux of the matter — a string of bad decisions by the captain. The Puget Sound Navigation Company utterly neglected to provide for the safety of its passengers.
The wreck of the SS Clallam is principally a story about people. Coal miners rubbed shoulders with captains of industry that day. Families with little children were travelling in the post-New Year’s lull. Who were those people? Where did they come from, and where were they going? What happened to them? Who mourned their loss? Who remembers them? There is to my knowledge no memorial to the Clallam’s lost. This will be that remembrance. Every person with a name will be recovered from oblivion in as much detail as can be mustered from this distance.
The grave of Bruno Lehman, customs inspector on the SS Clallam, in Tacoma, Washington. The woman leaning on the gravestone was his mother Ernestine. His widow, Helen, is not in the photo. The young woman in mourning weeds was Lehman’s sister Fanny. Their brother Paul was the photographer; the woman at centre was likely Paul’s wife Marie. ¶ Photo, information and permission from Chris O’Connor III. ¶ I was able to convince Mr. O’Connor that Bruno, his great-grandmother Helen’s first husband, did not commit the cowardly deed attributed to him by every newspaper in the nation — jump from a railing on the hurricane deck into a lifeboat full of women and children. Research has established the identity of the passenger who likely did do that deed, as well as eyewitness testimony as to Lehman’s whereabouts during the launch of the lifeboats. He was first in line when duty called.
At the heart of the story is the captain. George Roberts’ history frames the Clallam narrative. His arrival on the Inland Sea in 1871 coincided with the dawn of steamboating’s golden age there. Roberts ascended to command in 1884: he was appointed captain of the sidewheel steamer George E. Starr. Over two decades he was was captain of the Olympian, City of Kingston, Willapa, Rosalie and other famous steamers. As master of the Alaska Steamship Company’s Willapa beginning in 1895 — and a director of both that company and its offshoot the Puget Sound Navigation Company — Roberts’ competitive rates to Alaska had much to do, it was said, with triggering the rush to the Klondike goldfields. His career was not without mishap. He ran two boats onto rocks on the Alaska run. One of them was ruined; no lives were lost. After the second shipwreck, possibly because of it, he went back to the Seattle-Victoria run. He knew the waters very well, or so it seemed.
SS Clallam, 1903, photographer unknown. The first boat built by the Puget Sound Navigation Company — built, as distinct from boats it acquired by merger or acquisition — the Clallam was its pride and joy. The steamer was loved by no-one more than its master, Captain George Roberts. Scanned from Ferryboats: A legend on Puget Sound by Mary Stiles Kline and George Albert Bayless (Seattle: Bayless Books, 1983, p. 66). Collection of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.
A Victoria coroner’s jury heard weeks of eyewitness testimony and found Roberts guilty of manslaughter of twenty-one persons whose bodies had been found and identified. “George Roberts, the master of said steamer Clallam,” the inquest found, “did feloniously and unlawfully kill and slay the said persons against the peace of Our Lord the King, his crown and dignity.” A warrant was issued; extradition was considered. Capt. Roberts never did answer to the charges; apparently never returned to Victoria, his home for twenty years; nor went to sea again. Roberts’ actions on January 8, 1904 deserve closer scrutiny than they received.