The museum’s Registration team recently digitised 127 documents related to the working life and horrific wrecking of SS Federal. Curator of Ocean Science and Technology Emily Jateff provides an overview of the shipwreck and its discovery. 

On 21 March 1901, collier SS Federal was on a run from Port Kembla to Albany when it was lost in a storm off Gabo Island, carrying 3,486 tonnes of coal. Although the lighthouse keeper at Gabo Island saw the ship on a perilous course, he had no way to communicate with the Everard station further down the coast. Federal continued to hug the coast far off the recommended southwest course, and came to grief on submerged rocks in a storm, with the loss of 31 crew members. 

A Marine Court of Inquiry was held into the wreckage but it was unable to draw any conclusions. Some of the bodies recovered were in lifeboats and wearing life belts, so it was apparent the crew had time to abandon the ship, with many making it ashore before expiring. Even though the wreck happened before 23 March, a ship was only sent to look for the perished crew on 2 April. The rescue teams had to contend with bad weather, but the general public consensus was that a faster response would have saved lives. After the SS Federal tragedy, the Everard lighthouse was upgraded to a recognised signalling station capable of communicating with ships and other stations, including Gabo Island.

Telegram from 1901
Telegram sent by R W Wilson describing difficulties gaining access to the beach to recover the dead, washed ashore from the SS Federal disaster, ca 1901. ANMM Collection, ANMS0777

Finding the SS Federal (again)

In April 2019, I was Principal Investigator on board a CSIRO Marine National Facility RV Investigator voyage, titled RAN Hydrographic and Maritime Heritage Surveys. Undertaken in collaboration with Heritage Victoria, this voyage utilised archival research by Heritage Victoria and the Maritime Archaeological Association of Victoria (MAAV) to identify sites of significance in Victorian waters. Conducting a survey of SS Federal was a project priority. In 2012, an avocational diving group initially located the ship, but unfortunately, they did not provide a precise location to Heritage Victoria, limiting their ability to manage the site. 

On 15 April 2019, we relocated the site of SS Federal. The geophysical mapping team initiated close interval multibeam survey, running a total of nine transects within a 350-metre radius of the site. The vessel is perched on top of a six-metre deep scour (the vessel is located in a high tidal flow area within Bass Strait). The shipwreck is broken up, with the stern smashed and hull plate on starboard side beginning to fall into scour.

Drop camera footage was collected for bow, stern and mid-ship and into the scour. Upon approach of the stern section, investigators noted that the hull appeared to be crushed with very little remaining hull structure spotted at the aft end. Long thin sections of hull protruded into the water column preventing further visual inspection in this area. Heritage Victoria was provided with accurate site location, multibeam sonar and drop camera imagery from the maritime heritage surveys for ongoing interpretation, preservation and management of the site. 

The museum holds 127 documents related to the SS Federal’s working life and wrecking event in our collection. These have recently been digitised by the museum’s Registration division and are available online as Collection ANMS0777. The collection is an important asset for understanding past events as it paints a picture of the horror of the recovery of the dead, the Marine Board of Inquiry process and offers insight into the aftermath of the shipwreck.

In one poignant letter dated 21 April, Catherine Eckhoff, the widow of Fireman D R Eckhoff requests access to an established relief fund to pay her outstanding debts, with a supporting letter from Father Lewis of Wesleyan Parsonage confirming their marriage. This letter seems to be in response to a 20 April letter to the fund from Mr Eckhoff’s mother in which she advises that her son’s widow is ineligible to receive support as she has been ‘living with another man’.

Times may change, but messy family drama is forever.

Main image: SS Federal docked at a wharf, ca 1889–1901. ANMM Collection, ANMS0047[142]

This article originally appeared in Signals 129