Tahoma, 1909

Sept. 3, 2020

Tahoma, 1909

Tahoma is a Salishan Indian word meaning "snow peak" and is the name for a principle mountain in the Cascades. 

Builder: New York Shipbuilding Company, Camden, New Jersey

Length: 191' 8"

Beam: 32' 6"

Draft: 14'

Displacement: 1,215 tons

Cost: $225,000

Launched: 10 October 1908

Commissioned: 25 March 1909

Decommissioned: Grounded on an uncharted rock off the Aleutians on 20 September 1914

Disposition: Total loss

Machinery: Triple-expansion steam engine

Complement: 69 officers & crew

Armament: 4 x 6-pound rapid-fire guns


The New York Shipbuilding Company of Camden, New Jersey, built the steel-hulled cutter Tahoma for a cost of $225,000.  She was christened by Mrs. Grace Clark Kahler of Tacoma, Washington, on 10 October 1908.  She was accepted on 28 December 1908 and sailed for Maryland.  She arrived at Arundel Cove, Maryland, on on 8 February 1909 for further outfitting and trials.  The cutter Tahoma entered commissioned service on 25 March 1909 under the command of Revenue Captain Johnstone Hamilton Quinan and then sailed for Baltimore.  Her permanent homeport was to be Port Townsend, Washington, and she was assigned the cruising grounds of Puget Sound, Washington Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the coast as far south as Destruction Island.

To get to her cruising ground she made the long journey to the Pacific coast via the Suez Canal, setting sail from Baltimore on 17 April 1909.  She visited St. Michaels, Azores to obtain coal before arriving at Gibraltar on 3 May 1909.  Ordered to proceed as quickly as possible to Alexandrette [now known as Iskenderun, Turkey] by the Treasury Department, she departed Gibraltar, stopping in Malta, before arriving at Alexandrette on 12 May 1909.  The U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, had requested a U.S. warship to calm American expatriate nerves during civil unrest in the Empire.  The Tahoma remained off the Turkish coast for 13 more days before being ordered to resume her course to the Pacific.  She visited Port Said and then transited the Suez Canal.  Then it was on to Aden, Colombo, and arrived at Singapore on 30 June 1909.  She then sailed for Manila arriving there on 8 July and made a port call at Yokohama on 21 July.  She arrived at her new station in Port Townsend on 23 August 1909.

In February 1910 she sailed on her first Alaskan cruise, arriving at Seward on the 16th.  On 15 March 1910 she reached Sitka and arrived at Ketchikan on the 18th by the inside passage.  Her primary mission while on one of these cruises was to intercept and arrest all wildlife poachers she sighted.  Returning to Port Townsend she was ordered to sail for the Bering Sea and departed on 27 April 1910.  She remained in Alaska until October 24th of that same year.

In the following year, 1911, she sailed for the Bering Sea on May 19th and in July proceeded to Cordova to receive the Secretary of the Interior, Walter L. Fisher, and his party. The Tahoma brought them back to Seattle, arriving on September 7th.  Four days later she sailed for Unalaska to rejoin the Bering Sea Patrol.  In November she was assigned to the Northern Division, Pacific Coast, and was ordered to take station at Astoria, Oregon, to relieve the cutter Manning.  First Lieutenant Harry G. Hamlet, USRCS, assumed command on 21 April 1912.

Her 1912 Bering Sea Patrol began on 7 May 1912.  There she remained until October 4th, when she sailed for Port Townsend to rejoin the Northern Division, Pacific Coast.  Early the next year, on 30 January 1913, Captain Benjamin M. Chiswell, USRCS, assumed command.  The cutter was again assigned to the Bering Sea Patrol on 15 April 1913, and after her officers and crew had been vaccinated, she sailed for Unimak Pass on the 20th.  On June 12th she rescued 51 survivors of the Alaska Coast Company steamer Yukon which had run aground on a reef off of Sannak Island.  She arrived the following day at Dutch Harbor with the Yukon survivors and delivered them safely ashore.  The following months she took Messrs. Gallagher and Elliott from the vessel Victoria in Unimak Pass and transported them to Seal Islands.  Back in Seattle on September 5th she was assigned to the Juneau station, when necessary, in addition to her other duties with the Northern Division.  On 19 September 1913 Revenue Captain R. O. Crisp, USRCS,  assumed command.  After receiving a request from the governor of Alaska, the cutter proceeded to Kodiak on November 13th to relieve an epidemic of measles that had broken out among natives on Kodiak and Afognak Islands.  By the time the cutter arrived on November 20th, the epidemic had run its course.  The crew fumigated all of the living quarters and distributed medical supplies to affected villages.  She arrived back in Seattle on 17 December 1913.

On 1 May 1914 she sailed for Unalaska to join the Bering Sea Fleet and on August 5th was ordered to enforce the neutrality laws of the United States after the outbreak of war in Europe.  The Tahoma ran aground on an uncharted rock at 51° 53' North x 175° 53' East off the Aleutian Islands on 20 September 1914.  The crew took to her boats and were later rescued by the steamer Cordova and the Coast and Geodetic Survey steamer Patterson.  All of the Tahoma's crew survived without injury and were returned Unalaska.  They were then split up and sent to the cutters Bear, Manning, Unalga, McCulloch and Snohomish.  The cutter was declared a total loss.  A board of inquiry later cleared the commanding officer and crew of any wrongdoing and declared the loss an accident.


The following story of the loss of the cutter Tahoma by stranding on an uncharted reef on the south side of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, in latitude 51° 53' N, and longitude 175° 53' E, on September 20, 1914, is included in this treatise mainly because of the graphic lesson it carries which cannot fail to impress officers to be on their constant guard for the unexpected emergency to arise and to better be able to deal with such untoward happenings when they are finally met.  If the article will urge officers when to keep their boats and boat equipment in first-class condition, the space devoted to the case will not be wasted.  However, the moral of the occurrence goes much deeper than that.

Extracts are quoted from the account as recorded by the commanding officer of the ill-fated cutter, Capt. R. O. Crisp, now a retired commodore.

“We were sitting in my cabin the night before we left Unalaska on the last voyage, when the United States deputy marshal asked me what my rule was in the navigation of Alaskan waters.  I replied that I had only one rule and that was to be careful.  Asking me if there was anything more, I replied that was necessary to be still more careful.

The vessel took a departure from Dog Cape and headed down for Amchitka on course ESE.  At about 9 p.m., I felt the vessel graze the bottom.  I knew that feeling, because I remembered how we went ashore while drifting off the northeast end of St. Paul Island on the McCulloch in 1906.  I grabbed my cap, and rushed up the steps leading to the spar deck, but before I got to the deck I heard the backing signals to the engine, and immediately afterward heard the most dreadful and agonizing sounds as the ship hurled herself on the reef.  Imagine all the windows in the Woolworth Building breaking out at once and falling to the street with a fearful crash.  That is what it sounded like to me.  The call of the boatswain: ‘All hands prepare to abandon ship’, I heard above all of this din.  I could hardly walk the decks; the pounding and jumping of the ship swaying me from side to side. However, I kept my wits about me, and knowing that the sea was smooth and there was no wind, I at once countermanded the order for the boats.  I gave hurried directions that the boats be lowered to the rail only, outfitted there, griped in, and then to await further orders.

The engines were backing full speed; the way of the ship was stopped; the Tahoma was jumping about on the pinnacle rocks like a pea on a hot griddle, and no land in sight nearby.  I gave orders to turn on the searchlight to see what we had struck.  It lasted long enough for me to see the sea covered with kelp, and note a small breaker (hardly a breaker, but a wash over the reef).  Soundings showed that the ship was reef-locked.  Soon the pounding of the vessel fractured the supports of the searchlight and put it out of commission.  The main steam-pipe in the engine room pulled loose from the bulkhead flange, causing a bad leak and I feared if further efforts were made to release the vessel it would pull out altogether and scald the engineer’s force to death.  The rudder was disabled, with both hand and steam gear out of commission.  Water gained rapidly in all compartments and all pumps were broken but the circulator.  On account of the broken feed pump water could not be put in the boiler fast enough to provide more than slow speed.

I want to say in passing that had we passed this spot in daylight, the officer of the deck and the quartermaster on watch would have certainly seen the kelp, which shows like a black patch on the sea.  And furthermore, had the coal not been short, and our speed limited, we would have safely passed these reefs in daylight.

The Tahoma took the bottom with her starboard waist in water, her spar deck listed 45°, her stem down and near the water, and her poop high in the air.  I now saw that the case was hopeless, and that it was not possible to release the Tahoma from this nest of pinnacle rocks on which she had crashed.  When the vessel first took the reef, and SOS was sent out containing her position, with the further information that if I found it necessary to abandon her that we would proceed to a rendezvous in MacDonald Bay in Agattus Island about 120 miles away.  My reason for not attempting to reach Buldir was because of the fact that it was 30 miles or more off; that the chart reported tide bores to the south of it; that it was a very small island; that in the conditions then prevailing we might row or sail past it into the Bering Sea and get lost there.  My reason for assigning MacDonald Bay as the rendezvous, was because of the islands of Attu and Agattu, stretching across the western course, presented a side of from 20 to 30 miles to steer for, and I knew of no dangers on that course as we had just come that way.

Meanwhile, other radiograms were sent out to the patrol commander at Unalaska, and we received in reply messages from him.  In one of them he stated that the Japanese steamship Tacoma Maru was only a few miles away from us and that he had communicated with her, asking her assistance.  Also, that he had communicated with other ships at or near Unalaska, and had asked their assistance.  The water continued to rise rapidly and it was about midnight that the fires had to be drawn.  Had there been a good rise of the tide at our position, perhaps the Tahoma might have been floated before she filled with water.  But what to do then?  Our pumps’ foundations were broken, and we could not keep the ship free, and she would have sunk in deep water if we took her off the reef.  A word or two about this reef which was uncharted.  It was about a mile diameter, and we struck the middle of it.  At daylight the next morning, I observed kelp all around the ship for a distance of at least a quarter of a mile.  Seeing was very poor, a light fog and mist being around the ship.  I want to say that had there been a storm on when the Tahoma struck the reef, not a soul would have lived to tell the tale.

The sea still continued calm and there was no wind.  We were waiting the arrival of the Tacoma Maru, which I believed would arrive some time in the afternoon.  Our effects had been placed on deck and on the bridge, where we hoped they would be easy of access to the rescuing ship; the boats were fully provisioned and supplied for abandoning ship; every thing that I could do or that had been suggested had been done and we now awaited rescue.  But it was not to be.  I learned sometime afterward that the  Tacoma Maru, was indeed on her way to Japan along the great circle route, but that in getting the SOS, her master feared it was a 'ruse de guerre' on the part of a German war squadron then, as he supposed , somewhere in the Pacific.  Meanwhile the ship continued to fill with water and fearing that she would roll on her side, I called a muster of the officers and the crew and told them that I was going to abandon the ship in our boats, but that we would hand on to the Tahoma until the last pos­sible minute as I was expecting the Japanese steamer to come to our assistance shortly.

I bade them all to be of good cheer, and to get ready for the boats, every man, woman, and child on board knowing exactly where his or her boat was.  All of the boats were then lowered and made fast with their painters to a small hawser payed out over the stern, with a long spar attached at right angles by a span.  I, as commanding officer, as customary, was the last person to leave the ship.  The boats laid in this position for perhaps an hour; but I had noticed that not only had the ship rolled over on her side, her spar deck being at a slant of 200, but that the wind and sea were increasing, and several breakers appeared on the reef.

I turned to Mr. Molloy, whose boat was alongside of mine, and said: 'Mr. Molloy, I do not like the looks of the weather.  We have got to get away from her and that quickly.  See how the breakers are increasing on the reef, and we can’t afford to stay a minute longer on this reef.’  He at once agreed with me and I told him to give the order to shove off and to make the best of our way to MacDonald Bay, keeping together if that were possible.  We shoved off, but I waited a minute or so to take a man from another of our boats which appeared to be crowded.  I saw the ensign from the Tahoma's taffrail flagstaff; saluted it for the last time and got out the oars.  We had considerable difficulty in rowing across the reef, and avoiding the breakers, our oars being caught frequently in the kelp floating on the surface. 

Finally we got off as it was growing dark, and I observed several of our boats making sail.  However, when my boat got off the reef, I found it not possible to make the course of WNW. 1/2W. by sail, and turned the men to the oars.  They pulled lustily all night long, and I was considerably encouraged to find that the wind did not increase from a gentle breeze.  It was the coming of a sudden storm that I most feared for the safety of my crew in those small boats.  Coming off the reef under the conditions I have mentioned, separated most of the boats, but three of them managed to keep together, as I afterward learned.  I steered the boat by a small boat compass fastened in the cockpit.

I did not sleep at all that night, nor had I slept the night before, not did I sleep while in the gig, excepting for a nap hastily snatched the night before we were picked up.  At daylight on the following morning, someone, suggested that we have some crackers and water, which had been stowed under the supervision of the ship’s carpenter, Mr. Russell, in the cockpit aft with a chronometer and a chart of that region to navigate by.  Accordingly the canvas flap was lifted, but to my surprise there I saw two of the ship’s rifles stowed right under the compass.  Here then was the reason that we could not make sail the afternoon before when I had tried to do so.  I sent the rifles forward, the boat being headed in the same general direction as before.  I noted that there was a difference in the compass readings of about 40° or more and that instead of being headed for Agattu Island we had been steering down toward Honolulu.  This had to be rectified, I made a quick estimate of the southing we had made and altered the course to northwest in order to get back on the line to Mac Donald Bay.  This was much to be regretted and explains why my boat did not make the land as did all of the others, but was picked up at sea.  But I have noticed that when a small calamity follows a big one, that you do not rail at it, but accept it as a matter of course.

We had breakfast and I was pleased to note that among our stores of hardtack and water, my steward had added some canned Swiss milk, which I thought at that time was the best milk I ever tasted.  During the 5 days and 5 nights the gig was at sea, considerable good weather was experienced.  At times it was necessary to heave to riding to drogue made up of boat spars and canvas with an oil bag made fast to the painter.  It was necessary to bail a great deal.  The albatross, and the gulls seemed to know of our peril, and wheeling about us looked down with the idea of making a meal soon.  Our situation was full of peril.  I did not know but the next wave would swamp the gig.  I looked for my revolver not intending to drown if I could help it, but I had sent it in the bow with the rifles.  Thick weather and weather of low visibility without the aid of sights made the searching of land a severe trial.

[Their rescue was effected about 10 miles off Agattu Island by the steamship Cordova, Captain Thomas Moore, which had proceeded in answer to the SOS the great distance from Nome, Alaska.]

I took a look and sure enough I made out a steamer’s light.  A rocket was at once fired into the air, then another as the steamer did not answer at once.  Finally her searchlight was thrown high in the heavens, and we knew we were saved.  Every one now took this as a matter of course and while we congratulated each other there was no hilarity or boisterous manifestations.  We hauled in the sea anchor, hoisted sail with our lantern at the mast-head and ran down to the steamer, which had altered her course and was standing for us.  One of the men said: ‘Captain, can we have some more water now?’ They had been on short allowance for several days. They broached the water keg and all hands had all they wanted.  As the Cordova approached MacDonald Bay, soon one of my boats appeared.  It was the dinghy with about eight men in her of our crew.  The coxswain in charge told me that our whale boat was on the south side of Agattu, with Lieutenant Scammell and about 114 men.  I asked him how he knew this.  He said that a party from the whaleboat had walked overland the day before, to see if any of our boats had landed there, and told him.  Hoisting in the dinghy, we got underway, and steamed around Dog Cape, a distance of 30 miles, more or less, and in the afternoon, picked up Lieutenant Scammell’s party.  He had narrowly missed going by Agattu Island, but had seen the land in time.  After passing through Agattu Pass, on one of the small Alaid Islands bright flames at night directed us to Lieutenant Hutson’s party in the sailing launch." 

The executive officer, Lieutenant Molloy, Lieutenant Yeandle, and men in the other boat and the large dory; in all, about 140 persons were found by the Coast and Geodetic Survey steamer Patterson after the Cordova was forced to Akutan owing to fuel oil shortages.

The commanding officer had been ordered upon his return eastward to proceed on the south side of the Aleutian chain.  This was at the time unusual.  No blame was attached to the vessel’s loss.  Commander S. S. Yeandle, in speaking of the Tahoma wreck, which occurred from stranding on the south side of the Aleutian chain to the westward of Unalaska, Alaska, says: "The outstanding thing in connection with the loss of the Tahoma was the search light standards snapping with the shock of the impact.  The generators were fastened to the ship’s frames and were immediately thrown out of line.  I believe this is bad practice in our ships.”


Cutter History File, Coast Guard Historian's Office.

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.  Washington, DC: USGPO.

Donald Canney.  U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790-1935.  Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Noble, Dennis & Truman Strobridge.  "The Revenue Cutter Tahoma."  The Alaska Journal: History and Arts of the North -- Quarterly.  Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring 1976), pp. 118-128.

U.S. Coast Guard.  Record of Movements: Vessels of the United States Coast Guard: 1790 - December 31, 1933.  Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934; 1989 (reprint).