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July 7: The Wreck of the Steamer Dakota

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James J. Hill’s business went beyond his empire-building railroad. In 1904, he entered into the shipping business and contracted for a ship that garnered the attention of North Dakotans. When the Dakota was launched in 1904, nearly five thousand people attended the ceremony at the shipyard in Connecticut.

The Dakota was a marvel of modern shipbuilding, designed to stand up to the strain of ocean sailing. She had a double bottom, a strengthened hull, and an advanced fire extinguishing system. Her two engines had separate watertight compartments.

In addition to cargo, the Dakota could carry passengers and boasted a dining salon, library, and smoking room.

North Dakotans eagerly followed the progress of what they considered “their” ship. In April, 1905, newspapers reported on her sea trial. The ship sailed fifty-nine miles and “behaved splendidly.” Everything went according to plan, and the ship was ready to take to the open sea. She set out on her maiden voyage on April 28th, carrying six thousand tons of steel rail destined for the Alaska Railroad. With the Panama Canal not yet built, the ship had to travel around Cape Horn.

North Dakotans eagerly followed her progress. On this date in 1905, the news came that the Dakota safely arrived in Seattle. She was greeted by a delegation that had traveled from North Dakota. The ship was under command of captain Emil Francke, who confidently declared the Dakota to be “the finest ship afloat.”

The Dakota, however, did not have a long career. She set out on her seventh voyage on February 17, 1907. After a delayed departure, Captain Francke wanted to make up time. He took control of the bridge on the evening of March 3rd. As darkness closed in, the ship was passing close to the coast of Japan when she steamed full speed over a reef, ripping open the double bottom. The ship filled with water, sinking her bow and leaving only the stern above the waterline. All the passengers and crew safely reached the shore.

The vessel was officially abandoned on March 11. James J. Hill collected two and a half million dollars from the insurance company. The Dakota eventually broke up and disappeared beneath the waves.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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