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SS Dora

by Coleen Mielke


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The SS 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 power.

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 knots.

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 been recorded.

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 pass.

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).

The 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 the men.  

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 and freight.

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.


When the 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 weeks.

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.
In 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.

In 1911, 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.

By 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 Libraries

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' across).

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.

In order 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 them.

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 on shore.

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.

The Bering 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.
ptain 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.

The Alaska 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 locations were
named after the SS Dora:

Dora Bay: 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  the USN.

Dora Lake: 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 Survey

Dora Island: 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 Expedition                  

Written by Coleen Mielke 2023

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