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2007 Hassler Expedition

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In 2006, under a grant from the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, investigators from the University of Alaska, the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program, the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, and the Sea Education Association of Woods Hole conducted a reconnaissance survey of several historic shipwrecks in Southeastern Alaska.  Among them was the former U.S. Coast Survey vessel Hassler, which later became the Klondike gold rush steamer Clara Nevada.  As part of NOAA’s two hundredth anniversary celebration of the U.S. Coast Survey, four archaeologists returned to Alaska in May 2007 for a more focused expedition to the wreck of the Hassler—a pioneering survey and science ship sometimes better known for its tragic destruction rather than its innovative technology and distinguished career.

U.S. Coast Survey vessel Hassler in 1893
U.S. Coast Survey vessel Hassler in 1893 (Image by NOAA Photo Library)
Today, broken by water, wind, and unforgiving rocks, the wreck of the iron steamer Hassler rests in shallow waters next the Eldred Rock Lighthouse in Southeastern Alaska. Looking more like plane crash than an historic shipwreck, the twisted and broken iron parts that once comprised the Coast Survey vessel are scattered around and embedded in a sharp pinnacle rock that rises nearly to the surface of otherwise deep waters.

NOAA Archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg documents the Hassler's boiler face.
NOAA Archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg documents the Hassler's boiler face. (Photo by Dave McMahan)
The physical destruction on the site mirrors the human tragedy. Every person on board perished when the 151 foot long ship slammed into an uncharted rock on February 8, 1898. No one knows how many died that freezing night, at least 40 and possibly more than 100. When the ship wrecked, her name was not the Hassler, but the Clara Nevada. No longer maintained and operated by the U.S. Government; the ship was owned by a pair of Seattle entrepreneurs intent on cashing in on the rush for Klondike gold. Her passengers represented a mix of Klondike pioneers, some apparently luckier than others in the gold fields.

The wreck has gone down in Alaskan history as an icon for the greed and desperation associated with the Klondike Gold Rush, for the ship was carrying a group of passengers from the newly discovery gold fields. Rumors involving gold, mutiny, and possible murder account for the enduring fascination in this tragic story. But as the 2006 and 2007 archaeological explorations and historical research have revealed, there is much more to the tale than a decrepit steamboat crashing on the rocks.

Built 1871 this early iron ship, powered by an innovative compound steam engine and equipped with deep sea dredging equipment, was the most technologically advanced science and survey vessel in the United States Coast Survey fleet. The study of the wreck and of the Hassler's career provides an important look at a transitional era in American shipbuilding and illuminates the role of the U.S. Coast Survey in the promotion of ocean science and in the systematic accumulation of geographical knowledge of the United States.

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