It’s not clear why First Officer Charles Dennison of the SS Dix didn’t slow or turn away from the much larger SS Jeanie and crashed into it 113 years ago today, but the result was the former ship sinking with 39* of the 77 people aboard trapped. The incident is noted as the biggest maritime disaster ever recorded on Puget Sound.
On any other day, the Dix may not have even been in that area of Puget Sound. It was a member of the Puget Sound “Mosquito Fleet” of ferry boats, which carried passengers across the Sound before today’s ferry fleet. The Dix, a 102.5-foot passenger steamer built in 1904, was licensed to carry up to 150 passengers. It typically ran between downtown Seattle and Alki Beach in the summer, but on Nov. 18, 1906, it was on a support run between downtown Seattle and Port Blakely.
Seventy-seven passengers and crew members were on board. About half of them would die that day.
The steamship Jeanie, a 1,071-ton, 186-foot, three-masted schooner, was traveling from the Smith cove docks and headed for Tacoma with a load of ore. It departed at 6:45 p.m., and 15 minutes later, the Dix left what is now called Colman Dock. Dix’s Captain Parker Lermond handed the wheel over to his first officer before heading out onto the boat to collect fares.
Meanwhile, Captain P.H. Mason of the Jeanie quickly saw that the ship was on a collision course with the Dix and slowed to allow the smaller ship to pass. The Dix continued, eventually crashing into the nearly unmoving Jeanie.
“There was no time to put out a boat, no tie for men to go to the rescue of the women,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the following day. “The Dix’s stern thrust itself into the smooth sea, and with a parting hiss of escaping steam, disappeared in a wild whirl of waters.
“The tragedy that has deluged Blakely with grief was over in a moment.”
After the crash, some people on board the Dix managed to climb onto the Jeanie. Others toppled into the water. Thirty-eight passengers and crew survived, returned to shore by the Jeanie, but 39* were lost at sea, including some trapped in the cabin of the quickly sinking vessel. The Dix’s passengers were nearly all residents of Port Blakely, and most were employed by the Port Blakely Mill Company.
The mill shut down and schools closed over the next few days.
An investigation began a few days later, but the Jeanie suffered little damage and the Dix was gone. Relying mainly on testimony of witnesses, Jeanie’s captain was exonerated. First Officer Dennison, who did not have a proper license to pilot a vessel on the inland areas of Puget Sound, was blamed for failing to observe the right-of-way, and his captain was held legally responsible for violating maritime law. His license to pilot a ship on the Sound was revoked.
(His license was reinstated a year later, but he became a tugboat captain rather than a captain of a passenger vessel.)
*According to HistoryLink.org, there may have been as many as 45 victims, as the official record showed 77 passengers, but this may have excluded those who did not pay the fare, or it may have excluded six of the crew members on board.
Historical information for this article was sourced from SeattlePI archives and HistoryLink.org.