Whitehorse Daily Star

Historic shipwreck found in Lake Laberge

Doug Davidge has been searching for the A.J. Goddard since he came to the Yukon 20 years ago.

By Justine Davidson on November 24, 2009

Doug Davidge has been searching for the A.J. Goddard since he came to the Yukon 20 years ago.

This year, the amateur historian's work paid off, and he finally got to touch the 19th-century sternwheeler at its resting place at the bottom of Lake Laberge.

"It's pretty special to actually see the vessel,” Davidge said of his first dive down to the 50-foot sternwheeler last summer. "Just to be able to dive on it and actually touch it was pretty important to me.”

Davidge first heard of the A.J. Goddard from other diving enthusiasts. It was no secret that the vessel had gone down in Lake Laberge during a windstorm in the early 1900s, but no one was quite sure where the boat was.

The A.J. Goddard was brought to the Yukon by a Seattle entrepreneur of the same name. An engine designer by trade, Goddard saw the Gold Rush as a prime opportunity to start a Canadian freight-hauling business and ordered two steel-hulled sternwheelers.

Along with his wife, he accompanied the yet-to-be-named A.J. Goddard by boat from Seattle, and then hauled it over the Chilkoot Pass.

She was reassembled and put into the water at Bennett, B.C., and from there, the sternwheeler kept heading north.

She spent three years hauling people and freight between Whitehorse and Dawson City, and was the first sternwheeler to make it to the Klondike capital from the Chilkoot Pass.

In 1899, the same shipbuilder sent up the Goddard's twin, the F.H. Kilbourne.

That ship stayed in the Southern Lakes area, where she worked until 1901, at which point she was abandonned in front of King's Mill in Carcross. The Kilbourne was recognized last year with a street name in the proposed Whistlebend subdivision.

The twins were the first and third sternwheelers to make it through Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids intact, and the Goddard created the first steamboat link between the interior gold fields and the railway to the Pacific Coast.

It was at the end of her third season on the Yukon River that the intrepid vessel met her end.

Manned by five crew members, the A.J. Goddard was on Lake Laberge on Oct. 18, 1901 when a storm hit.

Waves and water put the boiler fire out and the boat lost power. Without any ability to steer the Goddard to safety, her crew could only hold on as waves and wind buffeted the broadside of the ship.

"It would have gone down very quickly,” Davidge said of the Goddard's final moments.

Three crew members died that day, Capt. Charles Cook, cook Fay Ransome and fireman John Thompson. Their bodies washed ashore the following spring and were buried at Lower Laberge by the Northwest Mounted Police.

Two other crew members survived by clinging to the wooden wheelhouse, which had snapped off the body of the ship during the storm.

Once the winds had died down, they were rescued by a local trapper who came out to the floating debris in a small skiff.

The story of the boat was first pieced together by a team of researchers, students who combed the Yukon Archives for information about any of the more than 35 sternwheelers believed to be sunk along the Thirty Mile section of the Yukon River.

Davidge credits Yukon College instructor Norm Easton with first compiling a historic resources inventory in the late 1980s with the help of the researchers which identified the Goddard and its general location, but it was not until the late 1990s that Davidge first found physical evidence of the Goddard about 12 metres underwater.

He knew the general vicinity of the wreck thanks to the naming of Goddard Point and Easton's work, and was using sonar to search for the wreck. A promising looking target was noted and Davidge moved on.

He didn't know it at the time but the blip he spotted was the lost ship.

Ten years later, this time with financial support from the Canadian Geographic Society and technical support from a team working on similar projects in B.C. Kootney Lakes, Davidge relocated that target.

In July 2008, he sent down a remote camera and got his first look at the sunken Goddard. Divers followed this past summer, this time with help from the National Geographic Society, and explored the ship more extensively during 28 dives.

The ships sank so fast and has been so well preserved in the frigid water, that many things remain as they must have been when living souls were still on board. Boots, a cook stove, and a crew member's carpet bag have all been spotted on deck, and there is still wood piled ready for the fire.

A canvas hose leading from a pump has led researchers to believe the crew was trying to save the boat from being washed under.

"It is a time capsule of all the goods and things these fellows had with them,” Davidge said of the find.

Davidge, who is also president of the Yukon Transportation Museum, said it is unlikely the Goddard will ever be brought back up.

Although the water of Lake Laberge prevents year-round or easy viewing of the boat, it also preserves it.

"To bring the tools and other artifacts out of the water would take a lot of concentration – work and money – to keep them in good condition,” Davidge said. He said he hopes the wreck will eventually be labelled an historic site so it will have added protection from scavengers.

"Tour boats could go over it and drop an underwater camera so people could view the vessel,” Davidge said of the wreck's potential

It will also make an excellent diving site, but added: "The problem being, if the wrong people go down and start digging around, they'll probably find something they want to keep .... Our whole effort now is to get it

protected in some form or another.”

Comments (6)

Up 0 Down 0

Kailey Irwin on Dec 2, 2009 at 11:56 pm

That's an even better idea David. Share it with the world via video would be a better way of preservation.

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Heather on Dec 1, 2009 at 7:43 am

It should be left, not moved.

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Kailey Irwin on Nov 30, 2009 at 6:38 am

That's an amazing find. I think it should be protected where it is and only supervised dive tours should be permitted to keep it in its current state. This could be another source for tourism in the Yukon.

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David Geier on Nov 30, 2009 at 3:02 am

Let it rest in peace, video can show everything we need to see, and it can be enjoyed by everyone via internet

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francias pillman on Nov 27, 2009 at 7:52 am

I say leave it where it is and respect the people who lost their lives on it, in my opinion that is.

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marg jackson on Nov 24, 2009 at 9:25 am

Wow, very interesting story. I hope they can bring it up and preserve it at the museum. Would be cool to find artifacts on the boat

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