A moment’s misstep causes worst steamboat disaster in Yukon history

It was an ill-fated recipe from the start - an itchy trigger finger, a loaded rifle and three tonnes of blasting powder. By many accounts the accident that occurred on the SS Columbian was the worst disaster to befall a steamboat in Yukon's history.

It was an ill-fated recipe from the start – an itchy trigger finger, a loaded rifle and three tonnes of blasting powder.

By many accounts the accident that occurred on the SS Columbian was the worst disaster to befall a steamboat in Yukon’s history.

It was September 25, 1906, and the Columbian was carrying a small crew of 25 men and a full cargo of cattle and blasting powder destined for the Tantalus Butte coal mine.

As the ship neared Eagle Rock, on the Yukon River, about 50 kilometres from the mine, a flock of birds were spotted overhead.

A young deckhand, Phillip Murray, known for his penchant for hunting, had a rifle aboard, which he loaded and handed to the ship’s fireman Edward Morgan.

Contrary to White Pass regulations and common sense, Morgan wanted to take a shot.

While Morgan was preparing to shoot something terrible happened – he stumbled or faltered or missed the birds altogether and ended up hitting the ship’s deck.

The shot ignited the three-tonnes of blasting powder on the deck, and the sternwheeler was engulfed in a giant fireball.

“The explosion blew out the sides of the vessel, scattered men and cargo in the water, and in less than five minutes had involved the whole inside of the ship in a mass of seething flame,” reported the Dawson Daily News on September 26, 1906.

The ship’s captain was in the wheelhouse and protected from the explosion, but he quickly lost control of the vessel.

He ran down to the engine room and ordered the engineer to manoeuvre the ship into the riverbank where the crew members were able to jump ashore.

Though the captain and crew did their best to minimize the damage, five men and 21 cattle were killed in the accident.

Though the steamer Victoria raced to reach the scene, help did not arrive for the men until the following day.

Five men, including Murray and Morgan died immediately. The purser Lionel Cowper had been burned over his entire body. He was wrapped in an oil blanket and taken to Whitehorse for treatment, where he finally passed away about two weeks later.

“Ernest Winstanley was the only person in the near vicinity of the explosion to survive,” reported the Weekly Star. “The woolen suit of underwear he was wearing protected him from the flames. Except for scars on his wrists, ankles and face he made a full recovery.”

In October 1906, there was a coroner’s inquest into the deaths. It placed no blame on the surviving crew.

Nearly two months later, in mid-November 1906, the body of Joe Welsh was found on a bar in the Yukon River between Tantalus and Five Finger Rapids.

“A lynx was seen gnawing at something on the bar and investigation lead to the finding of the body which was easily identified as that of Welsh by the brass buttons of his vest…,” reported the Weekly Star on November 16, 1906.

Today, there is a monument to the six men who died in the disaster in the Pioneer Cemetery in Whitehorse.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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