February 7, 2024
The Star of Bengal, rigged as a bark for the Alaska Packers Association.
The Star of Bengal was a 264-foot schooner. On September 20, 1908, it left the cannery at Wrangell, Alaska, loaded with 25,000 crates of canned salmon and 137 people on board, 27 white crewmen and 111 Asian cannery workers. The ship was being towed by two small and under-powered steamer tugs 82 miles out Clarence Strait and down Sumner Strait to the open Gulf of Alaska, where it could raise its sails and continue on its own. Edward F. Anderson, a crewman on board, wrote:
By evening we sighted Coronation Island in the far distance on our starboard bow. By now, a strong breeze was blowing off our port beam. It’s getting dark now. We can just see the island. …. The wind is increasing to gale proportions … and it's cold. We are still heading for the weather side of the island. By now it was a real storm and pitch dark. All our sails were fastened down to the yards. Why we didn’t set sail and cast loose from the tug while there was still time to clear the island I don’t know.
It's now four bells 10:00 PM. The wind is still increasing with mountainous waves. There was no sign of the tugboat ahead of us. One of the mates … checks the towline and it's slack. [We] haul it in and see it’s been cut. … Now we can see the island looming up though the darkness on our lee side... We can also see the phosphorus waves breaking on the rocks….”
The crew dropped anchor. It didn’t hold. The hull broke on the rocks and everyone had to swim for shore in the dark, in the huge surf, battered by cases of canned salmon and chunks of timber from the wreck. But the shore was more rocks, and the people were smashed against them. At daylight, Anderson, who survived, counted the bodies of 15 of the white crew and 110 of the Asian laborers.
The wreck is significant for the magnitude of the human loss, for the reasons it happened (a long court proceeding later determined no one was at fault), but mostly because it highlights the story of the Asian – mostly Chinese – cannery workers in Alaska. We don’t hear much about them or the conditions they lived under, but they built the first big economy of the state.
Two years ago in May, I and a handful of others took the Endeavour to go find the wreck. Its general location was common knowledge, and one of our party had dived it years before, before Loran or GPS was available to precisely record the spot. But it has not been officially located and mapped. We had a marine archaeologist on board, and permits. One of our other members used old photos and satellite imagery that put us right on the spot. We found it.
Or half of it. We found the twisted metal of the front half of the ship piled up on the beach. The aft half of the ship lay somewhere in deeper water and could be partially intact. We also knew the anchor is down there, and we thought we knew where. But we had only four days to spend on site, and we had to cut our research short. As we collected our gear to go, the wind was blowing 52 knots and the Endeavour’s anchor chain was as tight as a violin string.
The Endeavour is going back this May for a longer, 12-day expedition. Jenya, our archeologist, has secured partial funding through a grant from the State of Alaska, Office of History & Archaeology, and is working on the permits. Sean, our drone expert, is preparing a flying magnetometer. Gig will dive the site for the third time in his life. Bella-the-boat-dog is ready. Sadly, the rest of the original team won’t be able to join us.
The mission this time is to locate the missing half of the ship and better map the wreckage so it can be protected under the Alaska Historic Preservation Act, and to help place the Asian cannery workers and their story in the history of our state and country.
-- Bill Urschel
Author and historian Ronan Rooney has uncovered a wealth of information on the Star of Bengal and has posted it on the Alaska History Facebook page.
This expedition is only partially funded. We need another $15,000 to make it happen. Donations of any amount will help. You can make them to Alaska Endeavour, a 501(c)3, here on our website, in the name of the Star of Bengal, or reach out to me at Bill@AlaskaEndeavour.org.
And finally, thank you to Anne Lee of the Clausen Memorial Museum, an excellent local history museum in Petersburg, Alaska. Anne gave me a lift to the airport one rainy afternoon and as I got out of her car handed me a copy of Andersons’ report and said I might find it interesting.
The 2022 Star of Bengal team, from top center, Gig Decker, Shawn Dilles, Ray Troll, Sean Adams, Jenya Anichtchenko, Tessa Hulls, Bella, Patsy Urschel, Bill Urschel.
One of the photos taken in 1908 that Shawn Dilles used to locate the wreck.