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Down to the sea in ships

Every so often we get a phone call, email, visit, from somebody looking for information about a specific ship that might have sailed in Alaska waters. While we may or may not have archival materials related to that ship, my first suggestion to the researcher is usually not part of our archival holdings, but a book. This book:

The H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest: an illustrated review of the growth and development of the maritime industry from 1895, the date of publication of the last such comprehensive history, Lewis and Dryden’s marine history of the Pacific Northwest, to the present time, with sketches and portraits of a number of well known marine men.

How’s that for a title? It was edited by Gordon Newell and published in 1966, from a manuscript provided by the Seattle Historical Society through a research grant from H. W. McCurdy. It’s available both through our Rare Books collection and in the Alaska collection on the second floor of the Consortium Library, as well as in several other libraries in Anchorage and all over Alaska.

I’m here to tell you, this book was a labor of love. It’s a year-by-year accounting of the U.S. Pacific Coast fleet, commercial and military alike, and includes the steamers plying the Yukon River. Want to know something about this motor tug Little Toot? Look it up in the index, there’s a mention of it on page 599. Apparently it won a boom boat race on Coos Bay in 1954.

Other vessels have more extensive index entries, like the bark Star of Finland, with index references to pages 64, 289, 391, 400, 448, 473, 474, 489, and 657. These cover from the mention of the 1900 death of her builder Arthur Sewall who was perhaps better known in some circles as William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 running mate (p 64),  to her temporary chartering for the Hawaiian sugar fleet in 1917 from Alaska Packers’ Association (p 289), to her chartering for the movie Souls at Sea in 1936 (448), to her sale in 1939 (p 473-4), to her resale and registration as a Panamanian vessel in 1941, at which point she was renamed Kaiulani (her original name, according to the book, p 489 which also includes a photo) and then another six references (some repetitive) under that name in the index.

The volume focuses on events such as when a ship was sold, commissioned, wrecked (some multiple times), rebuilt, had new engines or masts added. It also includes information about the companies that owned the ships, and many of the individuals who captained the ships. So a comprehensive life history of any given ship company or captain? Perhaps not, but some of that information gives you hints as to where else you might look for further information. For example, for the Star of Finland which was owned by the Alaska Packer’s Association. The original APA records are in several different archives, but a portion of them have been microfilmed and are available through quite a few libraries, including the Consortium Library (the microfilms are in the Alaska collection on the second floor along with the published guide to the films.)

The Consortium Library also owns the precursor volume, the Lewis & Dryden one mentioned in the title to this one, and it’s in the Alaska collection in both print and microfilm versions. This McCurdy’s only goes up to 1965, but the publisher also did a volume covering 1966-1976 and we have a copies both in Rare Books and in the Alaska collection of that one.  But if you’re not able to get here to look at any of them for yourself, what to do? That, at least, is easy. Libraries all up and down the west coast (and even a few elsewhere) own copies of these volumes. If your local library does not have a copy, you might be able to interlibrary loan it, so talk to your local librarian. I haven’t been able to find a digitized copy of it yet, but hopefully one of these days somebody will be able to clear the permissions to scan it and make it more widely available.

A great resource. Hopefully you’ll find it so, too.

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