A podcast on Wrangell history has won a national award for its series on one of Alaska’s deadliest shipwrecks. KSTK spoke to podcast creator Ronan Rooney and the Alaska state historian Katie Ringsmuth about the series and gaining national recognition for Wrangell Island.
In late September of 1908, the iron-hulled Star of Bengal, battered by a storm, smashed against the rocks of Coronation Island in Southeast Alaska. The ship broke apart, killing 111 of the 138 people on board – most of them Chinese, Filipino and Japanese cannery workers.
“It’s so viscerally real to me,” says podcaster and amateur historian Ronan Rooney. “Those of us who live in Southeast Alaska, we know that coastline. We’ve all seen miles and miles of it just going around, and to imagine a ship of that size wrecking against the coastline is just extraordinary.”
The Star of Bengal’s captain survived the wreck and publicly blamed the captains of two tugboats that had been towing the ship. After months of federal investigation, nobody was ever held responsible. The story struck a chord with Rooney, who grew up in Wrangell.
“I know exactly what it feels like to jump off the dock,” Rooney says. “I know what that water feels like, I know what it feels like in summer and fall and it’s cold, your lungs hurt immediately, and you have to force yourself to move and saltwater gets in your nose and in your mouth. You don’t want too much of that. So to imagine a shipwreck, where men are going into the sea and the ship is coming apart underneath them was really difficult.”
Rooney started his podcast, Wrangell History Unlocked, early in the pandemic, as he found himself with a lot more time at home. He’s looked into all sorts of local history, including a five-part series on the wreck of the Star of Bengal. “I intended for it to be kind of about an hour, when I set out,” Rooney says with a laugh.
“Once I knew there was a scandal, then I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got a story here,’” Rooney explains. “I wanted for people to hear a story about the Star of Bengal that was maybe something they hadn’t heard before. So I really went into: let’s get into different narratives and let’s pick apart who I think is embellishing or outright lying. Because that’s what I really like. I love stories about conflict. I like stories about people making accusations and hubris, and the sort of vanity of power and I think the [story of the] Star of Bengal has that as well.”
Rooney says previous researchers and historians had thoroughly analyzed how the Star of Bengal was battered by the storm and some of the federal investigation into the deadly wreck. He wanted to do something different.
“I kind of feel like I brought for the very first time: ‘Here is a reason why we should all take sides in this debate, we should say the captain and the survivors are totally wrong, and that the steamship captains were in the right the entire time,’” Rooney says, continuing that the five-part series is: “Me making a case for why I think the captain of the Bengal and the survivors lied under oath about the chance of rescue, which was absolutely impossible. The morning that they sat at anchor, there was no way they could be rescued. They tried to destroy the steamship captains who themselves were victims of the same storm, and did what they could under awful circumstances.”
Looking at what the survivors of the wreck told newspapers down the West Coast, Rooney found an evolving story.
“What drew me was the near-universal sort of conclusion for over 100 years from people who wrote about it was that there was really no way of knowing if the accusations about cowardice were true or not, it was always more like, ‘Well, we’ll never know, it will always just be word against word. And we just have to leave it at that,’” Rooney says, “And that really rubs me the wrong way. I just couldn’t accept that. There could be two contradictory versions of the same story, we just all sort of accepted.”
Although Rooney’s podcast on the wreck contributes new perspectives to the event’s history, it’s not a complete record. The history is skewed to the captain and ship’s crew, who were mostly white – there’s very little out there about the cannery workers, most of whom died in the wreck.
“What the story is severely lacking is the voices of the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino cannery workers,” Rooney says. “We don’t have their words to go by. So there’s always going to be a cloud of mystery that may never go away.”
Rooney says he first heard about the Star of Bengal wreck from his mother, Alice Rooney, who came to Wrangell as a church missionary in the 1970s, and heard about the Star of Bengal shipwreck from a local old-timer, Bill Taylor.
“Bill told great stories,” Rooney says, “And graciously let my mother record them on a tape recorder. What she was going to do with those tapes, I don’t think she really had an idea. I don’t think she planned that, you know, in 30-some years, her son would take them and then put them online for people to listen to and narrate a story around it.”
And it did take him a while to be interested in the tapes, he says. “Just because your mother is interested in something doesn’t always mean you care,” Rooney says, “And so for a long time, I was like, ‘Well, good for you. Interesting.’”
Rooney isn’t a professional historian. Born and raised in Wrangell, he graduated Wrangell High in 2003. As a senior, he wrote a pamphlet on Wrangell.
“I wrote a booklet for the museum, which you can still buy down at the gift shop, it’s that little red book,” Rooney explains. “The fact that they still sell it is really a huge honor. That was me dipping my toe in this sort of, ‘Well, maybe this is something I like researching, and I do like to share with people.’”
Rooney now works in tech and lives down south with his family – wife Mary, daughter Rosemary and son Conan – on the Willamette River in Wilsonville, Oregon.
He was born in Wrangell at the old hospital building, and says he: “grew up with the local culture. My father was a fisherman and mother was a social worker. I went to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, I had great exposure to Lingít culture, Haida culture, and all that you have access to and Wrangell even today, and I sort of took it for granted,” Rooney says.
But the early pandemic brought him back to looking at Wrangell’s history. The podcast is a sort of audio theater, with narration from Rooney, sound effects, and friends and family playing parts.
“I had my friends who did voices for the piece,” Rooney says, “I’d get people on the phone and have them record little lines here and there, and my mother is in this piece playing piano as well as talking to Bill Taylor, my wife plays piano and does the voice is Joan… this is a family operation, this is truly a mom and pop little history shop.”
“Joan” is Joan Lowell, the daughter of the Star of Bengal’s captain. She was a silent film actress and published a book about the wreck of the Star of Bengal in the late 1920s. Rooney’s wife voiced Joan in the final episode of Rooney’s series on the wreck.
“My daughter and my son will always have this 50-minute block where their dad tells a story about an old Hollywood silent film actress, and their mom does the voice,” Rooney says. “It’s campy, it’s weird. And it’s just a treasure to me. I listen to it from time to time, just because hearing it makes me laugh.”
But “The Rise and Fall of the Star of Bengal” is much more than its entertainment value.
Katie Ringsmuth is the Alaska State Historian and deputy State Historic Preservation Officer for the state of Alaska. Ringsmuth’s office in Anchorage has been gathering information to potentially place the Star of Bengal shipwreck on the historic place register. It’s part of a broader push in recent years to investigate and recognize the importance of the wreck. She stumbled on the podcast while searching online.
“I was very interested in looking at that shipwreck as a potential national register nomination,” Ringsmuth explains, “And actually, just happenstance came across Ronan’s podcast while doing a quick search on Google to see what more was out there about the shipwreck, and was just really, really impressed with the amount of work Ronan had put into it.”
She continues: “Here’s just a person, you know, not a Ph.D. historian or a professor, a person who just really loves local history and had a skill set that allowed him to share that interest with this larger community. And I thought that was really, really important.”
Ringsmuth says Rooney’s podcast series on the shipwreck is compelling for a number of reasons. It’s an important story about an underrepresented community, as well as an important story in Alaska maritime and cannery history.
“I thought that it was probably the best account of that event that I’ve ever read, or experienced,” Ringsmuth says.
So she decided to nominate the series for an American Association for State and Local History award.
It’s a serious process.
“You really have to make the argument that: not only does it meet their criteria, but it has to be good history, and you really have to demonstrate that,” Ringsmuth explains, “So you have to bring in critical reviewers, for example, from outside to assess the project, and to not just write a letter of support, but to demonstrate, again, why this is good history.”
Award-winning projects also have to be something new, Ringsmuth says: “It’s not just something that is cool and connects people, but also offers an important contribution to the scholarship and our greater understanding of the historic record, which this project absolutely did.”
And the awards committee thought so too – Wrangell History Unlocked: The Rise and Fall of the Star of Bengal won an award of excellence from the American Association for State and Local History. For Rooney, the recognition has him on Cloud 9.
“I felt like I wanted to ride that fire truck through town,” Rooney says, referencing the long tradition of winning sports teams in Wrangell parading through town on the fire engine. “I just felt like, this is just exactly what I need to help raise the profile of this story. It felt like a validation of this thing that I do as a hobby. As a passion project, it paid off.”
He adds: “I mean, I’ve just been beaming for days now. It’s just a huge honor.”
But he’s not resting on his laurels – Rooney is bursting with ideas for future series and episodes.
For example: “Did you know that the very first woman to become mayor in Alaska was from Wrangell?” Rooney asks. “It was 1946. And her name was Doris Barnes.”
He’s got other ideas, from telling the story of the corrupt officials overseeing Wrangell during the Cassiar Gold Rush in the 1870s to the founding of the former Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school on the island, the Wrangell Institute.
“Wrangell is an exceptionally diverse place when it comes to history,” Rooney says. “It’s got historical records going back into the early 1800s through Russia and Alaska. We have voyagers like the English and the Spanish coming through. And then of course, let’s not forget, it’s Lingít country. And so we’ve got over 10,000 years of history, we’ve got petroglyphs that are over 10,000 years old, we find fishing weirs in the water that are over 10,000 years old. I mean, it’s an incredibly ancient place too, so you’ll never grow tired of telling stories.”
But Rooney says even brimming with ideas for more podcast episodes and series doesn’t make him feel rushed.
“That’s the great thing about history,” he says, “Is that it’s always just there, you can always go tap into it, you can always go find the power in it. That it’s a long time ago doesn’t hurt. In fact, that can make it more meaningful.”
Rooney’s podcast will be formally presented with the award at the American Association for State and Local History awards conference in Boise, Idaho in September. Another Alaska history project focused on the former Diamond NN Cannery in Bristol Bay, will also be honored with an award.
Listen to Rooney’s podcast at wrangellhistoryunlocked.com.
Get in touch with KSTK at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 874-2345.