Dora was a small but valiant steamship that delivered
freight, mail and passengers along the "westward" coast
of Alaska between 1880 and 1920. Early in her career, she
earned the nickname “The Big Little” because of her ability
to survive the Aleutian Chain and Bering Sea mega-storms just
as well as the larger ships. One newspaper described her
as a “tough little marine bulldog with more lives than a black
cat”, while another one joked, "The stalwart little steamer manages
to hit every rock between Seattle and Seward and never even slows
down"... but most of all, this historic steamer was famous for rescuing
hundreds of people during her 40 continuous years on Alaska waters.
Alaska State Library
The SS Dora was
designed by well known California ship builder, Captain Matthew Turner.
The streamline ship, with her graceful lines, had a 112' hull
and a 27' beam, all made of "Puget Sound Pine". Her gross tonnage was 320,
while her net tonnage was 217.
Built specifically for the Alaska Commercial Company, the
SS Dora was powered by a compound
steam engine manufactured by the William Deacon Iron Works
Company. It had an 11" high-pressure cylinder and a 20"
low-pressure cylinder, with a 20" stroke. Her fire tube
boiler, which was built by the William McAfee Company, was 9'
long and 7½' in diameter. It had 112, 2½" tubes inside
of it and used about 3,000 pounds of coal per day. The ships propeller
was 7½' in diameter with an average of 9' mean pitch.
Her forecastle was fitted with a patent steam windlass and capstan
and she was rigged as a two masted brigantine for alternate
Aboard the Dora, for her initial launch on 4/7/1880,
were 18 Alaska steamship veterans. They enjoyed an elegant
cold lunch and drinks in her tapestry adorned "saloon" as
she completed a flawless run from the shipyard in Benicia to
the Golden Gate Strait and back, reaching a respectable 8¼
The Dora's first assignment
in Alaska, was to transport seal skins from the Pribilof Islands
to San Francisco for the Alaska Commercial Company. She hauled
12,000+ seal skins in 1880, 15,000+ in 1881 and another 15,000+
in 1882. During those same years, she hauled thousands of barrels
of confiscated (pirated) seal skins to San Francisco for the U.S.
Government. The foul smelling cargo earned her the tongue-in-cheek
nickname, "Dirty Dora".
Long before Alaska had communication systems, ships
like the Dora were the fastest way to get news into
and out of coastal settlements. For example: in
June of 1886, she found the wreckage of the 80' sealing schooner
Lookout, on the east coast of Sanak Island (40 miles
from King Cove). In 1887, she reported that Bishop Charles J. Sehgers
had been murdered near Nulato by a crazed member of his own
missionary group (Frank Fuller). At the end of the 1890 whaling season,
Dora brought news that the 149' steam whaler Narwhal was
heading south with 548 barrels of whale oil, 42,600 pounds of whale
bone and 9,510 pounds of ivory. In 1896, Dora found the
wreckage of the Seventy Six on Kodiak Island, the 60' schooner
had been missing for 5 months. In 1913, she alerted authorities to
a measles epidemic that was spreading quickly throughout the coastal
villages (110+ cases at Afognak, 100+ cases at Kenai and 25+ cases
at Seldovia) and warned authorities that many deaths could be expected
if medical help wasn't sent to those locations immediately (a potential
repeat of the 1900 measles epidemic). If it weren't for ships
like the SS Dora, such fragments of history would never have
The shortest water route from the
North Pacific to the Bering Sea (for deep draft vessels)
is through one of three infamous, boat-eating passes located
off the westward end of the Alaska Peninsula. Many of the shipwrecks
mentioned in the following accounts, took place in or near
these passes, collectively known as the Fox Island Passes.
The first and "safest" of these three passes is Unimak
Pass which is located between Unimak Island and Ugamak Island. It
is the longest and widest of the three passes (10 miles wide at its
narrowest part). It has a relatively mild tidal current (4 mph)
and is comparatively free of tide rips and underwater obstacles,
although it does have constant heavy winds on the Bering Sea side of
The second pass is Akutan Pass, which
is between Akutan Island and Unalga Island. This pass is
generally used by ships heading to and from Unalaska Bay. Its
narrowest section is 3 miles wide and it has a stronger tidal current
(6½ mph) with many exposed rocks. Even in clear weather, heavy
winds create strong tide rips and rough seas on the Bering Sea side
of this pass.
The third pass is Unalga Pass, which is between Unalga
Island and Unalaska Island. Ships prefer this pass because
it allows them to stay on the milder Pacific Ocean side (as long
as possible) before crossing into the potentially deadly Bering Sea
waters. The problem with using Unalga Pass, which is considered the
most dangerous of the three passes, is that it is extremely narrow
(only 1 mile wide at its narrowest part) which intensifies the effects
of its strong tidal currents (9 mph) and tide rips on the Bering Sea
side of the pass.
The Dora transported a lot of gold in her day. One
small example was in 1895 when a colorful character named
Peter Wyborg bought passage to San Francisco aboard the
Dora. He was an old "Forty-Niner" who struck it
rich on Glacier Creek in the Fortymile District. Wyborg boarded
the Dora with $40,000 in gold (over a million
dollars in today's gold prices), plus another trunk holding
26 pounds of "extra gold just for incidental expenses"
he said. The Alaska Commercial Company charged Mr. Wyborg $1,000 to take
him and his gold from Juneau to San Francisco ($28,000+ by today's values).
Dora saved many lives over the years. In the fall of 1896,
a 50 ton Canadian sealing schooner called San
Jose, wrecked on the rocks (of Akun Island) near Unimak
Pass during a fierce storm. Dora rescued the crew
and their cargo of 600 seal skins.
In 1897, a 142' schooner called Hueneme,
was carrying 11 people and 600 tons of cargo
bound for St. Michael when she wrecked during a heavy
gale at Cape Khituk (Seal Cape) in Unimak Pass. The survivors
had no food or shelter, so the captain and three of
his crewmen tried to row to Unalaska, seeking help in heavy weather. After
three days at sea, the SS Dora found and rescued
In 1898, a paddle
steamer named Stikine Chief, left Fort Wrangell
with 43 people aboard and soon disappeared. Two weeks
later, the SS Dora found the wreckage of the missing
boat near Yakutat. From the condition of the debris, it was determined
that the Stikine Chief probably exploded, killing everyone aboard
except one dog which was found floating on a piece of wood and was rescued
by the Dora.
Horses being removed from the SS
Dora, at Chignik
In the fall
of 1899, the Dora transported large numbers of sick and impoverished
gold prospectors from Copper River to Juneau where the US Government gave
them jobs so they could afford passage home. The passengers, sick with scurvy,
were given free passage out of Alaska.
Later that year, the Dora collided with an iceberg, in
Cross Sound, while on her way to Juneau. The ship was leaking
badly and the crew was waist deep in water by the time she got to shore.
A temporary patch was applied and the seemingly unflappable crew
of the Dora, continued on to Juneau where she was repaired properly.
In the spring of 1900, while sailing from San Francisco
to Seattle, the Dora encountered
a storm that forced her 200 miles out to sea. She fought
severe head winds and strong southerly ocean currents
that often slowed her pace to 1 mile per hour over the next
two weeks. After recouping in Seattle for 3 days, the
resilient steamer left for Nome, carrying a full load of passengers
In 1905, the SS
Dora was sold to the Northwestern Commercial Company (a holding
company for the Northwest Fisheries 12 canneries and the Alaska Steamship
Companies 12 ships). Four years later, a group of east coast
businessmen, known as the "Alaska Syndicate" (financed by J.P. Morgan
and the Guggenheim family), purchased controlling interest in a long
list of Alaska businesses including the Northwestern Commercial Company.
This new monopoly had big plans for the Alaska shipping, fishing and
mining industries, but decided not to change the SS Dora's impeccable
monthly mail route from Valdez to Unalaska.
Dora left Valdez in January of 1906, she ran into heavy seas
just west of Kodiak but managed to keep her regularly scheduled ports
of call as far as Cold Bay. Back out to sea, and within 15 miles
of the Chignik dock, gale force winds intensified. Huge waves crashed
over the Dora's deck and tossed her hard enough to dislodge her
boiler by 8", which then bent and burst the steam pipe, leaving the ship
without power. The crew raised the ships sails, but ice quickly encased
the rigging as well as the sails, leaving the ship adrift for the next three
At the mercy of the winds, the Dora was
pushed, ever southward, until she sat abreast of the northern
tip of Vancouver Island. From there, the helpless ship was blown
back out to sea by another series of winter storms that pushed
her in a north--south--east--west zig-zag pattern over the next four
weeks. The last 10 days of her ordeal, the Dora was within 300 miles
of Cape Flattery, but was unable to make her way in.
Sixty three days after her nightmare began (and LONG after she
was given up for lost), the Dora was spotted, under shredded
sails, near the Strait of Juan de Fuca and was towed to Port Angeles
for repairs. Old time Alaska sailing captains told reporters that
if it weren't for the excellent seamanship of Capt. Z. S. Moore
and the bravery of Chief Engineer Frederick H. Moon, no one on the
Dora would have survived.
In the winter of 1907, two prospectors
were out in their dory near Kodiak Island when
a storm blew in unexpectedly. The crew of the Dora found the men
clinging to the bottom of their overturned boat and rescued them.
the spring of 1909, a 206' long, 1,327 ton sailing
ship, called the Columbia, was on her way to a cannery
on Wood River, a tributary of Nushagak Bay, when she encountered
a blinding snow storm and ended up on the rocks
8 miles east of Unimak Pass. The square rigged ship was
leaking badly, so the captain ordered everyone ashore. They
built driftwood shelters which they covered with the ships
canvas sails, but they were not able to salvage any food before the
ship broke in half and burned. Ten days later, the Dora
found and rescued the Columbia's 194 survivors. It was quite
an overload for the little steamer, since she was designed to
carry only 86 people.
Late in the fall of 1909, the Dora
was badly damaged by pack ice in the Bering Sea. She
was leaking badly, but managed to limp back to Seward where
she was temporarily patched back together before steaming off
to Seattle for more permanent repairs. While in Seattle, the SS Farallon assumed the Dora's mail
route, although it didn't fare well. While dropping off a passenger
near the entrance to Iliamna Bay, the 158' long, 700 ton Farallon
struck Black Reef and foundered, one mile off shore. Her 38 passengers made it safely off of the ship, but would
not be rescued for over a month because the ship was covered with ice which
made it nearly invisible to searchers.
Six of the Farallon's passengers decided
they did not want to wait for a rescue. Instead, they made
plans to row one of the lifeboats across Shelikof Strait
to Afognak Island. The newspapers would later call them "The
Brave Six" and their story is lengthy, but well worth telling:
Not long after the six men set out in
a 12' rowboat, strong winds forced them to seek shelter
at Ursus Cove for the night. The next day, as they battled more
freezing winds and rough water; ice formed on their boat at a rate
of about 1" per hour. By the second day, the ice had added so much weight
to the boat that it was riding low in the water, and the men beached
in a small cove. Exhausted, starving and
suffering from frostbite, they dug a pit in the snow ....crawled into
it and covered themselves with a tarp and waited for 36 hours for the storm
to pass over.
When the winds finally
receded, the men walked down the shore (about two
miles), where they found a trapper named Michael Pablow,
living in a small cabin. They noticed that Pablow had an old schooner and
they offered him $200 to ferry them across Shelikof Strait to Kodiak
Island, but he refused, saying the trip was far too dangerous for that time
of year. Instead, Pablow fed and cared for the 6 men for the next three weeks.
When the men were finally
strong enough to travel, two of them walked along the edge of the
shore. The the other four (whose feet were still painful from frostbite)
chose to float along the edge of the shore in an old bidarka. Amazingly,
all six made it safely to Kaguyak village which was across the Strait
from Afognak Island.
Pablow had given
the men all of the whale oil and dried fish he could spare for their trip,
but it wasn't long before the men were weak and hungry. Scavenging
around on shore for food, they found an old 16' dory and decided
it was their "now or never chance" to cross the dangerous Strait.
As they prepared to leave, one of the "brave six" (Charles
Burns) changed his mind and refused to go with them.
Defying the odds, the five men made it safely
across the Strait, but wrecked their boat near
the shore of Cape Ugat (on Kodiak Island). Days later, they
found an old bidarka hidden behind some rocks and rowed it to Uganik
Village at the head of Uganik Bay. There they stayed for over a month
before the villagers helped them get to Afognak where the Revenue
Cutter Tahoma picked them up.
Charles Burns, the man who stayed
behind at Kaguyak village, set off alone in a small
open dory, staying as close to the shoreline as possible. Days
into his journey, he spotted an old cabin and stopped to see if anyone
was there. The cabin had no food, but it did have an old shotgun
which Burns used to shoot some ducks. Unfortunately, on the
last shot, the gun misfired and exploded, blowing one of his
fingers off and mutilating the others. While he was patching his
hand back together, the tide carried away his boat (and the ducks).
He was now badly injured, hungry and on foot. He walked for days and
eventually found an old dilapidated boat on the beach and got into
it. Miraculously, the old skiff (without oars) carried Burns 30 miles down
the coast to a Native village.
He was starving and suffering from advanced blood poisoning
when the villagers found him. Luckily, a U.S. census taker was at
the village and he treated Mr. Burns hand and tied him into the basket
of his dog sled and mushed him over 300 miles to Cold Bay where the SS
Dora picked him up and took him to Kodiak for treatment. Charles
Burns was the final SS Farallon survivor to be rescued, three
months after the initial wreck.
In 1910, a 70' long, 41 ton gasoline powered schooner,
called the Mizpah, exploded and caught fire at Kvichak, Bristol
Bay. The boat, owned by the North Alaska Salmon Company, was
a total loss and Fred Johnson, the engineer was killed. The Dora
rescued Captain Joseph Henry and three other crew members.
a three masted 116' cod fishing schooner called
the Czarina wrecked on the east side of
Nagai Island (one of the largest of the Shumagin Islands).
The schooner, carrying 300 tons of salt, went to pieces when
she hit an improperly charted reef during a heavy gale. The Dora
rescued ten survivors.
In the spring of
1912, the 124' cod fishing schooner named Joseph Russ,
owned by the Robinson Fisheries Company of Washington, was
heading for the Shumigan Islands when she encountered a fierce
gale that lasted for two days. Running on dead reckoning, the
winds blew the schooner north of her normal route where she hit some submerged
rocks on Chirikof Island, southwest of Kodiak Island. The schooner was leaking
badly and huge waves were sweeping the deck, so the
crew of 40 (including the Captains wife) lashed themselves to
the rigging for the night. Only one of the crewmen, John Jorgenson,
was washed out of the rigging by an enormous wave and drowned.
mornings light, Captain Charles Foss could see that the schooner
was breaking to pieces against the rocks. The crew salvaged
as many provisions as they could and set up camp on Chirikof
Island. Second Mate, A. E. Reeve and 5 crew members, set out
in two lifeboats to find help; it took them 11 days to row
100+ miles to Chignik where the SS Dora just happened
to be waiting out a storm. Upon hearing of their plight, the Dora
left immediately to rescue the remaining 23 crew members of
the Joseph Russ.
Survivors from the schooner Joseph Russ
boarding the SS Dora
MSCUA University of Washington
On the morning of 6/6/1912, the
SS Dora, with a load of 86 passengers, left Uyak
Village (on Kodiak Island) and steamed up Shelikof Strait. The
weather was sunny and the passengers had a clear view of Mt.
Katmai, some 50 miles away.
At 1:00 PM, Dora's passengers
and crew heard a deafening explosion, followed by
many more, at 30 second intervals. They watched as
a massive column of black smoke and fire rose from Mt. Katmai
(the captain of the Dora estimated the smoke column to be 3,000'
By 2:00 PM, lightening was flashing from the dark ash cloud
as it followed the Dora towards the Kupreanof Strait
on her way to Kodiak. By 3:00 PM, the ash cloud was directly
over the Dora and by 6 PM ash was falling from the sky. By
6:30 PM, the Dora was in total darkness. The captain said "it
was so dark, that a lantern held at arms length provided no light".
Ash and pieces of pumice (some "the size of frying pans")
continued to pelt the Dora and raised the temperature
of her deck noticeably. Passengers complained of painful headaches
and respiratory problems. Loud thunder was heard and birds gave
ear splitting screeches as they fell from the sky and landed on the deck
of the Dora and flapped around wildly. Passengers feared it was the apocalypse
and began to pray.
Near zero visibility made it impossible for the
Dora to safely dock at Kodiak, so the captain changed directions near Afognak and sailed
"full steam ahead" for 15 hours before he reached Seldovia with
18" of coarse volcanic ash on the deck. Years later, seismologists
calculated that the Katmai eruption shot five cubic miles of
ash and pumice into the atmosphere over a 2½ day period.
The passengers didn't realize it
at the time, but they had just witnessed the largest volcanic eruption
of the 20th century. Scientists were eager to dissect every aspect of the natural disaster, however there were
no geophysical instruments or seismologists in the area in 1912.
That is why the eye witness accounts provided by the 86 people aboard
the SS Dora that day, were so crucial. They were able to
recount such things as a precise timeline for the initial eruption,
the size of the ash column, the nature and direction of ash travel,
what time the first ash fell, etc. To this day, the USGS quotes the
information extracted from the SS Dora interviews when it comes
to reports on the Mt. Katmai (Novarupta) eruption.
SS Dora coming into Unalaska
In December of 1912, the SS Dora
and the SS Uncle Sam were tied up at the Seward docks when an unexpected
gale force wind came in overnight. The storm tore the ships loose
from their moorings and forced them up onto the beach. Heavy seas
ran for days and filled the Dora with sand and packed
sand around her exterior, making it impossible to move her.
After the storm passed, hundreds of man hours
were spent trying to re-float the old ship. Even the SS
Mariposa, which was three times larger than the Dora,
tried to pull her off of the beach, but failed. A
Seward newspaper wrote, "Practically all hope of saving
the SS Dora has been abandoned by her owners and the
historic vessel will, in all probability, end her career
on the Seward beach and be turned over to the underwriters."
Evidently, the newspaper gave up too quickly
on the tough old ship, because, after laying aground for three
weeks, a channel was sluiced out to deep water and the Dora
was refloated. She was seriously damaged and
would have to go to Seattle for major repairs.
to get the badly damaged Dora to Seattle, the crew lightened
her load as much as possible and made sure her three pumps were
in prime working order. They borrowed a fourth pump from the team of
men who had successfully refloated the ship and a fifth pump was taken
on at Cordova.
With E.C. Genereaux as Captain,
the Dora managed to limp across the Gulf of Alaska, but running
all 5 pumps, full time, and battling heavy seas, nearly exhausted the
ships supply of coal before she reached Ketchikan. It took 17
days (3 times longer than average) for the Dora to get to Seattle,
where she was dry-docked for major repairs.
In the spring of 1914, the W.H. Diamond,
a 3 masted, 390 ton schooner, owned by the Alaska Cod fishing Company,
foundered off Bird Island, near Unimak Island. The crew managed to
survive for three weeks before the SS Dora found and rescued
In the summer of 1914, a three masted,
154' schooner called the Paramita, was in route to Naknek with supplies
to build a cannery. When the ship approached Unimak Pass, it was blown
off course and ended up at the entrance to Akutan Pass instead. Half way
through Akutan pass, the Paramita became trapped by a fierce tide
rip and was unable to advance, so the captain chose to wait out the storm
on shore. As he approached land, the first mate dropped the anchor too
soon, causing the ship to land directly ON the anchor which punched a large
hole in the bottom of the ship.
The captain sent 5 crewmen in a lifeboat, to the
Akutan Whaling Station (20 miles away) to ask for help. From there,
the request was carried to the Dutch Harbor wireless station by a steam
whaler. Orders to assist the disabled schooner were sent out to the
Revenue Cutter Tahoma, the Revenue Cutter Ungala and the
Navy divers from the USS Buffalo. While the Paramita waited
for help to arrive, the anchors upright fluke punched more holes in the
Paramita's planking with every tide.
The Navy divers arrived
at the scene first and quickly determined that the schooner
was beyond repair, so the captain directed the passengers to strip
the schooner of its 1,800 tons of merchandise and secure it
The 150 passengers
(mostly cannery hands) complained about a long list of things, starting
with being asked to unload the ship and the lack of shelter, the bad food,
bad weather and the slow response time for their rescuers. Harsh words
escalated into fist fights fueled by the 75 gallons of a "villainous
grade whisky" that the cannery hands found on the Paramita.
By the time the Revenue
Cutters arrived at the wreckage site, there
was a full mutiny at hand and the troublemakers were forcibly
removed at gunpoint and taken to Dutch Harbor, then transferred
to the SS Dora who took the rowdy bunch to Seattle.
Sea Fisheries Company purchased the aging Dora
in 1919. A year later, she was
traveling through heavy fog along the northeast coast of Vancouver
Island when she struck a hidden reef. At first, the damage didn't
seem too severe, but when she backed off of the reef, they could
see that she was leaking badly. Captain Hovick hoped
to get the Dora to Port Hardy which was only 8 short miles
away, but it was soon obvious that her pumps couldn't keep up with
the leaks, so he headed the steamer straight for the shore.
The next morning, when the SS Admiral
Rodman and the Canadian Cutter Theipva stopped to
lend aid, the Dora was still afloat, although her stern
was submerged. Captain Hovick ordered his deck crew
onto the Admiral Rodman, then ordered his engine crew to
stay with the Dora while he went to Alert Bay to find
enough scows to salvage the Dora's cargo of coal,
oil, food and freight worth $60,000. He also hoped to find a tugboat
that would tow the Dora to port for repairs. After all, she
had survived much worse situations than this one......many times.
That night, before any salvage started, the
tide silently eased the foundering Dora off of the beach
and into 40' of water. The next morning, only 20' of her
mast was above water. Hurricane weather the following days,
finished off the historic little steamer.
Fishery and Fur Seal Industry Report, published by
the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1921 wrote: "The Dora
wrecked on 12/20/1920 at Hardy Bay on the northeast
coast of Vancouver Island after 40 years of service
in very trying conditions; the most historic vessel plying Alaska
waters was lost."
The Seattle Times wrote: "Residents
of the small villages of western Alaska regretted
the removal of the steamship Dora from the
route as much as if they had lost an old friend. F.R. Brown,
a veteran mining man who has lived in Unga for 30
years said, 'She was not as large or as fast a vessel as
we needed, but we old timers here in the north were attached
to her during her long service. We all felt sad when we learned
the Dora was lost."
In the 1970's,
almost 50 years after she sunk, recreational divers
located the SS Dora and salvaged her propeller,
anchor, some of the ships portholes and other collectibles.
In 1997, UASBC members made
a total of 50 dives to the remains of the
SS Dora, concluding that her stern lies
beneath a rocky cliff and the bow points towards
Port Hardy. They also found anchor chain, a furnace
and boiler, a compound steam engine, a crankshaft, the connecting
rods and a quantity of coal. A full description of their
dives is in a book by Jacques Marc, entitled, Historic Shipwrecks
of Northeastern Vancouver Island. It was published in
1999 by the UASBC (Underwater
Archeological Society of British Columbia.
The following Alaska
the SS Dora:
Estuary extends south 4 miles off SE coast
of Prince of Whales Island, 40
miles SE of Craig. Named for
the SS Dora in 1886 by Lt. Commander R. Clover of
At the head of Dora Bay. Named after the SS
Dora, by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey
Dora Passage: A water passage
that extends south 4 miles from Aialik
Bay to the Gulf of Alaska between Harbor Island
and Twin Island, 32 miles SW of Seward. Named after
the SS Dora in 1912 by the United States Coast and Geodetic
Southern most of Twin Islands, 34 miles
SW of Seward. Named after the SS Dora in 1928 by the
United States Coast and Geodetic Survey
Dora Island: West of
Adak Island. Named for the SS Dora in 1934
by members of the US Navy Aleutian Island Survey