The morning of Oct. 11, 1923 dawned dark and dangerous for the SS City of Everett.
Overnight, a ferocious squall overtook the ship in deep waters miles off the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The crew of 26 men was headed to New Orleans with a cargo hold full of rich Cuban molasses.
The first U.S. steamship to circle the globe and chug through the Suez Canal was to meet a bad end.
Churning seas and high winds battered the ship, which launched from an Everett shipyard in 1894.
The first mayday was broadcast at 7:30 a.m.
“Am lowering boats. Will sink
soon. Latitude 24.30 north, longitude 86 west.”
Four words were sent before 8 a.m.: “Going down stern first.”
One last SOS was sent, then the City of Everett was gone.
Rescue ships arrived at the coordinates to find nothing but the timeless sea.
later a bottle washed up on a Miami beach with a note stuffed inside.
“S.S. Everett. This is the last of us. To dear friends who find this, good-bye for ever and ever.”
A worthy namesake
Everett had sprung to life in 1890. A group of wealthy East Coast investors scrambled to build a manufacturing empire of factories, shops and stick-framed houses.
A newfangled steamship design grabbed the imagination of Everett’s founders, who learned of a cigar-shaped cargo fleet making money on the Great Lakes.
It was decided that one of Everett’s main industries would be the production of steel-hulled ships that would revolutionize marine transport. The Everett fleet would deliver wheat, iron ore, coal and lumber throughout the Pacific. They’d even steam goods to Atlantic ports by way of a canal that other visionaries of the time wanted to slice across Nicaragua.
Designed by Alexander McDougall, a scrappy Scottish-born ship captain and inventor, the steel ships would carry significant loads while cutting efficiently through waves and wind. Unlike the wooden cargo ships of the time, McDougall created a ship with a flat bottom, a curved deck that shed water and a bow and stern that ended in tapered points. A wheelhouse was positioned toward the stern.
At the time, people thought the vessel, when fully loaded in the water, looked like a whale. Hence the name “whaleback.” Older mariners didn’t care for the vessels with the funny snoutlike bows, and they came up with their own nickname: pig boats.
McDougall produced his first prototype in 1888 with his own money. When that ran out, he talked some of the same investors who founded Everett into joining John D. Rockfeller to form the American Steel Barge Co.: Colgate Hoyt, Charles Colby, Joseph Colby and Charles W. Wetmore.
In 1891 McDougall captained one whaleback, the Charles W. Wetmore, through rapids on the St. Lawrence River in Canada.
That December the SS Wetmore steamed into Port Gardner Bay after sailing to Liverpool, then back to New York, before rounding Cape Horn. It got a new rudder in Astoria, after the original came loose around the Galapagos Islands and finally fell off along the Oregon coast.
Her cargo was equipment for the new shipyard.
In 1892 the company set to work building a shipyard, envisioned to employ 100 men, at the northern tip of Everett, about two miles from the mouth of the Snohomish River. Later, the more well-known Weyerhaeuser Mill B would occupy that same site.
That September the SS Wetmore ran aground in the soft sands off Coos Bay. It couldn’t be saved.
The SS City of Everett
The shipyard set to building what would become the SS City of Everett. Nothing like it had been built on the West Coast.
Then came The Panic of 1893, a depression that lasted about four years. Banks closed their doors. Factories shut down and businesses failed.
Work on the whaleback ground to a halt, but McDougall eventually decided to forge ahead.
By fall 1894 the ship was ready to launch. At the time of launching it was the largest vessel afloat in the Pacific Northwest, 346 feet, just about the length of a football field. It cost nearly $300,000, a vast sum at that time.
Oct. 24, 1894 was a big day for Everett.
An estimated 10,000 people from around the Pacific Northwest converged on the city.
The mayor issued a proclamation for a holiday and asked businesses to close by 3 p.m. A special guest was the young state’s second governor, luxuriously mustachioed Republican John Harte McGraw.
Every bit of Hewitt Avenue was festooned with red, white and blue bunting and flags. A parade through town included a procession of school children and floats.
In the afternoon, everyone made their way to the ship where a little girl smashed a bottle of champagne over the bow and proclaimed, “I christen thee City of Everett. God speed thee.”
Afterward, the dignitaries danced and drank at the Monte Cristo Hotel and just about everyone else headed to the Firemen’s Ball.
The SS City of Everett was to be the only whaleback steamship built in Everett.
A notable ship
The SS City of Everett would go on to have a more notable career than most ships.
It went through the Suez Canal and around the world. It outran the large, storm-driven waves that destroyed Galveston in 1900, towed oil barges across the Atlantic Ocean and carried wheat to starving people in India. It came to the aid of distressed ships, survived at least one catastrophic fire and sent the Norwegian steam freighter Leif Eriksson to the bottom of the ocean after the ships collided in thick fog near Bulls Bay, South Carolina.
The hard-working SS City of Everett didn’t stay in Everett very long. Still, it played a crucial role in the city’s future.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the massive christening celebration came just a week before voters were to decide whether Everett or Snohomish would become the county seat.
“The whaleback card was a major one in the fight,” Everett historian David Dilgard said.
Everett won the vote, but it never became a city famous for launching ships.
The company never fully recovered from the depression. While dozens of McDougall’s whalebacks, built at his other shipyard in Wisconsin, had long successful careers on the Great Lakes, the whaleback ship design never caught on.
McDougall did get a north Everett street named after him.
A fishermen’s find
On Sept. 11, 2010, deep water diver Michael Barnette rolled off the rail of a fishing boat into clear, blue waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
Bobbing in the cool ocean, the morning air felt still and too warm through his wetsuit.
For the past two decades, Barnette, a 39-year-old marine biologist from St. Petersburg, Fla., has spent most of his free time and a lot of money exploring hundreds of shipwrecks. He’s become an expert on Florida shipwrecks and maritime history, lecturing and writing several books.
That’s the reason Jay Travis and Brian Beukema thought to contact him. A few years ago, the two fishermen had stumbled onto what they thought might be a sunken ship while fishing miles off the Florida coast. The depth finder on their boat kept pinging on something large and long on the ocean floor.
Curious, they eventually contacted Barnette and talked him and his diving partner Joe Citelli, an auto supply store owner from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., into coming with them to their secret fishing site. The anglers even offered to take the divers on Beukema’s 29-foot fishing boat.
That morning, Barnette found himself wondering if it was an actual wreck or simply a big pile of rock.
The men were blessed with ideal weather. The water was flat and calm. After dropping a weighted line down to the wreck, the men suited up and prepared to make the descent, more than 400 feet to the ocean floor.
Citelli started down first, an underwater scooter pulling him quickly down the line.
Although the men are not professionals, they ventured deeper than most recreational divers.
Instead of the typical tanks, Barnette used a re-breather, a $10,000 custom apparatus. He also dragged along a camera with strobes, extra oxygen and his own underwater scooter.
On board, a backup diver was at the ready if the men needed help.
The descent took Barnette about two minutes. The water was clear as glass. The light faded and darkness gathered around him. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust.
Something swished past him. Then something else. A school of amberjack swirled around him — a sign that maybe this wasn’t a pile of rocks he was speeding toward. The curious fish like to make their home in wrecks. As he descended, they followed him along, a friendly escort in the deep.
His partner moved ahead of him. In the glow filtering from his partner’s lights, he saw it: a wreck, a big one, a hull with long lines stretching out in both directions.
Barnette is a maritime history nut. He compiles dozens of files on sunken ships and studies the architecture of boats so he can identify what he’s seeing when he visits a wreck. Like a forensic scientist, he scans wrecks for clues to which ship it might be — and what happened.
Barnette immediately noted some peculiar features of this wreck. The hull was encrusted with a layer of oysters and a thin veneer of crud. Still he was able to see the clean lines of the ship. The ship had landed intact on the bottom and he could tell by the shape it wasn’t a tanker or a schooner. The ship’s odd shape left him wondering what he was looking at.
The hull was complete, although the deck had collapsed. Two masts lay broken over the hull. The hull, he noted, rolled up and around.
The two men landed midship. They knew they had under 20 minutes to explore; any longer, and resurfacing, which required slow, precise decompression to avoid the bends, would take much longer.
So the men took a 50-50 gamble. Either end of a ship often provides clues to identifying a vessel. Most ships have a bell with the ship’s name. The name of the vessel might still be visible along the hull.
Barnette prefers to start at the bow, but since he couldn’t tell which end was which, the men picked a direction.
It turned out to be a good gamble.
It was the stern they saw first and there they found clear evidence of what happened to the mystery ship. The damage indicated that the vessel sank stern first and slammed into the ocean floor. The butt end of the vessel sheered off and a small pile of debris lay nearby.
Above the hull, Barnette could see the cabin deck where the crewmen lived at sea. He could see portholes still intact and inside the deckhouse, porcelain bathroom fixtures.
With just a few minutes left, Barnette and his partner circled the long wreck, scurrying up to the bow. Red snapper and grouper swirled around them. At the front of the ship, they found no bell or other identifying marks, but they did find an odd feature — unusual recessed anchor pockets.
Too soon, time was up and the men started the slow ascent back to the boat, making stops and waiting for their bodies to adjust after visiting such deep depths.
Nearly two hours later they surfaced. Barnette was eager to get back to his computer and files in St. Petersburg so he could identify the mystery wreck.
The evidence for Everett
In less than 48 hours, he had an answer. He scoured his files and tracked down additional research. As the clues fell into place, he even asked a friend to check out an intact whaleback steamer in the Great Lakes. Everything pointed to a ship that before this trip he never would have believed could be a possibility: the SS City of Everett.
As coincidence would have it, Barnette was one of the divers who in 2007 found what is believed to be the wreck of the Leif Eriksson, the ship that tangled with the City of Everett and sank.
The City of Everett’s remains were found in deep waters miles away from where the ship reported its location during its distress call, Barnette said.
That might explain why rescuers who converged on those coordinates five or six hours after the mayday went out found nothing at the site — no crew in lifeboats and none of the debris that might be expected at the scene of a wreck.
Just about everything else about the wreck was matching perfectly with the SS City of Everett: the stern deck cabin, the position of the smokestack, the cigar shape of the hull.
Not wanting to make a false identification, Barnette asked a few trusted experts to examine his underwater photos and compare them with historical photos of the City of Everett. They agreed it appears to be the historic steamer.
Barnette is still not ready to say definitively that he found is the SS City of Everett. There’s one piece of evidence he’d like to reconcile: the bow of the boat with its odd anchor pockets doesn’t match the early photos of the City of Everett.
There are historical accounts of the ship being rebuilt and refitted as time and accidents occurred. Barnette can’t find any photos of the ship after 1911.
Barnette and his partner plan to take another trip out to the wreck this spring when the weather improves.
They hope to videotape their find and scour the area for an artifact that would prove with certainty this is the long lost City of Everett.
The ultimate proof would be the ship’s bell, which was probably etched with the ship’s name.
Barnette said if he finds it, he wants to send it back to Everett.
“It would be a real thrill to find the bell and give it back to the city,” he said. “It’s your vessel.”
Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.