Captivating tales of long-lost ships | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Captivating tales of long-lost ships

David C. Henley
Guest Column

Tales of long-lost ships, whether they are the three large steamships purposely sunk many years ago in Lake Tahoe or the recently-discovered U.S. Navy light cruiser torpedoed in the western Pacific by a Japanese submarine during World War II, can be spellbinding.

Accounts of sinkings on lakes and oceans often provide captivating narratives of high adventure, mystery, survival and even tragedy and romance for those intrigued with civilian and military history.

Take, for example, the fate of the 168-foot SS Tahoe, nicknamed the "Queen of the Lake," that was purposely scuttled by its owner off Glenbrook on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. Built at Glenbrook in early 1896 to carry 200 passengers, mail and freight to ports around the lake, it featured private staterooms, hot and cold running water, steam heat, a wood-paneled dining room and separate, luxurious lounges for men and women.

Capable of circling Lake Tahoe in about eight hours, it was laid up by its owner, millionaire lumber baron Duane L. Bliss, in 1934 when he lost the mail contract and passenger traffic had dwindled following the construction of an all-weather, paved highway around the lake's 72-mile circumference.

Realizing his rotting old steamer had no further use, Bliss had it towed from Tahoe City, where it had sat unattended and forlorn, across the lake to Glenbrook and intentionally sank it in about 420 feet of water. The day following the scuttling, the SS Tahoe's flag was seen floating near the Glenbrook pier. A few days later, part of its superstructure drifted past its former berth at Tahoe City. When Ludie and I made our annual week-long Tahoe visit last August, we read in our sister newspaper, the Tahoe Daily Tribune, that divers from New Millennium Divers had just made their 12th underwater excursion to the SS Tahoe. According to Karim Hamza, who was making his sixth dive, "It is sitting perfectly on its keel and resting on an incredible slope. It is a fun dive and magnificent wreck site," he said.

Two other Bliss-owned ships also were purposely sunk in the lake due to old age and deterioration. The largest was the 80-foot SS Meteor, which was built in the 1870s to tow thousands of logs from forests around Lake Tahoe to Glenbrook, where they were then sent downhill along steep slides to brace the below-ground mines in Virginia City. In 1879, the SS Meteor carried President Rutherford B. Hayes on a tour around the lake. Later, it became a passenger ship, and in 1939, after more than 60 years of service, Bliss had the old ship scuttled between Tahoe City and Glenbrook. Its location remains unknown.

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The other ship was the 60-foot SS Nevada. Launched in 1890, the luxury vessel caught fire in 1892, was repaired, renamed the SS Tallac and carried passengers, freight and mail until the late 1930s. In 1940, Bliss had the aging vessel towed to the center of the lake, drenched in gasoline and set on fire. It soon went to the bottom. Like the SS Tallac, its location remains unknown.

As for the WW II cruiser, the 541-foot USS Juneau which was sunk by a Japanese submarine's torpedoes at the Battle of Guadalcanal in mid-November, 1942:

Its long-lost wreckage was discovered earlier this month by Microsoft co-founder and noted marine archeologist Paul Allen. Allen and his team, remotely piloting a camera-equipped underwater research vehicle controlled and guided from their mother ship, the SS Petrel, located the SS Juneau's remains lying in several large pieces at 13,800 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the Solomon Islands.

News of the discovery was flashed around the world on St. Patrick's Day via newspapers, radio and television, and dramatic video images show the warship's guns, decks, portions of its superstructure and its well-preserved amphibian airplane. These videos, as well as still photos of the wreck, may be viewed on one's computer by typing in Google and then "underwater wreckage of the USS Juneau."

Particularly notable about the USS Juneau tragedy is the fact that among its 687 crew members who lost their lives that terrible day 76 years ago were the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa. Years later, the five men, who had enlisted in the Navy after the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had a destroyer, the USS Sullivans (DDG-68) named after them. The brothers, George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert, also were the subjects of the 1944 war movie "The Fighting Sullivans" and a 2000 History Channel television series named "The True Story of the Fighting Sullivans."

The Sullivan boys became instant heroes because they had all served on the same ship. U.S. military policy, when they enlisted, stipulated that siblings could not be assigned to the same unit. But the Sullivans said they would not enlist unless they could serve together, and the Navy relaxed the policy.

After it was struck by the Japanese torpedoes, the Juneau split almost in two and sank within two or three minutes. Three of the Sullivans were killed at once. The other two made it into life rafts, but died of injuries and exposure.

Initially, there were 115 survivors who made it to the rafts or were clinging to floating pieces of wood and debris. But it took eight days for Navy aircraft to locate them, and by then their numbers had dwindled from 115 to 10.

David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.