Our motto at Americana Journal is “Educate, educate, educate.” Every item has a story, and if you can just figure out what that story is, you can breathe life into an inanimate object. Ongoing field work related to a discovery made three years ago is a case in point.

An international team of archaeologists conducting a survey of Klondike Gold Rush wrecks recently discovered an intact sternwheeler at the bottom of icy Lake Laberge, north of Whitehorse, in the subarctic wilderness of Canada. The perfectly preserved steamboat, the A.J. Goddard, was sitting upright on the bottom, 33 feet below the surface.

A small iron sternwheel steamboat, the A.J. Goddard was originally built in San Francisco, shipped to Alaska, and then dismantled and hauled over the mountains to Lake Laberge. It operated as a passenger boat and freighter, as well as being pressed into service as a repair shop and forge.

Used to transport miners and supplies, the A.J. Goddard was overwhelmed by ice, wind, and waves during a winter storm on the lake. The ship sank on October 22, 1901, and only two members of the five-man crew survived. The frontier steamer’s location was a mystery until a sonar search of the lake tentatively located the wreck in 2008. Its identity was confirmed in 2009. Winter ice each year limits the team’s ability to document the wreck, but underwater exploration continues.

Lindsey Thomas, a graduate student in the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M and a member of the Yukon River Survey expedition team, had this to say about the wreck: “The bones of the steamships that carried these people along the rivers tell their stories, if someone is willing to look.”

Sheet music for Ma Onliest One.

And the A.J. Goddard provided plenty to look at. Much of the ship’s contents were preserved, including crewmember’s clothes, dishes, and tools. A gramophone with three records was also discovered, and recent conservation work has identified the recordings. Rendezvous Waltz and a rare 1896 minstrel recording of Ma Onliest One were of particular interest to Gold Rush-era music experts. The records provide new insights into the songs early Klondike stampeders enjoyed; both were previously unknown in the context of the Gold Rush frontier. And, they were actually listened to — Ma Onliest One (written by American stage actress Fay Templeton) was the disc attached to the gramophone when it was discovered.

A watery Pompeii of sorts, the A.J. Goddard’s grave is a vivid snapshot of what life was like on the Gold Rush frontier. It’s a story that’s hard to resist, and one that brings history alive.

National Geographic named the discovery of the A.J. Goddard the top archaeological find of 2009, and the Yukon government designated the shipwreck a historic site in 2010. Protected under the Historic Resources Act, a permit is required to visit the site, but, details of the ongoing exploration can be found here.

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