The gas lamps of Havana cast erratic ribbons of light out across the harbor, zigzagging among the dark silhouettes of more than a hundred ships at anchor. In the darkness, the SS Central America lay wrapped in the moist tropical air, her engines silent, her decks dimly lit and trod only by the night watch. In these predawn hours, her five hundred passengers slept with the ship motionless for the first time since departing Panama four days earlier.
High above the ships, at the mouth of the harbor, a massive brown escarpment called El Morro swept upward out of the sea. On top, the flag of Spain awaited the first light of day as it had ever since Columbus celebrated mass on the island three and a half centuries earlier. Then the first glimmer outlined El Morro, and slowly dawn touched the green hills of Cuba, following them down to the sea, as the flag of Spain brightened to crimson and gold, and the Central America emerged from the darkness as the biggest ship in the harbor.
She was sleek and black, her decks scrubbed smooth with holystones, her deckhouses glistening with the yellowed patina of old varnish. Along her lower wale, a red stripe ran nearly three hundred feet stem to stern, and three masts the height and thickness of majestic trees rose from her decks. Spiderwebs of shrouds and stays held her masts taut, and in moments she could sprout full sail, but she rippled with real muscle amidships: two enormous steam engines with pistons that traveled ten feet on each downstroke and turned paddle wheels three stories high. Between the paddle wheels, the funnel rose thick and black above all save the masts.
One of a new generation of sidewheel steamers, the Central America departed New York Harbor on the twentieth of each month, bound for Aspinwall, Panama, where she traded five hundred New York passengers bound for San Francisco for five hundred California passengers returning east. Since her christening in 1853 as the George Law, she had carried one-third of all consigned gold to pass over the Panama route. And in quantities rivaling her official gold shipments, unregistered shipments of gold dust and gold nuggets from the Sierra Nevada, and gold coins struck at the new San Francisco Mint, and gold bars, some the size of building bricks, had traveled aboard her in the trunks and pockets, the carpetbags and money belts of her passengers.
At sunrise the morning gun sounded from El Morro; trumpets blared and drums rolled from high on the fortifications, announcing to the international flotilla of ships that the harbor was now open for the business of the day.
Lighters immediately surrounded the Central America, the small boats filled with oranges and bananas and thin men wearing blue and white checkered shirts and hats made of straw. The boatmen spoke only Spanish, but they chattered and gesticulated, peddling their fruit for dimes thrown by the passengers, who in turn received oranges twice as large as any they had ever seen.
In another hour, the ship’s bell resounded across the brightening harbor, and the captain ordered his crew to weigh anchor. Coal smoke and ashes rose from the funnel and roiled into the air over the afterdeck, the paddle wheels of the Central America churning the water white. With her bowsprit pointed onward as gracefully as the arched neck of a stallion, she glided through the mouth of the harbor beneath El Morro and out onto the sea, climbing to her cruising speed of eleven knots, the American flag rippling off the yardarm.
For many of her passengers, the final five days to New York would be the last leg of a long journey that began when news of the rich gold strike in California had first trickled east. “Many of us had been away for years,” recalled Oliver Manlove. “We awaited the time of meeting our loved ones again. We were jubilant and made the old ship ring with our voices.”
The Central America crossed the Tropic of Cancer, and with the green hills of Cuba shrinking above the whitened wake, the captain took her into the Gulf Stream, which he would follow most of the way to New York. The extra two-and-a-half-knot push lightened the work of his engines.
“As near as I can recollect,” the second officer reported later, “we left Havana, Tuesday, September 8, 1857, at 9:25 A.M., and proceeded to sea, steering for Cape Florida, with fine weather, moderate breezes and head sea.”
For half a day the seas remained clear and sapphire blue, the breeze in from the trade winds quarter and the surface smooth.
Angling northeast across the Straits of Florida, Captain Herndon followed the inner edge of the Gulf Stream, which flowed within a few miles of the Florida Keys, his course set for the point where the Keys broke loose of the mainland and arced westward. As the day wore on, the sun rose higher, blistering the sides of the ship. Tropical heat filled the hold, and the iron furnaces and boilers burned and bubbled at near capacity, running the temperature even higher.
Most of the passengers littered the weather deck, many of them still nursing mouth boils raised by the tropical sun and layers of raw skin peeling from their hands and faces. Some sat on wooden benches bordering the deck, some leaned over the rail, some coiled on top of the paddle guards, others sat in chairs or on seats under a large awning, and a few watched it all from the rigging. The air was so warm that even with the breeze many could remain in one spot for no more than ten minutes.
“The sky was bright overhead,” noted Oliver Manlove, “while there was a slight ripple of the waves. But the hours were passing and by the middle of the afternoon quite a breeze was blowing. The waves were rising, dark and tossing, but were chopping up into little white hills that rose and fell.”
That evening at sunset, the first- and second-class passengers took supper at the long tables and railroad benches in the dining saloon. Afterward, they retired topside again to stroll in the cooler evening breezes and amuse themselves with impromptu skits, or readings, or poems put to music and accompanied by a banjo, a guitar, or an old fiddle. Mostly they talked about loved ones and wondered silently how things had changed since they left their homes in the East.
While Captain Herndon entertained guests at his table, Manlove stood on deck, looking across the water, and recorded in his journal the end of their first day out of Havana. “The sun was shining brightly,” he remembered, “and dropping down in the west with magnificent splendor, and when it reached the waves it was like a red fire upon them for a moment before it sank away, leaving a crimson flame above it in the sky.”
Captain William Lewis Herndon sat at the head of the captain’s table, wearing thin gold spectacles. Gold epaulets hung from his shoulders. Married and the father of one daughter, Herndon was slight, and at forty-three balding; a red beard ran the fringe of his jaw from temple to temple. Though he looked like a professor or a banker more than a sea captain, he had been twenty-nine years at sea, in the Mexican War and the Second Seminole War, in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean Sea. He knew sailing ships and steamers and had handled both in all weather. He was also an explorer, internationally known and greatly admired, who had seen things no other American and few white men had ever seen.
Seven years earlier, in August of 1850, while at anchor in the harbor of Valparaiso, Chile, Herndon had received notice that orders would arrive by the next steamer with instructions for him to explore the Valley of the Amazon, from the trickling headwaters of its tributaries sixteen thousand feet high in the Peruvian Andes all the way to Para Brazil, where the Amazon emptied into the Atlantic, four thousand miles away. “The route by which you may reach the Amazon River is left to your discretion,” read his Navy Department order. It is not desired that you should select any route by which you and your party would be exposed to savage hostility beyond your means of defence and protection.. . . Arriving at Para, you will embark by the first opportunity for the United States, and report in person to this department.
Herndon had departed Lima on May 20, 1851, and arrived at Para nearly a year later, traveling the distance by foot, mule, canoe, and small boat. He had compiled lists, kept timetables, taken boiling points, recorded the weather, studied the flora, and measured and skinned small animals and birds, But he filed his report to the navy as a narrative, not only cataloging his scientific and commercial observations, not only presenting his studies of the meteorology, anthropology, geology, and natural history of the Amazon, but also rendering his experiences with natives and nature as colorful scenes that exposed the legends and the beauty and the curious customs of the region, creating one of the finest accounts of travel and discovery ever written. His report so far surpassed his superiors, expectations that Congress had published ten thousand copies as a book, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, which described his adventures with such insight, such compassion and wit, and such literary grace that he had come to symbolize the new spirit of exploration and discovery sweeping mid-nineteenth-century America.
Among the guests dining at the captain’s table that evening were the newlyweds Ansel and Addie Easton. Ansel’s short dark hair was swept back off of his broad forehead, a goatee covered his chin, and a glint of humor and serenity shone in his eyes. Addie had large eyes and a trim mouth; her dark hair, smooth and shiny, parted in the middle and twirled in soft buns about her ears.
“Captain Herndon had arranged to have us at his table,” Addie later wrote to a friend in San Francisco, “and as he was a most delightful man, we enjoyed it very much.”
That first night out of Havana, the early conversation turned to a topic popular on the steamers: shipwrecks. Scandal had arisen three years earlier when a captain and crew had rescued themselves from a sinking ship and left passengers to perish. Addie later recalled her host’s charming segue to topics more pleasant. “How well I remember Captain Herndon’s face as he said, `Well, I’ll never survive my ship. If she goes down, I go under her keel. But let us talk of something more cheerful.’ And the captain told us some interesting and delightful experiences he had had in his remarkable Amazon expedition.”
Much of Herndon’s charm was his self-mocking humor. He told stories with punch lines that underscored the joke was on him. In one story, he remembered being on the river all day, beaching his craft on the shore, and preparing a typical meal of monkey meat and monkey soup. The monkey meat was tough, but the liver was tender and good, and Herndon ate all of it. “Jocko, however, had his revenge,” said Herndon, “for I nearly perished of nightmare. Some devil, with arms as nervous as the monkey’s had me by the throat, and, staring on me with his cold, cruel eye, expressed his determination to hold on to the death. . . . Upon making a desperate effort and shaking him off, I found that I had forgotten to take off my cravat, which was choking me within an inch of my life.”
At the other tables in the saloon, the nightly card games had begun, and the sharp clink of silver coins blackened by salt air pierced the splashing of the paddle wheels and the leatherlike creaking of the timbers. Encouraged by good claret and beneath a white layer of smoke from fine Cuban cigars, the conversation at the captain’s table continued late into the evening, until the Eastons retired to their stateroom and Captain Herndon excused himself to attend to ship matters.
Early in his exploration of the Amazon, not yet sixty miles from the sea, Herndon had reached the great divide, separating the waters that flow into the Pacific from the waters that flow into the Atlantic. He stood at an elevation of 16,044 feet, following with his eyes a road cut along the flank of the mountain, at whose base sat “a pretty little lake.” When he got to the lake, he performed a curious ritual.
“I musingly dropped a bit of green moss plucked from the hill-side upon the placid waters of the little lake, and as it floated along I followed it, in imagination, down through the luxurious climes, the beautiful skies, and enchanting scenery of the tropics to the mouth of the great river; thence across the Caribbean Sea, through the Yucatan pass, into the Gulf of Mexico; thence along the Gulf Stream; and so out upon the ocean, off the shores of Florida.”
In Herndon’s imagination the green moss had floated along the same course he would take many times a few years later as captain of the SS Central America: across the Caribbean Sea, through the Yucatan pass, into the Gulf of Mexico, then north to catch the Gulf Stream: where she now steamed out upon the ocean, off the shores of Florida, into the dark.
Around midnight, the wind freshened perceptibly from the northeast.
When second officer James Frazer assumed his four-hour watch at 0400 Wednesday morning, he recorded the sea conditions: a head sea and a “fresh breeze,” seaman’s talk for whitecaps and a twenty-knot wind. Just at daybreak, a lookout high in the rigging spied the whiteness of the Cape Florida bore fifteen miles to the west. Then the sky to the east reddened with the rising sun, blazed for minutes in vivid hues, and slowly drained of color as the sun surmounted clouds thickening on the horizon.
Passengers who had drifted in and out of sleep listening to the ship creak and the wind rattle shrouds high in the rigging awoke Wednesday morning tossing in their berths. They climbed the rocking gangways to the weather deck, where sailors confirmed their thoughts: The wind had risen after dark and then blown hard through the night. They could see the coal smoke swirling as it cleared the stack and feel the bow of the ship rise with the swell of the sea. The wind and the salt spray had cooled and freshened the air, filling the morning with a majesty that enchanted some of the passengers.
Returning to his watch at noon, the wind still fresh, the sea still head on the bow, Second Officer Frazer took his meridian observation. Steering along the western edge of the Gulf Stream, they had run 288 miles since leaving Havana twenty-six and a half hours earlier.
Now between the Florida coast and Grand Bahama Isle, the wind stiffened and the sea turned lead gray. Virginia Birch was chatting topside with several other ladies when, she reported, “a squall came up, and the wind blew like a whirlwind, and we had to go downstairs.” Passengers who ventured onto the deck quickly returned to the main cabin to escape the wind and the spray. As the day passed from morning to afternoon, the wind continued to rise, and the waves lifted the steamer’s bow higher and higher, before dropping her into the oncoming sea.
“In the afternoon there was a change,” wrote Manlove. “It changed our feelings and drove the waves into mountains and valleys and made the old ship stagger.”
Passengers unused to ocean weather and fearful at the first creaks wondered at the high waves and the rising winds; others watched the sailors methodically tend to their deck work and assumed that such weather was merely part of life at sea. “Everyone felt confident that the wind would soon abate,” said one passenger, “and that there was nothing to be feared.”
More immediate than the fear of storm was the nausea of seasickness. Most steamer passengers had never been on the ocean. During rough weather, the lee rail was often lined, as one contemporary put it, with “demoralized passengers paying their tribute to old Neptune.” Beginning with dinner at Wednesday noon, the number of passengers desiring food had dwindled. Even the ship doctor took sick. By day’s end, the sea rose above the plunging bow, flowed over the guards, and washed across the weather deck.
“When the twilight came,” wrote Manlove, “if it could be called twilight, there was a raging storm such as we had never before seen, The waves and sky were crashing together.” That evening, the dining saloon was almost deserted. A few steerage passengers stood and ate their meals, their legs wide to brace themselves, their elbows pinning a plate. Seasickness had confined the Birches and the Eastons to their berths. Another woman described the time as rather unpleasant, although she felt no danger. “At least my husband said he thought there was no danger, as we had so strong a ship.”
Despite the weather, the nightly game of cards among the hardy souls in the main cabin went on as scheduled. At the captain’s table a game of whist ensued, and across from Captain Herndon sat his partner at whist, Judge Monson. Although taking tricks in a four-hand game of cards was tame for the judge’s propensity, he enjoyed a good turn of phrase and relished as well a good story, especially the telling of his own. Three times he had sailed east and back, and on an earlier voyage, he had befriended Captain Herndon. Now when he traveled, he always sat on Herndon’s left at table.
The weather little bothered Monson, for on each of his voyages east his ship had steamed into an equinoctial storm. Late summer was ripe for these West Indian cyclones to arise far out at sea and rush toward land, whipping the Atlantic white. Day after next, September 11, was the mean date for storm season.
While the card games continued long after dark, some of the first-and second-class passengers who had lain in their staterooms nauseated all day abandoned their rolling berths for the sofas in the main cabin. That night, said Virginia Birch, “I lay down on a sofa with my clothes on, and passed a very uncomfortable time, the vessel careening fearfully.”
Most passengers retired to their tiny staterooms or their cotlike berths in steerage, praying the weather would subside by morning so the dizziness in their heads and the nausea in their stomachs would go away and they could eat again and move about the ship without stumbling. “Down below,” remembered a steerage passenger, “nothing was to be heard but the crying of children and the moans of those suffering seasickness, and rising above all the sounds that proceeded from the inside of the vessel was the continued dashing and splashing of the waves against the sides of the ship, and the howling of the storm as the wind surged through the steamer’s rigging.”
That night the wind continued and the rains began. As darkness fell on the second day out of Havana, even the seamen began calling it a storm.
The curvature of the eastern shoreline fell away rapidly now as Captain Herndon angled from the mainland on a course for Cape Hatteras. By Thursday morning the Central America had veered two hundred miles east of St. Augustine. High seas broke over the bow, sprayed across the decks, and splashed against the staterooms. Sometimes the steamer heeled so far that the housing over her paddle wheels rolled under water.
Trying to escape the cramped and humid below decks where scores of their fellow passengers had vomited, some passengers ventured up the rocking gangways to a weather deck constantly in sharp motion. They reminded themselves that the ocean is rarely benign and shipbuilders know this, that they build ships accordingly, that ten thousand ships had weathered a thousand storms just like this one.
At noon on Thursday the rain came in sideways, but the Central America remained on course, struggling against headwinds that had risen to over fifty knots. Despite the rain and the pitching deck, Second Officer Frazer shot the solar median again and calculated that since his observation the previous noon they had traveled another 215 nautical miles, steering almost due north by compass.
Two evenings before, the men had laughed at a woman for her timidity in the face of a little wind and sudden roll. “On Thursday,” she said, “when I went on deck, the gentlemen kept assuring us that there could not be any necessity for fear.” But by nightfall, even the men sensed that as violently as the wind blew and as high as the water around them now crested, the intensity of the storm had not peaked. That evening the inveterate card players, who the night before had indulged in whist and other amusements while the ship rocked through high seas, dispensed with the usual games to talk about the storm. “The storm was the leading topic of conference,” remembered Judge Monson. “Some expressed their apprehension, particularly the ladies, as to the safety of the steamer. Most of the gentlemen, myself among others, did everything to prevent any alarm among the passengers.”
About dark, the seas breaking over the steamer spilled into the staterooms, forcing some of the first-and second-class passengers to abandon their cabins. Just after the sky went black, the first officer turned over the watch to Second Officer Frazer and handed him a piece of paper. Written on the paper were the headings Frazer was to follow as he steered the ship through the storm till he left the bridge at midnight.
A gray dawn broke on Friday with storm winds blowing out of the north northeast at over sixty knots, as the steamer pitched and rolled in waves whitened by wind and pelted by heavy rain. Thick foam blew across the surface of the sea in long streaks, sometimes flying whiplike into the air. Each evening had brought renewed hope from the passengers that they would awake the following morning to find the winds had lessened and the sea subsided; yet every morning the wind had blown with an even greater fury than the day before, and the sea had risen higher until the waves now towered above the ship.
The bow plunged into the oncoming sea, the deck heaving and falling away sharply. Waves exploded high into the air, salt spray mixing with rain, and the wind drove it all with a furious whistle through the bare rigging. Since late Tuesday night, the wind and the sea had slowed the progress of the Central America, but she had held her course. When Second Officer Frazer left his four-hour watch at eight o’clock that Friday morning, he estimated the ship’s position as latitude 31″ 45′ N and longitude 78″ 15′ W, or 175 miles east of Savannah.
As Frazer departed the wheelhouse, a friend of the Eastons named Robert Brown sat near the top of a hatchway, beholding the fury of the storm. “The wind was very strong,” he remembered, “but the sea was excessively high.” Yet as the steamer took on the sea, he heard no creaking in her hull, “She all the time had her head to the sea and acted handsomely, and never appeared to even strain.” Brown, a merchant from Sacramento, was so pleased with how she came up proud to meet the waves, he resolved that the next time he sailed for California he would delay his trip for two weeks, if necessary, to await the departure of the Central America.
Thomas Badger clutched his wife, Jane, and fought for footing on the pitching and rain-soaked deck. Shielding his eyes from the stinging spray, he studied the incoming waves and the bowsprit soaring to meet them. A powerfully built man, Badger had been a sailor for twenty-five years, a captain for the last ten, commanding his own three-masted bark in the burgeoning Pacific coast trade routes. He had sailed in many a storm and twice had traveled aboard the Central America, though he had never seen her perform in high seas. Like his bark, she carried full sail; but unlike a true sailing vessel she also carried 750 tons of iron in her engine works, and that could make her an unwieldy beast. Badger had come topside to satisfy himself that she still could match the sea in a tempest.
Badger judged the wind by reading the surface of the sea, and that morning he saw the air filled with foam and the sea completely white with driving spray, and he estimated they now had entered “a perfect hurricane.” He reported that “the sea ran mountains high” and the wind was “directly ahead,” but the ship’s behavior impressed him as it had Robert Brown. She “came up Finely, and was not strained perceptibly by the wind or the roughness of the sea.” Badger could feel the enormous engines pounding, and he could see the giant paddle wheels “working regularly and slowly.” As long as coal fired the boilers and the two massive engines churned the wheels with a full head of steam, he knew that Captain Herndon could lay her on the wind, let her bow take on the sea, and ride out any storm.
Working his way along the rainswept deck, Badger encountered the ship’s chief engineer, George Ashby, hurrying headlong against the storm to report to Captain Herndon. Ashby had kept the furnaces hot and the steam pumping the pistons down in the engine room since the ship first went to sea as the George Law in October 1853. He was now on his forty-fourth voyage, and Badger knew him from previous travels on the ship.
Above the shrillness of the storm, Badger called to Ashby. As hard as it now was blowing, he yelled, it would blow harder still.
“Let it blow,” shouted Ashby. “We’re ready for it.”
But at that moment, Ashby was less convinced than his words made him sound. Minutes earlier he had discovered something he could not tell Thomas Badger. He had just issued several orders to his men in the engine room, then rushed topside looking for Captain Herndon because the captain had to know immediately, but if word got out, Ashby’s discovery would alarm the passengers: The ship had sprung a leak, water was rising in the bilge, and Ashby could not find the source.
Steam engines ran on water converted to vapor, which cooled and condensed on the metal surfaces as water droplets, then combined and enlarged and joined with small leaks in the machinery, all of it dripping from the boilers and the massive pistons, sliding along the metal pipes, down the funnels and the flues, and finally collecting in the bilge. A steamship never ran dry. When the bilge water reached a certain level, the pumps sucked it up and spewed it back into the sea.
But Ashby had discovered that the water in the bilge was far deeper than normal; either a leak had formed somewhere in the machinery, or seawater was seeping into the hold. If the pumps worked properly, and the leak was not too great, they could control it. But the water alone was not the focus of Ashby’s concern, and this was the other problem he refrained from mentioning to Badger.
The engines sat on oak timbers as thick as half a dozen railroad ties and occupied the steamer’s entire midship, port to starboard: two furnaces, two boilers, and the stack, 750 tons of sweating iron, forty feet across and rising in the hold sixteen feet off the flooring above the bilge. Piled high in the bunkers aft of the engines, the Central America also carried several hundred tons of anthracite coal. Besides powering the ship, the coal provided ballast; but as the coal heavers wheeled coal from the bunkers to feed the voracious furnaces, and as the furnaces sent the tons of coal up the stack as smoke and ash, the Central America lightened and rose higher. Steamers sometimes rose so high in the water, the paddle wheels could barely scrape the surface.
Although before leaving New York the coal porters always filled the Central America’s bunkers with enough coal to fire the steam engines all the way down to Aspinwall and back again, on her return voyages, she often came onto the coast a high or “crank” ship, one that heeled too far to the wind. That was her reputation. In a gale, or even in a moderate blow with the wind abeam and the ship lightened, she careened considerably. Since leaving Havana three days earlier, with her hull pounding against a head sea and struggling against an ever increasing wind, the ship had burned even more coal than usual, so she was lighter and higher in the water. The tons of forty-niner gold she had picked up in Panama were hardly enough to compensate for the dwindling coal. The blow had heeled her over, and the water rapidly collecting in her bilge was settling on the starboard side, tending to keep her there.
To move the coal from the bunkers to the fire room, where the firemen shoveled it into the furnaces, the coal heavers had to push wheelbarrows filled with coal as much as a hundred feet. But the high seas coming over the bow and the hurricane winds hauling from the northeast had caused the ship to list at such an angle that the heavers had difficulty pushing the barrows of coal. The barrows slipped and spilt, and the men lost their footing. They couldn’t move the coal fast enough to keep up steam.
Before he left the engine room to find Captain Herndon, Ashby had called in the off watches of firemen and heavers, ordered the barrows abandoned and the men to form a line and pass the coal in buckets hand to hand down to the furnaces. But the heavers could pass little more coal in many small buckets than they could in the coal barrows. They had difficulty even keeping their balance in the hot, dimly lit hold that rocked at their feet.
When Ashby reported the rising water to Captain Herndon, the captain immediately ordered waiters and stewards into the hold to form a second line of coal heavers. Few passengers wanted food, and the waiters had little to serve other than hard bread anyhow, because the water in the hold had risen high enough to dampen the stores of food.
In a storm, the ship rode most safely and easily if the captain headed into the sea and brought the wind onto the weather bow, using her engines just enough to hold her in that position. But as the careening of the ship and the inrushing waters slowed the flow of coal to the furnaces and the steam began dropping in the boilers, the paddle wheels turned more slowly. If Herndon lost his engines, the only way he could hope to hold position on the incoming sea was to use sail, and he couldn’t wait for the engines to stop before he tried to hoist some of his canvas. After sending the waiters and stewards into the hold, he ordered the storm spencer run up the mizzen mast. The storm spencer was the strongest and heaviest of all the sails. With it unfurled aft, Herndon hoped to blow his stern to port and use the wind to keep the bow of the steamer headed into the oncoming sea.
The waves swelled, then rose, then tapered into sharp hills just before the wind ripped the tops off and sent them flying as spindrift into the air. The troughs had deepened enough to provide a moment’s shelter from the wind, and in that moment the crew shot the storm spencer upward, and then the next wave swelled, lifting the ship again into the wind, where the howling filled the sail so suddenly and with such fury that within a minute it had been blown to pieces.
With the storm spencer blowing in tatters, Herndon ordered the third officer to spread more storm canvas low in the main and mizzen rigging to try again to bring her head to the sea. But the ship rode so high out of the water she still would not respond, and the storm canvas again blew apart. Unchecked by sail, the wind drove the rain and the salt spray like bullets across the deck, and the pitch of its whistle rose.
Amidships, deep inside the hold, even the shrillness of the wind died in the bubble and roar of the fire room. Here in the fulcrum of the ship’s pitch and roll, away from the wind, away from the rain, the temperature soared to 120 degrees.
Sidewheel steamers had no bulkheads, no watertight compartments athwartships to contain flooding in a small area should the ship take on water. Once water entered the bilge, it ran at will fore and aft and sloshed with the rocking of the ship from starboard to port. Shortly after ten o’clock that morning, with the black gang, stewards, and waiters all passing coal into the fire room, Ashby cranked up the starboard bilge pump with steam siphoned from the big boilers, and the pump started sucking water from the bilge and disgorging it back into the sea.
Ashby then inspected all of the pipes and the fittings and found them tight. He examined all of the metal plates covering the portholes and found no leak. As he searched for the source of the water, buckets of coal moved hand to hand to hand, steward to fireman to waiter, from the aft bunkers to the fire room, where the white-hot fire inhaled a bucket of coal and in seconds turned it to ash. No matter how many men joined the line, no matter how quickly their hands moved, no matter how much sweat rolled down their blackened arms, the buckets of coal came too slowly to feed the voracious furnaces. Steam pressure was dropping.
The starboard pumps sucked up the water in the bilge, but the water rose faster than the pumps could send it back into the sea. With the coal now coming only in small buckets, the furnaces no longer burned hot enough to keep the boilers bubbling at peak. If seawater seeping into the bilge reached the furnaces, the water would cool the fires, the steam would condense, the pressure would drop, and the starboard wheel would spin slowly to a halt, leaving all power to the port wheel, which already spun in the air because of the cant of the ship to starboard. Then the ship would fall into the trough and be at the mercy of a merciless sea.
With the paddle wheels turning more slowly, Thomas Badger suspected problems in the hold and descended into the fire room to check the progress of the coal brigade. He was alarmed at how high the water already had risen in the lee bilge. He heard Ashby warn the men that if they did not move quicker, every man on board soon would be bailing. Badger yelled to Ashby, “Don’t wait till the ship’s full of water. Start the men to work bailing now!”
At noon, both forward and aft, water overflowed the floor of the coal bunkers, rolled back and forth in the lee bilge, popped out the floor plates in the fire room and left the firemen standing waist deep in the water, some of them holding on to iron bars lashed into place to keep their balance. The water now rushed into the hold so fast and the ship met the storm at such a severe angle that the waterline had reached the starboard furnace. The coal passers could hear the hot furnace hiss as the seawater splashed at its undersides, and the furnace boiled the water swirling around it. Steam began to rise in the hold.
Ashby and the engineers discovered that in some of the lower starboard cabins just above the engine room, the waves pounding into the heeled-over ship now were pumping water through the porthole covers, until some of the staterooms were waist deep, and that much water so high in the ship increased her heel to leeward, keeping her down. They battened the shutters, then chopped through the deck in the staterooms to send the water into the bilge and help right the ship.
Searching in the hold, Badger had found an opening to the sea around the shaft that supported the starboard wheel. Every time the ship rolled to starboard, seawater pumped through the opening. He reported this to the engineers, then hurried topside to speak with Captain Herndon about organizing the passengers into a bailing gang. The engineers packed the hole around the shaft with blankets and old sails, and the pumping action of the ship rolling into the oncoming sea blew out the packing and they packed it again, but it blew out again and again, until engineers remained at the shaft, constantly replugging the leak. Still the water rose, and no one could find another source. Perhaps the pounding and twisting of the ship had worked the oakum out of her seams or even separated her planking. The hull itself seemed to be leaking, and no one could stop it.