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Gramophone Identified on Klondike-Era Shipwreck

Klondike Gold Rush era sternwheeler A.J. Goddard
(courtesy Yukon Archives)

The well-known poem by Robert Service, titled The Cremation of Sam McGee, describes vividly the real sufferings of gold miners attracted to the Klondike gold rush beginning in the late 1890s, and muses about the strange things happening in the midnight sun on the marge of Lake Labarge during a Klondike gold rush era winter storm. Is it possible that the cremation was accompanied by recorded music from a passing steamboat?

In 1897, a small sternwheeler, the "A.J. Goddard", was placed into service during the gold rush on the lakes and Yukon River system leading to Dawson City. The small iron steamboat was manufactured in San Francisco, and sailed to Alaska. There, the boat was dismantled and hauled over mountain passes to Lake Labarge where it was reassembled. Val Monahan, Conservator of Yukon Museum Collections says, "The A.J. Goddard was very small and much less fancy than most boats. A real rough and ready little vessel, the deck had only a canvas cover. It was used to move people at first, but its main role was to haul firewood, freight and supplies and to tow scows."

During an October 1901 storm on Lake Labarge, the boat sank. Two passengers clung to wooden debris and were rescued the following morning. The three crewmembers drowned and their bodies were recovered the following spring along a shoreline.

The exact location of the sunken boat was unknown until 2008, when a sonar survey of Lake Labarge conducted by the Yukon Transportation Museum located an unknown vessel. Subsequent follow-up in 2010 confirmed that it was the A.J. Goddard, extremely well preserved and remarkably undisturbed at the bottom of the lake in 40 feet of very cold water.

In June 2010, an international archaeology team supported by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Ocean Gate, the Government of Yukon, the Yukon Transportation Museum and others worked to document the vessel and its contents.

Klondike Gold Rush era sternwheeler A.J. Goddard
(courtesy Alaska State Library)

A crew member’s jacket and boots still lay on the deck, there were scattered dishes and tools, and even the fire-box of the boiler was still open. It was clear that the ship’s fireman had been trying to throw in firewood to get more steam in a hurry. An axe was also resting on the deck where it had been abandoned by a crewmember.

But .. most interesting, and not identified at the time of recovery from the wreck in 2010, was a small wooden box and several associated parts and discs. Proper forensic procedures were followed. Artifacts recovered in water must remain in water until the time for examination. This means transporting and storing those items in suitably sized containers filled with water. Exposure to air can cause considerable damage in a hurry.

These items were forwarded to Tara Grant, a conservationist at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, Ontario, to be examined. It was immediately evident that the found items were an old external-horn wind-up gramophone of some sort and three disc records. As the horn was not among the recovered items, a further dive was conducted to search for the horn and any other possible parts and pieces, without success. been abandoned by a crewmember.

"It is likely still on the floor of Lake Labarge", said Val Monahan.

Lindsay Thomas, lead archaeologist at the time of the finds, said, "Finding the gramophone was a really big shock. Most of the other items were what you would expect to find at a shipwreck. It demonstrated that music was really important to the people of the gold rush."

The gramophone likely belonged to one of the crew members of the ship! It would have been dismantled, packed with the records and carried along with other belongings over the icy mountain passes, and by steamship or dog-sled to the Klondike, in much the same way that the AJ Goddard had arrived!

The gramophone and records as recovered from the A.J. Goddard wreck, prior to conservation treatment
(Yukon Government press release #11-032, Feb 28, 2011)

Although no nameplate or tags were found on the gramophone, examining the case, components, and placement of spring mechanism and crank identified it as an 1897-1899 Berliner Style 5 –Trademark or Trademark-Late Model hand-crank gramophone.

Further examination was conducted on the records, one of which was broken. Disc records at that time did not have paper labels, but the information was stamped into the hard rubber discs. The three recovered discs were gently brushed to reveal the stamping. The records have been identified as:

  1. The Harp that Once thro’ Tara’s Halls by Thomas Moore - Berliner 1645Z, recorded 9 November 1897 in New York, singer J. W. Myers.
  2. Ma Onliest One by Fay Templeton - Berliner 991Z, recorded 17 April 1896, singer Len Spencer.
  3. Rendez Vous Waltz - Berliner 1464Z, recorded 1 July 1897, performed by the Metropolitan Orchestra. This recording is available on the Library of Congress on-line collection "Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry" at Rendez Vous Waltz

Ma Onliest One was the last song to be played by the crew, as it was still on the gramophone turntable. The discs will likely never be able to be played, as the grooves are filled with iron oxide that is almost impossible to remove without damaging the artifacts.

Interestingly, during her research, Lindsay Thomas found an advertisement in the Canadian Music Trades Journal in 1901 showing a similar, if not identical, gramophone and three records selling as a package for $15. (Canadian Music Trades Journal 1901:3; Library and Archives Canada).

It is clear that music was an incredibly important part of surviving in and documenting of the Klondike gold rush. Most popular music at that time included minstrel songs, old Irish tunes and waltzes, all of which are represented in the A.J. Goddard recovery. For the most part they were simple songs which could be easily performed by amateur musicians who may have brought along their own instruments.

Berliner Gram-o-phone advertisement
(Library and Archives Canada/Canadian Music Trades Journal/ AMICUS 113380/Vol.2, #6, May 1901, Page 3)

Lindsay Thomas, also a Masters student at Texas A&M University (Nautical Archaeology Program), summed up: "The gramophone was the most surprising find of the season, and by far the most interesting. Found on one of the smallest and most utilitarian Yukon River steamboats, this small luxury provides an insight that is incredibly valuable to understanding life on board."

This past year, the A.J. Goddard shipwreck was designated an historic site. The gramophone and discs will be returned to the Yukon Archaeology Program once full examinations have been completed. A future exhibit of the A.J. Goddard recovery is presently being designed by the Yukon Transportation Museum, at which time the gramophone and discs will be on display for the public to view.

"There are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold; The Arctic trails have their secret tales …….."

Yes …. it is possible that, as Sam McGee roasted on the marge of Lake Labarge ….the faint strains of recorded music from a Berliner Gramophone may have been heard blowing with the wind that night.


  1. Video clips of the shipwreck accompanied by the original disc recording of Rendez Vous Waltz can be viewed at Yukon News
  2. Yukon Transportation Museum would be extremely interested in obtaining digitized copies of the original recordings of the other two discs recovered, if it is possible that any CAPS members may have the original discs.

Resources Used

  1. Interview May 2011 – Valery Monahan, Conservator, Museum Collections, Government of Yukon.
  2. Interview May 2011 – Lindsey H. Thomas, Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University, and lead archaeologist for A.J. Goddard recovery.
  3. Press Release #11-032 Yukon Government February 28, 2011. "Gold Rush Era music from the A.J. Goddard wreck identified".
  4. Release of Institute of Nautical Archaeology, November 23, 2009. "Perfectly Preserved Gold Rush Ghost Ship Discovered in Canada’s Sub-Arctic".
  5. Whitehorse Star article by Justine Davidson, November 24, 2009. "Historic Shipwreck found in Lake Labarge".
  6. MURRAY, Jean A. 1999 "Music of the Alaska- Klondike Gold Rush: Songs and History". University of Alaska Press, Anchorage.
  7. THOMAS, Lindsey H. untitled and not yet completed Master’s thesis, Nautical Archaeology Program, Texas A& M University.
  8. Yukon Transportation Museum, 30 Electra Cr., Whitehorse, Yukon, Y1A 6E6. Telephone 867-668-4792 (Yukon Transportation Museum)
  9. Yukon Archives, 400 College Dr., Whitehorse, Yukon. Telephone 867-667-5321 (Yukon Archives)