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An extraordinary shipwreck discovered in Alaska
Anchorage Daily News


October 15, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Plumbing the shallows of Lower Cook Inlet near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula this summer, a team of divers located what authorities say is the oldest American shipwreck in Alaska.

It also marks a pivotal chapter in U.S. history.

The four-person party charted and photographed remnants of the Torrent, a huge, square-rigged sailing vessel that struck a reef and sank near Port Graham in 1868, less than a year after the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia.

Aboard the vessel at the time were women, children and a battery of 130 U.S. soldiers, some of whom were veterans of the recent Civil War. They had been ordered to construct the first U.S. fort on the mainland of south central Alaska.

Before they found a suitable building site, however, their vessel, a 576-ton bark piloted by civilians, struck a reef near Dangerous Cape, partly due to the absence on deck of a captain who had been drinking. The castaway crew and passengers had to camp on an adjacent beach for 18 days awaiting rescue as the ship broke up offshore and sank.

Somewhere near the reef at the bottom of the sea the shipwreck remained unexamined for 139 years, until July, when a team of divers -- authorized by the state to conduct an archaeological survey of the site -- finally located significant pieces of the vessel at the end of a two-year search.

In addition to partly buried portions of the wooden hull (most of which had been swept away by powerful tides), the search team located the rudder, anchors, portholes, plumbing, pieces of rigging and two cannons.

"Like a jigsaw puzzle -- one piece at a time over the course of quite a number of dives -- we were able to find different distinctive pieces of wreckage," said team leader and local shipwreck historian Steve Lloyd, co-owner of Title Wave Books in Anchorage.

The group held back on announcing its discovery until this week so the state could take steps to preserve and protect the shipwreck, which is now being considered for listing in the National Registry of Historic Places.

"It's really quite an extraordinary wreck," said Dave McMahan, an archaeologist in the state Office of History and Archaeology.

"Ultimately this would be a great (exhibit) for a maritime museum. It's a very important part of Alaska's history."

Among the artifacts is the brass remnant of a mountain howitzer, a short-barreled, large-caliber cannon on wheels used extensively in the Civil War.

"I think that's pretty dramatic," said Alaska shipwreck historian Mike Burwell.

A veteran of a half-dozen other shipwreck expeditions in Alaska, Lloyd, 42, began to focus on finding the Torrent two years ago after reviewing Burwell's database of hundreds of Alaska shipwrecks.

So, in the summer of 2006, along with two fellow divers -- Ken Koga-Moriuchi of New York and Nick Teasdale of Lima, Peru -- Lloyd sailed to Dangerous Cape on his 27-foot cabin cruiser to conduct a preliminary investigation.

One of the biggest iron objects on the Torrent was the anchor, which measured 10 feet tall with a stem 2 1/2 feet in circumference and pointed flukes 9 feet across. The magnetometer seemed to detect it, Lloyd said.

So the team began to dive.

First they spotted dozens of bricks, probably used as ballast for the ship. Then the divers found parts of the rudder, which suggested that was where the stern had come to rest. Following the bricks in a line, they found badly desiccated pieces of the wooden hull partly covered in gravel and pieces of iron covered with marine organisms.

They also found various well-defined objects made from brass, copper or bronze such as portholes, a toilet and pieces of the rigging.

At the opposite end of a 200-foot-long debris field they discovered anchor chains and the kelp-covered anchor itself, which Lloyd thinks was hanging at the bow when the ship went aground.

The end of the story for the shipwrecked passengers of the Torrent turned out as well as could be expected. The Native Alaskans on the Peninsula came to their aid, sharing some of their fish. Then a sister ship showed up, transporting the soldiers and civilians back to the former Russian fort on Kodiak Island.

Spending the winter there, the soldiers built a school for local children out of lumber that had been intended for the fort. The next spring, they sailed to the mouth of the Kenai River on a different ship and proceeded to build Fort Kenay (as it was spelled then) in 1869.


George Bryson online at
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