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.
On the morning of May 26, 1929 the ALEUTIAN
was carrying mail, 115 tons of freight, five passengers and
111 crew members as she steamed a course south into Uyak Bay.
Sea conditions were calm and visibility was good. The ALEUTIAN
was making 14 knots and drafting 21 feet.
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 port list.”
Mortally injured, the enormous ocean liner
settled lower as thousands of tons of seawater rushed through
the gash in her hull. The captain gave the order to abandon
ship and lifeboats were hastily lowered. Most of the passengers,
officers and crew made it off the stricken ALEUTIAN in lifeboats,
while others leapt into the water and were plucked out of
the swirling maelstrom.
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.