Archives For American Shipwrecks

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Eric Jay Dolin, whose previous work includes Leviathan and When America Met China, has generated yet another meticulously researched and well narrated piece of nautical history. Focusing on America’s lighthouses from inception to the current day, Brilliant Beacons is a sweeping, majestic piece that encompasses technology, material culture, engineering, personal histories and the strategic role lighthouses have played in America’s development and growth over the last three plus centuries.

Writing with the passion of someone who has long had a love affair with the sea and her incredible stories, Dolin draws the reader in with the origins of American lighthouse design and tirelessly waltzes through topics that lesser authors would render dry and boring. This is the second of Dolin’s books reviewed on this site and both have held particular meaning for me. The first being When America Met China, which, for someone who majored in Chinese language at America’s ninth oldest university, was of particular interest and is a phenomenal read. Having grown up in North Carolina, I have always had an affinity for lighthouses, especially given that I was a young teenager when the iconic Cape Hatteras light house was moved 1,500 feet to save it from being engulfed by the ravaging waves of the Atlantic. Thus, the subject of Brilliant Beacons more than intrigued me and, while I didn’t have the opportunity to read it at the beach, I read the first 25% from my home overlooking the Port of Tampa and the remaining 75% on a round-trip flight to New York City, a city forever linked with the sea.

Overall, Dolin’s narrative style enables the reader to make quick work of the book’s 400 plus pages. Saying Brilliant Beacons is the perfect beach read might sound a little cliche, however, the book is both illuminating and entertaining and the timing of its release at the height of the summer months could not have been better planned. Pick up Dolin’s latest and read away, you will be glad you did.

 

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Robert Wells, a retired US Navy captain, recently released his first book, Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea | The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster, an intriguing investigation into the tragic sinking of the SS Japan in the late 19th century. Leading the reader through a wealth of primary sources and photographs, Wells pieces together the origins of Chinese emigration to the US in the mid to late 19th century. Tales of the wealth of Gum Shan (Gold Mountain, aka the United States) lured thousands of Chinese residents of Guangdong province to the California coast as laborers for farms and the infant transcontinental railway system.

Wells relates the travails a Chinese emigrant would endure from leaving his farm to boarding the vessel to finding work in Gum Shan as well as his return journey with, hopefully, a money belt full of silver coin. A notable discussion from the book is the shipping of the bones of Chinese who perished in the United States back to China for permanent burial in their native land. This practice was most recently in the news in November of last year when a documentary of the SS Ventnor aired in New Zealand. The Ventnor was carrying the bodies of 499 Chinese miners back to China when she sank in 1902.

Overall Wells has done historians and casual readers a great service by documenting a little remembered part of Sino-American history as the SS Japan was the deadliest maritime disaster of the 19th century Chinese emigrant wave. Readers will enjoy the numerous illustrations, tales of sunken treasure aboard the SS Japan and general machinations of the Chinese emigrant trade covered in Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea | The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster.

View of Modern Day Tampa from Ballast Point CC Image Courtesy of Matthew Paulson on Flickr

View of Modern Day Tampa from Ballast Point
CC Image Courtesy of Matthew Paulson on Flickr

On the night of October 17, 1863, the sleepy town of Tampa was awakened by the blast of Union gunboats firing on Fort Brooke at the town’s edge. The Union gunboats had been in from their blockading stations offshore to create a diversion for the landing of a 100 man Yankee raiding party. Lying at anchor six miles up the Hillsborough River were the targets of the raiding party: a barge and two Confederate blockade runners, the schooner Kate Dale and the steamer Scottish Chief. The ships had braved the Union blockade multiple times to sail between Cuba and Tampa – exchanging cotton and cattle hides for arms, munitions, and Cuban cigars and wine. The raiding party made their way up the riverbank and set fire to the three vessels, ending their blockade running careers in a ball of flames. The Kate Dale and the barge sank at anchor while the Scottish Chief sustained serious damage but did not sink. The ship was later towed down the river where its machinery was salvaged and the hulk left to sink into the river.

A Confederate response force, having been alerted to the presence of the Yankee raiding party, pursued the Union soldiers to Ballast Point near the terminus of Old Tampa Bay. At Ballast Point, now a popular pier at the end of Bayshore Boulevard, a quick skirmish ensued. Three Yankees and twelve Confederates lost their lives before the Yankee raiding party was able to embark and escape harm’s way. In September 2008, nearly 145 years after the raid, marine archaeologists announced the discovery of the wreckage of the Kate Dale in the Hillsborough River. A year later, the Scottish Chief was discovered further down the river where she had been left to rot after having her machinery stripped.

 

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USS Wasp Ablaze – 9/15/1942

On September 15, 1942, a powerful task force of US naval vessels steamed towards Guadalcanal Island in the South Pacific. Consisting of the aircraft carriers USS Wasp and Hornet, the battleship USS North Carolina and ten other vessels, the task force intended to land a regiment of US Marines on Guadalcanal to reinforce the US troops already vying for control of the island. As mid-afternoon approached, a Japanese submarine, I-19, maneuvered within firing range of the squadron and loosed a volley of six torpedoes at the Wasp. Despite attempting to outmaneuver them, three of the torpedoes slammed into the Wasp while a fourth missed and struck the North Carolina. A mighty conflagration quickly ensued as the torpedoes had detonated close to the ship’s fuel stores and magazines. Damage control efforts and maneuvering into the wind proved fruitless and within 35 minutes of the torpedo strikes, the order for abandon ship was given. When the Wasp finally slipped beneath the Pacific Ocean’s waves, 193 souls followed her leaving approximately 1900 survivors with 366 of them wounded.

Unfortunately for the Wasp and her crew, the Wasp had been built on the tail end of the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. As a result, the ship had minimal armor and suffered from a poor design for ammunition and gasoline storage in order to fit the ship into the tonnage restrictions left to the US Navy under the treaty. Sadly, the US Navy lost 193 good men, 45 aircraft and a valuable ship to the good intentions of a treaty designed to prevent conflict – a treaty which proved to do nothing but force allied naval forces to fight with one hand behind their back for the first years of World War Two.

Sinking_of_the_emigrant_ship_Austria_on_13th_September_1858The 19th century witnessed a wave of emigration from Europe to the Americas and the creation of an entire industry focused on catering to the needs of European emigrants. The sailing of the SS Austria on September 1, 1858 should have been just another trans-Atlantic voyage, however, twelve days later one of the worst maritime disasters of the 19th century would strike the ship and her passengers and crew. Departing from Hamburg with 548 passengers and crew, the ship was only a year old and one of the most modern steam ships in the service of the Hamburg American Line.

Around noon on September 13, the crew began to fumigate the steerage passenger area. A handling mishap of the fumigation equipment by a member of the crew led to a mariner’s worst fear – fire aboard the vessel. The vessel was a veritable tinderbox between its wooden construction and highly varnished and flammable décor. The fire quickly spread throughout the Austria and when the helmsman abandoned the bridge, flames raced down the entire ship as the ship turned into the wind. With nowhere to go but the sea, the passengers and crew flung themselves to the mercy of the waves. Two vessels, the Maurice and Catarina picked up 65 survivors, but, sadly, the remainder of the 538 original passengers and crew perished.

Underwater imagery by Jim Kennard

Underwater imagery by Jim Kennard

Great Lakes shipwreck explorers Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski and Roland Stevens recently announced the name of their latest shipwreck discovery. Back in July, the three explorers discovered a wooden dagger board schooner in the depths of Lake Ontario and have been working to identify the wreck in the intervening weeks. The wreck has now been identified as that of the Three Brothers, lost in 1833.

Traveling from Pultneyville, NY to Oswego, NY, a journey of only an hour by car, the ship was laden with a cargo of apples, cider and 700 bushels of wheat. The ship, her captain, two crew and a passenger never arrived in Oswego and it was assumed the ship was lost when flotsam and jetsam from the ship washed ashore several days after she set sail. The ship isn’t the only Three Brothers to rest at the bottom of the Great Lakes – a timber steamer by the same name sprang a leak and sank on September 27, 1911 and was re-discovered in 1996 after shifting sands uncovered her wreckage. The Three Brothers is yet another feather in the cap of Kennard, Pawlowski and Stevens who have discovered multiple wrecks in the Great Lakes. Ranging from a USAF plane to wooden schooners to British warships to steel steamers, the team has racked up an impressive number of discoveries.

SS John Barry

August 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

John Barry

On the night of August 28, 1944, the American Liberty ship SS John Barry silently glided through the waves on its way to Saudi Arabia loaded with a secret cargo of silver. Unfortunately for the Barry and her crew, the Nazi U-boat U-859 detected the ship and successfully torpedoed her, sending her to the bottom of the Arabian Sea along with millions of silver riyal coins (shown above). Rumors quickly arose that the ship had not only been loaded with 3,000,000 silver riyals for ARAMCO, but also with tons of silver bullion destined for the USSR via India.

Due to the ship’s depth (8,500 feet) the wreck was left undisturbed until a consortium of Americans assembled a hodgepodge of recovery components primarily scavenged from the oil and gas industry. After winning a bid to recover the wreck from the US government, the consortium, dubbed “The John Barry Group” successfully located the Barry in 1994 and used a grap to bring up 1,300,000 (17 tons) of silver riyals before they ceased operations. Although no sign of the Soviet silver shipment was found, some experts still believe there is a high likelihood the Soviet silver is aboard the vessel and was not located due to the primitive technology employed by The John Barry Group. Stalin’s Silver, by John Beasant, presents a well-written account of both the recovery and the rationale for why more silver may be located aboard the Barry. Sadly, due to bureaucratic intransigence, the US government has not re-opened the vessel to a recovery bid process and, until then, neither will the mystery be solved nor the American taxpayer enriched by the recovery fees paid to the US government by a successful salvor.