S. S. Dora

The doughty little steamship became one of the most beloved and recognizable vessels in the territory for her ability to handle the fierce conditions of the Alaskan waters.

April 8, 1880

Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.


Trial Trip of the Alaska Commercial Company New Steamer.

Yesterday afternoon the Dora, the latest addition to the fleet of the Alaska Commercial Company, was given a trial trip. The beauty of the day, the calmness of the water, and the bright sunshine, made the sail on the new and graceful steamer a veritable pleasure trip. At 10 o'clock Captain Hague gave the order to "let go her stern line," and the staunch little craft was headed for the Golden Gate. Having, on the return, passed Fort Point and Saucelito, the Dora was headed for Hunter's Point, the log was thrown overboard, and Lieutenant Hand, of the Revenue cutter Rush, was appointed referee. The hour was 10:52. A pool was made up by the various steamship men on board as to the time she would make — the majority wagering on between six and three-quarter and seven and three-quarter knots, Capt. Everett Smith, of the Siberia, betting on eight and one-eighth knots. 

While the log was dragging along about eighty yards behind the steamer, and the clock-work mechanism within was recording the awaited figures, the party on board sat down to an elegant cold lunch in the snug little cabin. The following gentlemen were present : Alfred Greenebaum, of the Alaska Commercial Company; Captain Hooper and Lieutenants Hand and Wykoff, and Chief Engineer D. H. Doyle, of the U. S. Revenue cutter Rush; Captain Everett Smith, of the Siberia; Captain M. C. Erskine, of the St. Paul; Captain Wells, of the Union Insurance Company; Captain Monton, Special Agent of the Treasury Department at St. Paul Islands; John Armstrong, C. D. Wagner, and Captain Peterson, of the Alaska Commercial Company; Martin Bulger, Superintendent of Construction for the Alaska Company; Wm. Deacon, Engine Builder, and Wm. McAfee, the Boiler-maker.

Lunch being disposed, and many happy wishes for a successful and prosperous career for the new steamer having been expressed over flowing goblets, the log was hauled in, and to the surprise of nearly all, eight and a quarter knots were recorded.

The Dora was built by Captain Turner. She will be commanded by Captain C. J. Hague; 1st officer, O. Anderson; 2d officer, Alex. Hansen, and is destined to ply between Sitka and the various islands off the coast. 

Her lines are as graceful as those of a pleasure yacht. Her dimensions are 120 feet in length over all, 27 feet beam, depth of hold, 13 feet; the hull being of Puget Sound pine. She has compound engines, the high-pressure cylinder having a diameter of eleven inches and the low-pressure cylinder twenty Inches, with a twenty-inch stroke. On her trial trip yesterday, with 70 pounds of steam, she averaged 112 revolutions. The vacuum gauge showed 26 inches, with temperature of the feed water at 130°. Her propeller is two-bladed, seven and a half feet in diameter, with an average of nine feet mean pitch. The engine-room and machinery are fitted with all the latest appliances, and the new machinery worked wonderfully smooth, without perceptible hitch or jar.

The boiler is made of half-inch iron, 60,000 pounds tensile, and is nine feet long and seven and a half feet in diameter, covered with asbestos and wire rotting, the daily consumption of coal being calculated at less than 3,000 pounds. Her forecastle is fitted with a patent steam windlass and capstan, which are very necessary in the trade in which she is to be employed. The saloon, which in aft, measures the entire width of the ship, and is light, airy and comfortable, the walls being hung with rich tapestry.

The Dora will sail for Alaska early next week.

The S. S. Dora did sail for Alaska, and over the course of the next four decades the doughty little steamship became one of the most beloved and recognizable vessels in the territory, earning a reputation as a “tough little marine bulldog" for her ability to handle the fierce conditions of the Gulf of Alaska, Shelikof Strait and the roiling waters surrounding the Aleutian Islands. 

Her exploits would become the stuff of legends, from saving hundreds of lives to passing through the twentieth century's largest volcanic eruption to drifting lost in the north Pacific Ocean, powerless and at the mercy of the elements, from November, 1905 to February, 1906. With passengers and crew all safe, the Dora turned up in Port Angeles, Washington, after weaving a zigzag course from Kodiak Island. The ship had been recorded as missing, her passengers and crew given up for lost, and Lloyd’s of London was preparing to pay the insurance money to her owners when Captain Z. S. Moore telephoned the general manager of the Northwest Steamship Company to give notice that the ship and her passengers were safe. 

The Dora made news in the venerable New York Times when it passed through the 1912 Mt. Katmai eruption, meriting the headline, “Alaska Volcano Puts Ship in Peril, Passengers on the Steamer Dora Nearly Suffocated by Poisionous Gases!” 

The S.S. Dora’s regular route was delivering mail, freight, and passengers along the rough western coast of Alaska, from Valdez to Unalaska. Much of her story is told in J. Pennelope Goforth’s book, Sailing the Mail in Alaska: The Maritime Years of Alaska Photographer John E. Thwaites, 1905-1918 (Cybrrcat Productions, 2003). Thwaites, an amateur photographer, was the mail clerk aboard the Dora, and he left a legacy of photographs of early Alaska. 

Postcard caption: “The staunch little steamer Dora has the largest mail run in the world, a round trip of over 2,000 miles, from Valdez to the Aleutian Islands. Occasionally during the summer months an excursion is run from Valdez to Columbia Glacier, which steadily discharges an ice mass into the waters of Prince William Sound.” 

The Dora departed Seattle December 17, 1920, bound for Unga and ports along the way, but three days later she struck a hidden reef near Port Hardy, British Columbia, and was lost.  The crew of 29 survived the accident but the Dora, valued at $20,000, was lost, along with her cargo of general merchandise valued at $30,000. 

Today a half-dozen geographical features in Alaska, including Dora Bay, Dora Lake, and two Dora Islands, are named after the tough but dependable little steamship which faithfully served Alaskan pioneers for so many years.  ~•~