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Mary Sachs

The wooden schooner, Mary Sachs, was the third ship purchased by the Canadian government in 1913 to support the Canadian Arctic Expedition. Stefansson wired Ottawa from Nome in July, stating that Karluk and Alaska were both overloaded and suggesting that another schooner be purchased at Nome rather than at Herschel Island as originally planned. There were "many excellent gas schooners for sale cheap, account hard times" (Stefansson telegram July 1913, National Archives of Canada). Approval was given, Mary Sachs was purchased for $5,000, and she was ready to sail the next day. Mary Sachs was to be a tender to both parties and was incidentally to carry out oceanographic work.

A 30-ton, 60-foot schooner with twin propellers, Mary Sachs was built at Benicia, California (near San Francisco) in 1898 (official number 92847). Although the early history of Mary Sachs is not completely known, the following gives some idea of her life before the CAE.

In 1904 Mary Sachs was chartered by Charles Madsen, a 20-year-old Danish immigrant, for a trading voyage to Siberia. The owner of the Mary Sachs offered Madsen the schooner on a commission basis. She was sturdily constructed, wide of beam, shallow draft, and with a centreboard to prevent her from drifting sideways in a strong wind, but had no auxiliary engine at that time. Madsen sailed her through the Bering Strait and westward along the Arctic coast, stopping at Chucki villages to trade for furs, ivory and whalebone. After returning to Nome, Madsen began looking for another ship, as Mary Sachs then lacked the auxiliary engine needed to cope with the dangers of ice and storms of the Bering Sea (Hunt 1975). Mary Sachs next became a mail boat for the US postal Service.

At the time of her purchase by the Canadian Government, Mary Sachs was owned by Captain Peter Bernard (though the Bill of Sale gives Etta M. Bernard as owner) and operated by him in Alaskan waters. When he sold her to the CAE, it was with the provision that he might buy her back at the end of the voyage. Captain Peter Bernard was hired as master at $125 per month during the summer navigation season.

Ship Load

When Mary Sachs sailed from Nome she was heavily loaded. On deck were cans of fuel, ten sleds and eight dogs. Stefansson decided to send Chipman as far as Herschel Island on Mary Sachs to command the schooner, as Captain Peter Bernard was not a navigator. Chipman's diary provides more details of the ship:

"Mary Sachs – 36 tons registered 63' 9" over all. 19' 8" beam. 4' 8" deep 6' 6" draught loaded. Has 68 tons on now. Twin screw 2 - 30 H.P. Union Engines. Supposed to do 7 knots. 8 bunks forward, 6 aft. sold for $5000 and Peter Bernard keeps 1/3rd interest and gets her back at the end of the three years. We have 350 cases gasolene & distillate on board" (Chipman Diary, August 3, 1913).

Like the Alaska, Mary Sachs got only as far as Collinson Point near the Alaska-Yukon boundary in 1913. There the two CAE schooners were caught in heavy slush ice and frozen in for the winter by the middle of September.


The Mary Sachs locked in the ice. Source: David Gray

Finally reaching Herschel Island in summer 1914, Mary Sachs, under the command of Expedition photographer George Wilkins, took a load of supplies and equipment across to Banks Island, stopping first at the Baillie Islands. They were to meet Stefansson and his three men who had crossed the Beaufort Sea ice from Alaska. During the trip, she damaged her hull in a gale and had great difficulty in weathering the storm. Leaking badly, with one propeller shaft broken, and an engineer who was often drunk, the ship did not provide a pleasure cruise.

CMC CD96-660-025

Mary Sachs at Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, August 10? 1914. GHW 51431. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

CMC CD96-652-018

Mary Sachs tied to an ice cake near Herschel Island, Yukon Territory. August 11, 1914. GHW 50839. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

"A heavy breeze increasing to a gale had sprung up, accompanied by sleet and fog. Our compass was very erratic, and the steering of the boat even more so. Thompson is the only one on deck that can manage the wheel. Billy keeps the boat swinging from side to side, making almost 45 degree turns, and I have seen Captain Bernard make a complete circle in one watch" (Wilkins Diary, August 15, 1914).

They brought the supplies ashore just east of Cape Kellett at one of the few places where it was possible to haul a ship ashore for the winter and were soon joined by Stefansson and his party who had landed on Banks Island in June. Work was started on a hut for winter quarters and Mary Sachs was winched up out of the water part way onto the beach. This camp alongside Mary Sachs became a winter base for the Northern Party of the CAE from 1914 to 1917. In 1914 the camp, known as Kellett Base, was manned by Bernard, Crawford, Thomsen and his family, and Baur.

Adrift, Beached, Abandoned

"A heavy blow today from S.E. large ice being blown ashore The Mary Sach broke adrift from her fastening owing to heavy Swill. She was secured after 6 hours work by all hands Think she will be wrecked sometime this fall as she is in a poor place A Sail was sighted this PM which proved a 2 masted schooner resembling the Polar Bear. She was headed for Cape Kellett Mr.Steffansen left this PM to intercept her there A heavy swell on at 8 PK. Temp +38 [F] Bar 29.82" (Baur Diary, August 1915).

It was not until the summer of 1917 that Mary Sachs again became a focus of activity. The returning members of the Northern Party began preparations to leave Banks Island on Mary Sachs while awaiting Stefansson's return from the north. Aarnout Castel recorded in his diary the efforts made to repair the engines, repair damage to the hull, complete the caulking, and the final re-rigging and painting of the ship. For a month, Castel, Andersen, Binder, and Masik worked steadily on preparing the ship for the open water season.

Unfortunately, it was all wasted labour. Soon after the arrival of Henry Gonzales, captain of the Polar Bear, the Sachs was taken on a short trial run, then Gonzales ordered her beached by driving her ashore. Then, through a series of misunderstandings or deliberate misreading of orders, Gonzales commanded the men to cut up the mast of Mary Sachs for firewood, remove the wheelhouse, and use the ship's planks to build a hut for the winter. The wheelhouse was set up on shore for use as a hut by Binder and Masik, who were going to stay on Banksland for the winter to trap Arctic foxes. This was obviously a benefit to them, but a loss for both the Northern Party and the Canadian Government.

The whole party then left for Herschel Island on the Polar Bear, just days before Stefansson arrived on foot from the northeast corner of Banks Island. His companions, Noice, Eimu, and Knight, arrived the next day.


"Aug 20 – Cape Kellot Base Arrived here at 7:30pm, having travelled WxS 15 miles. Saw the ship at a distance of 8 miles and travelled along the ridge which runs out to Kellot. Due to the nature of the country we could not see the ship again until we within 600 yards of her. Then to our dismay we noticed first that the ship was listed over to one side then that the ship had only one mast. She was sunk, with her nose upon the beach. Her rigging was tangle of cut ropes and cables swaying back and forth in the wind. Yes the Sachs was a wreck – our hopes were dashed to the ground. The place had a deserted dismal desolate look. Not a soul in sight – no dogs everything dead -
Coming a little closer we saw a fox playing around some boxes – no it was too black for a fox – it must be a pupy. And a pupy it was then other dogs came into sight and finally a man emerged from the wheelhouse of the ship which had been moved up on the beach. It was Mr. Stefanson. He had a tragic story to tell; a tale of starvation and death, of insubordination and trickery" (Noice Diary, August 20, 1917).

When James Crawford arrived at Kellett Base on 26 August 1917 with the schooner Challenge, Stefansson, needing a ship to travel out, bought Challenge for $6000 and gave Crawford all the CAE supplies on Banks Island, including the wreck of the Mary Sachs.

When Stefansson met up with Polar Bear and Captain Gonzales a day after leaving Kellett, he was given Gonzales' version of why Mary Sachs had been wrecked. According to Gonzales, he had chopped out the mast and put the ship on the beach because his galley stove had been short on fuel, and that the Sachs was no good, anyhow, and that he did not have the time to tow Mary Sachs to what was then called "Baur Harbour," now Sachs Harbour. He also felt that Binder and Masik would have more important things to do than to keep pumping the ship to keep her afloat. The engines of Mary Sachs were indeed not in good condition – only one was working well – but as Stefansson pointed out, many a sailing ship in the days of the whalers had gone from Cape Kellett to the Pacific without the use of engines.

Mary Sachs after the CAE

The presence of the ship on the coast of Banks Island was a beacon for Inuvialuit trappers, who soon started to make an annual trip to Banksland for trapping. The already established houses and the ready supply of wood that Mary Sachs provided was of considerable use to those early inhabitants.

Elder Persis Gruben, who arrived at Mary Sachs with her father, Lennie Inglangasak, in 1928, described the remnants of the Mary Sachs and the CAE camp:

"Where we landed, there was a little house. It was a pilot house from an old ship. Beside it, there was a house made of iron, sheet iron, maybe a warehouse. Those were old camp grounds with two big engines on the beach that belonged to the Mary Sachs. The pilot house became a house, the windows were round portholes and we had flooring. Polar bears would peep through portholes... All camped at the pilot house, Inualuyak's family put a stove in it... Dad fixed the little house made of iron sheet (left from the Canadian Arctic Expedition) and put windows and a flooring. At that time gas cans were square and in wooden boxes, we use that for floor, but towards the bed there was no flooring" (Persis Gruben, in Nagy 1999, Aulavik Oral History Project on Banks Island, NWT: Final Report).

Elder David Bernhardt of Kugluktuk also remembers seeing the wheelhouse of the Mary Sachs on the land when he first came to Banks Island in about 1929. The keel of the schooner was there too, pushed up on the beach by ice (David Bernhardt Interview, Kugluktuk, September 2002).

When Jimmy Memorana of Holman first came to Banks Island, he remembers seeing "lots of barrels, round wood (at Mary Sachs) and a big kind of muffler, long like pipe. The wheelhouse of Mary Sachs with round windows, covered with polar bear and muskox skins, when first there, the door was a muskox skin" (Jimmy Memorana Interview, Holman, September 2002).

Frank Carpenter of Inuvik suggested that the people used dynamite to break the ship up further, so that they could use the wood. Fred Wolki built a large workshop at Blue Fox Harbour north of Cape Kellett using wood from the Mary Sachs. This workshop was dismantled after Fred's death and used in building a storage shed at Sachs Harbour. In later years, people from Sachs Harbour and other camps continued to visit Mary Sachs to obtain pieces of brass or copper from her engines for use in making ulus or knives (Fred Carpenter interview, Inuvik, September 2002).

The final destruction of Mary Sachs probably took place in the late 1930s. Geddes Wolki, an Elder from Sachs Harbour, remembers seeing the long timber keel of Mary Sachs on the beach at the time of his earliest trips to the area with his grandfather in the 1940s. He describes the remnant as being oriented along the beach (east-west) with the curved part of the bow still attached (Geddes Wolki Interview, Sachs Harbour, September 2002).

Mary Sachs Today

Today "Mary Sachs" is a community picnic ground and hunting spot 15 km west of Sachs Harbour, at the end of the road leading towards Cape Kellett. In spring and fall it is an important goose-hunting area. Each year on July 1st, the people of Sachs Harbour gather at Mary Sachs Creek for a community celebration of Canada Day.


Goose-hunters' tent at Mary Sachs, with CAE house foundations in foreground, Banks Island. June 1996. Source: David Gray

It is a suitable place to celebrate history, as it was here that the ship, which became the namesake of both Sachs Harbour and Mary Sachs Creek, was hauled up on the sandy beach in the fall of 1914 to establish the first "modern" camp on Banks Island. The ship's wreckage provided a focus and materials that would not have existed had the ship sailed away in 1917 as planned.

Several remnants of Mary Sachs can still be seen just west of Mary Sachs Creek. Two large parts of the Union engine blocks, part of a propeller shaft, a large water or fuel tank, and bits of rusty pipe are the main items there that are probably ship fragments. Many smaller fragments including glass, nails, and pottery are scattered around the area. Still obvious are the foundations and the corrugated iron walls of the sod huts, built by the CAE personnel and used later by white trappers and finally by Inuvialuit hunters and trappers from Aklavik.


Engine block from the Mary Sachs, at Mary Sachs, Banks Island. June 1996. Source: David Gray


Scattered artifacts, including brass dog harness clip, near CAE house foundations, at Mary Sachs, Banks Island. June 1996. Source: David Gray

In 1967 several parts of the Mary Sachs engines were incorporated into the centennial cairn erected on the hillside above the town. The schooner Mary Sachs is also commemorated by the official name "Mary Sachs Passage" near Cross and Barter Islands on Alaska's north coast.


Centennial cairn with parts of Mary Sachs engines, Sachs Harbour, Banks Island. June 1996. Source: David Gray

Views of the ice and ocean at Mary Sachs in September 2002, 88 years to the day after the schooner Mary Sachs arrived at Banks Island:


David Gray in canoe, where the schooner Mary Sachs landed 88 years before. September 10, 2002. Source: David Gray


James McCormick with canoe, where the schooner Mary Sachs landed 88 years before. September 10, 2002. Source: David Gray


Arctic Ocean ice floes off Banks Island at Mary Sachs. September 12, 2002. Source: David Gray


Ice floes off Banks Island at Mary Sachs. September 12, 2002. Source: David Gray


Approaching Mary Sachs from the Arctic Ocean. September 10, 2002. CAE house foundations in background. Source: David Gray

  • Video:
    The Mary Sachs unloading at Banks Island in September 1914