SS Clarksdale Victory, Hippa Island

SS Clarksdale Victory, Hippa Island

by | Sep 1, 2021

SS Clarksdale Victory is a shipwreck on the west coast of Hippa Island, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) west of Graham Island in the Haida Gwaii Archipelago, and about 49 miles (79 km) southwest of Masset and 42 miles (68 km) northwest of Queen Charlotte, British Columbia. In 1853, James Charles Prevost was the commander of HMS Virago, a wooden paddle-wheeled steam sloop about 180 feet (55 m) long. The ship used sails under favorable conditions, but if necessary it could proceed under steam at up to 9.5 knots (18 kph). The Pacific Station of the British Royal Navy at that time was in Valparaiso, Chile, but conflicts with the United States over the border had made Esquimalt, near Victoria, an increasingly important port of call from 1848 onwards. In December 1852, Virago left Valparaiso on a long cruise to Vancouver Island, and after a very stormy passage, the vessel arrived in Esquimalt on April 17, 1853. On April 28, Virago left Esquimalt bound for the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii) to investigate the suspected presence of hundreds of Americans seeking gold. Prevost named Graham Island for Sir James Graham, the First Lord of the Admiralty. A narrow channel separates Graham Island from Moresby Island which is now in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. The Haida people have lived in the Haida Gwaii Archipelago for at least 6,000 years, and there were 117 historical Haida villages and seasonal camps in the archipelago. Today, the principal communities on Graham Island are Juskatla, Masset, Old Massett, Port Clements, Queen Charlotte, Skidegate, and Tlell. A channel about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) wide separates Graham Island from Hippa Island, which is only 3 miles (4.8 km) long and about 1 mile (1.6 km) wide, and historically was the site of three Haida communities or seasonal camps including Sulustins on the east coast, Atanus, on the northeast coast, and Gatgainans.

SS Clarksdale Victory was a Victory ship built for the American President Lines by the California Shipbuilding Corporation in Los Angeles and launched on January 27, 1945. The Victory ship was a class of cargo ship produced in large numbers by North American shipyards during World War II to replace wartime losses. They were a more modern design compared to the earlier Liberty ship, with a slightly larger hull and more powerful steam turbine engines that allowed participation in high-speed naval convoys and made them more difficult targets for enemy submarines. Victory ships typically carried a crew of 62 civilian merchant sailors and 28 naval personnel to operate defensive guns and communications equipment. The crew quarters were located amidships. A total of 531 Victory ships were built under the Emergency Shipbuilding Program. The American President Lines worked as an agent for the War Shipping Administration, tasked with purchasing and operating the civilian shipping tonnage the United States needed for fighting the war. American President Lines was responsible for refitting, crewing, and maintaining the company ships in addition to the many Liberty and Victory ships that were built. In 1944, an additional 16 Victory ships were built specifically for American President Lines, including SS Clarksdale Victory, the 80th Victory-class ship, that was built in just 86 days. During the final days of World War II, Clarksdale Victory was a supply ship at the Battle of Okinawa from April 26 to May 8, 1945. On April 27, an artillery shell landed only 45 feet (14 m) from the ship, and the explosion sent shell fragments across the deck. The Naval Armed Guard on the Clarksdale Victory earned service stars for their actions during the island assault.

After World War II, many of the Victory ships were sold and became commercial cargo ships, and a few were converted for commercial passengers. At least 36 Victory ships later served in the Korean War and 100 Victory ships served in the Vietnam War. In 1947, the U.S. Army was still occupying Camp Sullivan in Whittier, Alaska. The site was a strategic Cold War facility, with a deep-water ice-free port accessed via Prince William Sound and Passage Canal, railroad access that was easily secured by long tunnels, and typically cloudy weather that provided concealment from air bombardment. Supplies for the U.S. Army post were shipped from west coast military ports at Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and transported by American President Lines vessels. On November 24, 1947, Clarksdale Victory was en route from Whittier to Seattle when she encountered a severe storm with waves up to 50 feet (15 m) high off the coast of Graham Island. The vessel struck a reef and broke in two, the stern half sank and the bow half managed to stay afloat and eventually grounded on Hippa Island. SS Denali was a passenger vessel of the Alaska Steamship Company on a run between Puget Sound and Alaska ports when she was diverted to assist in a rescue effort, but the rescue was called off due to severe conditions. The U.S. Coast Guard cutters Wachusett out of Juneau, and Citrus out of Ketchikan rescued four survivors, but 49 of the 53 crew perished. Read more here and here. Explore more of Hippa and Graham Islands here:

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