A Warm Evening At The Rock

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Captain John Thomas Newton, U.S.N., was greatly annoyed one day in 1829 when he was called away from a dinner party at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. His ship, Fulton I , was on fire. It blew up. His new gunner had taken an open light into the powder magazine. Although Newton admittedly had promulgated no safety orders, he thought that nobody in his right mind, with or without orders, would be foolhardy enough to take an open light into such a place. The unfortunate gunner was killed in the explosion; the Captain was court-martialled. However, he was acquitted, as indeed he felt he should have been. The trial had been just one of those troublesome formalities that captains have to go through on such occasions. Nevertheless, he could not quite forget that the Fulton I was the very first steam warship ever built, and though her engines had long since been removed and she was merely a hulk used to train seamen for sailing ships-of-war, she was nevertheless an important naval artifact, and he had been entrusted with her care.

But all that was fourteen years ago. Now, on a Saturday evening in August of 1843, Captain Newton was at another dinner party, this time at the American consul’s house in Gibraltar. His magnificent new command, the United ,States steam frigate Missouri , the most modern of warships, rode proudly at anchor in the harbor for all to see and admire. How calm it was on this evening. How secure the ship was, with his experienced executive officer out there in charge of the routine coaling operation. Surely no memory of that shocking time when he had been called from dinner at the Brooklyn Navy Yard disturbed Newton in this pleasant situation. He had, in fact, not a worry in the world. And yet—there was a whisper of motion, a nothing, yet something. Now the whisper became audible. The town was coming alive. People were running. Then came a knock at the door.

Only two weeks ago they had left Norfolk. It was a far from ordinary departure. The Missouri was out to make a record—to be the first steam warship to cross the Atlantic. They were taking along Caleb Gushing, a top-drawer diplomat, who would attempt to negotiate the first American commercial treaty with China. The President of the United States came aboard for an inspection. In the midst of all this bustle hardly anyone noticed the routine return of the ship’s boat from the navy yard with last-minute engineering stores, including two glass demijohns of turpentine.

President John Tyler remained on board a few hours to observe the crew working the ship and to watch her twenty-eight-foot paddle wheels thresh powerfully through the waters of Hampton Roads. At Old Point Comfort he disembarked, knowing that if all went well this sag-foot vessel was on her way to add luster to his Navy.

Captain Newton could not help but think this was an auspicious occasion; he would be the hero of a historic episode. Even if his luck did not hold and his engines failed him, the ship was also fitted out as a full-rigged sailing vessel complete with masts, yards, and sails; they could reach their destination safely and try for the record another time.

The engineers busied themselves stowing away those last-minute engineering stores. Where, for instance, should they put the two glass demijohns of turpentine? Why not put them in that catchall, the starboard engineer’s storeroom, easy of access because it was never locked, the hasp on the door having long since been broken off? Here, amidst an indescribable mess of hemp, spare fire hose and oil cans, shelves of heavy tools and spare parts, all mixed up together, the demijohns would never be noticed by Lieutenant Faron, the acting engineer officer. The men well knew that had the regular engineer officer been on board he would have made them pour the turpentine into metal containers and stow it carefully in the safe forehold.

From the maintop a tame bear named Bess, the ship’s pet and mascot, a talisman of good luck, looked down over all this activity with serene satisfaction. At length all hands were settled down for the voyage- Captain Newton, Gushing, Bess, the engineers, and the deck force. While the engineers concentrated on the smooth performance of the engine and its coal-gobbling copper boilers, on which the whole success of the record-making trip depended, the executive officer, Lieutenant Simon Bissell, put in motion the watches, drills, and exercises prescribed as standard sea routine. On Mondays there were battle stations; on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, exercises at small arms and guns. On Fridays, according to regulations, there should have been fire drills. The men would rig the two force pumps, run out the hoses, man the buckets. But on this trip drills were dispensed with, for reasons not at all clear.