The Wreck of the SS Clallam

Posted January 3, 2018 at 5:49 am by

Photos: SS Clallam, Courtesy UW Special Collections; Front page story, January 10, 1904, Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Dellie LaPlante Sullins monument, Valley Cemetery, San Juan Island - Click to enlarge

It’s time for the His­tor­i­cal Museum’s month­ly His­to­ry Column…

A clair­voy­ant bell sheep and a gale most foul: The Wreck of the SS Clallam

A ben­e­fit of writ­ing about local his­to­ry is that we can tell a sto­ry in the con­text of our own place and our own peo­ple. What was once inter­na­tion­al news, recount­ed in news­pa­pers from Vic­to­ria to New York City, is still today a local San Juan Islands sto­ry known as The Wreck of the Clal­lam. It began on Jan­u­ary 8, 1904 when the excur­sion steam­er SS Clal­lam met its fate in the Strait of Juan de Fuca dur­ing a ris­ing gale, with a loss of 56 lives. Of these, eight were from San Juan and Orcas Islands. Four more islanders would be saved and count­ed among the thir­ty-six pas­sen­gers and crew who lived long enough to be res­cued from drown­ing. We remem­ber their names.

Drowned: Ulysses Grant Hicks, San Juan Island; Mem­bers of the LaPlante fam­i­ly of San Juan Island and Orcas Island – Peter LaPlante, Car­o­line King LaPlante and daugh­ter Ver­na, Del­lie LaPlante Sullins and her chil­dren Leonard, Lewis, and Violet

Res­cued: William King (broth­er of Car­o­line LaPlante), William LaPlante (hus­band of Car­o­line LaPlante), Thomas Sullins (hus­band of Del­lie Sullins), and John Sweeney

All of these islanders were on their way to the Van­cou­ver Island min­ing oper­a­tion of Thomas Sullins. The Sullins fam­i­ly had recent­ly moved from Orcas Island, return­ing to the islands for a vis­it with fam­i­ly and friends over the Christ­mas hol­i­day. Join­ing them was Robert Miller of Orcas Island, com­plet­ing the group of thir­teen. That unlucky num­ber was not the first of this story’s bad omens.

The SS Clal­lam was a 168 foot, wood-hulled steamship and the pride of the Puget Sound Nav­i­ga­tion Com­pa­ny when launched just months ear­li­er in 1903. Super­sti­tious sailors con­sid­ered it a cursed ship. On launch day, Old Glo­ry flew upside down in an unin­tend­ed dis­tress sig­nal, and the cham­pagne chris­ten­ing didn’t hap­pen when the bot­tle missed the ship. Then on that fate­ful morn­ing of Jan­u­ary 8, 1904 as live­stock was about to be loaded onboard in Seat­tle, an expe­ri­enced bell sheep balked for the first time and refused to lead the herd onto the ship. No coax­ing was suc­cess­ful and he was left behind on the dock. What did the bell sheep know?

The Clal­lam depart­ed Seat­tle and head­ed toward Port Townsend. The group of thir­teen from the San Juans had arrived at Port Townsend ear­li­er to pick up the steam­er for the last leg of the run to Vic­to­ria. Unex­pect­ed­ly, Robert Miller changed plans in Port Townsend and sailed to Seat­tle instead. It saved his life. The islands group of twelve board­ed the Clal­lam and it head­ed out in stormy seas – and into a ris­ing gale. There were now 92 peo­ple onboard.

Bounced about in the rag­ing Strait of Juan de Fuca, the ship soon began to take on water through a bro­ken port­hole. Coal bunkers flood­ed, com­pro­mis­ing bilge pumps. As the ship began to founder, three lifeboats were launched for all women and chil­dren aboard, plus some of the men. All were drowned with­in min­utes as the unre­lent­ing sea swal­lowed the lifeboats, one by one. Par­tic­u­lar­ly heart­break­ing moments were when sis­ters-in-law Del­lie Sullins and Car­o­line LaPlante, along with their chil­dren, were lost while hold­ing their youngest babes above the waves as long as they could. Caroline’s broth­er William King was the last man to leave the ship after the mid­night hour when 36 sur­vivors were res­cued by tug­boats. As King looked back upon the sink­ing steam­er, he lament­ed how “phos­pho­res­cence on the water cast a ghost­ly light over the scene.”

The wreck of the Clal­lam is thought to be the worst mar­itime dis­as­ter in the Sal­ish Sea. To read more about this event, the Coroner’s Inquest, the manslaugh­ter charges and oth­er details of this tragedy, there is an arti­cle on His­to­ry Link, Wash­ing­ton state’s online ency­clo­pe­dia. Find out more about local island his­to­ry on the San Juan His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and Museum’s web­site at

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Categories: History

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