The wreck of the sailing ship Prince Arthur

A Norwegian disaster at sea and Norwegian dugnad

Photo: Larvik Museum / Wikimedia Commons
“Barken Prince Arthur i storm,” oil painting by Édoard Adam, 1902.

TERJE BIRKEDAL
Laguna Woods, Calif.
PAUL GLEESON
Port Angeles, Wash.

“Captain’s brave act. Sacrificed own life to save another. Story of a wreck. Survivors of Norwegian bark Prince Arthur tell of the disaster. Tossed in a turbulent sea.” 

— The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 
Jan. 11, 1903

There is a lonely stone memorial sitting on the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park in Washington state. It commemorates the 18 Norwegian sailors who lost their lives when the large commercial sailing ship, the Prince Arthur, broke apart in a storm over 100 years ago.

Launched in 1869 at Birkenhead, England, the Prince Arthur was a fully rigged, three-masted bark with an iron hull. It was a large ship of 1,598 gross tons and measured 240 feet in length, 40 feet across the beam, and her hold was 23 feet deep.

After decades of service to the British Empire, it was sold in 1895 to a Norwegian firm in Kristiania (Oslo), and the ship was re-employed in transporting timber all over the world.

In 1902, it was acquired by Alfred Andressen, its third Norwegian owner. In that same year, the Prince Arthur embarked on what was to become its final voyage. The ship sailed from Norway around Cape Horn to Valparaiso, Chile, where it picked up ballast before making the last leg of the voyage, some 7,500 miles, to Puget Sound in Washington state to pick up a cargo of lumber for sale back in Valparaiso.

The Prince Arthur was commanded by an experienced captain from Larvik, Norway, named Hans Markussen. Besides the captain, the ship had a crew of 19, including four teenage apprentice seamen. The ship was approaching Puget Sound off the Olympic Peninsula when it ran into a heavy mist accompanied by extremely turbulent seas.

Steering the ship by dead reckoning, the crew mistakenly came too close to the shore and after seeing a light straight ahead they quickly turned around and soon hit the rocks of the reefs that litter those waters off Washington. The crew managed to get the ship free from the first two rocks, but it landed hard on a third and was stuck fast. It was around 1 a.m. on Jan. 3, 1903. The Prince Arthur had grounded on a rocky reef to the west of Kayostia Beach about 10 miles south of Cape Alava.

Huge waves driven by howling winds swept over the ship from the stern to the raised bow, which was impaled on the rock. The crew were all wearing their life vests over their oilskins, except the captain, who gave his to one of the apprentices. Eventually, the relentless waves pounded the ship so hard that it broke in two. At this point, many of the crew members tied themselves to the ship with ropes, but eventually, one by one they were swallowed by the churning sea.

Only two of the crew survived: the second mate, Christopher Schjodt Hansen, a Norwegian, and the sailmaker and carpenter, Knud Larsen, a Dane. Both ended up thrown up on the beach, exhausted and bruised, after harrowing swims through huge waves and crashing surf.

They eventually found each other and headed down the beach toward the south, looking desperately for Native Americans who might help them. Along the way, the two men found 12 of their dead shipmates and hauled their bodies from the shore to the safety of higher ground.

After walking a while, they saw smoke coming from a seaside cabin and were greeted on the beach by none other than a Norwegian settler, Iver J. Birkestol, a member of the largely Scandinavian homestead community of Lake Ozette (see “Lake Ozette, Wash.: The Scandinavian immigrants last frontier in the West,” The Norwegian American, Feb. 4, 2022). Full of Norwegian hospitality, Birkestol took them in, fed them, gave them dry clothes, and made them comfortable.

After recuperating, Hansen and Larsen were joined by Iver Birkestol and his brothers and a few local Makah Indians in burying their dead shipmates in shallow graves.

Photo: Jeff Ruckle
Norwegian memorial erected by the Norse Club in 1904 over the common grave of the recovered deceased sailors from the Prince Arthur. Note the Norwegian flags and other mementos left at the foot of the memorial by visitors (see historylink.org/File/8998 for a list of the names on the memorial).

On Jan. 6., news of the disaster was carried by a frontier mail courier to Clallam Bay, and, thanks to the telegraph, this news spread to Seattle as well as around the nation the same day. The Norwegian Consulate in Seattle immediately began to make preparations for the welcoming and further care of the two survivors. Also, the Norse Club of Seattle, filled with the spirit of dugnad (Norwegian tradition of community service) sprang to action. On Jan. 11, they sent four of their members, including a mortician, to assess whether or not the bodies of the dead sailors could be brought to Seattle for burial or if they needed burial on site.

After a difficult trip, they discovered that burial in place was the only option and buried the dead sewn in sail canvas from the Prince Arthur in a 14-foot square hole on the bluff above the beach on Iver Birkestol’s homestead. The bottom of the grave pit was lined with sail canvas, and the bodies were covered with detached planks washed up from the Prince Arthur.

The Norwegian Consulate and the Norwegian community in Seattle came up with the necessary money to send the two survivors speedily home to Norway. Ironically, they found the first leg of their voyage by Indian canoe to Neah Bay in heavy weather very frightening. Hansen said “the Dane and I were more afraid in the canoe than we were on the Prince Arthur.”

In 1904, the Norse Club managed to lug the four sections of a granite memorial to the grave site to commemorate the dead. For years, the club members continued looking after the stone monument and grave site by removing moss and lichens, as well as refreshing the black paint that gives contrast to the lettering on the memorial.

This act of dugnad or community service continues to the present day and is now performed by the Norwegian Commercial Club of Seattle, the successor in dugnad to the original Norse Club.

The “Norwegian Memorial,” as it is known, is on the remote Olympic National Park wilderness coastline. It can be accessed from either the Ozette Lake or Rialto Beach trailheads as an overnight hike. Check with the park or the Washington Trail Association website (wta.org) for more detailed information on current hiking conditions.

This article originally appeared in the September 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.

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