Cockiness, incompetence and a labor strike led to shipwreck
Passengers on the speeding liner said an incompetent crew and disappearing ship's officers contributed to a shocking death toll after the liner Alaska crashed onto the rocks in the fog; the captain blamed an “uncharted current.”
By Finn J.D. John — December 6, 2015
Back in the 1920s, labor action on the waterfront was a notoriously violent thing. Strikers and strikebreakers, goon squads and “Special Policemen,” hard-punching union longshoremen and hard-charging shipping magnates, all made for plenty of black eyes, bloody noses and even whizzing bullets when the two sides locked horns on the decks and wharfs.
By those standards, the International Seamen’s Union strike of 1921 was a mild affair. It kicked off on May 1 and barely lasted two months. In retrospect, the union was crazy for picking that particular time to strike. The market was flooded with unemployed seamen laid off after the First World War, and there was a recession on, so many of them were desperate for work. Breaking the strike was easy: The owners simply opened a new non-union hiring hall, staffed all the vacant positions, and were back up and running in a week or two. After that, the union was broken, and it was simply a matter of waiting for them to give up and admit defeat.
The strike may have generated a few fistfights, but no strikers or strikebreakers were killed or even badly hurt.
But if you asked certain people in early August, a few weeks after the strike was settled, they’d tell you there were people killed as a result of it. There were, they’d assure you, at least 42 of them, drowned or burned or blown apart as a direct result of that strike — although they’d admit they couldn’t prove anything.
You see, when the strike broke out, the companies had hired whoever was available for open positions as strikebreakers. These strikebreakers were rewarded by being kept on in their positions after the union was broken — as seemed only fair; after all, no union would hire them after they’d been “scabs.”
But all of them were rookies; many may have been crew members on ships during the war, but all were brand-new to the ships they were on now, and there were no seasoned veterans to help them get acclimated. Some of them had served on sailing ships during the war and didn’t know their way around a steamer. Others had been longshoremen or coal-heavers and were now trying to learn more complex jobs. And still others of them were just not very competent at anything, and would never have been considered for their jobs had the companies not been desperate to break the strike. Together they made for ship crews that were barely adequate at the best of times — and worse than inadequate at the worst.
The evidence for this viewpoint is circumstantial, but pretty strong nonetheless. And it has a name: The S.S. Alaska.
The Alaska was a 3,700-ton iron passenger liner, 327 feet long, built in 1889 in Pennsylvania. She had been reliably making the Portland-San Francisco-Los Angeles run for about a decade for the San Francisco and Portland Steamship Company. But, until the strike, she had always been operated by a competent crew of veteran seamen.
On her final run, the Alaska left Portland on Aug. 5, 1921, just a week or two after the strike was settled. According to passenger Edgar Horner, it became clear pretty early on that her crew was green as grass.
“It seemed to me at the time that they had a lot of inexperienced men aboard, young kids who couldn’t handle the ropes, etc., and they had a difficult time trying to dock the ship at Astoria to take on more passengers and freight,” Horner wrote in a long letter to his family a week or so later. “When they cast loose to leave, they tore away several feet of the bulwarks on the forward part of the portside boat deck, and the ship swung in on the stern and struck the dock, tearing off some planking and piles.”
It wasn’t exactly a good omen for the voyage. But Horner thought little of it at the time.
He recalled it vividly about 24 hours later, though, when — while charging blindly along through a thick fog at her maximum speed of 15 knots — the Alaska abruptly slammed into one of the rocks that extend out from Cape Mendocino in northern California.
When this happened, Horner was in the social hall on the main deck. “I could feel the plates being ripped off the bottom,” he wrote. “It left no question in my mind what was the matter.”
Immediately the steward raced out of the room, leaving the passengers there in shocked confusion.
Horner and other male passengers then ran out onto the already-tilting deck to help the youthful, bumbling crew members struggling with the obviously unfamiliar mechanisms of the lifeboats. By the time they were ready to launch them, the ship was listing hard, and the boats were dangling way out from the sides of the ship as they were lowered away. Two of them capsized when they hit the water, spilling the passengers into the sea.
Horner worked to get as many others off the boat as he could in the half-hour it took for the ship to fill and sink. When the water hit the boiler, he was startled by a massive explosion; the greenhorn engineering crew had neglected to release the boiler pressure, and the thermal shock of the icy seawater on the superheated boiler had caused it to rupture, killing several people outright and hurling others into the sea.
The ship soon sank out from beneath Horner’s feet, and he spent the entire night shivering in the water, clinging to wreckage. Every few minutes he’d hear a foghorn ring out from the lightship whose warnings the Alaska’s officers had apparently ignored as they charged along, supremely confident that they were safely three miles off shore.
The next day, the Portland Morning Oregonian carried a front-page account of the wreck. Reporters followed their usual routine in reporting such stories, looking for the inspiring tales of heroism to balance out the tragedy and interviewing the ship’s officers to learn what happened. Second Officer E.D. Dupree must have raised more than one old salt’s eyebrows when he blamed the wreck on an “uncharted current” which had supposedly drifted the ship three miles farther shoreward than had been thought, and when the first officer praised the engineering crew for keeping steam up so that the lights could stay on all the way up until the time the ship went down — apparently unaware of the connection between that extra convenience and the evening’s deadly steam explosion — their jaws must have dropped. The newspaper also had a word or two of praise for Captain Harry Hobey’s “heroic direction of the life-saving,” noting that he went down with the ship in grand old maritime style. (It later transpired that he was killed when the funnel fell over on him, probably as a result of the steam explosion.)
But a day or two later, the story was already starting to wear a little thin. Passengers, now recovered from their ordeal, were telling of the panicky inexperience shown by the crew, most of whom had obviously never done a lifeboat drill in their short young lives; the rough, rusty and leaky condition of the lifeboats themselves; and the total lack of coordination or management by the ship’s officers.
Horner wrote, with considerable bitterness, that he never saw a single ship’s officer on the deck where the lifeboats were being launched; everything was left to enterprising passengers and the overwhelmed, demoralized crew. He helped launch boat after boat until the ship sank beneath his feet, but he never even saw one of the ship’s officers until he was taken aboard the rescue boat, after about eight hours of shivering in the sea. When he did see them, it was clear from the pristine condition of their clothes and uniforms that they hadn’t been doing much hard work that night.
“You wouldn’t believe it, but all the officers of the Alaska were in the same condition, didn’t even get their shoes wet,” he wrote. “How do you suppose they did it? They testified in S.F. that they didn’t leave the sinking vessel until all passengers were off … so you draw your own conclusions.”
The federal inspectors, after hearing all the testimony, drew their own conclusions as well, finding all three ship’s officers negligent a few days later; however, all were cleared of all charges at their formal hearing the following month.
(Sources: Allen, Cain. “Edgar Horner and the Wreck of the Alaska,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2001; Portland Morning Oregonian, Aug. 8, 9, 11, 12 and 19, 1921; www.wrecksite.eu)