Epic new folk song commemorates Northwest shipwreck and a sheep

Jan 5, 2024, 11:19 AM | Updated: 1:22 pm

A graphic from the front page of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer of January 9, 1904 shows what was the latest information known about the SS CLALLAM in distress. (Public domain) Jon Pontrello performing a special live version of his song "The Bellwether Sheep of the Mosquito Fleet" for KIRO Newsradio in late 2023. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

An epic new folk song debuts this week to commemorate the spooky and sad legend of the SS Clallam, a passenger vessel that sank exactly 120 years ago in one of the deadliest disasters ever in local waters.

The Clallam was part of the old Mosquito Fleet, which was the unofficial nickname for the hundreds of vessels that plied the waters around here before highways, bridges and cars came along and stomped all the romance – and much of the danger – out of local travel and commuting.

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It was on January 8, 1904, when the steamer Clallam was about to begin the last leg of its daily trip from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia. After a stop in Port Townsend, the Clallam and about a hundred passengers and crew headed across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island.

Wintertime can be stormy ‘round these parts, and out in the Strait, winds were blowing an estimated 60 miles per hour, and there were reportedly 30-40 foot swells. For some reason or perhaps for multiple reasons – fingers later pointed at a broken porthole cover that allowed in seawater, or perhaps bilge pumps incorrectly deployed that brought seawater in rather than pumping it out – the Clallam took on too much water and started to founder. Before too long, the rising seawater below decks put out the fires in the boiler, leaving the 168-foot, 657-ton vessel helpless in the storm and adrift in a storm miles from shore.

An inquiry conducted after the disaster by the Steamboat Inspection Service – a kind of NTSB of its day – revealed many missteps by the crew. The worst of which was launching three lifeboats, one after the other, filled with women and children, with each boat capsizing almost immediately by big waves with all occupants lost.

Several hours passed in the stormy Strait as the Clallam battled to stay afloat, and was then ultimately put under tow by another vessel to head back to Port Townsend. Before they could make it, the Clallam rolled over and sank in the Strait north of Port Townsend in more than 400 feet of water.

It’s generally believed that at least 56 lives were lost that day, but record-keeping is such that the actual number may have been higher. The exact location of the wreck has not been pinpointed in modern times, but the Clallam is on a list kept by the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance (NSA) – the group involved with finding the SS Dix in Elliott Bay and the SS PACIFIC off of Cape Flattery. Matt McCauley of NSA told KIRO Newsradio on Thursday that the group does plan to locate the wreck someday as part of a larger effort to create a series of protected underwater memorials.

Meanwhile, ever since Gordon Lightfoot sang about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald or maybe when “Elwha On The Rocks” took local airwaves by storm, Northwest folks have loved a good shipwreck song.

Jon Pontrello is a locally born and bred singer-songwriter who first heard the sad story of the Clallam last summer from a friend. The story inspired Pontrello to write an epic folksong in time for the 120th anniversary.

Pontrello told KIRO Newsradio that a lot of people thought the Clallam was cursed from the moment of two bad omens at its christening at a shipyard in Tacoma just nine months before it sank.

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“Something went wrong, and the lady had to throw the champagne bottle,” Pontrello said, describing a typical vessel christening already gone awry. “And it missed and did not break, and so everyone was just like, ‘Oh my gosh!'”

“And then, I don’t know if it was that same day,” Pontrello continued. “But when they unveiled the flag, the American flag, it was upside down, which is the maritime symbol for distress.”

Along with that pair of omens, the part of the story that really grabbed Jon Pontrello’s attention was what should be officially known as “The Legend of Seattle’s Psychic Steamboat Sheep.”

The story goes that sheep were often shipped from Seattle to Victoria, and a “bell sheep” was used to lead the other sheep on board; they would just follow behind right in line and go up the ramp and into the cargo area of the vessel. That same “bell sheep” then would ride all the way to Victoria (or whatever the final destination was) with the other sheep and help them disembark there. It would ride back to Seattle alone to do the same thing all over again. This process had happened dozens of times, and it had always gone smoothly, as far as anyone knows.

But, on January 8, 1904, for some unknown reason, the “bell sheep” refused to go aboard the Clallam in Seattle at the dock at the foot of Yesler. No matter what they tried, the crew just could not get the “bell sheep” to do its job, so they finally gave up, and the humans had to lead the other sheep onto the Clallam. When the vessel departed for Port Townsend, they had left the “bell sheep” behind in Seattle.

The song Jon Pontrello wrote and performed for KIRO Newsradio is called “The Bellwether Sheep of the Mosquito Fleet.” It’s truly an epic folktale, more than eight minutes in length, and is sure to become part of the Pacific Northwest canon.

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To commemorate the release of the song and the anniversary of the loss of the Clallam, Pontrello will be performing two shows next week at the Rabbit Box Theatre at First and Pike on Thursday, Jan. 11, and Saturday, Jan. 13.

When you hear the full version of the song, you will agree it’s not baaaaaad at all!

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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Epic new folk song commemorates Northwest shipwreck and a sheep