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THE WRECK OF THE
 GENERAL SIGLIN


by Coleen Mielke
2014

coleen_mielke@hotmail.com


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The GENERAL SIGLIN was a two masted schooner built for the North American Commercial Company, by E. H. Hansen, of Marshfield Oregon in 1894. She was 80' long, 23' across, and 8' deep, with a carrying capacity of 80 tons. The SIGLIN was one of the first schooners designed specifically to compete (in turnaround time) with the large commercial steamships in Alaskan waters; her owners hoped that the SIGLIN's speed would increase their company profits. The SIGLIN was named after Oregon National Guard Brigadier General Jacob Milton Siglin (1840-1896) and her home port was Empire City, Oregon.

The SIGLIN (which sailed from 1894 to 1902)
changed hands several times while plying the waters between San Francisco, Seattle, Cook Inlet, Dutch Harbor, Nome and the Siberian coast. She hauled freight and passengers to Alaska from 1894 to 1902. In 1901, the Russian government hired her to transport a Russian topography crew along the Siberian coast, and in 1902, the SIGLIN was transformed into a Bering Sea commercial fishing schooner. However, these career highlights pale in comparison to the GENERAL SIGLIN's reputation for ominous newspaper headlines that plagued her final 5 years at sea; she was a very well known schooner.

 

In mid-March of 1897, the GENERAL SIGLIN left San Francisco with eleven people and merchandise destined for the North American Commercial Company at Wood Island, Alaska.

Aboard the schooner were:

1. Captain Jerome Thomas (master mariner, from San Francisco)
2. Captain's Mate Harry Saunders (master mariner from New Brunswick)

3. The Cook, J.C.W. Ohn  (cooked on schooners in Alaska for many years)
4. Seaman R. Bendix
5. Seaman Martin Jeppesen
6. Seaman P. Peterson
7. Passenger William C. Greenfield (NACC store agent at Wood Island, Alaska)
8. Passenger Mrs. William C. Greenfield  (wife of E.C.Greenfield)
9. Passenger - name not known (child of the Greenfield's)
10.Passenger - name not known (child of the Greenfield's)
11.Passenger - name not known (child of the Greenfield's)



During that fateful journey north, the SIGLIN was overtaken by a severe storm with hurricane force winds and a "heavy cross sea" that extended all along the coast of Queen Charlotte Islands for four days. The Captain of another schooner (that survived the storm) said the wind was so strong, that it picked up one of his crew members and hurled him 200 yards away from the schooner, never to be found again. A third schooner was reportedly smashed into kindling in this same storm.

When the SIGLIN did not arrive at its destination after the storm, ships in the Queen Charlotte Islands area were alerted to watch for the missing schooner, but no one reported seeing her.

Six weeks after the SIGLIN disappeared, Captain E. Crockett of the sealing schooner, WILLARD AINSWORTH, and his crew, spotted the SIGLIN 110 miles west of Queen Charlotte Islands. He wrote in his log: "5/5/1897 Passed the wreck of the schooner GENERAL SIGLIN at 6 AM in latitude 53 degrees 15 minutes N., Longitude 135 degrees 15 minutes W. She was dismasted and water-logged and floating right side up. The seas were breaking over her. There was a dead body lashed to the stern davits. There was a high sea running, so it was impossible for us to board her."

Once back in Port Townsend, Captain Crockett told reporters that he "tacked up to the SIGLIN twice in an effort to board her, but was forced to abandon the derelict." He said he was trying to get a good look at the dead mans face because he was concerned that it might be his best friend, Jerome Thomas, who was the Captain of the SIGLIN, but it was not. Crockett described the dead man as "dressed in an oilskin suit and securely lashed to the davits with a woven network of ropes around him; he had dark hair and mustache and wore a wedding band".

James Chilberg, one of the AINSWORTH crewmen, said "The sight presented by the corpse on the SIGLIN was the most sickening I have ever witnessed. In place of his eyes, there were gaping sockets and the mans features bore traces of terrible sufferings. Her mainmast was trailing astern, held by the shrouds; the fore hatch and steering gear were in place and the anchors hung fast at the catheads. My theory is that the SIGLIN was jibed in a heavy sea and that its masts went by the board."

On 5/6/1897, the sealing schooner ENTERPRISE sighted the SIGLIN 300 miles west-southwest of Cape St. James at the southern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Captain's mate, John Searles, said that he boarded the schooner and "found strong lashings that must have held four or five men; the ropes were still there, but the men were gone. The hull was full of water and the decks were awash.  We could have taken the SIGLIN in tow, but we had no lines that would hold her."

On 5/13/1897, the San Francisco based Northern Commercial Company, sent a telegram to Washington asking for assistance in securing the GENERAL SIGLIN. A day later, Captain Shoemaker, Chief of the Revenue Cutter Service sent the cutters, PERRY, CORWIN, GRANT and RUSH to search for the derelict schooner, with urgency, because she was a non-stationary obstacle in the main shipping lane that posed danger to all who encountered her.

On 5/17/1897, Captain P. Martin of the sealing schooner ARIETIS found the dismasted GENERAL SIGLIN 250 miles off the coast of British Columbia. When he boarded her, he found the body of 40 year old captain's mate, Henry Saunders, who had been lashed to the starboard davits for 50+ days by then.

Martin wrapped Saunders body in canvas and buried him at sea; later he wrote "Buried him with all the honors due a sailor close to the scene of his sad and horrible death." The ARIETIS left the wrecked schooner where they found her.

The revenue cutter CORWIN finally towed the SIGLIN, to Sitka in early June; when the water was pumped out of the wreck, the body of a young boy was found, as well as $700 to $800 in gold. Records said that the NACC agent, Greenfield had $16,000 with him on the trip, but it was not found and assumed washed overboard.

When reporters asked the Captain of the CORWIN if he thought the passengers and crew might have deserted the schooner, he said he "felt certain that they had all drowned on board and were later washed out to sea through the open ports and hatches. Other evidence that the SIGLIN was not deserted was that there was $2,000 in gold left behind as well as the body of a child."

The hulk of the three year old GENERAL SIGLIN was purchased by Albert J.Goddard, the famous Klondike Gold Rush sternwheeler entrepreneur. He had the schooner restored by the Moran Bros. Co. in Seattle, and it was back on the water by February of 1899, making two round trip voyages to Cook Inlet per month.

The GENERAL SIGLIN's next "near miss" moment came while on a return trip from Cook Inlet (7 months after she was rebuilt). She was 25 miles off the coast of Cape Elizabeth in the Kachemak Bay area with 36 passengers, when a gigantic wave swelled up, seemingly from underneath the vessel; according to one of the passengers, "The calm waters were instantly lashed into a yeast of foaming crests". Seconds later, a 50' wall of water tossed the schooner over onto her side. One passenger told reporters: "The schooner was lifted and it seemed as though we were headed for the sun. An instant later we were sinking down deep into the cavernous jaws of the dark waters. The rolling of the ship was frightful and we were all compelled to seek refuge in our cabins, although the Captain bravely stood at the wheel. One moment the vessel would be lying on her beam-ends, the next the bowsprit would make a sudden dive toward the bottom and the next, the taffrail would be taking a bath." Smaller waves tossed the  SIGLIN around until sundown, but she managed to ride them out.

In November of 1899, a story was published about the superior sailing speed of the GENERAL SIGLIN. She sailed from Cook Inlet to Port Townsend (non-stop and with favorable winds) in just 10 days; four full days faster than average. She carried 76 passengers and $30,000 worth of gold dust on that trip. Her speed and ability to survive almost any calamity made the SIGLIN legendary.

In 1901, with Captain N. L. Johnson at the  helm, the GENERAL SIGLIN was chartered by the Russian Government to transport a crew of topographers (headed by Count Podhorski and Commissioner Evanhoff), who's secret mission it was to update Russian maps of the Siberian coast. While sailing under the Russian flag and under the protection of the Russian Government, the SIGLIN took the topographers from the north side of the Siberian Peninsula to the Russian Spit on the south side; then to Plover Bay and on to the 180th meridian which was approximately 50 miles west of Holy Cross Bay; the total length of the voyage was 765 miles and took 27 days. Podhorski and Evanhoff confided in Captain Johnson that the maps would be used the next spring when the Russian Government opened the entire area to placer, quartz, coal and other mineral mining.

By 1902, the SIGLIN was owned by the Bering Sea Fish and Transportation Company and was one of the first boats, in the area, to be equipped with an on-board fish freezing and cold storage plant. This allowed the company to freeze their catch immediately and keep it frozen until they reached the Seattle market. Owners of the company were, P.C. Ellsworth, W.E. Getzendanner, John Murray of Seattle and John McKay an investor from Chicago.

On October 13, 1902, The US Revenue Cutter MANNING and the GENERAL SIGLIN were both trying to stay ahead of a massive storm as they headed for Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Chain. The SIGLIN, piloted by Capt. Bartels and his crew of five, was last seen about 3:45 that afternoon, by the MANNING, 40 miles off of False Pass, on the eastern end of Unimak Island. The Captain of the MANNING, C. H. McLellan, said that the SIGLIN looked good the last time he saw her and if the weather held, she should have been able to reach Dutch Harbor in two days. But luck was not with the fearless schooner this time. The night of the 13th, the most severe storm of the season caught up with both vessels.

McLellan, wrote, "The storm was so strong that it taxed the seaworthiness of the MANNING; and her 2,500 horsepower engines were brought to full play before the vessel could reach Dutch Harbor." McLellan remained at Dutch Harbor from October 14th until November 5th, and he said he hoped that the GENERAL SIGLIN might limp in during that time, but she never did.

Newspapers, who had prematurely reported the demise of the GENERAL SIGLIN, so many times in the past, now held out hope that the legendary schooner had survived this last massive storm. One reporter wrote, "True, she drowned one crew some years ago when she was caught in a storm off the southeastern coast and turned turtle, but since then, the defects have been remedied and the SIGLIN is considered to be one of the most seaworthy crafts in the north."

Dozens of optimistic newspaper articles in support of finding the SIGLIN were published in California, Boston, New York, Oregon and Washington over the next 49 days; then in late November of 1902, newspapers started reporting that the GENERAL SIGLIN had indeed survived and was spotted limping south. A similar sighting came from the lightkeeper at Carmanah Point on Vancouver Island and a day later, the Captain of the ANNIE M. CAMPBELL as well as the master of the steam-tugboat DOLPHIN, both said they saw the SIGLIN passing Port Townsend on its way to Seattle.

But a fairy tail ending for the SIGLIN was not to be. The brief exhilaration that the newspaper stories brought was dashed 48 hours later, when it was determined that the sightings were that of the storm battered (and long overdue) schooner VOLANTE, not the SIGLIN.


The SIGLIN and her crew were never found.


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Sources used for this story:


Lincoln County Leader 12/10/1896
Los Angeles Herald 5/8/1897
San Francisco Call 5/8/1897
San Francisco Call 5/12/1897
Boston Evening Transcript 5/13/1897
New York times 5/14/1897
San Francisco Call 5/14/1897
Sacramento Daily Union 5/14/1897
St. John Daily Sun 5/17/1897
San Francisco Call 5/22/1897
The Daily Morning Astorian 5/23/1897
Victoria Daily Colonist 5/26/1897
Sacramento Daily Union 5/26/1897
New York Times 5/27/1897
Sacramento Daily Union 5/27/1897
Sacramento Daily Union 6/11/1897
Spokesman Review 6/11/1897
San Francisco Call 6/20/1897
Los Angeles Herald 11/2/1898
Los Angeles Herald 7/17/1899
San Francisco Call 10/9/1899
Los Angeles Herald 11/1/1899
San Francisco Call 1/27/1901
San Francisco Call 5/8/1897
San Francisco Call 5/26/1901
New York times 11/17/1901
Port Townsend Daily Leader 11/22/1902
Port Townsend Daily Leader 11/25/1902
Spokesman Review 11/25/1902
San Francisco Call 11/26/1902
Los Angeles Herald 12/1/1902
Port Townsend Daily Leader 12/1/1902
Port Townsend Daily Leader 12/2/1902