Hitting gold at the bottom of Lake Laberge

It took more than 20 years, but this summer Whitehorse resident Doug Davidge hit upon a shipwreck that sent waves around the archeology world. After years of searching for the elusive A.J. Goddard sternwheeler...

It took more than 20 years, but this summer Whitehorse resident Doug Davidge hit upon a shipwreck that sent waves around the archeology world.

After years of searching for the elusive A.J. Goddard sternwheeler, the amateur diver came face to face with one of the last remaining steamships of the Klondike Gold Rush era this past June.

And to his surprise, it was in immaculate shape.

When he and a team of other divers swam up to the 15-metre metal steamer, they found it much the same way it would have looked when it went down in a winter storm on Lake Laberge in 1901.

The stove was still sitting on the deck of the ship alongside scattered dishes, hand tools, a jacket and a pair of boots.

The axe one of the crew used to free the boat from a barge that trailed the Goddard still rested on the deck of the boat.

And a partially charred piece of wood left in the boiler told how the crew hurriedly tried to start a fire in the hopes of producing enough steam to steer the boat away from the shore before it sank.

It was like a moment frozen in time, said James Delgado, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, the organization based in Texas and Turkey that assisted in the hunt.

“From the coat crumpled on the deck to the stove canted to one side with the cook pot lying in the mud you just had a sense of what went on in those last moments of the ship,” said Delgado.

“That’s powerful. I don’t see that often with wrecks.”

Delgado has been part of shipwreck expeditions all over the world, but says the A.J. Goddard is unique because of how well it was preserved.

When the ship sank, it went down fast, straight planing into the deep, cold freshwater of Lake Laberge.

“This literally put it on ice,” said Delgado.

But staying underwater for 108 years has meant the iron frame of the boat has undergone significant chemical changes. If the Goddard were to be dredged from the lake bottom it would likely “disintegrate” in the process, said Delgado.

The team that discovered the boat is planning to head back to the site as soon as the ice clears off the lake next spring. After documenting more of the ship, it will decide whether they want to bring up specific artifacts from the Goddard to be displayed at the Yukon Transportation Museum, where Davidge is president of the board.

The significance of the find stretches beyond Yukon borders, said Delgado.

“The Klondike Gold Rush is important to not only the Yukon or Canada, its important to the world,” said Delgado.

“This was the last great gold rush of the 19th century. It speaks powerfully to human nature … of people who came north risking it all.”

Dredging up artifacts from this era leads to a better understanding of the people who gambled their lives to hit gold, he explained.

“Who are these men (who were on the ship)? This opens a door to learn more about them,” he said.

An article from the Daily Klondike Nugget, dated October 14, 1901, describes how the Goddard encountered “the worst storm of the season.”

Of the five men on the ship, only two survived: engineer Stockfeldt and crewman C.P. Snyder, who struggled in the water for more than two hours before they were spotted clinging to the torn away pilothouse by a trapper camping nearby.

The three men who died – Captain Charles McDonald, cook Fay Ransome, and fireman John Thompson – all tried to escape the sinking ship by grabbing onto floating firewood, but later their bodies were found washed ashore. They were buried by the North West Mounted Police.

The article was one of the few pieces of information that Davidge had to guide him in finding the shipwreck.

In the 1980s when he began searching for wreck sites with Norm Easton, who was an anthropology student at the time, they came across the story of the A.J. Goddard.

They discovered that the small iron sternwheeler was built in San Francisco for Seattle prospector A.J. Goddard. It was shipped to Alaska from San Francisco, dismantled and hauled over the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Laberge, the staging point for the Klondike Goldfields.

The boat was primarily a passenger and freight ship, but it also operated as a small floating repair shop, forge and kitchen.

“The remarkable thing is that the Goddard was the first to make its way from Lake Bennett down through to Miles Canyon and Whitehorse Rapids … up to Dawson,” said Davidge who explained the trip was known for being particularly treacherous.

When time permitted, Davidge and Easton went out on Lake Laberge to search for the boat, which they knew had sunk somewhere near Goddard Point.

Using depth-sounding equipment, Davidge finally “established his target” in the summer of 2008, 15 metres below the surface of the lake.

“It was a very rewarding experience, personally,” he said.

“It’s something I had thought about for a number of years, wondering what it looked like and if someone would find it. And I figured eventually its location would be determined.”

With the support of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, the National Geographic Society and the Yukon government, Davidge and a team of

other archeologists led by BC-based project-leader John Pollack, the group finally hit upon the ship.

Now the team of explorers believe the discovery will help fill in gaps of history.

And until artifacts from the ship wind up in a museum exhibit, they hope the boat will remain undisturbed.

“The boat will most likely remain there for the foreseeable future,” Davidge said.

“It’s best left there as a memorial to the three guys that died.”

Contact Vivian Belik at

vivianb@yukon-news.com