A while ago, I became interested in the Motor Vessel Chelan as a possible subject for a scale model. There’s a family connection; Chelan’s Chief Officer was a friend of my dad, who was an Engineer for CPR. Danny MacDonald was also my mother’s cousin, and it was through this connection that my mum and dad first met. So, even though I never met him, I owe Danny MacDonald.
Chelan was a Union Steamships boat, and I began my research by looking at the published histories of the company. Surprisingly, most of these hardly even mentioned the Chelan, which had sunk in April 1954 off Cape Decision, Alaska with the loss of 14 lives (including Danny MacDonald).
One book, The Good Company, makes no mention of the Chelan or her crew, outside of a brief listing in the list of vessels in the fleet (Appendix II).
Another, Union Steamships Remembered, makes only two extremely brief mentions of the Chelan (pp 197, 381).
A third, Whistle Up the Inlet, describes the sinking in some detail, and includes a photo of the Chelan. It also mentions my relative, even though the name is wrong (p175, ..”Chief Officer David A. MacDonald” should be Daniel).
Some points to keep in mind. First, the USS had purchased the Frank Waterhouse Co. in the 1940s, and operated this wholly-owned subsidiary as their cargo arm. Waterhouse cargo operated from the same building as USS, and there seems to have been some movement of crews between the various USS/Waterhouse ships.
Second, 14 lives were lost in the Chelan sinking, making it one of the worst events in company history.
Third, the Whistle Up the Inlet book (the only one to describe the event) was published in 1974, well before the two later and larger books The Good Company and Union Steamships remembered. Both these subsequent histories, then, would have to be aware of the Waterhouse connection and the Chelan – warranting either their inclusion or an editorial note as to why they are not included. None is given.
It seemed odd to me that the Chelan disaster was given such off-hand treatment in the written history of the company.
Armed with the little information in these company histories, I set out to find what I could.
Chelan was a fairly new ship when she went down, having been built in 1944 at Northwestern Shipbuilding in Bellingham, Washington.
She began life as the FS 245, a US Army designation for a small transport. She was a type 342 design, one of only 15 built, but a type that quickly gained a solid reputation as a good, solid sea-boat. There seems to have been some variation in the deck plans of the boats – not unusual in wartime construction – but all shared the basic steel-framed, wood planked hull design. She was 148 feet with a displacement of 541 tons.
Figure 1 - FS 245 or FS 246 in the Aleutians
FS 245 had a single 5 cylinder Fairbanks Morse diesel rated at 875 hp. This was probably adequate for a cargo ship this size, but a little light for towing.
The ship saw military duty in the Aleutians, transporting men and equipment around the Pribiloff Islands. In 1949, she was purchased by Capt. Clark, renamed Veta C, and converted to combined cargo and towing configuration with the installation of a towing winch on the aft deck.
In 1951, she was purchased by USS for cargo service – primarily the Tulsequah Mine in northern BC and Britannia Mines in Howe Sound. Now renamed Chelan, the ship performed her duties well. One minor glitch occurred in 1952; a collision with the 10,000 ton freighter Marine Snapper in Puget Sound left Chelan with a damaged stern. Captain Murray had to chase after the big freighter to get her name – Chelan not being at fault in the incident.
Then, in early April 1954, Chelan departed Vancouver for Skagway with the barge Bulk Carrier #2 in tow. The romantically named barge deserved a better fate; she was after all the former CPR coastal liner Princess Mary, now stripped of her superstructure and demoted to hauling bags of dirt.
The old Mary had been converted in 1950, and gained some notoriety as a cranky tow. She would sheer off from side to side, causing premature greying in the towboat’s wheelhouses. According to Captain Suffield, Marine Superintendent of USS/Waterhouse, she was fitted with larger skegs in 1953, which seem to have solved the problem.
The journey northbound seems to have been normal. Captain Cecil Roberts, an experienced west coast skipper, took his light tow up the inside passage past Prince Rupert and through the Wrangell Narrows on the way to the White Pass dock at Skagway.
The barge was loaded with 1920 short tons of concentrate, and Chelan took aboard 449 tons, including 80 tons of sacked concentrates on the foredeck. At the Coroner’s Inquest, Capt. Suffield explained that Chelan was regarded as a “stiff” ship, with a low metacentric height. Additional weight in the lower holds would increase this stiffness by further lowering the metacentric height, so it was common practice to stow some cargo on the foredeck to alleviate the problem.
By all accounts, Chelan was loaded to her marks – not overloaded – when she departed Skagway at 7:16pm on April 13. She then headed south through the Lynn Canal and Chatham Strait towards Cape Decision, a distance of about 215 nautical miles. Her speed for the journey was not great – about 4.5 knots.
The Good Company – An Affectionate History of the Union Steamships, Tom Henry, Harbour Publishing, 1994.
Navigating the Coast, Sound History, Volume VI, Number 2, BC Archives, Edited by Peter Chapman, 1977.
Whistle Up the Inlet, Gerald A. Rushton, J.J. Douglas Ltd, 1974.
Union Steamships Remembered, A.M. Twigg, 1997
Official Log Book and List of the Crew, April 15 1953 to October 6 1953.
Report of Investigation convened at Coast Guard Light Station, Cape Decision, Alaska on 21 May 1954 to inquire into the sinking of the Canadian tug, M/V CHELAN, and barge, Bulk Carrier II, resulting in the loss of life, in the vicinity of the Caper Decision Light Station, Alaska, on 15 April 1954.
Inquest on the Body of FRANK HYKAWAY Held at the Vancouver Coroner’s Court, April 30th 1954
Departmental correspondence April 20, 1954 to August 17, 1954.