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The Liner Dakota


On this date in 1907, the Liner Dakota was on her seventh voyage on a clear bright afternoon when she struck a reef off the coast of Japan and sank.

The liner was launched only three years before, on February 6th, 1904, at New London, Connecticut. The guest of honor breaking christening the bow with champagne was 17-year-old Mary Bell Flemington from Ellendale, North Dakota. Mary Belle stood 6 foot 3 and had been voted the ‘prettiest girl in North Dakota’ by her fellow UND students. The New York press called her the “Diana of the Prairies.”

Mary Belle was given a tour of the sights in New York, but she wasn’t that impressed. After six days, she headed home, saying, “I wouldn’t give my little garden in Ellendale... with its broad vista of the prairie, for all the palaces on Fifth Avenue.”

Mary Belle’s christening of the Dakota held more responsibility than one might think. She had to break the champagne over the bow only after the ship started sliding from its braces into the water, but before it got too far out to reach. The luck of the ship was at risk, and the more the bottle shattered, the better luck the Dakota would have. If she missed entirely, sailors would possibly refuse to board. In the case of the Dakota, the ship should have had great luck, as Mary Belle’s aim was true.

The Dakota’s twin cargo-passenger ship was the Minnesota, both of which were part of the Great Northern Steamship Company (GNSS), owned by railroad magnate James J. Hill. Each of the ships weighed more than 22,000 tons, were 622 feet long and had a beam of 73. Each had accommodations for 200 first-class passengers, with room for at least 1,800 in steerage class.

The Dakota and Minnesota were the largest steamers in the world flying the American flag. James Hill believed that the liners would be able to take on so much cargo that he could lower operating costs, attract more business and make his shipping venture profitable. But, the maximum speed of the liners was only thirteen knots – pretty slow for a passenger liner.

The Dakota departed on her first voyage from Seattle to the Far East on September 20, 1905. On her seventh voyage, the Dakota was about forty miles south of Yokohama, Japan, when Captain Emil Francke steered her into what Japanese fisherman called Onigase, or the Devil’s Sea. The area was well charted and widely avoided by mariners of all kinds because of its treacherous reefs, and that day, the sea lived up to its name as the Dakota steamed into the Shira Hami Reef.

Chief Officer Ahman, a superior navigator, had the watch, but had been relieved by Captain Francke, who was admired, but not adored, for his tough standards of discipline. Francke later said that he realized his mistake and tried to change course, but it was too late. To Francke’s credit, his officers and crew didn’t blame him for what happened.

Thankfully, the ship was close enough to shore to avoid loss of life; all the passengers were safely evacuated, and a third of the cargo load was salvaged before the vessel broke apart and sank.

Maybe they should’ve used better champagne at the christening…

Written by Merry Helm