The Fate of the Confederate Submersible H. L. Hunley


Big news came out Monday in the investigation of the remains of the Confederate submersible Hunley, arguably the most important scientific finding of the project to date. Archaeologists revealed that the cleaned an conserved remains of the iron spar that carried the boat’s 135 lb. (61kg) torpedo still had attached remnants of the explosive device’s copper casing, peeled back by the force of the explosion (above). This is a tremendously important finding, because it shows that the little “fish boat” was close, very close, the blast that sank her opponent, U.S.S. Housatonic. How close?

Twenty feet, maybe.

Here’s why. Hunley was originally intended to tow a floating mine (then called a “torpedo”) behind her, and run under the target ship. If all went according to plan, the mine would be pulled into the side of the enemy vessel and detonate — on the opposite side from where Hunley was.

Unfortunately, this worked better in theory than in practice. In testing, they found that the towing line was prone to getting fouled in the boat’s propeller and rudder mechanism. Hunley’s ability to dive and run completely submerged — in order to pass underneath the target vessel — was problematic, as well, as shown by two prior, fatal sinking of the boat. (Not for nothing was it known as the “peripatetic coffin.”) Clearly, they had to find a method to deliver the mine to its target that gave them precise control, which in turn meant planting the mine against the target ahead of the boat, not towing it along behind.


Hunley Project Chief Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen. Charleston Post & Courier.


For years, it’s been generally accepted that Hunley‘s mine was detachable and fitted with a spike or barb, that would be rammed into the target’s hull. Once that was fixed in place, the submersible would back off for a safe distance, and detonate the mine using a lanyard, in the same way that period artillery pieces were fired. Up to today, this was the accepted scenario of how the attack was supposed to have been carried out. The physical evidence revealed in Charleston on Monday, however, suggests that experience gained in another attack on a blockading warship caused a critical change in those plans:


After the towline got fouled in the Hunley’s rudder and propeller during a test run in Charleston Harbor, engineers decided to refit the sub with a spar similar to the ones used by ironclads, picket boats and Davids, which were low-profile stealth boats.
The engineering quickly evolved through trial and error. In October 1863, a David attacked the USS New Ironsides outside Charleston Harbor, ramming a torpedo into its flank. The blast didn’t sink the ship, but did serious damage.
The explosion also threw a plume of water into the air, some of which extinguished the fire powering the David’s steam engine. Jacobsen said that attack prompted Confederate engineers to refine their method of attack. If the main thrust of the blast was up, the mines would have limited success hitting the side of a ship. They would do more damage if they were planted under the ships.
The Hunley was equipped with an adjustable spar that could be raised or lowered. The torpedo was fixed on the spar at an angle, so that when the spar was lowered for an attack, the torpedo was sitting dead horizontal.
Jacobsen knows this because of a detailed drawing of the “torpedo used to sink the Housatonic” that survives in the papers of Confederate officials in Charleston during the war. But until Hunley scientists found the remains of that exact torpedo, they couldn’t be sure those drawings were accurate.
The torpedo, like the Hunley, had been upgraded through trial and error. Because triggers and detonators on these torpedoes were woefully unreliable, the Hunley’s torpedo had three triggers, any one of which would blow the charge.
And, because the David’s 65-pound torpedo did not sink the Ironsides, the Hunley’s torpedo was packed with more than double the gunpowder — 135 pounds.


As a result, the scientists now believe, George Dixon and his crew set out on the evening of February 17, 1864, with the intention of placing the mine not in the enemy ship’s side, but under the hull, anticipating that most of the blast would be directed upward, ripping apart that part of the vessel. This interpretation in supported by witnesses aboard Housatonic, who first sighted Hunley a couple of hundred yards off their port bow, then watched as the submersible passed across their bow, then came around to strike their ship well aft on the starboard side, where the contour of the hull sweeps in and up toward the stern.

That sort of attack, if were planned that way as the researchers now believe, almost certainly doomed Hunley and her crew. Nonetheless, neither the project’s chief archaeologist, Maria Jacobsen, nor South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell, who’s led the fund-raising for the project since its inception, believe Dixon and his crew expected theirs to be a suicide mission. “They were pressed for time, they were pressed for resources, but nothing indicates this was a suicide mission,” Jacobsen said. “They just had to get the job done.”


Detail of a painting, “Charleston Bay and City,” by Conrad Wise Chapman, showing a Confederate ironclad with a spar torpedo (show in raised position) very similar to that used aboard Hunley. Museum of the Confederacy.


Lots of questions about what happened that night remain, including ones underscored by Monday’s announcement about the spar torpedo. Though the crew probably had little idea of how the concussion from the detonation of the mine would have carried underwater, the force must have been tremendous. While the hull of the boat itself remains covered for now with cement-like concretions of sand and shell, when these are removed beginning next year, Jacobsen and her team will be looking closely for effects of the blast, in the form of popped rivets and opened seams between the iron plates. It would not take many of these to sink a boat like Hunley, that had precious little buoyancy to begin with, even under ideal conditions. If her crew were incapacitated as well,  Hunley could easily have drifted, slowly filling with water, until she settled on the bottom some distance away.

We likely never will know all the details of what happened that night in February 1864, but the work of Jacobsen and her team at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where Hunley is being studied and preserved, are getting us closer and giving us a better understanding of those events.

In the meantime, I’ve updated the spar on my old digital model of H. L. Hunley. There’s a spool on the starboard side of the boat, next to the forward hatch. Until it was assumed that this was for unspooling the lanyard used to detonate the mine; now I think it may have led through a block on the upper boom, to raise and lower the spar. That’s how I’ve depicted it here:



Finally, a few good Hunley links for those interested in learning more:

Michael Crisafulli’s Hunley reconstruction:
Michael likely knows more about the construction and operation of the Hunley than anyone not directly affiliated with the project. Great stuff for the technically-minded. (Michael also can give you a guided tour of Jules Verne’s Nautilus, as well.)
NPS Housatonic Site Assessment
NPS Hunley Site Assessment:



The Short, Eventful Life of the U.S. Transport Che-Kiang



In my recent post on Private Hobbs’ passage from Brooklyn to Ship Island, Mississippi aboard the steamer Saxon, I included an image of another transport on that same expedition, Che-Kiang, which is reported to have collided (above) with a Confederate schooner off the Florida Reef, resulting in the latter vessel’s immediate demise. Che-Kiang was carrying at that time six companies of the 28th Connecticut Infantry, and parts of the 23rd and 25th Connecticut Infantry as well. All reached Ship Island safely, although some were perhaps a little green around the gills from the very rough weather encountered during their passage.

While poking around the interwebs for more information on this ship, though, I came across this article from the June 20, 1863 Straits Times, published in Singapore. Che-Kiang‘s rough passage to the Gulf of Mexico was just the start of her adventures.


The American paddle-wheel steamer Che Kiang (so called from the name of a province in China), which arrived here last Monday night, was launched at Greenpoint, opposite New York, on the 3rd of July 1862. Her builder is Henry Steers, a nephew and not unworthy successor to George Steers, whose reputation as a skillful ship-builder has been so well established by the Yacht America and the U.S. Steam Frigate Niagara.
The dimensions of the Che Kiang are as follows; length 260 feet, beam 38 feet, tonnage 1264. Draught of water, when light, 5 feet forward, 5 feet 4 in. aft. Paddle wheels, 31 feet in diameter.
Her engines are 70 inch [diameter] cylinder 11 feet stroke of 700 horse power with return boilers; although nominally of 700 horse power yet capable of working up to a thousand. The engine and boiler were constructed at the Morgan Iron Works, New York, and cost $103,000; the cost of the hull and joiners-work was $60,000.
The average speed of the steamer in smooth water, is 18 knots. She made 23 knots on the Mississippi River.
For both a passenger and freight boat the Che Kiang is admirably adapted. As a passenger boat she combines all the requisites for a temperate or warm climate. Her after-saloon, airy and commodious, situated on the upper deck, is divided into 16 large state-rooms, each affording greater accommodation than is usually found on board steamers, and two of them, the Ladies’ saloons, are 18 feet deep and 12 feet wide each, furnished with two berths, bath-rooms and water-closets. Two passages — one containing the store-room pantry & c., and the other running past additional staterooms — conduct into a large, well-lighted, well-ventilated and comfortable dining rooms capable of seating some 30 guests. The saloons, in cold weather, are warmed by means of steam. As a freight boat, her great breadth of beam and 13 feet depth of hold offer superior advantages; and an immense amount of cargo can be carried between decks and on the wide guards perfectly protected from the weather.
The sea-going qualities of the Che-Kiang have been well tested in the voyages she has made since being launched.
In the month of November she was chartered by the U.S. Government to carry 1,600 soldiers, forming part of the expedition under Major General Banks, to New Orleans; and during her voyage to that city, although meeting with very rough weather, she gave universal satisfaction, which was in no manner diminished when the vessel began to develop her true capabilities on the swift current of the Mississippi, where, being employed as a transport, she conveyed soldiers, army stores, munitions of war & c., between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which latter place General Banks was then making his base of operations prior to the attack on Port Hudson; and also, for similar purposes, plied between New Orleans, Fort Pickens and Pensacola — occasionally making a short trip to the Passes of the Mississippi and towing off vessels aground on the mud of that shifting bar.
In February, she was released by the Government and returned to New York, whence on the afternoon of the 30th of March she started for her original destination — Shanghai; to ply between that place and Hong Kong on the Yang Tse River.
Very heavy seas were encountered after leaving New York, but the Che Kiang rode them all with ease and safety; and having put in for coal at St. Vincent’s, Cape-de-Verds; Simon’s Bay, Cape of Good Hope and Port Louis, Mauritius; at last dropped anchor off Singapore at 10 o’clock on the evening of June 10th 1863. [1]


In his History of American Steam Navigation (1903) author John Harrison Morrison explains that Che-Kiang was one of several big steamers built in and around New York, to run in Chinese waters. Most were patterned after boats running on Long Island Sound, with the addition of a sailing rig. Although Che-Kiang herself apparently did not, Morrison notes that several of these ships that were built during the war, following the same route as Che-Kiang to the Far East, stopped first at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they took out British registry in case they were intercepted on the high seas by a Confederate raider. [2] It was not an imaginary threat; the most famous Confederate raider, Raphael Semmes’ Alabama, did in fact follow a similar route and ventured as far east as Singapore in late 1863.


Track chart showing the known travels of the American steamship Che-Kiang, 1862-64. Original map via National Geographic.


Che-Kiang even played a sad, tiny footnote role in the aftermath of the Battle of Galveston. In late February 1863, U.S. Admiral David Farragut reported to the Navy Department the desertion of Acting Master Leonard D. Smalley, at that time assigned to the gunboat Estrella. Smalley had been one of the officers aboard U.S.S. Westfield when that ship was blown up by her captain, William Renshaw, at the end of the battle on New Years Day 1863. Renshaw and several of his sailors men had been killed in the blast, which Smalley almost certainly witnessed from a short distance. Immediately after, Smalley was called on to serve as pilot to guide the transport Saxon, followed by the rest of the Union squadron, safely out of Galveston harbor. Smalley, it seems, may have been suffering the post-traumatic effects of this incident, for Farragut writes that


Mr. Smalley was surveyed at different times since the loss of the Westfield by three different medical boards, and the enclosed report is almost a duplicate of either of the other two. At his own request, I ordered him outside on the blockade, but he neglected to obey my orders, saying he was too unwell to do so, and I have now received information that he left for New York per Government transport Che-Kiang, which sailed about the 23d instant.
I regret to state that I have reason to believe that other officers from the Westfield have pursued a course similar to Mr. Smalley. [3]


Acting Master Smalley was dismissed from the service soon thereafter.

In her first few months of service, Che-Kiang had seen and done some remarkable things, but her eventful life would not be a long one. She caught fire and burned at Hankou (now Wuhan), about 670 statute miles up the Yangtze River from Shanghai, on August 7, 1864. There were no reported fatalities in the disaster. [4]


[1] “The Steamer Che Kiang,” The Straits Times, June 20, 1863, 1.

[2] John Harrison Morrison, History of American Steam Navigation (New York: W. F. Sametz & Co, 1903), 511.

[3] D. G. Farragut to Gideon Welles, February 26, 1863. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 19, 634.

[4]  C. Bradford Mitchell, ed. Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States, 1790–1868 (The Lytle-­Holdcamper List), (Staten Island, New York: Steamship Historical Society of America, 1975), 249.

A Blue Norther

In the winter of 1843-44, an Englishwoman by the name of Matilda Charlotte Houstoun (pronounced “Haweston”) visited Galveston twice with her husband, a British cavalry officer. The Houstouns were making a tour of the Gulf of Mexico, with Captain Houstoun trying to drum up interest in an invention of his for preserving beef. During their second visit, the Houstouns made a trip to Houston and back the 111-ton steamer Dayton, Captain D. S. Kelsey. On the trip back, the little steamer was delayed for two nights at Morgan’s Point, at the head of Galveston Bay, because a “norther” had blown so much water from the bay that it was impossible for the boat to get over nearby Clopper’s Bar, until the water rose again. The passengers went ashore and occupied their time in various ways; Captain Houstoun managed to shoot a possum, which was a novel creature to him. It was an object of brief curiosity until other passengers, more familiar with the fauna of Texas, appropriated it for the cook with the assurance that the animal was “first rate eating.”


Cloppers Bar
Morgan’s Point and Clopper’s Bar, as shown on an 1856 U.S. Coast Survey chart of Galveston Bay. The soundings are in feet; any unusual reduction in the water level in the bay would make the bar impassible.


“Northers” were new phenomena to the Houstouns, too, and in her travelogue Matilda Charlotte Houstoun gave a fine description of one:


They most frequently occur after a few days of damp dull weather, and generally about once a fortnight. Their approach is known by a dark bank rising on the horizon, and gradually overspreading the heavens. The storm bursts forth with wonderful suddenness and tremendous violence and generally lasts forty-­eight hours; the wind after that period veers round to the east and southward, and the storm gradually abates. During the continuance of a norther, the cold is intense, and the wind so penetrating, it is almost impossible to keep oneself warm.


We had a norther here last week, a weather front that blasted through the area on the night of Wednesday/Thursday, part of the same front that caused hideous and deadly dust storms on the South Plains in Lubbock earlier. Down here, over 500 miles away, it left an orange dusting on cars and houses. Driving down to Angleton in Brazoria County along the Gulf on Thursday afternoon, my vehicle was continually buffeted by 25- to 30 mph winds at a right angle to the road, pushing the car to the left, toward oncoming lanes of traffic. Not real fun.

But the most interesting aspect of this is one experienced by the Houstouns and others aboard Dayton almost 170 years ago, the effect of this strong, steady wind on local water levels. Historical accounts of bad weather will often include phrases like “blew the water out of the bay,” or something similar, and that’s not much of an exaggeration. Late Thursday evening, almost 24 hours after the front went through, I collected some graphics of meteorological and hydrologic data from Houston/Galveston Bay PORTS, a reporting system built and maintained by NOAA to provide real-time updates of conditions for those in the maritime industry. The graphics are small and a little difficult to read, but they provide direct, measured documentation of the sort of event described by so many mariners and travelers over the years. The data presented here are drawn from three different locations: Morgan’s Point, where Mrs. Houstoun and Dayton were stranded for two days; Pier 21 at Galveston, at the site of what was then known as Central Wharf, the steamboat’s destination; and Galveston Bay Entrance, a buoy along the channel through which marine traffic enters and leaves all the ports in the region — Galveston, Texas City, Houston, Baytown, and so on:




Let’s look at the data in some detail:


Wind speed at Morgan’s Point. This little chart shows the wind direction and speed for the period beginning about 4:30 a.m. on Thursday. The red dots show the sustained wind speed (scale on the y axis), while the blue arrows show its direction. For most of the period, right up until about 6 p.m., the wind blew steadily and consistently from the NNW at between 15 and 25 knots (17.3 to 28.8 mph), with gusts above that.


This chart shows the air temperature at Morgan’s Point, from about 4:30 a.m. Thursday until late that evening. As the front passes, the air temperature drops almost 20° F in the space of a few hours. It climbs back up during the day, but not nearly as high as it had been, before falling again after sunset Thursday.


This chart shows the water levels at Morgan’s Point, from about 4:30 a.m. Thursday until late that evening. The narrow blue line represents the predicted height of the water at the tide gauge; it wavers a little bit based on the natural flow of the tide, which has a small normal range at that point. The red X marks are the actual, observed height of the water, which drops steadily with the wind over a period of about twelve hours, before leveling off and holding steady at more than two-and-a-half feet below the point known as “mean lower low water” (MLLW), the low-water standard that is used for navigational purposes. Note that the wind also wiped out almost any of the normal rise in the water level expected due to tidal action.


What about at the south end of Galveston Bay? Here’s the project vs. actual recorded water levels at Pier 21, along the Galveston wharf front:


Here, closer to the Galveston Bay entrance, tidal action has more effect, but the water level remains more than two feet lower than predicted.


This chart, plotting data from a buoy at the entrance to the bay, reveals an almost identical profile to that from Pier 21. Here, again, eighteen hours after the passage of the front, the water remains more than two feet below its predicted level based on tides alone.


These three charts show (top to bottom) wind speed and direction, air temperature and water levels at the entrance to Galveston Bay, for a 72-hour period ending about 10:30 p.m. on Thursday. Comparing these, it’s easy to see when the front passes in the early morning hours of Thursday, prompting dramatic changes in the wind, air temperature and water levels.


Finally, one last chart, showing the sub-surface currents at the entrance to Galveston Bay, at 14, 21 and 27 feet (4.3, 6.4 and 8.2 meters) below the surface. Although the wind only acts on the surface of the water directly, the momentum it generates there is carried through into much deeper water, dramatically altering flow of water so much that even at a depth of 27 feet, the normal tidal action is so completely erased that it results in a net ebb of the tide, a full eighteen hours of water emptying from Galveston Bay into the Gulf of Mexico.


How much water got “blown out of the bay” on this occasion? Some (very) rough estimates are possible. (Check my math, y’all.) If we take the difference between the predicted and observed water levels at the head of the bay (Morgan’s Point, -2.57 feet) and entrance to the bay (Galveston Bay Entrance, -2.08 feet), we can average between them a value of -2.33 feet. If we take that figure as representative of the water level of the bay as a whole (and that’s a big “if,” admittedly), then we can convert that vertical dimension into the volume of water it represents.

Galveston Bay encompasses about 600 square statute miles. One square mile is 27.88 million square feet; 600 square miles is 16.73 billion square feet. Multiply that by a depth of 2.33 feet, and you get a total volume of water of 38.98 billion cubic feet (1.1 billion cubic meters) of water.

That’s a lot of water; it would fill a cube-shaped aquarium 3,390 feet (1,033 meters), over a half-mile long, on each side. The water would weigh something on the order of 1.24 billion short tons, or 1.13 billion metric tonnes.


A 3,390-foot cube of seawater, approximating the volume of water blown out of Galveston Bay during the norther on December 20, 2012. Shown to scale are (top) a large, full-rigged sailing ship similar to Cutty Sark, (right) the statue of Liberty, and (left) the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, among the world’s tallest structures.


So much for the numbers. What does this mean in practical terms for navigation on Galveston Bay? Today, weather conditions like these still pose a problem, particularly the wind, which poses significant challenges for large vessels transiting the Houston Ship Channel. I suspect the problem is worse for down-bound vessels than up-bound, as the former are running with the wind and current, and are thus much more difficult to maneuver.

In the mid-19th century, the challenges of foul weather on the bay were substantially worse. The riverboats that ran between Galveston and Buffalo Bayou, Cedar Bayou, or the mouth of the Trinity River were very vulnerable, with their high superstructures and chimneys to catch the wind from any angle. (The little sternwheeler C. K. Hall, carrying a load of bricks out of Cedar Bayou, was sunk in just such a situation in 1871.) But the bigger problem then, before major dredging operations had established a deep and stable channel, was the depth of water over obstacles like Clopper’s Bar and Red Fish Bar, a nine-­mile-­long oyster reef curving in a gentle, east-­west arc stretching completely across Galveston Bay, almost exactly halfway between Clopper’s Bar and Galveston Island. Red Fish Bar could, on occasion, cause significant damage to vessels, and at least one steamboat, Ellen P. Frankland, would be wrecked on the obstruction in the 1840s. Both Clopper’s Bar and Red Fish Bar could be crossed regularly by vessels drawing less than four feet, but this depth of water varied with the tide and weather.


Red Fish Bar
Red Fish Bar, as shown on an 1856 chart of Galveston Bay. Soundings are given in feet.


I doubt that most of us in this area paid too much attention to the weather Thursday, apart from the inconvenience of the sudden drop in temperature and the wind. But it’s good to keep in mind how dramatically similar events sometimes affected the day-to-day lives of people in the past, and how fortunate we are to be sometimes that much more removed from them.


The Fiery End of the Buffalo Bayou Steamer Grapeshot

A friend of mine e-mailed me the other day, having come across a steamboat name in the Buffalo Bayou book he’d always liked, Grapeshot. I agree — it’s a great name for a steamboat. Or a dog. Or a dog on a steamboat.

Grapeshot was a small, 179-ton sidewheeler built at Louisville in 1855.[1] According to Pam Puryear and Nath Winfield in Sandbars and Sternwheelers, she was built expressly for the Brazos River trade, running between landings on that river and Galveston, Texas’ primary seaport at the time.

The new boat’s arrival was widely anticipated on the Brazos; in late October 1855 the Columbia Democrat and Planter notified its readership that “the Grapeshot passed Vicksburg on the 17th Oct. en route for the Brazos river.” Unfortunately, the boat ran into trouble almost immediately, when in late November she attempted her first trip on the Galveston and Brazos Canal, a route that provided a sheltered passage between Galveston and the river, without boats having to risk the fifteen-mile stretch of the Gulf of Mexico between San Luis Pass, on the west end of Galveston Island, and the mouth of the river. A “norther,” a hard, cold northerly wind blew the boat hard against the edge of the cut channel, and stranded her so firmly that she couldn’t get off again until the wind died down. [2]

This was a common problem on the canal, which at the time was not yet two years old. The canal itself, the part cut through dry land, was short, less than five miles, but dredging and other improvements extended another thirty miles through an existing series of bays and lagoons to Galveston. The canal was only a very modest commercial success – it was found to be too narrow in some places, too shallow in others, and altogether too crooked – and it was found additionally that the steamboats’ sidewheels chewed away at the soft banks of the dredged channel, making repairs and upkeep an ongoing struggle. In time, sidewheelers like Grapeshot were barred from using the channel altogether, which greatly reduced its commercial viability.

Puryear and Winfield say that, having been proved unsuitable for the canal before even having completed a single passage of it, Grapeshot was soon relegated to the safer confines of the river itself, carrying passengers and cargo between river landings and the Buffalo, Bayou, Brazos& Colorado Railroad line at Richmond. But that seems not to be the case, because the very next month Grapeshot was running cotton down to Galveston from Buffalo Bayou, and announcing plans to run up the Trinity, all taking advantage of trade to be had during the fall and winter cotton shipping season. In one trip in January 1856, for example, she brought 564 bales of cotton down to Galveston, consigned to local merchants including J. C. Kuhn and William Hendley. The following week she brought down 548 bales, consigned to various Galveston factors.[3]

But it would be the Trinity where Grapeshot would find a permanent home. After a single trip up that river, the boat’s owners, Captain S. P. McGuire and his clerk, were convinced to sell their boat to Captain H. R. Dawson.[4] By the spring of 1856, Grapeshot seems to have settled into a regular routine of running between Galveston and landings on the Trinity River. In late March, for example, the boat was reported to have a arrived at the mouth of the river, downbound to Galveston, carrying 900 bales of cotton, a cargo almost certainly split between the boat itself and a towed barge, as was becoming common practice at the time. Nonetheless, if true, it was a remarkable haul for a boat that size. By May, with the river rising on from the springtime rains, Grapeshot was reported heading into the upper stretches of the river, well beyond Liberty.[5] Business was good on the Trinity, and Grapeshot’s master, Dawson, took a leading role that spring in organizing the Trinity and Liberty Steamboat Co., an enterprise founded to construct and operate a steamboat between Liberty and Galveston, “and up the Trinity river when the water will admit of it, providing this shall not interfere with her regular trips, between Liberty and Galveston.” The company was capitalized at $10,000, with 200 shares valued at $50 each. Dawson personally went in for one-third of the value of the company, 66 1/3 shares. Dawson, who press accounts described as having “had experience boat building on the Ohio River,” announced he was ready to begin construction of the boat at Green & Branch’s Mill, few miles above Liberty, assisted by Mr. W. Wicks, a “practical engineer,” and Mr. P. Burke, a ship’s carpenter.[6]

Grapeshot continued to run primarily, if perhaps not exclusively, on the Trinity for the next two years. There are several contemporary references to her reaching Parker’s Bluff, a river landing in Anderson County near present-day Palestine, over 500 statute miles from Galveston, following the serpentine bends and twists of the river. (It’s about 170 miles straight-line distance.)

The end for Grapeshot came on May 9, 1858, soon after the boat left the wharf at Galveston for the mouth of the Trinity River. The boat was caught in rough weather, and her master sought shelter in the lee of Pelican Island, just north of Galveston harbor. In the pitching waves her chimneys toppled, crushing the boiler deck down onto the boilers themselves and setting fire to the timbers. All aboard escaped with their lives by clambering onto the barge they had been towing, and then cutting the barge adrift, but the boat and much of her cargo were lost. Grapeshot’s passengers and crew were picked up and returned to Galveston aboard the Houston Navigation Co.’s steamer Island City, while the cargo barge Grapeshot had been towing was taken in charge by the steamer Water Witch. Grapeshot herself burned to the waterline, a total loss.

The Union Insurance Co. of Galveston ultimately paid its full liability of $2,614.86, and other insurers were reported to have settled claims for around $14,000. The total financial loss represented by the boat and her cargo had been estimated at the time to be between fifty and sixty thousand dollars.[7]


[1] Frederick Way, Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1983 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1983), 197.

[2] Columbia Democrat and Planter, October 25, 1855, 2; Pamela Ashworth Puryear and Nath Winfield, Jr., Sandbars and Sternwheelers: Steam Navigation on the Brazos (College Station: Texas A&M Press 9176), 88; Texas Ranger, November 29, 1855, 2.

[3] Galveston Commercial, December 27, 1855, 2; ibid., January 10, 1856, 2; ibid., January 17, 1856, 2.

[4] W. T. Block, Cotton Bales, Keel Boats and Sternwheelers: A History of the Sabine River and Trinity River Cotton Trades, 1837-1900 (Woodville, Texas: Dogwood Press, 1995), 204.

[5] Galveston Weekly News, May 27, 1856, 1

[6] Galveston Weekly News, March 25, 1856, 3; ibid., June 17, 1856, 3.

[7] Puryear and Winfield, 88; Palestine, Texas Trinity Advocate, May 19, 1858, 2; San Antonio Ledger and Texan, May 15, 1858, 3; San Augustine Eastern Texian, May 29, 1858, 2; Galveston Civilian and Gazette, June 15, 1858, 2.


Bounty, Ctd.

The other day I posted about the Bounty sinking, and made the observation that “the people who crew these vessels (replicas or restorations) are a small, closely-bonded community, and. . . this is going to hit that community very hard, much like the loss of Pride of Baltimore did back in 1986, because everybody knows somebody in that crew.”

I’m not part of that community myself, but it turns out that I knew slightly one of Bounty‘s crew, as well. Doug Faunt, the older, bearded gentleman interviewed in the segment above, was part of the 2007 PAST Foundation field school in the Florida Keys. He had his bear then, too. I’m glad he’s OK.


You all know by now of the loss early Monday of Bounty, the sailing replica of the 18th century naval transport, in the Atlantic due to Hurricane Sandy. Fourteen of the sixteen crew members aboard were rescued by the Coast Guard early Monday morning. Claudene Christian, 42, was pulled from the water later Monday in an “unresponsive” state and died Monday evening in a hospital onshore. She was the great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Fletcher Christian, the Master’s Mate who led the mutiny aboard the original Bounty. Her family lives in Oklahoma. As of now, Captain Robin Walbridge is still missing.

There are questions about Bounty‘s route and the decisions made, but those can be sorted out later. Not today, not right now.

Two personal notes, I visited this ship quite a few years ago — I cannot now remember exactly where — and my overall impression then was that she was not in very good shape. I don’t believe she could even operate under sail then; she motored from port to port, and seemed to be in a terminal decline. But having looked at many much more recent pictures of her in the last 24 hours, though, it’s clear that she has been in much better shape lately than was the case all those years back, now actively working as a sail training ship. She really was reborn, given new life as a sailing ship.

The second is that, while she was lost on a passage from New London, Connecticut to St. Petersburg, Florida, her ultimate destination was here in Galveston, where she would spend the winter months at Pier 21, adjacent to Elissa. Lots of folks here were looking forward to that. The people who crew these vessels (replicas or restorations) are a small, closely-bonded community, and I’m sure a number of Elissa‘s crew served in Bounty‘s crew, and vice-versa. This is going to hit that community very hard, much like the loss of Pride of Baltimore did back in 1986, because everybody knows somebody in that crew.

Our prayers and thoughts go out to those crew members who were rescued, and the friends and families of all aboard.

Image via H.M.S. Bounty‘s Facebook page.

Edward Auld was a Badass.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, December 11, 1839:

The schr Louisiana, Capt. Edward Auld, from Matagorda, for New Orleans, went ashore on the evening of the 14th Oct. near the east end of Last Island, (La. Coast) during a severe SSE gale, and was high and dry on the beach, a total loss. She had no cargo, excepting a few boxes [of] tobacco, (return cargo) which will probably be lost. Capt. Auld, his three passengers and two of his crew, arrived in New Orleans on Saturday evening, 23rd ult. [i.e., 23 November] by way of the bayou La Fourche, swamps & c. having been exposed eight days in an open boat, during which time they have traveled nearly three hundred miles – a large portion of the time tugging at the oar.

Louisiana was a 67-ton, two-masted schooner launched at Waterford, Connecticut in 1831. She was initially registered at New London, but was re-registered at New Orleans in May 1833. On April 4, 1837, under the command of J. C. Pierce,  she was captured by the Mexican brig-of-war General Urrea on suspicion of aiding the rebellion in Texas and taken as a prize to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Fortunately, the Mexican warship was seized in her turn by an American vessel, the sloop-of-war U.S.S. Natchez, which subsequently forced the release of Louisiana and her crew. Edward Auld purchased the schooner and re-registered her at the end of that year.

Edward Auld (c. 1802-1856) seems to have been a mariner of the first order, commanding merchant brigs sailing from Baltimore to ports as distant and Kingston, Jamaica and Rio de Janeiro. He was heavily involved in trade between New Orleans and Texas during the early days of the republic. He later commanded transports for the U.S. government during the war with Mexico, and still later ran a steam packet carrying would-be prospectors between New Orleans and Panama during the California Gold Rush.


Maritime Law Can Be Odd

January’s sinking of Costa Concordia in Italy caused an odd legal ripple in Galveston Saturday, where the cruise ship Carnival Triumph was briefly “arrested” by federal authorities. The action came at the request of a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Costa which is a subsidiary of Carnival. Apparently by formally attaching one of Carnival’s ships to the case, this action ties that company into the case, and makes available any internal documents or communications within Carnival as potential evidence. But why Carnival Triumph, of all the ships Carnival operates out of U.S. ports?

[Plaintiff's attorney John Arthur] Eves said the lawsuit seeking to attach the Triumph was filed in Galveston federal court because of a quirk in maritime law. The plaintiffs wanted to attach a Carnival asset and thereby bring the U.S. arm of Carnival into the lawsuit but could only do so under maritime law by suing in a federal judicial district where the owner has no agent. Carnival has an agent in Miami, where most of the Concordia lawsuits in the United States have been filed, Eves said.

Eves said neither Carnival PLC nor the ship’s owner, Utopia Cruises Inc., have an agent in the Southern Judicial District of Texas. Utopia is a paper company incorporated in Panama by Carnival, he said.

It turns out there was a confidential agreement in place ahead of time that the ship would be allowed to sail, and she did, only a half-hour after the scheduled departure time.

Final Maneuvers of Costa Concordia

The maritime bloggers at gCaptain continue to provide the best English-language coverage of the disaster I’ve seen. Although news updates are less frequent now, nearly a week after the accident, the search to recover victims and efforts to secure the wreck continue.

One particularly worthwhile update has been this video, which uses AIS data to trace the final maneuvers of the ship before, during and after her fatal collision with the “Le Scole” rock just south of Porto Giglio. The lideo is long, and not especially polished, but pending release of official findings based on the voyage data recorder — the ship’s “black box” — this may be the best summary of the vessel’s maneuvers at the time of the accident.

Image: Carabinieri scuba divers inspect the Costa Concordia, on January 19, 2012. Italian rescue workers suspended their search of the capsized Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia after the ship moved again on Friday, firefighters’ spokeman Luca Cari said. (Reuters/Centro subacquei dei Carabinieri)