Tue, February 11, 2014

Anchors of Anchorage: Dastardly Deed Strands Schooner COURTNEY FORD

By Pennelope Goforth
Kedge anchor with 5-foot shaft from the
ill-fated COURTNEY FORD now resting
in front of Anchorage City Hall.
Photograph by J Pennelope Goforth.

The iron kedge anchor of the COURTNEY FORD now lies in state in a large flower pot at the entrance to city hall in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. It is one of several anchors placed around the city that are the subjects of this series. The significance of the tragic story of how the anchor came to rest in this unlikely spot over fifty years ago is pretty much long forgotten by all but the saltiest Alaskans. It is a tragic story of sailor and ship, both in their prime, doomed by the act of a ‘dastardly miscreant.’  The steadfastness of Seaman William Ode, his devotion to duty as watchman of the stranded COURTNEY FORD made national headlines in 1903.
The shallow tidewaters of the head of Cook Inlet was a convenient place to anchor up for deep draft vessels. They would off-load their cargos of passengers and freight via flat-bottomed barges and lighters to the trading village of Knik, farther northeast toward the headwaters of the Knik River, or to the silted banks of Ship Creek. In time this practice gave the city of Anchorage its name.
Like many ships sailing Alaskan waters in the late 18th century, the COURTNEY FORD was designed and built by master shipwright Captain Matthew Turner at his shipyard in San Francisco Bay in 1883. An early pioneer in the northern cod fishery, Captain Turner parlayed his knowledge of weather and currents and ship handling in those stormy waters into crafting vessels made to survive the worst storms of the North Pacific. [1] Turner’s passion was sailing yachts, sleek hulled boats built for speed. He was wildly successful in combining the grace and speed of a yachting craft with the yeoman elements of the workboat. The schooner COURTNEY FORD was such a vessel.

The schooner COURTNEY FORD, c. 1892, with a full cargo
and deck load of lumber. Note the anchor secured to her
port bow. Photographer unknown.

The two-masted 400+ ton vessel was 146 feet long, a spacious 34 feet in the beam and a 12-foot draft. [2] This translates into a cargo capacity of a half a million board feet of lumber or 300 gross tons of break-bulk goods like sugar, wheat, and fruit, all common trade goods of the day. Sailed by a crew of eight to ten, the COURTNEY FORD was loaded with lumber within days of launching.
Shipping Intelligence reported in the newspapers at ports of call note the movements of the COURTNEY FORD’s busy career hauling fruit from Suva and Fiji to San Francisco, dry goods and materials to Tahiti, and sugar cane from Honolulu, Hawaii. She chartered out on her mainstay coastwise trade: hauling lumber on numerous voyages from the Puget Sound sawmill towns to growing towns and cities all along the Pacific seaboard from Alaska to California.
The 1880s were a boom time for America’s western littoral, especially Alaska. The Morning Oregonian of 1887 carried a detailed article on the front page of the March 26 edition about the Scandinavian Packing Company of Astoria. It chartered the COURTNEY FORD to transport $50,000 of canning equipment, machinery and construction supplies to build their new cannery in the burgeoning salmon packing industry. In a follow-up article the next day, again on the front page, the Oregonianreported that about 100—30 construction workers and cannery supervisors along with 70 Chinamen men—would be shipped up with the supplies. [3]
The COURTNEY FORD had her share of hard knocks, grazing rocks in uncharted Alaskan waters and getting dismasted in North Pacific storms. In 1901, northbound out of Everett in Puget Sound for Unga Island with gold mining supplies and equipment for the Apollo Mine she was caught in a typhoon in the Gulf of Alaska. Shipping Intelligence in the San Francisco Call of October 1 reported that she was ‘bespoken’ (sighted and hailed by a passing ship) by the U.S. Army Transport ROSECRANS seventeen days out of Port Townsend with ‘foretopmast and foretopgallant mast carried away.’ Enough sail remained for her to limp into Unga, effect repairs and get under way again. No big deal for the stalwart ship and her seasoned crew.
However, the following year headed south in ballast out of St Michael for Port Townsend what began as a common stranding quickly turned into a calamity. From the beginning of the voyage the compass headings had been squirrelly, at odds with the daily navigational sightings. Captain N. E. Burgeson and his crew were well seasoned, sailing in good weather and bad. But this autumn voyage found them literally lost in the pernicious fog common to the Aleutian Islands in summer and fall. Thinking the lookout had spotted Akun Island, with the fairway through Unimak Pass off the port bow, Capt. Burgeson ordered the sails let out for a bit more speed. Still, he would have noticed the lack of the immense current generated in the waters of the pass.
The night was dark compounded by fog swirling in squally breezes out of the west.
They heard the roar of breakers before sighting a faint white line of foaming waves through the fog dead ahead. Startled, Burgeson ordered the men to wear ship (turn her away from the wind). But before the crew even reached the rigging the COURTNEY FORD slammed by a williwaw went hard aground past the breakers and stranded herself high on the beach. The impact flung two men off the deck to their immediate deaths in the pounding waves. Burgeson was dumbfounded. No way should there have been a sandy beach on their plotted course.
Suspecting the compass he tore apart the binnacle (housing for the compass) that sits in front of the ship’s wheel. To his disgust and rage he discovered small pieces of iron had been inserted into the space around compass, causing it to give grossly inaccurate readings. He laid it to ‘the dastardly work of some miscreant’ who had it in for the ship or the crew while at St. Michael. [4]
Fearing the ship might breakup, as morning dawned grey and raining he ordered the crew to set up camp where they remained for a week hoping to spot a passing ship for assistance. By now they reckoned the beach was actually the long spit-like Glen Island fronting Izembek Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula. The Aleut village of Morzhovoi was somewhere nearby and traffic out of the busy post salmon season of Bristol Bay might come close enough to Amak Island in the distance to see their signals. The mate and several men rowed the ship’s skiff to search for the village. The second of the tragic loss of lives happened when the skiff capsized in the surf, drowning two more sailors.
They got lucky when a passing vessel spied their signal fire. Burgeson assigned Seaman William Ode to remain with the COURTNEY FORD while he and the remaining crew went for help.
What happened to the rescue effort is about as foggy as the night they stranded. Some reports say the owner of registry was C. L. Hooper & Co. of San Francisco. But Burgeson wrote in the wreck report that the owner was the Pacific Shipping Co. of San Francisco and more importantly, she was uninsured. In ballast, no cargo to sell for salvage and no insurance money for her value as a vessel, it appears that no efforts were made to rescue Seaman Ode and the vessel.
What is known for sure is the story of how Ode made it to the end. As duty required of the watchman, he kept a log book with daily entries beginning October 4, 1902, with the departure of his crewmates and Burgeson. “Boys left at 10 a. m. Took my stuff back to the schooner and pumped her out. Wind northwest.” [5]
On October 23, 1902, Burgson and his four remaining crewmen arrived aboard the CENTENNIAL at the Seattle docks. Nothing was heard of the COURTNEY FORD or Seaman Ode until eight months later. Captain Lundquist of the steamer ST PAUL southbound out of Nome, which arrived in Seattle in late June, had obtained the log William Ode kept. The news reports of Seaman Ode’s log rocked the country, making the front pages and the headlines of the New York Times in addition to the Oregon and California papers.

Front page of the San Francisco Call, July 3, 1903, with artist’s drawing of
the COURTNEY FORD and lonesome depictions of Seaman Ode.

Ode noted the daily tasks of pumping out the ship, gathering driftwood for fires, shooting ducks for food. Battered by winds of hurricane force and howling williwaws Seaman Ode’s makeshift shelter on the ship was smashed. He writes that he can pump her out no more. In a snow squall he attempts to hike out across Glen Island to find the village of Morshovoi.

“November 24—Left schooner. Came about six miles away from schooner and at 5 p.m. was swamped by breakers. Could not return, as beach was too steep.

“November 25—Had a terrible night, which I spent outside. Lay under quilt and oil coat. Turned back.”

Ode doggedly built another shelter from ship’s timbers and sails in the undamaged galley of the ship, making use of the stove and the last of the provisions from the pantry.

“December 1—My twenty-seventh birthday. Carried fifteen barrels of water.”
Christmas came and went. Ode and the COURTNEY FORD were solidly iced in, shrouded in drifts of snow.

“January 3—Wind west…foxes came alongside during the night making terrible noise.”
By month’s end Ode notes with some surprise how weak he has become and can no longer leave the ship to gather firewood or water. His legs and arms swelled painfully from rheumatism. He suspects he also has scurvy by now.
“January 28—I have still a little hope left, but very little. I don’t expect the captain will send help, because they think I am safe in Morshovoi, but the winter came a few weeks too early. If it was not for the snow I could try once more to get away but in the condition I am now I could not travel a mile. Then I can hardly lift my legs high enough to get out the hold with a piece of firewood.”
The next few days he becomes unable to put on his boots and notes that his belly and chest have also swollen up. The shelter is chilled and damp from the rain.
“February 19—One month since I laid up with the schooner. Life is sweet, but death is sweeter in a case like this. I have nothing but cold scraps and snow water. Today I ate some dried apples and a piece of ice. I can make no more fire, as I can’t stay up that long.”
The last entry is faint, the letters shaky: “Death at last. Four months alone.”
Sixty years later, the timbers of the COURTNEY FORD were still visible on Glen Island. Cold Bay resident Mike Uttecht Sr. often visited the scene, which was not far from one of his hunting camps. He salvaged the anchor and displayed it not far from the airport. He told a good story about the COURTNEY FORD, probably cadging many a drink and dinner in the Volcano Room for those weathered in as a result. Eventually, when Mike passed, Bob and Tilley Reeve ‘inherited’ it. Recognizing its place in Alaska maritime history, the Reeve family brought the anchor to Anchorage. They presented it to the municipality, which installed it prominently by the south entrance. It is a fitting tribute to the dedication to duty of Seaman William Ode.
(The author gives a loud shoutout to Mike Burwell for his invaluable collection of Alaska ship wreck material: Couldn’t have written it without you, mate!)
[1] Turner papers J. Porter Shaw Library, San Francisco, CA.
[2] US Customs Wreck Report filed at San Francisco 1902.
[3] Morning Oregonian, page 1, March 30, 1887.
[4] San Francisco Call, July 3, 1903.

[5] Ibid.