49 Writers Interview: The Clara Nevada by Steven C. Levi

What piqued your interest in the Clara Nevada?

The saga of the CLARA NEVADA is fairly well-known.  But I didn’t believe that the ship had actually come UP after it had gone DOWN.  So I check the newspapers and found that, yes, it had come back up.  And the more I read the more I realized I was looking at a robbery. Here we have a ship with 15 tons of dynamite yet only one stick goes off—in the boiler room! – and there are 100,000 ounces of gold ($13.6 million in today’s dollars) in 20 feet of water and it’s never found?!  I saw a robbery.  But how to prove it?  Well, I had to find someone who was ON the ship when it supposedly went down that was alive with a lot of cash later.  So I took every name I could find in the newspaper – passengers and crew – and ran them through the 1900 Census, two years after the CLAR NEVADA went down. I got a solid hit: the captain had a new steamboat on the Yukon in 1900.  He bought it 9 days after the CLARA NEVADA went down.  In Seattle.  And even today that’s a trip that takes about five days.  Then I started putting the book together.
Describe your research process:  where you began, how long you researched, where your big breakthroughs came?
Historical research is a never-ending story.  There is always somewhere else to look and you will always have this white-knuckle fear that right after you publish the book someone is going to come up with a diary you knew nothing about that proves you wrong.  I was the first person in the newly-opened federal archives in Anchorage during my free time.  My father referred to those months as unemployed but I put my time to good use.  And I came up with nothing, zip, goose egg, for four months of eight-hour days.  I went through hundreds of thousands of documents and, on the second to last roll of microfilm I hit pay dirt.  The Captain had refused to pay his crew while the ship was stuck on a mud bar in the Yukon River.  After eight months they jumped ship and filed a complaint with the American Ambassador in Dawson. That gave me the name of the ship and linked the captain to its sale.  Then I went after its history.
Tell us about the most interesting discovery you made in writing the book.
I made enough ‘discoveries’ of the Alaska Gold Rush to write a book — BOOM AND BUST IN THE ALASKA GOLD FIELDS – and since I was reading the newspapers, I am now swamped with interesting tidbits some of which are attached.
How did you decide to organize the material you gathered?
Historians do not write books, the documents create the book.  After ten years of gathering the bare bones, the book was basically organized.  All I had to do was find the gristle and bone to wrap around the skeleton.
Tell us about your experience with The History Press as a publisher.
Excellent people.  A publisher that is willing to take a chance.  Writers like me need people like The History Press.

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