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Past Times

On This Day 1929: When a huge steamboat stranded at the Beach Ballroom and Fittie residents had their fill of coal

A steamer with large quantities of coal aboard had stranded in dense fog just offshore. Attempts were being made to refloat her, including taking off the cargo. reports.
Susy Macaulay
The steamer SS Idaho stranded just off Aberdeen in January 1929, and several months of effort ensued to try and refloat her. But Fittie residents were more interested in her cargo of coal. Image DCT/Roddie Reid.
The steamer SS Idaho stranded just off Aberdeen in January 1929, and several months of effort ensued to try and refloat her. But Fittie residents were more interested in her cargo of coal. Image DCT/Roddie Reid.

On this day in 1929 Aberdeen residents were enjoying watching a drama unfold just offshore.

The drama would keep them entertained for many more months.

The 1905 steamer SS Idaho had arrived a couple of weeks earlier, and in dense fog had missed the entrance to the harbour, stranding on a sand bank 150 yards from shore in full view of the populace.

Idaho was built 1903 by Earles Shipbuilding & Engineering Co, Hull for Thos Wilson, Sons & Co.

She was owned by the Ellerman Line of Hull, and was on passage from Hull to New York.

Thousands of people at Aberdeen beach to see the stranded SS Idaho in 1929.
Thousands flocked to Aberdeen Beach to see the stranded SS Idaho. Image: DCT

Being a steamer, she was carrying a vast amounts of coal, and this was naturally of considerable interest to Fittie residents.

Bad weather blighted all attempts to reach the ship for several days after she stranded on January 7.

View of the stranded SS Idaho at Aberdeen Beach in 1929.

Once the fog cleared on January 10, residents got a good view of the stranded SS Idaho. The image above includes glimpse of the dance hall, described at the time as ‘much discussed’.

‘Weird in the extreme’

Once the fog had finally cleared, the Aberdeen Daily Journal, reported the scene at Aberdeen Beach, describing it as ‘weird in the extreme’.

The reporter was prompted into full poetic flow by the weirdness, writing: “The hazy gleam of the moon cast a cold radiance over the deserted wastes of snow-mantled sands, while across a dark strip of water loomed the black hull of the vessel. A biting wind blew from the north-east. No movement could be seen aboard the steamer, but red lights showed from her mastheads.”

Rope system attached to the American steamship to establish communication. Inset shows a salvage man on his way over to the vessel.
Communication was established with the stranded SS Idaho by this rope system on January 18, 1929. Inset shows a salvage man on his way over to the vessel. Image: DCT

After his lyrical outburst, the reporter managed to gather himself to describe the first attempts to get the cargo off.

“Yesterday, despite the handicap of blinding snow and intense cold, work was commenced in rigging up a ‘blondin’ from shore to the masthead.

System put in place to unload cargo from SS Idaho at Aberdeen Beach

Blondins are essentially ropeways with a mechanism to raise and lower loads vertically from the suspended ropeway. This allowed them to cross wide, deep spaces such as quarries, or in this case, ocean, and move material up to the ropeway and across to the edge of the quarry or dry land.

Curiously, blondins had a strong north-east connection, being invented by Scottish quarry engineer John Fyfe. He had installed the first example in 1872 at Kemnay granite quarry at Garioch.

Salvage crew rigging up tackle while perched on the anchor chain. Further efforts to refloat SS Idaho in June 1929
Salvage crew rigging up tackle while perched on the anchor chain. Further efforts to refloat SS Idaho in June 1929 Image: DCT.

With SS Idaho, the idea was to try and get the ship’s cargo taken off to make her easier to refloat.

“The erection of this aerial cableway will, owing to the elaborate arrangements necessary, take some time to complete,” wrote the P&J reporter. “Members of the salvage party on the beach expressed themselves quite confident of getting the Idaho off in due course.”

This was more the triumph of hope over adversity.

Early on in the proceedings, Idaho’s master, Captain C Barron, was brought ashore.

Captain C Barron of the stranded SS Idaho was carried through the shallow waters by an unnamed man.
Captain C Barron of the stranded SS Idaho was carried through the shallow waters by an unnamed man. Image: DCT

A strong man was enlisted to carry him piggy-back through the shallow water onto the beach.

Communication was by semaphore from the shore.

Communicating with the stranded SS Idaho by semaphore.
Communicating with the stranded SS Idaho by semaphore. Image: DCT

Unloading the cargo

As soon as possible, it was all hands to the pump to unload the cargo. It’s not clear exactly what the cargo comprised at this point, but it certainly included flour.

Various craft landing flour from the stranded SS Idaho.
Various craft landing flour from the stranded SS Idaho. Image: DCT.

By January 24, the weather had improved and unloading the cargo was in full swing.

The P&J reported that Idaho’s crew had been taken off by salvage boats, apart from five engineers, retained to help the salvage crew.

SS Idaho crew hauling at the jawsers attached to the tugs and salvage boats.
The first pictures on board the stricken SS Idaho were taken on January 10. Here the crew are hauling at hawsers attached to tugs and salvage boats. image: DCT

The crew were paid off and left Aberdeen, bound for Hull to take up work on another of Ellerman Line’s vessels.

Capt C Barron of SS Idaho spoke with Mr McDonald, the port missionary after he was brought ashore from the stranded vessel.
Capt C Barron of SS Idaho spoke with Mr McDonald, the port missionary after he was brought ashore from the stranded vessel. Image: DCT

They had been in isolation aboard Idaho for 17 days, during which time they had been looked after by the port missionary, Mr McDonald, pictured above with the captain, whom they made a point of visiting at the Sailor’s Home before they left.

A glimpse of the crew of SS Idaho, filmed on-board, with the ship's cat.
A glimpse of the crew of SS Idaho, filmed on-board, with the ship’s cat. Image: DCT

A weather window at this time permitted a multitude of small boats to swarm around Idaho to help take off the cargo.

Fishing boats joined in efforts to unload SS Idaho

Fishing boats from Montrose and Peterhead joined the effort.

The P&J reported: “It is expected that given the good weather, even more vessels will be engaged in unloading the Idaho today. Everything is proceeding at top speed to lighten the steamer sufficiently to enable a special effort to be made by the tugs on Sunday, when there is a high tide.”

Divers gathered to help with the salvage of SS Idaho.
It was potentially a good payday for divers, pictured here, who gathered to help with the salvage of SS Idaho. Image: DCT

But refloating of SS Idaho didn’t occur until July

As it turned out, they didn’t manage to refloat Idaho until July of that year.

It was September before she finally left Aberdeen, under tow from two steam tugs.

Death knell

But the incident proved her death knell and she was finally scrapped in 1930 at Port Glasgow.

Possibly the most interesting part about this drama was what was alleged to be happening onshore.

Did Fittie residents appropriate the coal?

Children gathering coal from the shore after the stranding of SS Idaho at Aberdeen Beach.
Children gathering coal from the shore after the stranding of SS Idaho at Aberdeen Beach. Image: DCT.

The only mention in the papers of the coal aboard the Idaho was through this image of children gathering it from the shore shortly after the vessel stranded.

But Fittie residents considered they had something of a claim on her cargo, and legend has it that large quantities of coal would later be found stashed everywhere possible in the neighbourhood.

Eventually the game was up and the residents were made to give it all back, apart from one container which they were allowed to keep.

But this aspect of the drama not being reported in the press, facts are elusive , so if any readers can throw better documented light on the proceedings, please contact susy.macaulay@pressandjournal.co.uk

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