Perfectly Preserved Gold Rush "GHOST SHIP" Discovered in Canada's Sub-arctic

Video by D.A. Davidge

An international team of archaeologists has discovered a perfectly preserved steamboat from the Klondike Gold Rush lying in the freezing waters of Lake Laberge, in the subarctic wilderness of Canada’s Yukon. Their images of the sternwheeler A.J. Goddard are the first views of the frontier steamer since it disappeared in a winter storm on the lake in October 1901. Only two members of the five man crew survived, and Goddard’s location remained a mystery for one hundred and seven years.

The wreck was found during a survey of Klondike Gold Rush wrecks by an international team from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), the Yukon Transportation Museum, and the Yukon government led by INA Research Associate John Pollack. The survey, ongoing since 2005, is a collaborative project designed to pinpoint and document the dozens of wrecks that mark the river and lake routes once used by gold seeking “stampeders” during the last great gold rush at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

While the team has documented dozens of broken and abandoned steamers off the Yukon’s rivers, the discovery of Goddard is the first find of an untouched ship from the Gold Rush. Finding Goddard has been a dream of many years for team member Doug Davidge of the Yukon Transportation Museum. A sonar survey of Lake Laberge in 2008 made a contact with a wreck at the edge of the lake, and Davidge canoed back to the site before the winter ice set in and lowered an underwater camera. The camera revealed the paddles of a steamboat’s stern wheel, and Davidge was convinced that elusive Goddard had at last been found. Winter ice set in, locking the steamer’s grave until this summer, when, one day after the ice thawed, the team returned to dive the target.

Team members Pollack and Davidge, accompanied by INA President and nautical archaeologist James Delgado, Texas A&M graduate student Lindsey Thomas, Yukon government representative Tim Dowd, and underwater photographer and dive master Donnie Reid dropped into the freezing waters of Lake Lebarge. Appropriately, Davidge was the first to see the long lost steamer and to place his gloved hand on its railing.

What the team found was that the wreck is literally a time capsule - the boots, and a jacket of one of the crew lie on the deck along with the stove, scattered dishes, and tools. When the ship sank in a winter storm on fabled Lake Laberge in 1901, the crew had opened the fire box of the boiler and had thrown in more firewood to get steam in a futile effort to claw off the shore. The boiler door still lies open with the lightly charred wood in the firebox, 108 years later. An axe used to chop the tow line for a small barge loaded with supplies still rests on the deck where a crew member dropped it.

In 1901, a trapper camped on the shores of the lake saw Goddard's tiny pilothouse, torn off the sinking steamboat, with two survivors, half frozen, clinging to it. He saved them. Three other crew members drowned, their bodies washing ashore to be buried by the North-West Mounted Police. Diving on A.J. Goddard, it is as if these events happened yesterday. Thanks to the magic of archaeology and the generous support of the National Geographic Society-Waitt Grants program, as well as the support of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, the RPM Nautical Foundation, Promare, the Canadian Geographical Society, the Yukon Transportation Museum, and the Yukon government, this gold rush time capsule shipwreck has been revealed in its freezing cold watery grave.

A.J. Goddard is a small iron stern wheel steamboat built in San Francisco, brought to Alaska, dismantled and hauled over the mountain passes to Lake Laberge, a staging point for the Klondike Goldfields. The steamer operated on the lake and rivers that led to Dawson City as a passenger and freight boat - and as this discovery now shows, the steamboat also operated as a small floating repair shop, forge and kitchen - a self-sufficient depot on the Gold Rush frontier.

The discovery was reported to the Canadian government and the Government of Yukon, efforts began to preserve and document the find in 2010. Pollack and Davidge give a presentation in the spring and persuade the Government of Yukon to apply for control of the site under Federal legislation via the Receiver of Wreck. The application was successful, and by spring A.J. Goddard was designated as the first underwater Heritage Site in the Yukon.

In June 2010 Lindsey Hall Thomas led a large international team to the site and with assistance on many fronts, conducted a material culture survey, hull survey, and removed approximately two dozen artifacts that have since been conveyed into the care of the government of Yukon for conservation and retention at the Yukon Transportation Museum. Her thesis was published in 2012 by the Government of Yukon in their Occasional Papers in Archaeology Series. Government of Yukon also finances the publication of a soft-covered book on the wreck for the general public. Both of Ms. Thomas' publications are listed in the reference section of this website.

Yukon resident Doug Davidge, president of the Yukon Transportation Museum, had sought to find the wreck of A.J. Goddard for many years. Fittingly, he was also the first to reach the site, and his hand, shown here, was the first to touch Goddard since it disappeared in 1901. Photo by Donnie Reid, courtesy INA.

The sternwheel of Goddard, shown here with archaeologist Lindsey Thomas, churned for thousands of miles until overwhelmed by ice, wind and waves in October 1901. Photog by Donnie Reid, courtesy INA.

A view through the rails at the bow of A.J. Goddard shows the windlass used to raise and lower the steamer’s anchors. Photo by Donnie Reid, courtesy INA.