ALASKA'S GHOST SHIP
Rediscovering the S.S. Baychimo at the UA Museum of the North
MARCH 2016 -- Josh Reuther, curator of archaeology at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, was browsing the drawers of the museum's collection range in the fall of 2015, looking for something to share with his students. What he found would be the answer to an 80-year-old mystery.
Reuther opened a drawer containing an ulu, a copper knife and other objects typical of Copper Inuit and Netsilik groups. The only clue as to the origins of the objects was a label that read, "Taken from the Beychimo (sic)." Reuther initially thought it was the name of an archaeological site. But after looking it up, he suspected it was a misspelling. And that "Beychimo" actually referred to the S.S. Baychimo, Alaska's notorious Ghost Ship of the 1930s.
In 1931, the cargo steamer S.S. Baychimo was abandoned in the Chukchi Sea off the northern coast of Alaska after sea ice trapped it during an early winter. The captain and crew deserted the ship, which carried furs from Canadian trappers and a variety of other cargo. Left aboard were scientific and navigational instruments, along with gear and personal items. Also on board was an ethnographic collection gathered in 1930 from Inuit groups in the Canadian Arctic by Richard Sterling Finnie, a filmmaker and photographer who had been commissioned to spend a year in Canada’s western Arctic documenting the ‘pristine’ culture of the Copper Eskimos.
After abandoning the ship, the crew assumed it had sunk.But a few weeks later, Inupiat hunters saw the ship floating near Skull Cliff, south of Barrow. The ship was boarded several times over the next three years. In 1933, crew and passengers from the MS Trader, a small trading vessel from Nome, boarded the abandoned ship and recovered a number of Finnie’s ethnological specimens. In 1934, Peter Palsson, a crewmember of the Trader, gave some of the specimens to Otto Geist, whose work on behalf of the first president of the university was intended to begin the collections for the University of Alaska Museum. That year, the Baychimo collection was accessioned to the museum, now known as the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
In a paper soon to be published by the journal Polar Record, Reuther and his colleague Jason Rogers of Northern Land Use Research Alaska describe the collection and the historical significance that lies in the chain of linked relationships. "The fate of Baychimo is unclear, but it most likely eventually succumbed to the ravages of the sea ice and the Arctic Ocean. The addition of these newly-revealed materials provides a remarkable story of historical congruence during the early 20th century Arctic explorations."