On April 15, 1903, as the steamship Clallam launched for the first time in Tacoma, Washington the woman who swung the bottle of champagne at her bow missed and the American flag unfurled upside down. The SS Clallam was off to a rocky start that would eventually end in disaster nine months later.
The Clallam was commissioned by the Puget Sound Navigation Company to run a route from Tacoma to Seattle, Port Townsend, and Victoria, British Columbia. It was on this route that the Clallam’s brief existence would come to a devastating end.
On the morning of January 8, 1904, the Clallam departed from Tacoma under the command of Captain George Roberts. It stopped in Seattle to pick up passengers and freight when something rather unusual happened. It was typical for the Clallam to transport sheep bound for Port Townsend or Victoria. In order to corral the animals onto the ship, a trained “bell sheep” was used to lead the herd aboard. Strangely the bell sheep on the morning of January 8, 1904, refused to board the ship and was eventually left behind.
The Clallam made its usual stop in Port Townsend and then headed north across the Strait of Juan De Fuca towards Victoria. Suddenly the winds soared up to 36 miles an hour and even as high as 60 in some places. The ship struggled towards Canada but was forced east toward the San Juan Islands and the Salish Sea. The storm raged and battered the Clallam until water started pouring in through a damaged deadlight. A deadlight is a shutter or plate fastened over a ship's porthole or cabin window in stormy weather. The Clallam’s pumps failed, leaving the vessel inoperable and in serious danger of sinking.
Several tugboats and rescue ships were sent out to save Clallam and the people on board. Sadly, the storm was too severe around the San Juans. Desperate and afraid, Captain Roberts had the lifeboats filled with women and children and lowered into the sea. All of the boats capsized and everyone drowned. Men watched helplessly from the Clallam as their wives and children perished before their eyes.
Of the 92 official passengers aboard the SS Clallam, 56 died on the voyage. Many more children below fare age probably were killed as well. All 17 of the women and children died when the lifeboats capsized. Eventually, the wrecked Clallam washed up on the shores of Victoria never to function again.
In the aftermath Chief Engineer Scott A. DeLaunay had his license revoked because of the structural and mechanical failure of the Clallam and Captain Roberts was suspended. Tighter regulations were implemented on steamships to ensure the safety of the passengers and the Tacoma, Seattle, Port Townsend, Victoria route was taken over by the Alaskan Steamship Company. Back in Spokane, Washington, the city mourned the loss of Louise Harris, a popular young woman who died on the voyage. Louise had begged for her mother’s permission to visit her friends in the Puget Sound region. The funeral service for Louise was said to be the largest in Spokane history up to that point. If only the passengers had heeded the warning of the bell sheep, the Clallam’s fateful voyage may have had a happier ending.