SS Portland, Katalla River

SS Portland, Katalla River

by | Jul 1, 2021

SS Portland is a shipwreck at the mouth of the Katalla River, near the abandoned oil prospecting community of Katalla, about 70 miles (113 km) west-northwest of Yakataga and 48 miles (77 km) southeast of Cordova, Alaska. The name for Katalla is derived from the Eyak word for “bay”. This name may have been given by early oil prospectors that discovered oil about 3 miles (5 km) east-southeast of Katalla near the head of Katalla Slough. This discovery resulted in Katalla becoming the center of the Katalla oil fields and a massive development project by the Alaska Syndicate that included building a railroad named the Alaska Anthracite Railroad to access the Bering River coalfield.

Oil and gas seeps occur along a narrow coastal strip between the Copper River Delta and the Bering Glacier. At least 75 oil seeps and 11 gas seeps have been discovered. Alaska natives likely knew about these seeps, but a prospector named Thomas White is credited for discovering oil near the head of the Katalla Slough in 1896 and staking the first oil claims. In 1902, after a few earlier failed attempts, the Alaska Steam, Coal, and Petroleum Syndicate drilled a well to a depth of 366 feet (112 m) and obtained a commercially viable flow of oil. From 1901 through 1951, at least 44 wells were drilled or started in the Katalla area. A small refinery was built approximately 0.5 miles (0.9 km)  northwest of the field in 1912, producing gasoline and other products that were sold locally and in Cordova. A total of about 154,000 barrels were produced until 1933 when the refinery burned, and because of economic conditions, it was never rebuilt. The town population dwindled and the local post office closed in 1943. By the mid-1940s only 12 permanent residents remained in Katalla, and it soon became a ghost town.

In 1885, SS Haytian Republic launched at Bath, Maine at the yards of the New England Shipbuilding Company for owners Hayti Mail Steamship Company of Boston who hoped to establish a general freight and passenger service to the island republic now known as Haiti. This venture was not profitable, and by 1892 the ship was on the U.S. west coast hauling contraband when it burned and sank near Portland, Oregon. The ship was raised and repaired and later sold and renamed SS Portland to join the small fleet of Alaska coastal steamers hauling freight and passengers for the Alaska Commercial Company. When gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, the first successful miners floated down the Yukon River to Saint Michael, and Portland was there to take them to Seattle to become the famous “Ton of Gold” ship on July 17, 1897. This helped start the Klondike gold rush and a passage to Alaska on her was in great demand for several years. On November 12, 1910, enroute from Juneau to Prince William Sound with a stop at Katalla, Portland struck an uncharted reef in Katalla Bay. In an attempt to save the ship, Captain Franz Moore ran full speed onto the beach and the ship settled to the bottom in shallow water. The passengers and mail were taken ashore, and wreckers removed all items of value and the vessel was left to break up and disappear in the sand. The 1964 Alaska earthquake raised the beach about 12 feet (3.7 m) and subsequent erosion had exposed the shipwreck when it was discovered in 2002. Read more here and here. Explore more of Katalla River here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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