Too Light, Top Heavy
The Victor II, one of Puget Sound’s busy "Mosquito Fleet," was a 55-ton, 60-foot inland passenger launch built at Maplewood Beach, north of Gig Harbor, in 1914. She had been designed to resemble the numerous small steamships in service around the turn of the twentieth century, but had been equipped with a lightweight 35-horsepower gasoline engine rather than a heavy steam engine. To compensate for the weight difference, vessel inspectors required that 10 tons of ballast be stowed in her hull for stability. The shipyard used slag from the American Smelting and Refining Company plant (ASARCO) in Ruston. Even with the extra weight, however, the launch, with a 14-foot beam and a five-foot, seven-inch draft, rolled excessively in rough weather and was difficult to handle. The cargo area, on the main deck forward of the engine room bulkhead, was enclosed and bulky shipments were often stowed on the upper deck, making the vessel top heavy.
The owner of the Victor II was Frank R. Raisoni, (1852-1937), proprietor of the general store at Allyn in Mason County, Washington. The ship made regular trips on alternate days between Tacoma and Allyn, stopping at 20 or more docks and landings.
At 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, January 15, 1916, the motor launch Victor II left the Tacoma Municipal Dock, 1025 Dock Street, for her regular ferry route through south Puget Sound and up Case Inlet to Allyn in North Bay. The master of the vessel was Captain Eugene I. Wood (1875-1958), who had more than 20 years of experience navigating the waters of Puget Sound. His crew members were Richard H. Wayson (1889-1973) who served as engineer, and Joseph Sylvester (1890-1971) who served as purser and deckhand.
Loaded and on the Way
Prior to departing Tacoma, longshoremen loaded the cargo bay of the Victor II with three tons of freight contained in crates, boxes, and burlap bags, plus six bales of hay. In addition, 2,000 board feet of lumber was loaded onto her upper deck. Meanwhile, nine passengers came aboard the Victor II and seated themselves in the cabin aft of the engine room. Once the launch was under way, the purser collected the fares.
Among the passengers onboard the Victor II were four members of Bower family: Ida E. Bower (b. 1876), age 40, and her three children, Florence (1899-1916), age 16, Margaret (1902-?), age 14, and Walter (1908-1916), age 7. The Bower family home was at Fox Point on Fox Island where Owen S. Bower (1872-1962), age 43, was a fruit grower. During the school year, Ida Bower resided in Tacoma so that her four children could attend school there. Julian (1871-1962), age 18, the Bower’s eldest son, stayed behind in the city on this fateful Saturday morning.
Upon leaving the Tacoma Municipal Dock, Captain Wood noticed the 174 ton, 98-foot steamship Tyrus, inbound from south Puget Sound, steering a course toward Brown’s Point on the east side of Commencement Bay rather than following the shoreline from Point Defiance to the harbor. From experience, he realized a heavy squall had begun blowing down East Channel and the Tyrus was attempting to avoid taking the waves broadside. Captain Wood held a northwesterly course in order to quarter the waves on the starboard side of the launch.
Mishap at Sea
Once into Dalco Passage, opposite the ASARCO smelting plant at Ruston, the Victor II began steering a course toward The Tacoma Narrows to run with the wind. Before the turn was completed, however, she was hit by a terrific gust of wind and was heeled over to port, shifting the lumber and freight leeward. At that moment the Victor II was struck broadside by a huge wave and she didn’t recover. Rollers continued pounding the launch and she capsized, putting the entire port side under water
Sylvester was standing on the upper deck, lashing down the lumber, when the Victor II foundered. He pulled himself over the starboard rail and stood on the side of vessel. The cabin was rapidly filling with water and the passengers were clinging to a row of seats affixed to the deck fore and aft. He broke a cabin window and began pulling out passengers. Captain Wood, who had been in the pilothouse, joined Sylvester in evacuating passengers. Life vests, stored in overhead racks inside the cabin, were within reach of the windows and Wood and Sylvester attempted to equip the passengers as they emerged from the sinking ship. Wayson, who had been working in the engine room, managed to escape out a window and hastened aft to help his colleagues with the rescue efforts.
The launch’s only lifeboat was floating in the water, still attached to the davits. Wood and Sylvester scrambled across floating bundles of lumber, unfastened the lifeboat and moved it to the passengers clinging to the starboard rail. While maneuvering the boat into position, Sylvester saw that three passengers had been washed overboard: Florence and Walter Bower and William W. McGinnis.
Ida Bower had pushed Florence and Walter through a broken window in the aft section of the passenger cabin. Neither had been wearing a lifejacket when they were washed overboard. Wayson and passenger Patrick O’Donnell pulled Ida Bower, still inside the cabin, to safety. When she got out, she saw Walter floating on his back, approximately 10 feet from the ship, but Florence had disappeared beneath the mass of bobbing lumber. Ida Bower, without a lifejacket, attempted to jump into the water to save her children, but was restrained by Wayson and by her daughter, Margaret.
The large accumulation of lumber, floating about the Victor II, made the task of getting passenger off ship difficult. Eventually, the crewmen got passengers George W. Babcock, Peter Sandberg, Patrick O’Donnell and Ida and Margaret Bower into the lifeboat. Waves had washed passenger William Clarke into the whitecaps and, because of his excessive bulk, the crew weren’t able to drag him into the lifeboat. As an alternative, Captain Wood wrapped a line around Clark’s torso and lashed him to the gunwale.
The 147-ton, 112-foot steamship Atalanta was inbound to Tacoma from Gig Harbor when the engineer sighted the Victor II foundering. Captain Arda R. Hunt (1872-1954) approached the sinking ship from leeward and picked up the survivors in the lifeboat. He then cruised slowly along the line of drift, searching for other victims. Captain Hunt found passenger William McGinnis, floating in his lifejacket, approximately 600 feet south of the Victor II. He was half drowned and suffering from severe hypothermia but alive. After donning a lifejacket, McGinnis had jumped overboard to avoid being pulled under water when the ship sank. The Atalanta cruised around the Victor II until Captain Hunt was confident there were no more passengers to be rescued. The steamer then proceeded to the Tacoma Municipal Pier where police and ambulances were waiting. The survivors, suffering from various injuries and hypothermia, were taken to Tacoma General Hospital for medical attention.
Searching for the Children
The Olson Tug and Barge Company towboat Elf found the Victor II drifting south in The Tacoma Narrows and towed her to a boathouse on Salmon Beach, just beyond the southwest boundary of Point Defiance Park. Everyone had expected the launch to sink at any moment, but she remained afloat. Residents of Salmon Beach searched inside the hull of Victor II at extreme low tide on Saturday night and reported there was no one inside. Captain Wood determined all the passengers known to have been aboard the vessel were accounted for. Seven were in the hospital and the two Bower children had presumably drowned.
Meanwhile, the search for the bodies of Florence and Walter Bower continued in earnest. Volunteers patrolled the shoreline of Point Defiance Park and powerboats from the Tacoma Yacht Club cruised the area where the Victor II had foundered looking for the children, without result. A search of south Puget Sound by U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Scout also proved fruitless. Ida Bower remained hospitalized suffering from lacerations, an arm infection, and nervous exhaustion.
The Victor II, still seaworthy, was refloated at high tide on Sunday, January 16, 191, and towed to a shipyard at Gig Harbor for hull inspection. On Tuesday, January 18, the Victor II, little the worse for wear, was towed to a facility at 15th and Dock Street in Tacoma for repair and clean up and later returned to service.
Pierce County Coroner Felix J. Stewart (1859-1925) was unable to hold an inquest, as without the bodies of the victims he couldn’t prove there had been fatalities. Pierce County Prosecutor Frederick G. Remann, (1877-1949) concurred, stating it would be foolish for the county to begin a criminal investigation without any conclusive evidence. "We could swear out charges against the owners of the boat, but that would be of no value if the U.S. authorities in Seattle turn around and give the owners a clean bill of health" ("Victor’s Owners Probed").
Captains Bion B. Whitney (1862-1935) and Harry C. Lord (1855-1922) of the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service launched an investigation to determine responsibility for the Victor II disaster that cost the lives of two passengers. They expressed the belief the freight aboard the launch had been improperly loaded, making her top heavy. The steamboat inspectors had warned about carrying cargo topside but permitted the launch to continue operations upon compliance with certain regulations. The inspectors maintained that Captain Wood had violated maritime law by negligently disregarding the admonition of the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service. There was a gap in the law, however, exempting passenger vessels and freighters under 65 feet in length from federal regulations.
Captain Wood retained his license as a master and pilot of Puget Sound, but was later indicted by a federal grand jury under provisions in maritime law concerning acts of criminal negligence. During his trial, held on Friday November 10, 1916, in U.S. District Court, Seattle, the defense provided evidence that showed Captain Wood had taken every customary precaution to safeguard the lives of his passengers. The squall that capsized the Victor II was an extraordinary event and not the fault of the defendant. After deliberating just 45 minutes, the jury acquitted Captain Wood of the charge of criminal negligence, freeing him of responsibility for the deaths of the two Bower children.
In Later Years ...
Unable to find any trace of their two lost children, the Bowers enlisted the assistance of spiritualist Minnie Perkins, head of Tacoma’s Progressive Psychic Society, but to no avail. The bodies of Florence and Walter Bower were never recovered. The 1920 U.S. Census revealed that the Bower family moved from Fox Island to Los Angeles, California, where Owen engaged in oil field drilling.
The Delta V. Smyth Tug and Barge Company of Olympia acquired the Victor II and rebuilt her as a tugboat. In 1924, she was equipped with a 60-horsepower gasoline engine and sold to the Pacific Tow Boat Company of Seattle. In 1926, the company installed a 125-horsepower engine in the Victor II and changed her name to Sea Duke. She remained in active service until April 1964. After salvaging the machinery, Pacific Tow Boat had the old tugboat burned at a dock on the Everett waterfront.