Lost wreck from long-ago tragedy identified deep in Elliott Bay

Nov 17, 2023, 9:34 AM | Updated: 9:34 am

Local underwater explorers revealed Thursday that they have identified the wreck of a vessel that went down in a deadly tragedy on Elliott Bay 117 years ago this weekend.

It was Tuesday, November 18, 1906 – 117 years ago tomorrow – when the SS DIX left downtown Seattle and headed west for what was supposed to be a 40-minute trip to Port Blakely over on Bainbridge Island. The vessel was part of the “Mosquito Fleet,” those small wooden steamboats that were the backbone of transportation around here before highways and bridges. The historic VIRGINIA V, moored at South Lake Union, is one of the few remaining examples.

As the SS DIX crossed Elliott Bay in the early evening darkness, sometime around 7:30 p.m., the captain went to collect tickets from passengers. He left an unlicensed mate at the helm.

It’s unclear exactly why it happened the way it did, but the JEANIE, a big three-masted wooden steamer full of iron ore, came into view of the DIX. The JEANIE had minutes earlier left Smith Cove at the south end of Magnolia and was headed for Tacoma.

The mate on board the DIX was later blamed for mistakenly turning right rather than left and putting the DIX directly into the path of the oncoming freighter. The JEANIE struck the passenger vessel, and the SS DIX rolled over on its side and sank within minutes to a depth hundreds of feet below the surface. As many as 39 passengers who were trapped on the lower deck went down with it – including many women and children – while a similar number of passengers and crew managed to get free of the wreckage and survive the frigid waters.

Seattle-based exploration company Rockfish announced Thursday that the wreck of the SS DIX has been identified in Elliott Bay north of Alki. The wreck, about a hundred feet long, sits upright on the bottom in 600 feet of water.

This particular wreck was first located 15 years ago, but it was initially unidentified – dubbed “the schooner” by those who had found it – and then was misidentified several times over the years. The vessel’s resting place is so deep this isn’t the kind of thing recreational divers regularly visit; it takes special equipment to survey.

The two men who identified the wreck of the SS DIX are Jeff Hummel and Matt McCauley, the same pair who last year located the 1875 wreck of the PACIFIC off Cape Flattery. Hummel and McCauley first came to the attention of the underwater exploration world 40 some years ago when they were teenagers using simple gear to retrieve Navy bombers off the bottom of Lake Washington. A particular Helldiver bomber the two brought to the surface was eventually confiscated by the Navy and became entangled in a long legal battle. Ultimately, a group began the long process of restoring it for museum display.

Jeff Hummel is now CEO of Rockfish and a board member of a non-profit group he co-founded called the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance. Aboard the company’s research vessel SEA BLAZER Thursday in Elliott Bay, Hummel said that the “aha moment” for identifying the SS DIX came in 2015.

“The vessel has a ‘canoe stern,’ which comes to a point, and so it looks like a bow,” Hummel said. “So everyone thought that that stern was actually the bow. And so when you compare it to the photos” – of the SS DIX – “nothing lines up.”

“Until you flip it around,” Hummel continued. “And you realize that the bow, which is kind of crushed a little bit, is what people are calling the stern. And when you do that, you flip it around, then you see that all of the features in the photo, the major structural items all line up perfectly, and it is the DIX.”

Hummel says they use the wreck of the SS DIX as a kind of “control sample” to test the accuracy of their underwater exploration gear before heading out to Cape Flattery to the wreck of the PACIFIC, and so they’ve examined it many times over the past several years.

Still, even during Thursday’s brief deployment of sonar equipment and a remotely-operated vehicle (or “ROV”) for local media, Hummel told KIRO Newsradio that he saw something he hadn’t noticed before.

“Today, one of the conclusions I had is that the large structure that we see at the front actually might be the boiler because the boiler doesn’t appear to be where it should be,” Hummel said. “And so I could see if the vessel was going down at a very steep angle, that the boiler could set itself free and damage the front part of the boat.”

“So that’s something I’d like to investigate further,” Hummel said.

Rockfish has kept their findings a secret since 2015. They don’t want to do anything other than create a detailed photo survey of the wreck, and they want to work with the State Legislature to create some way to protect the site in perpetuity as the final resting place for nearly 40 people.

“We think that it’s important to pay respect to the vessel and the people that have been lost, and we’d like to see some legal mechanism for protecting it,” Hummel told KIRO Newsradio. “And the mechanisms that we have available to us today are imperfect because eventually they expire. So we’d like to see some sort of permanent legislation enacted by the state legislature to preserve and protect this particular site, and basically make it so it isn’t looted in any way and is preserved for the future and just respected as a grave site.”

Searching for lost vessels and airplanes is a lifelong pursuit for Jeff Hummel and something he’s into for the long-haul. Remember the Navy plane he and Matt McCauley found more than 40 years ago?

Hummel is headed to Colorado this weekend to inspect its complete restoration up close and to be there in person to see when it takes flight.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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