Author’s note: This is Part Three of a three-part story about the S.S. Dora, the tenacious steamship that plied the coastal waters of Alaska for four decades. Launched in San Francisco Bay in 1880, she made history with her lengthy mail runs, her myriad rescues and her sometimes narrow escapes.
Under the headline “S.S. Dora Aground Vancouver Island,” a two-sentence Associated Press story out of Seattle appeared in the Dec. 24, 1920, edition of the Anchorage Daily Times:
“The steamer Dora went aground on the east shore of Vancouver Island after striking a rock near Noble Island. The Dora is in a precarious position, according to Captain Oscar Anderson, of the (ship) Admiral Rodman, who yesterday picked up ten members of the (Dora’s) crew.”
Three days later came another small notice: “The steamer Dora … has slipped into fifty-two feet of water and is a total loss. The Dora was one of the most famous vessels on the coast and was known as the ‘bulldog of the North Pacific.’ She was built in 1880 for the Alaska coast trade. Captain (Fred A.) Hovick expressed the hope that the Dora’s cargo might be salvaged.”
After 40 years of running the Alaskan coastlines and crossing the open seas, after numerous escapes and close calls, after being repeatedly patched back together, the S.S. Dora had run out of luck.
Her long career had come to an end at last.
The Dora had begun as an Alaska Commercial Company vessel, at first specializing in hauling seal skins for the fur trade, then passengers and other cargo, and then the U.S. mail. Her home port early on was Valdez; in 1907 it was switched to Seward.
She was sold to the Alaska Pacific Navigation Company, followed by the Northwestern Steamship Company, which became the Alaska Steamship Company.
But until 1918 — when the government terminated the Dora’s mail contract and withdrew her from federal service — her mission remained essentially the same: moving passengers, cargo and mail from Southcentral Alaska to the Aleutians, on what was called the longest and most northerly mail route in the world.
An opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily Times a few months later lamented the government’s decision not to pay the Dora what she worth: “She was losing money steadily and … there was no hope of getting a just remuneration for the mail contract…. One cannot expect a steamship company to lose money on a route month by month and continue to operate.”
A fair price for her services, the author argued, might have enabled the Dora to at least break even. But the U.S. Post Office Department refused. Out of a job, the Dora steamed into Seattle, tied up in port and awaited her fate.
In 1919, the Dora was sold to a company called Bering Seas Fisheries (owned by Lars Mikkelson and associates). In Seattle, she was overhauled and transformed into a fishing vessel. Just over one year later, she was underwater.
A few fragments of her accident history reveal how fortunate she had been to survive so many years:
In 1899, the Dora collided with an iceberg in Cross Sound while en route to Juneau; the crew was waist deep in water by the time she reached safe harbor. In 1900, while sailing from San Francisco to Seattle, the Dora was blown by a storm 200 miles out to sea; it took two weeks for her to reach Seattle, and two days later she was bound for Nome with a full load of passengers and freight.
Early in 1909, the Dora wrecked at Popof Island; later that year she was damaged by pack ice in the Bering Sea; after she was temporarily patched up in Seward, she limped to Seattle for permanent repairs.
The Dora wrecked in Unimak Pass and in Cook Inlet in 1910. While the Dora was in harbor at Seward in December 1912, a storm tore her loose from her moorings and ran her aground for three weeks; using five pumps to keep water levels low inside the ship, she crept back to dry-dock in Seattle for more repairs.
She ran ashore at Unalaska in June 1916 and a few weeks later struck a rock near the entrance to Uyak Bay. In August 1918 she was grounded near Bluff Point on the east side of Cook Inlet, and in September she hit an uncharted reef and was stuck for several hours on her way to Seward.
It was on that September voyage that the Dora completed the last of her 2,000-mile round-trips to the westward. She arrived in Seward on Sept. 11 shortly after 5 p.m. with 52 passengers, her crew and 100 tons of fish bound for Seattle.
In the coal-burning Dora’s absence on the westward route, the U.S. Coast Guard began delivering freight to points west. In 1919, the mail route was assumed by a gas-powered vessel called the Eloise.
According to historian Coleen Mielke, when the F/V Dora struck the reef near Vancouver Island in December 1920, there was reason to believe early on that the damage was repairable — just as all the previous cuts and bruises had been over the years. However, when Capt. Hovick backed her off the reef, the severity of this particular injury was quickly obvious.
Hovick, said Mielke, had hoped to get the Dora to nearby Port Hardy — only 8 miles away — but her pumps couldn’t keep up with her leaks, so the skipper drove his ship straight to shore. By the next morning, her stern was underwater.
Salvage efforts — she had a cargo of coal, oil, food and freight — began that evening, but the rising tide soon lifted the Dora off the beach and into deeper water. When the next morning arrived, only the top 20 feet of her mast were visible.
When one of her old skippers, Capt. Bruce McKay, died in 1922, the Anchorage Daily Times wrote, “Winter and summer, fair weather or storm, the Dora under Captain McKay’s command threaded her way through the perilous waters of the Aleutians, out into (the) Bering Sea, to the coast of Siberia, and in fact to practically every settlement where human beings congregated. In her mission she (personified) the traditions of the north seas, and … seafaring men ask no greater praise than to be accorded the honor of living up to the Dora’s achievements.”
In a separate article, The Times wrote, “Children of the westward were named after the boat their parents had come to love. It is said there is hardly a town or fishing village on the run that cannot boast of at least one girl christened Dora.”
According to Donald Orth’s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, several geographical locations were also named after the ship, including Dora Bay, two Dora Islands, Dora Lake and Dora Passage.
In the 1970s, recreational divers located the wreck of the Dora and salvaged her propeller, anchor, some of the portholes and other collectibles. Two decades later, divers returned to the wreck to map out the locations of her anchor chain, furnace and boiler, steam engine, crankshaft, connecting rods and her remaining store of coal.