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S.S. Klondike National Historic Site of Canada

Sinking of the S.S. Klondike I

S.S. Klondike I
© David Wilson Collection #1 / Parks Canada

On June 12, 1936, the Master Pilot of the Yukon River's largest sternwheeler, the S.S. Klondike, went below for breakfast. His recently promoted second-in-command was left in charge of steering the boat down a stretch of river between Lake Laberge and the Teslin River.

“He was just coming around a point and he kept too far out. And there was a big rock bluff down this side and of course these boats, when you come around this sharp point, they're…sitting on top off the water, maybe three, three and a half feet, and they slide. And he didn't allow for that. Of course the boat came along and just crashed right into this rock bluff and it just tore the whole side out of her.”
Bromley Interview, as quoted in A Narrative History of the SS Klondike by Arnold Roos, 1981, Parks Canada.

After hitting the wall, the boat hit either a rock or reef that tore the steering loose. As the S.S. Klondike started to float aimlessly down the river, the crew attempted to get a line to shore to stop the downstream drift but the current was too strong.

Getting ashore

Realizing the ship was doomed to sink, some passengers and crew jumped ashore when the boat drifted close to the banks. Lifeboats were lowered but they too provided a wet journey to shore because the drainage plugs had not been inserted.

Crew and passengers of the wrecked S.S. Klondike wait on shore to be rescued
Crew and passengers of the wrecked S.S. Klondike wait on shore to be rescued
© John Dunn Collection #72 / Parks Canada

Once the S.S. Klondike came to a full stop, a workboat with a motor was used to ferry the remaining passengers to shore and to collect others from the far shore. It also retrieved the emergency telephone from the ship. Tapping into the telegraph line that ran along the river, the Purser let Whitehorse know about their plight.

While waiting for rescue, supplies from the S.S. Klondike were scavenged as only the freight deck was below water. Blankets, food and other personal effects were saved.

The losses

At the time it sank, the S.S. Klondike was carrying about 227 metric tonnes (250 tons) of cargo for communities and people along the river. While drifting freight from the wreck provided a bonus to people living downstream, many passengers lost everything. One newly married couple lost all of their possessions, including the furniture they were shipping downstream. Two geological survey teams lost all of their equipment.

Although there were no human deaths, two of the four horses on board did not survive.

The S.S. Klondike itself was also a write-off. A salvage crew was sent to retrieve the machinery, fittings and superstructure. Much of this was used to build the new S.S. Klondike II