Queensland 100 Years Ago - The Sinking of the S. S. Yongala

The Adelaide Steamship company vessel, the S.S. Yongala was a steel passenger and freight steamer weighing 3064 tons gross and measuring 350 feet long. It was on its 99th voyage in February 1911 when it left Melbourne with 72 passengers on board headed for Brisbane and then travelling via Mackay to Cairns. The Yongala was described as "undoubtedly one of the finest vessels which has ever plied the interstate trade and ...thoroughly stable and well appointed". (Advertiser 29/3/1911 p9 ) The Yongala docked at the Municipal Wharf in South Brisbane on 20th March where it took on passengers and cargo. By the time the ship left Mackay for Townsville it had 49 passensgers and 73 crew.

Hand coloured postcard of S. S. Yongala, ca. 1905. Image number API-079-0001-0001.

Without a radio the ship had no way of receiving information that it was headed into the path of a massive cyclone off the coast of Townsville. When it was first overdue in Townsville, the general opinion was that the ship might have been sheltering amongst the many islands or that it may have broken down. The Adelaide Steamship company sent two steamers, the Tarcoola and the Ouraka to search for the vessel along the outside of the Whitsunday Passage, on the ocean fringe and the later to work about inside the passage. Cyclonic weather conditions in the area made authorities fear for the ship's safety.  (Adelaide Advertiser 27 march 1911 p 8. Steamer Yongala overdue at Townsville).

Other ships in the area about that time describe conditions as "the worst ...ever experienced. " After four days missing and when cargo, positively identified as belonging to the Yongola washed ashore at Cape Bowling Green, grave fears were held for her safety. All search for the vessel was futile. It was reported that " the long delay without tidings and the finding of cargo from the lower hold, suggests that the bottom has been ripped out of the steamer" ( Adelaide Advertiser, 29 march 1911 p 8). Captain Knight, the 62 year old popular seaman from Sydney, was the commander of the Yongala and one of the most experienced navigators of the coastal service. He had a fine record of service and it was said of him that he knew the coastline of Australia "better than many people know their front gardens" but with dangerous seas and bad weather reported, human skill and prudence proved to be of little avail. (Sydney Morning Herald, 29/3/1911 p 11.)

The steamer carried about 1800 tons of cargo and overall was insured for 60, 000 pounds. On locating the cargo listed in the manifold as being from number 3 hold, there was much speculation as to the fate of the ship including that it struck a reef and sank before the boats could be lowered or was turned completely over in the terrible seas, carrying over, every soul on board.  Some of the passengers were Mr Rooney, head of a well known Townsville timber merchants, Mrs Davids, wife of the of the general manager of the Mulgrave central mill at Cairns, Miss Uhr, matron of the Townsville Hospital and Mr Stach, accountant for the Adelaide Steamship company in townsville.  (Advertiser Adelaide, 29 March 1911 p 8. A Missing Steamer)

All hope was abandoned when cabin doors and bathroom gratings and two pillows marked "A.S. Co." were washed ashore on Keppel Reef, close to the Barrier. It was believed that passengers went to their deaths as they slept while the vessel hit a reef. No bodies were ever recovered. At the official inquiry it was decided to cease conjecture and add one more to the roll of the mysteries of the sea. It was not until 1958 that two skindivers from Townsville located the wreck of the Yongola approximately 89 km south east of Townsville.  It is protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1986.

Karen Hind

Heritage Information Services

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