Discovery of the Whaleback Steamer City of Everett

Michael C. Barnette (FN 09)


The SS Meteor - A restored Great Lakes Whaleback Steamer, similar to The City of Everett.

On September 11, 2010, Joe Citelli (MN 09) and I investigated a shipwreck in approximately 400 feet of water over 120 nautical miles off Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. We had recently been contacted by anglers Jay Travis and Brian Beukema, who originally stumbled across the mystery wreck during a fishing trip a couple years earlier and were curious about its identity. Due to the remote location and significant depth of the wreck, we had a copious amount of additional safety gear onboard, including EPIRBs, an inflatable life raft, satellite phone, and extra oxygen. We also added fellow diver Michael Muscato as an in-water safety/support diver to render assistance during our decompression if needed. On the evening of September 10, we departed Bradenton, Florida aboard Beukema's 29-foot boat and settled in for the long 150-nautical mile trip to the site.

We were fortunate to have an ideal weather window, and were blessed with flat calm seas. After marking the wreck, we suited up, donned our Megalodon closed-circuit rebreathers, and added our additional open-circuit emergency/bailout gas. With pre-dive checks completed, we rolled off the boat and scootered down the line to the wreck below. The descent took just over two minutes, and as we approached the bottom, the unmistakable shadow of a wreck loomed out of the blue. It was a large wreck, sitting upright and contiguous, though with portions significantly collapsed. Moving around the wreck amidst abundant schools of fish, we captured images of various key features to help aid in a potential identification: two collapsed masts, a peculiar cross-section of the hull, unique support structures around the stern superstructure, and the remains of the odd bow and stern. With our 20 minute bottom time over far too quickly, we ascended to conduct approximately two hours of required decompression. Upon surfacing, we excitedly shared our findings and observations with the rest of the team; however, at the time, we were unable to identify the mystery wreck. Back at home, though, the diagnostic features we noted on the dive provided fairly conclusive evidence on the shipwreck's identity in short order - we had discovered the historic whaleback steamer City of Everett.

In 1872, Alexander McDougall, a Scottish-born Great Lakes captain, envisioned a new type of vessel hull that could carry significant loads while efficiently cutting through waves and wind. His design possessed a flat bottom, a bow and stern that ended in a tapered point, and a curved deck to help shed water. The base of the masts and the anchor windlass were housed in large turrets, and the stern deckhouse was also supported by large turrets, similar to the appearance of a Civil War era Monitor-class warship. On October 2, 1891, the Port Gardner News described the odd shape, stating, "The bow rounded up like the rounded end of a cigar…. Above water there was neither bulwark nor plank sheer, nor deck in the ordinary meaning of the word deck. The sides simply arched up over and met amidships. A section across the ship above the water line was simply the half of an ellipse. When she was loaded the top of the arch was perhaps four feet out of water. A wave in a gale would simply go rolling across her, scarce impeded by her pressure." Observers thought the appearance of these vessels when fully laden was that of a whale, hence the name "whaleback." The novel design was not embraced by the shipping industry, and many simply referred to the vessels as "pig boats," based on the snout-like look of the bow. Because the shipping industry failed to accept his whaleback design, McDougall proceeded to launch his own shipbuilding company, American Steel Barge Company of Superior, Wisconsin, where he ultimately constructed 24 whaleback barges and 16 whaleback steamers. In an effort to introduce the design outside of the Great Lakes and to the Pacific Northwest, McDougall collaborated to establish the Pacific Steel Barge Company at Everett, Washington.

The City of Everett, official number 127055, was launched on October 24, 1894, by the new company. The business venture failed, however, and the City of Everett became the first and last vessel built by the Pacific Steel Barge Company, and the only West Coast whaleback vessel ever built. The steamer, 346 feet in length, 42 feet in breadth, and 2,504 gross tons, was originally employed as a freighter for the American Steel Barge Company. An article published in the March 5, 1895, edition of the San Francisco Call noted the reaction the whaleback steamer produced upon her arrival to the city:

The whaleback steamer City of Everett, of which much has been written since she was launched from the place the name of which she bears, arrived in port yesterday morning with 3,300 tons of coal for the Southern Pacific Company. She is a curious specimen of marine architecture, and her arrival brought down great crowds to the water front to get a peep at her…. The vessel came up the harbor flying the blue peter from her foremast, a pennant with her name strung from the mainmast and her signal flags streaming from the mizzen, while the stars and stripes floated at the peak. The low sullen sound of her siren awoke the echoes in the surrounding hills, and people rushed out from all points wondering what strange craft had invested the waters. All the ferry-boats saluted the new comer and an opportune blast set off at Gray's quarry on Telegraph Hill lent warmth to the welcome accorded to the whaleback. A longshoreman wanted to know what warship that was and a facetious Custom House official told him that it was a Japanese cruiser come to shell Chinatown. He believed it and spread the tale among the Italian fishermen, and there was great joy on the seawall and drinking of claret and much munching of macaroni thereat.

During her early career, the City of Everett worked along the Pacific Northwest, running cargo from British Columbia to ports in Puget Sound and on south to San Francisco. In mid-June 1897, Captain Louis Laverge guided the whaleback steamer out of San Francisco Bay on a humanitarian mission to Calcutta, India, with a cargo of corn donated by American farmers. The population of India had been suffering from a relentless famine since early 1896, which would ultimately claim over one million lives upon its conclusion in late 1897. The arrival of the City of Everett at Calcutta in mid-August, however, was received coolly by the ruling British government, who did not appreciate the widely-publicized relief mission. On November 4, 1897, the Boston Daily Globe reported, "Capt. Laverge says that the English officials and residents seemed to regard the mission of humanity in which the American vessel was engaged as an intrusion, and used all their influence to prevent the natives from receiving the supplies. 'Upon the failure of this scheme,' says the captain, 'they levied excessive duties on the cargo, and for 10 days we were not allowed to land it.'" The article concluded, stating, "The pilot who came aboard the City of Everett when she approached Calcutta told the captain that he would have done better to have brought a cargo of rapid-firing guns with which to kill off the Indian population."

After finally discharging her cargo of corn at Calcutta, she cruised to Madras with a cargo of coal. She returned to Calcutta to take on a load of jute for Valencia and Bilbao, Spain. Her journey would take her through the Suez Canal, at which time she became the first American steamship to pass through the Suez. Arriving at Bilbao, the City of Everett exchanged the remainder of her jute for a cargo of iron ore to carry back across the Atlantic to Charleston, South Carolina. Upon her arrival on the East Coast of the United States in January 1898, the City of Everett claimed another notable accomplishment, as she became the first American steamship to circumnavigate the globe.

On January 23, 1909, the City of Everett was involved in another maritime milestone when she became one of first vessels to respond to a "C.Q.D." wireless distress call from the liner R.M.S. Republic. In the early morning hours of January 23, the 570-foot long Republic, bound from New York for Liverpool, was struck on her port side by the Italian steamer Florida while off Nantucket Shoals. The bow of the Florida pierced deep into the liner's side, invading the engine room and extending below the vessel's water line. At 6:38 a.m., the Republic's radioman broadcast a "C.Q.D." signal, the predecessor to the more recognized "S.O.S." distress message. The R.M.S. Baltic was the first ship to finally locate the heavily damaged Republic drifting in heavy fog at approximately 6:00 p.m. Captain Thomas Fenlon and the City of Everett, towing a consort barge, arrived on scene two hours later and offered assistance to the crippled White Star liner, which was repeatedly declined by Captain Sealby of the Republic. The City of Everett continued on her way at approximately 9:00 a.m. the next morning; the Republic ultimately sank in 250 feet of water less than 12 hours later. According to January 28, 1909, edition of The Washington Post, "Shipping men said today that had Capt. Sealby accepted the offer of Capt. Fenlon and the Republic had been towed into Newport or some adjacent harbor, the salvage bill would have been close to $20,000. The City of Everett was fitted with pumps, and even if the Republic had only been beached by the Standard vessel, so their opinion ran, a great part of her cargo and large part of the passenger's baggage could have been saved."

On November 10, 1922, the vessel was purchased from Standard Oil Company by Abram I. Kaplan. On the morning of October 11, 1923, while on a voyage from Santiago, Cuba, to New Orleans, Louisiana, with a cargo of molasses, the whaleback steamer City of Everett foundered at sea during a storm. The newspaper Capital Times reported on October 12, 1923, that the doomed whaleback steamer managed to broadcast a mayday at 7:30 a.m., which stated, "Am lowering boats; will sink soon, latitude 24:30 north; longitude 86 west." The City of Everett's radio operator detailed their fate twenty-five minutes later, revealing "Going down stern first." One last "S.O.S." was sent out before the radio went silent. No trace of the whaleback steamer City of Everett or her 26 crewmen was ever found.