1906 ferry wreckage likely discovered off Seattle's Alki Point
Divers believe they have found the steamer Dix, which for more than 100 years has rested at the bottom of Puget Sound off Alki Point. It collided with an Alaskan freighter and sank in 500 feet of water, killing dozens on board.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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Divers believe they have found the steamer Dix, which for more than 100 years has rested at the bottom of Puget Sound off Alki Point.
The Mosquito Fleet ferry collided with an Alaska freighter and sank in 500 feet of water in November 1906, killing as many as 45 people, "their bodies, in all probability, being imprisoned within the cabins of the steamer, 100 fathoms below the surface of the Sound," according to a Seattle Daily Times report the next day.
There are no plans to bring up the wreckage, or to explore the interior. Finding it was enough for diver Laura James, who had been searching for two decades.
"This was the wreck I wanted to find in Puget Sound as long as I've been diving," she said.
James said she learned to dive in 1990 and opened a dive shop geared toward diving shipwrecks. In 1993, using a fish-finding device and her theories based on wind and current patterns, she discovered what she believed was the Dix. But, she said, she couldn't get any more traction for her search because most experts believed the wreckage was in deeper waters.
The surgical technician spent much of her free time reading anything she could about the wreck. It was never far from her mind.
"It became almost an obsession," she said.
Then, about six months ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took photographs of the bottom of Puget Sound, looking for anything that might hinder navigation. James took those images — which showed the Dix wasn't where most experts thought it was — to Northwest Wreck Dives' Scott Boyd, who then did a sonar scan from above where James thought the Dix was.
That analysis led to contact with OceanGate, an Everett-based marine exploration company that sent down a submarine three times in March and April to explore the wreckage. Like James, OceanGate was convinced it was the Dix.
The pilothouse and much of the upper-deck cabin are still in place, as is the propeller. The wreck is lying on its starboard side, pointed toward Port Blakely on Bainbridge Island, its destination from Seattle.
"It was right where it was supposed to be," Boyd said. "It was the right age and the right type and matched the Mosquito Fleet."
None of the divers plans to look inside to see if skeletal remains or anything else, such as soles of shoes, might still exist.
"It's a grave," James said. "We wouldn't want to disturb it. It's a resting place for quite a few souls, and we have to respect it."
Added Boyd: "The remains are probably extremely fragile from more than 100 years in saltwater. Even the slightest touch will cause them to disintegrate. It would probably be best to leave the dead where they lie."
Joel Perry, with OceanGate, said the Dix likely went undiscovered for more than a century because nothing was worth salvaging. The wreck probably is too deep for anyone but very experienced divers to probe.
Still, there is the matter of confirming that the wreckage is the Dix.
"I did a huge amount of research combing through the archives," James said. "My goal was to rule it out and find out if there was anything else it could be, but I haven't seen anything that would match it as closely as the Dix."
Perry said little is known about the boat because no construction plans are available.
"Ideally, we would find the actual name on the hull, but it was painted on, and it would have eroded away," he said.
Perry plans to go back with his submarine and try to confirm the vessel's identity. He said the hull seems to be intact, but he hasn't viewed the rest.
James said she's heard that all steamers of the era had unique whistles, or bells, and she hopes the submarine might be able to locate it. If the engine compartment has rusted open, there might be some identifying information there. A name on a smokestack is possible.
James said she hopes for 3-D images, too.
"We need to sit down there for a while and go over it with a fine-toothed comb," she said.
Dark night on the water
It was just after 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening, Nov. 18, 1906, when the Dix — filled with millworkers and their families returning to Bainbridge Island after a weekend in Seattle — collided with the Alaska freighter Jeanie, 2 miles off Alki Point.
The Dix sank within minutes; no one knows the exact death total because there was no passenger list, but the ship is believed to have carried 77 passengers. As many as 45 are believed to have died.
A Seattle Daily Times report the next day said a "foolhardy attempt" to cut in front of the Jeanie caused the "appalling disaster."
The Dix's captain, Percy Lermond, was collecting fares and had left First Mate Charles Dennison at the helm.
"When he aroused himself from a stupor of fright after sighting the Jeanie, he swung the boat off on a starboard tack directly under the bowsprit of the northern liner," the Times wrote. "Five minutes later Dennison went down with the ship, a limp, inert form, clinging to the wheel in the abandonment of despair."
Lermond, the captain, was among the survivors.
In 1973, a memorial to the Dix was dedicated in a small Duwamish Head park. The 100th anniversary of the sinking was commemorated in 2006 with a cruise to the site of the wreck.
John Kelly, a local historian who has studied the sinking of the Dix through much of his 89 years, said the boat was 2 years old at the time of the crash, part of a fleet of ferries that traveled between small Puget Sound communities.
"I'm excited," Kelly said. "I saw the images this group brought up, and they certainly found what could very well be the remains of the Dix."
He said the bottom of Puget Sound was dragged years ago in an effort to find the Dix, but that it was buried too deep.
"It's most meaningful for those who did have families on the vessel," Kelly said. "The explorers in the next dive hopefully will be able to find some significant artifacts that might be brought into the light."
Captain Lermond's great-granddaughter, Vicki Keeling, said her father never talked much about the Dix. "But it's kind of exciting. It brings some closure," said Keeling, who participated in the 100th anniversary event.
Mary Harris, who lives in a Portland suburb, lost her grandfather, great-aunt and great-uncle in the disaster. Her grandfather, Charles Byler, had worked at the sawmill at Port Blakely.
"I think it's wonderful," Harris said after learning the Dix might have been found.
"It gives me goose bumps. It brings back memories of my dad and the pain he went through, and I'm glad to be able to end his suffering knowing they're all in heaven, all at peace."
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054
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