Underwater History Hunter locates remains of gold rush wreck

I was a student of conservation working in a laboratory in Vancouver when I had my first encounter with underwater archeology. It was 1975.

I was a student of conservation working in a laboratory in Vancouver when I had my first encounter with underwater archeology. It was 1975.

I had neither the skills nor the inclination to become a diver myself; all I was interested in was preserving the artifacts that were recovered. I enrolled in an underwater archeology class at UBC and participated in a dive that took place in the waters near Montague Harbour on Galiano Island.

I never saw the wreck for myself. I stayed on board the support vessel while the others dove down to the remains of a ship that had foundered early in the 20th century.

I never went on another dive either, but that experience made it all the more interesting recently when the announcement was made of the discovery and recording of the A.J. Goddard.

The Goddard wasn’t much to look at. The 15.2-metre steam-powered steel-hulled paddlewheeler had one deck topped off with a small wheel house. The sides were covered in canvas that could be rolled up if the weather was nice. The boat was a sturdy little sternwheeler vessel for hauling barges that sank in a storm on Lake Laberge October 11, 1901.

Packaged in Seattle by Pacific Iron Works, and named after the company’s owner, the vessel was brought to Skagway in 1898, hauled over the White Pass in pieces, to Bennett, BC, and assembled. The Goddard is said to be the first vessel to travel to Dawson City from Bennett and then back to Whitehorse.

Three years later the sturdy little boat lost power while battling the storm on Lake Laberge, was caught broadside by the waves, and quickly sank. Only two of the five crew members survived, by clinging to the wheelhouse, which snapped off the boat and floated ashore.

And there sat the Goddard, undisturbed on the bottom of Lake Laberge, its general location known, but remaining unseen for more than a century.

Davidge became interested in underwater archeology more than a quarter century ago, when, at the instigation of Norm Easton, now an instructor at Yukon College, funding was obtained for the Yukon Underwater Diving Association for their first underwater archeology project.

And Davidge has been at it ever since. He first heard about the Goddard around 1985 when the club conducted its first historical resource inventory, and in his first attempt to find the location using a depth sounder, they missed it. According to him, the survey methods weren’t refined enough.

He tried a few years later, again with negative results.

Finding a wreck on the bottom of a lake the size of Laberge, which is 50 kilometres long, and up to five kilometres wide, is like finding a needle in a haystack. Success in this endeavour is all about the technology.

Davidge has, over the years, been involved in a number of underwater projects that included looking for sunken aircraft, and locating military ordnance on the bottom of Laberge, but he never forgot about the Goddard.

In 1997, he went looking again. This time, he used side scan sonar that the dive club had acquired with the support of the territorial government. He spent hours learning how to use the equipment properly, then went to the general location on Lake Laberge where the vessel was known to have foundered.

He was scanning with the right settings and at the right depth; what he got for his efforts was a promising rectangular image on his screen and a location established by dead reckoning. He didn’t have the benefits of the Global Positioning System back then.

He tried to relocate it again a year or two later, but the finicky equipment produced no positive results the second time.

Davidge put his quest for the Goddard on the back burner for a decade, but never forgot. Then, early in the summer of 2008, he went back to Laberge with others, and using a fish-finder, got a positive reading, and locked in a precise location using GPS. He returned on July 5, 2008, alone, this time using a drop camera on a calm day.

He lowered the camera device into the water, and then started drifting over the GPS location. The visibility in the murky water was no more than one to one and a half metres, but he eventually made contact with the upper framing. Lowering the camera a little bit, he was able to scan the deck.

Davidge says that he was ecstatic when he made his first visual contact, but at the same time, he was disappointed that there was no one with him on the boat to share the thrill of the discovery with. Spurred on by his finding, and confident of results, he returned to the site in August of 2008, using a remote operated vehicle (ROV), mounted with camera and lights.

With the ROV, he was able to cruise around the entire vehicle, obtaining excellent recordings of the main features of the vessel. The visibility was better because there is less silt in the water in August, and at a depth of only 15 metres, the light levels are good.

Armed with excellent information and clear images of the condition of the wreck, Davidge was able to involve a team of divers that included Divers James Delgado and John Pollack of the Institute of Nautical Archeology, underwater photographer Donnie Reid, Texas A&M graduate student Lindsey Thomas and himself.

With surface support from Tim Dowd of the Department of Tourism and Culture, the team spent five days in early June of this year under near-perfect weather conditions, diving on the site. In all, the team made 28 dives on the site to further document the remains.

And what a site it is. The boat settled intact on the lake bottom. Many pieces of equipment, including various tools, a small anvil, forge and workbench, cookstove, utensils and personal effects lay on or near the vessel, where they have rested undisturbed for more than one hundred years. In fact, it remains a remarkable artifact from the early history of the territory.

When they dove on the wreck, Davidge had the honour of being the first person since the Goddard sank in 1901 to touch the deck.

When he felt the metal under his hand, and felt the vibrations as others touched it as well, he was overcome by a deep sense of satisfaction of knowing that it had survived, intact but frail, after all these years.

For us who will never see the Goddard for ourselves, there is the satisfaction of knowing it is there, and respecting the sanctity of this piece of Yukon history. There is also appreciation for this group of divers having recorded it for us and our grandchildren to enjoy.

Davidge searched for the A.J. Goddard on his own time and expense. And beca use of that, and for never giving up his quest, I am inducting him into the History Hunter Hall of Fame.

Michael Gates is a local historian

and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.