The Dying of the Dix

On November 18, 2006, an excursion vessel departed the Seattle waterfront before mid-day and steamed to a position off Duwamish Head where, at 12:00 pm precisely, a wreath was cast adrift on Puget Sound to mark the grave of a vessel that sank a hundred years earlier.

On that day in 1906, the passenger vessel Dix departed Colman Dock, Seattle, at 7:00 pm, bound for Port Blakely, a 40 minute passage to the far side of Puget Sound. She was steaming at 10.5 knots on a clear, calm night. At 7:42 pm the Dix was struck amidships by the steam schooner Jeanie and sank. The captain’s pocket watch stopped at the moment he was thrown clear of the deck into the Sound.

Dix_ships_maritimedisaster
The passenger steamer Dix, circa 1906.
Photo attribution: Puget Sound Maritime
Historial Society, courtesy History Link.

The exact number lost varies with the report but between 39 and 45 people died that night, most of them residents of Port Blakely on Bainbridge Island. A substantial percentage of the mill town’s population drowned—men, women, and children. It was a devastating loss.

It was also an avoidable loss. The mate of the Dix could have prevented collision by turning at the last moment left instead of right, as the rules required. Even so, the Dix would have survived the minor impact if she hadn’t been so high and narrow.

The Jeanie had sighted the Dix on a collision course early enough to take off most of her way and sound her whistle in alarm. She was making little headway when she struck the Dix. The collision didn’t even breech the Dix’s hull but the Dix had too narrow a beam to support her high super-structure. The steamship inspectors had previously required her to load 30 tons of ballast to offset her tenderness and still she was a difficult boat to handle.

The Jeanie’s bowsprit fouled the Dix’s upper deck and the momentum of the steam schooner, loaded with 400 tons of iron ore at the Great Northern Docks, pushed the Dix onto her port side, far enough for water to begin pouring into her open hold and cabins. The 30 tons of additional ballast sent her to the bottom like a stone. Most of her passengers and crew were caught below decks. There was no chance for them to escape. They lie there still, entangled in the wreckage, buried beneath 100 fathoms.

The loss of the Dix remains one of the worst disasters in the maritime history of Puget Sound but it is only history. Shipwrecks were common in the past. What’s most remarkable, I think, is the respect paid to this wreck 100 years later. There are articles in the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post Intelligencer. There are public discussions about salving the Dix. People are coming 3,000 miles from the opposite coast to commemorate the loss. Why?

As Americans, we tend to be a rootless people. Our heritage is one of movement—always moving to the next challenge, the next place, always focused on the receding future. We tend to lack a sense of place, an intimacy with both the land and our history on the land. That requires a different focus, a glance over our shoulder at the past, an admission that we are not only what we hope to be but also what our history has made us. And our history has a context. It’s contained by this land, this shore, this water, this coast. In this place 100 years ago people died, people like ourselves—husbands and wives and children, family and friends. Their lives and their deaths connect us to this place across time. They give us continuity, as long as we remember.

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