By Ned Rozell
Ships with no humans aboard have long ridden the seas, often floating with supernatural stories of being piloted by dead crew members or becoming visible to sailors and then vanishing.
Alaska has its own ghost ship. Workers for the Hudson Bay Company abandoned the S.S. Baychimo just offshore of Wainwright 85 years ago. Sea ice trapped the 230-foot cargo steamship during an early winter in October 1931. The captain and crew abandoned the ship, which carried furs from Canadian trappers and a variety of other cargo.
Following the ice’s capture of the Baychimo, the captain and 14 men built a wooden hut on the sea ice to keep track of the ship. One month later, they weathered a great windstorm in that shelter. When they peered out after the storm, the Baychimo was gone.
The Hudson Bay men figured the ship had sunk. Most of them returned to Vancouver. But the Baychimo was not on the bottom of the Beaufort Sea.
A few weeks later, Inupiat hunters saw the Baychimo floating near Skull Cliff, south of Barrow. Six months later, in March 1932, a trapper on an epic dogsled journey from Herschel Island to Nome saw the ship in the ice of the Beaufort Sea. He boarded it before continuing on his trip.
Coastal Natives were the last to mention seeing the ship in 1969, when a group saw the Baychimo in the ice between Icy Cape and Barrow. One hundred and two years after it was built and 85 after it was abandoned, the Baychimo may still be floating somewhere north of Alaska.
Last fall, archaeologist Josh Reuther was looking through collections of the University of Alaska Museum of the North. He wanted to photograph items and use the slides for a class he was teaching. He pulled a drawer that contained an ulu, copper knife and other objects. He noticed a label next to them: “Taken from the Beychimo (incorrect spelling).”
Reuther knew of the ghost ship but didn’t know his office was a few hundred feet from items salvaged from it. Those things include a blubber pounder made of musk ox horn (to render oil for lamps), a skin scraper and scissors fashioned from antler with steel blade inserts.
How did the artifacts get to the Baychimo? How did they get off the ghost ship and into the museum? Reuther called fellow archaeologist Jason Rogers, an expert on maritime history, to ask what the chances were the items could be from the ghost ship.
Rogers and Reuther did some detective work and found this: In 1930, Canadian filmmaker Richard Finnie spent a year in Canada’s western Arctic to make a movie of the life of “Copper Eskimoes” that had little contact with outsiders. Finnie caught a few rides on the Baychimo, during which he left crates of gear and ethnological specimens. He flew back to Ottawa before the ship got trapped.
In August 1933, the crew of the Trader, a ship based in Nome, heard of a Baychimo siting as they were anchored off Wainwright. They sailed out to the Baychimo, tied lines to it, and tried to tug it free. The Baychimo remained fused to the ice pack, but crewmembers took what they could, including Finnie’s artifacts.
The S.S. Baychimo just after it became trapped in sea ice north of Alaska in October, 1931. Photo from Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, UAF.
One year later, a crewmember of the Trader gave the 14 items to Otto Geist, the legendary Alaska collector and naturalist who was doing work on St. Lawrence Island. Both the Trader and Geist were at Savoonga at the same time. Upon his return to Fairbanks, Geist brought the artifacts to the museum.
And there they sat, for decades. The items saw the light for the first time in many years last fall when Reuther opened the drawer. He and Rogers then unraveled a small mystery straight from the belly of Alaska’s ghost ship.
Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.