|The Aleutian Shipwreck Project
In 2002 I did something that just about every serious shipwreck diver
has imagined doing: I discovered a deep, intact, untouched passenger liner
shipwreck. The Alaska Steamship Company vessel Aleutian struck a pinnacle
rock and sank off the coast of Kodiak Island, Alaska early on a May morning
in 1929. The alternating thrills and heartbreaks that have followed my
discovery have taken me on a financial and emotional roller-coaster that
I wouldn't wish on anyone. Even though I've lost the Aleutian as a physical
object, no one can take away what the discovery has meant to me and in
that sense, I still think of it as "my shipwreck."
Like the man said, "Good luck with that!"
The liner Aleutian was built in Philadelphia in 1898 as the Havana. Three hundred seventy-five feet long with a 50-foot beam, the iron-hulled vessel was operated by the New York and Cuba Steamship Company until 1905. In August of that year, the ship was sold and renamed Panama. For nearly 22 years the 5,708-ton ship steamed the Atlantic route between New York and Panama.
In February 1927 the Panama was purchased by the Alaska Steamship Company
and moved to Pacific service. Renamed Aleutian after the string of volcanic
islands that make up Alaska’s southwest coastline, the vessel received
an extensive remodel in Seattle before entering the company’s Alaska
trade with regular freight, passenger and mail service between Seattle
and points northward.
Without warning, a tremendous shudder reverberated from the ship’s hull far beneath the waterline. The Aleutian had struck a submerged pinnacle of rock lying unseen just beneath the icy water.
“I stopped the engines and then put her full ahead to beach her,”
Captain Gus Nord later testified. “She was sinking so fast that
they told me from the engine room they could do nothing on account of
the water coming… The vessel was sinking bow first with a heavy
Just seven short minutes after the collision, the Aleutian disappeared beneath the gentle swells of Uyak Bay, a sheen of fuel oil and a mass of floating debris all that remained to mark her grave. An editorial printed the day after the wreck reads, “It seems to have been a case of too large a ship for too small a bay.” The great ship, valued at $1 million in pre-Depression American dollars, would lie hidden and forgotten for more than 73 years.
In 1998 Anchorage-based author and shipwreck historian Steve Lloyd resurrected the story of the lost Aleutian while researching another Kodiak shipwreck story, the Farallon wreck of 1910. Lloyd visited the National Archives in Seattle and obtained a copy of the transcript for the Marine Board of Inquiry hearing that had been conducted after the Aleutian sank in 1929. He learned that the steamer was reported to have sunk in very deep water—perhaps 300 feet or greater—and that salvage had never been attempted.
A chart of Uyak Bay shows depths approaching 400 feet near the reported
site of the sinking, a depth Lloyd knew would place the wreck effectively
out of reach, even for experienced deep-wreck technical divers. From testimony
given 70 years earlier by the Aleutian’s captain, pilot and first
mate, Lloyd reconstructed the bearing, course and speed of the ship in
the moments before she impacted the hidden pinnacle of rock.
Every member of the search group was filled with excitement, but the
discovery could not be confirmed until a diver had descended for a visual
inspection of the target. Steve Lloyd donned scuba equipment and followed
the dive boat's anchor line down into the icy darkness of Uyak Bay. There
on the bottom, with her masts still standing as if reaching for the light
she would never again see, lay the proud steamship Aleutian. On August
14, 2002, Lloyd became the first person to visit the resting liner since
that morning 73 years before when she plunged into the depths.
Frozen in Time
The sunken Aleutian rests upright on the bottom in 220 feet of water. Depending on the state of tide, the top of the ship’s superstructure rises to within 165 feet of the surface, and the tops of her twin masts are covered to a depth of 110 feet. Significant portions of superstructure—including the bridge, social hall, smoking room, and first class staterooms—are collapsed in a confusing tangle of debris. The lifeboat davits sit empty, the capstans and other deck equipment silent. Giant ling cod and black rockfish guard the staterooms and crew quarters.
Everyday artifacts of shipboard life lie everywhere: portholes, door
hardware, light fixtures, and china emblazoned with the Alaska Steamship
Company logo. White porcelain sinks from the Aleutian’s staterooms
reflect white under the glow of a diver’s powerful light. Iron deck
beams and rusting cargo hatch coamings drop away into the inky blackness
of unexplored passages. Ghostly white metridium sea anemones blanket the
masts, bow and stern of the ship where the powerful tidal currents of
Uyak Bay sweep nutrient-rich water in an endless cycle of influx and outflow.
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Copyright © Steve K. Lloyd - All Rights Reserved