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klondike relic

A view through the rails at the bow of A.J. Goddard shows the windlass used to raise and lower the steamer's anchors.

A team of international archeologists hunting for a relic of the Klondike gold rush has hit pay dirt at the bottom of Lake Laberge, a dark and frigid Yukon waterway immortalized by Robert Service.

The A.J. Goddard, the first steamer ever to reach Dawson City, the hub of the famous gold rush, has been found in near perfect condition 108 years after it sank on Oct. 22, 1901.

While the search attracted experts from both Canada and the United States and funding from the National Geographic Society, an amateur underwater diver from Whitehorse is receiving a lot of credit for leading them to it.

Since the early 1980s, Doug Davidge, an Alberta native and Environment Canada employee, has been searching off and on for the A.J. Goddard in Lake Laberge, a widened portion of the Yukon River about 30 kilometres north of Whitehorse.

"A lot of this wouldn't have happened without his perseverance," said Jim Delgado, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. The organization, which is based in Texas and Turkey, also helped with the hunt.

Mr. Davidge, who is the volunteer president of the Yukon Transportation Museum, is thrilled such an important piece of the territory's history has finally been located. "We had been searching in the right area ... but just missed it completely. That's the nature of the business," he said with a chuckle.

What makes the A.J. Goddard such a key find is that it's relatively intact, save its pilothouse that likely broke off when it sank during a storm.

While about 30 shipwrecks connected to the gold rush era exist in the Yukon, many are in poor condition or have been salvaged.

Mr. Delgado, a veteran nautical archeologist, said the A.J. Goddard is an invaluable "time capsule" from that colourful period of history, and numerous items from it have already been catalogued, including a coat, a pair of boots and tools.

Three people, including the captain, Charles MacDonald, died when the A.J. Goddard sank. They were buried by local police about three kilometres from the wreck site. Two crew members survived.

Mr. Delgado said little is known about the five men, and he hopes news about the shipwreck being found will generate new information about them.

The small iron sternwheel steamboat was built in San Francisco, brought to Alaska, and then dismantled so it could be hauled over mountain passes to Lake Bennett, where it was reassembled by May of 1898.

Later that summer, it was the first steamer to reach Dawson City at a time when thousands of would-be gold diggers were making the difficult journey to the northern frontier in hopes of striking it rich.

Mr. Delgado said Lake Laberge turned out to be a perfect grave for the A.J. Goddard, which was named after its first captain, because cold fresh water is ideal for preserving shipwrecks. "It's literally put on ice," Mr. Delgado said.

Six years after the A.J. Goddard went down, Lake Laberge was made famous after poet Robert Service mentioned it in his poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee.

While there are no plans to raise the A.J. Goddard, those involved with locating it are hopeful that some of its artifacts eventually are recovered and displayed at the Yukon Transportation Museum in Whitehorse.

The research team pinpointed the shipwreck's location in 2008. However, they decided not to send divers down until last June. To deter potential scavengers, they kept news of the find secret until now because they wanted to wait for the waterway to freeze for the winter so it can be guarded until the team returns next spring to continue its research.

"We plan to be there the first day the ice comes off the lake," Mr. Delgado said.

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