Between 1910 and 1920 an average of one ship per month ran aground in the waters surrounding Alaska.
Although unfortunate for captains and crews at the time, the wrecks would provide a playground decades later for Steve Lloyd, an Anchorage based scuba diver and shipwreck explorer.
“I’ve always been fascinated by ghost towns, shipwrecks, abandoned factories and anything with a hidden story that’s somehow tied to the past,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd discussed his various shipwreck searches and other Alaska scuba diving adventures to a crowd of 50 people at Tustumena Elementary School last week. His discoveries include three lost Alaska shipwrecks.
The Alaska Steamship Company liner S.S. Farallon, which ran aground in lower Cook Inlet in January 1910, was Lloyd’s first subject during his presentation. He located the Farallon in 1998.
The ship’s lifeboats carried 38 survivors to the shore of Iliamna Bay where they constructed tents from the Farallon’s sails. The survivors — all men — were stranded in winter with little provisions or hope of rescue.
Unique to the shipwreck was amateur photographer and the ship’s mail clerk John E. Thwaites. He took high-quality photos of the wrecked ship and the crew’s trials of survival —for example, frostbitten men with burlap wrapped on their feet.
Details of the shipwreck, and the mission of six men who struck out in an open boat to seek help, are fleshed out in Lloyd’s book “Farallon: Shipwreck and Survival on the Alaska Shore,” published in 2000 by Washington State University Press.
During the presentation Lloyd showed clips of a BBC documentary of Alaska survivor stories that included the Farallon, which was filmed in 2001. He was the film’s historical and location advisor and underwater videographer.
“For the film’s camp scenes, we used my front yard in Anchorage,” he said.
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In 1998, Lloyd learned to scuba dive. A year or so later, he was looking for a place within driving distance of Anchorage to dive from shore and practice. The remnants of Seward’s old dock became his stomping grounds.
Lloyd has dived at the location about 100 times.
“In the summer, you can’t see more than a foot or two underwater, so the only time I can dive (in Seward) is in the winter — the colder, the better,” he said.
Seward is an optimal diving spot because of its historical importance.
Artifacts can be found in the water from multiple destructive incidents the growing town suffered throughout its history.
Like many boom towns of its era, the closely spaced wooden structures of downtown Seward were a fire hazard. Lloyd displayed pictures of the town’s most destructive fire on the night of Nov. 23, 1941.
One picture displayed mounds of frosted debris, as the overnight temperature during the fire dropped to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, with a steady 30 mile-per-hour wind from the north.
“Bulldozers were called in to clean up the rubble. Any guess where they put it?” Lloyd asked. “I’ve never been able to confirm it in official records, but I’m pretty sure they pushed a lot of it into the drink. I’ve seen charred wood and melted glass underwater, and I think this is where it came from.”
The town recovered, but it was struck hard by the Good Friday earthquake in March 1964. The land along the waterfront split into fissures, and a strip from 50 to 600 feet wide broke off and slid into the bay, Lloyd said.
“Although there’s not much surge (tidal power) this deep, the bottom is gradually eroding away and exposing more than a hundred years of buried junk.
“Since Seward was a regular port of call for all steamship lines that served Alaska, one of the coolest things to find is a piece of china with a steamship company logo on it,” he said.
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The second Cook Inlet shipwreck discovery by Lloyd was the Torrent, lost along the then-uncharted coast on July 15, 1868.
“Everyone made it into the ship’s boats, and after an hour of hard rowing against the wind and seas, they reached the beach at Cole Cove,” Lloyd recounted.
Carrying 125 U.S. Army soldiers of Battery F, Artillery division — men sent north to protect American interests in the Cook Inlet region following purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 — marks the wrecked ship’s historical importance. The loss of the ship’s supplies and provisions was a blow to the state.
“It’s particularly telling when (Lt. McGilvray, the Army lieutenant commanding the expedition) lists under clothing, ‘That in which they were dressed’ and under arms ‘Dry ammunition sufficient to load the small arms once,’” he said.
Lloyd used an illustration clipped from an East Coast newspaper drawn by an officer on the expedition to find the Torrent.
Using a distinctive pinnacle rock in the drawing Lloyd and a small group of colleagues narrowed their search area to a “small group of breaking reefs a half-mile offshore, which is where we eventually found the scattered remains of the Torrent.”
Pictures of the ship’s salvage found over the course of many dives were shown. Bronze drift pins used to fasten the ship’s oak timbers, hundreds of pieces of copper bottom sheeting, bow anchors and portholes that had fallen away from the sides of the ship as the wood that held them was eaten by shipworms.
“The heavy iron and bronze pieces we found we so thoroughly scattered, we could tell the Torrent had grounded and moved across the reef as she broke up,” he said.
The most significant find of the dives was the ship’s lost mountain howitzer, which was an artillery weapon used by the army during both World Wars.
The large cannon barrel was found in a narrow channel between two steep faces of rock, Lloyd said.
“... I spotted the telltale green patina that bronze gets after long years in salt water,” he said.
Several different types of cannon shot were also recovered from the area around the howitzer. Lloyd displayed an underwater picture of himself holding up a round of canister shot. The 50-caliber lead round consisted of about 30 rounds that would leave the barrel like a gigantic shotgun.
The howitzer was recovered for conservation and eventual display.
“We attached inflatable lift bags, which were filled with compressed air from a scuba tank to provide buoyancy as we swam the howitzer out of the crack in the reef,” he said.
Conservation of the howitzer took place at the Texas A&M marine archeology lab. It was soaked in fresh water for two years and chemically stabilized, so the metal can be exposed to the air without further deterioration.
The state museum system now owns the Torrent’s howitzer, and it is on its way back to Alaska.
“It is my hope that Pratt Museum in Homer will develop a Torrent exhibit that will allow the howitzer to reside there on long-term loan, where residents and visitors can learn about this little-known chapter in Alaska’s history,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd detailed many other dives during his presentation, such as the recovery of a floatplane from Legler Lake, the exploration of Ellamar Copper Mine in Prince William Sound and the discovery of the S.S. Aleutian shipwreck near Kodiak Island.
He also joked about his work on an Alaska episode of Man vs. Wild, a Discovery Channel survival television series.
After the presentation, Lloyd answered questions from attendees and signed copies of his book.
To learn more about Lloyd’s book or experiences as a diver visit www.lostshipwrecks.com.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.