A recent column on the wreck of the steamer Clara Nevada, which went to the bottom in 1898 while returning from the Alaska gold fields with the loss of all hands and a cargo of gold dust worth $13.6 million today, brought interesting reader feedback.
The story of the Clara Nevada was brought to life by Steven C. Levi, an Anchorage-based freelance and technical writer, in his recent book, "The Clara Nevada: Gold, Greed, Murder and Alaska's Inside Passage."
The lust for riches set off gold fever, as thousands packed suitcases and whatever they could carry on their backs and headed West for Seattle and Portland, gateway to the Klondike.
Waiting were greedy shipowners — equally driven — who saw easy money to be made by transporting the crazed masses to the gold fields as quickly and cheaply possible.
Safety was not a concern. Anything that could float was dragged from tidal mud flats and marine graveyards and pressed into service. Thus was born, wrote Levin, "a fleet of greed."
Dangerously and deliberately overloaded vessels with drunken captains and crews sailed from Portland and Seattle, with holds, decks and staterooms jammed with humanity, horses and supplies.
The Clara Nevada, which had been built in 1872 as the Hassler for the Coast and Geodetic Survey, had been dragged out of retirement, quickly and cheaply refitted, and placed under the command of Charles H. Lewis of Baltimore.
According to an 1897 article in The Baltimore Sun, Lewis tried to recruit gold seekers in Baltimore to embark on a journey for the Klondike. "It was Captain Lewis' intention to purchase a steamer and sail from Baltimore sometime in September or October. The steamer will go around Cape Horn, and it is thought that her passengers will arrive in the gold fields at the opening of the next season."
Lewis must have failed in his attempts to find enough interested parties in Baltimore, for he returned to the West Coast, where he took command of the Clara Nevada.
The shortest and most direct route to the gold fields was via the Inland Passage, nonthreatening in summer but deadly violent in winter.
On Feb. 5, 1898, while headed southward in a blizzard on the return from its maiden voyage to the gold fields, the steamer was suddenly racked by an explosion off Eldred Rock in the Lynn Canal and plunged to the bottom with the loss of all aboard.
It was Levi's conclusion that Lewis had not been aboard the Clara Nevada for its ill-fated last voyage.
Eventually, Lewis returned to Baltimore, where he lived with his family in a home on William Street and captained vessels of the Baltimore and Carolina Steamship Co.
He died June 8, 1917, and was buried at the old Lowe Memorial Methodist Protestant Church, at William and East Clement streets, now the site of condominiums.
According to his obituary in The Sun, Lewis, 79, left behind a widow, Sarah F. Lewis (she died in 1919); two sons, Capt. Charles F. Lewis and Capt. Robert J. Lewis; two daughters, Mary A. Forsythe and Sadie F. Lewis; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
"Quite a story, isn't it?!?!" emailed Sandy Simpson, who lives in Woodland, Calif., and believes she is Lewis' great-great-granddaughter.
Her family connection to Lewis and the Clara Nevada surfaced when her father was researching family roots. He died in 1997.
"I picked up where he left off," Simpson said in a recent telephone interview. "In a phone call with Dad's brother, my uncle, he told me he knew about Captain Lewis but other than that had very little information."
Simpson said her father told her that Grace Darling — his grandmother and her great-grandmother — was Lewis' daughter, and in her childhood had been taunted unmercifully by neighborhood children, who said, "Your father blew up the Clara Nevada."
Simpson said, "Lewis apparently led two lives. He had a family in Baltimore and one on the West Coast."
Apparently, Lewis was widowed and remarried, and according to Simpson, appears in the 1900 Census and gave his residence as San Francisco.
Simpson said Darling, who lived from 1886 to 1951, spent most of her life in the San Francisco area.
Simpson said her research turned up another Capt. Charles H. Lewis who was born in Watertown, N.Y., and skippered vessels on the Great Lakes.
"There is always going to be a little mystery about this. No one has a picture of Charles, and I'd love to find one," Simpson said. "And can anyone back East say he was a Baltimorean and never went West?"
Richard W. Jacobs, a native of Maine who heads a nonprofit for autistic children in Modesto, Calif., is a descendant of a Clara Nevada crewman.
His great-great-grandfather, William A. Jacobs, a carpenter born in Massachusetts, was a member of the Clara Nevada's crew.
"His family had lived on Boston's South Shore for many generations, and for whatever reason, he went west," Jacobs said in a telephone interview last week.
As a young man, William Jacobs fought in eastern Oregon in the Bannock-Paiute Indian war of the late 1870s, and Jacobs said he has letters written by his forbear about the experience.
"He went back east, got married and moved his family to Portland, Ore.," Jacobs said. "I think he was trying to cash in on the Alaska gold rush and that's why he was one of the first to sign on board the Clara Nevada."
Jacobs said he has letters that his great-great-grandfather wrote to his family between the time the ship sailed from Seattle and its return voyage. He said he also has copies of ship's menus.
William Jacobs did not mention the drunken crew for fear of causing his "family anxiety," Jacobs said.
After the vessel sank, Jacobs said, his great-great-grandfather's business partner told William Jacobs' widow that he had taken advantage of the Clara Nevada shipwreck to skip out on his family.
"It makes for an interesting story, but I seriously doubt it," Jacobs said. "As far as his family ever knew, he never resurfaced, and his body was never found."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun