- Historic Sites
A Warm Evening At The Rock
Captain Newton, immensely proud of his new steam frigate, was enjoying an excellent dinner ashore. Then a strange glow began to light the sky over Gibraltar
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
There were a few practical things to be done while the Missouri was in port. The big steam engine needed overhauling after the strenuous voyage, and the engineers addressed themselves to that. But mainly there was coal to be got on board. Two large coal barges came alongside, manned by gangs of Spanish laborers. The boatswain’s mate rigged “yard and stay” for whipping the heavy bags on board. Men in the bunkers pushed the coal back into the inner recesses of those dank regions. Topside it was a lovely day, the usual seventy-seven degrees, with a mere zephyr of a breeze from the east; but in the bunkers there was very little air at all, and the temperature seemed twice seventy-seven. What a combustible mixture all that fine coal dust made. Luckily there was nobody around with an open lamp. Or was there?
The day edged inexorably to its finish. The coal bags whipped on full, returned to the barges empty. The procession of water boats continued. Visitors came and went. By 5 P.M. the breeze had dropped altogether. It was party night. Gushing, Captain Newton, and the purser, Rodman Price, went ashore for dinner with Mr. Horatio Sprague, the American consul. The sun set at exactly three and onequarter minutes past six. The Locust and the Malabar hoisted their boats in; they would not be likely to need them. Bess came down from the maintop for her dinner in the galley of the Missouri . It was the end of the week. Tomorrow, Sunday, would be “holiday” routine. At 7:20 the dockyard gun fired yet again, marking the end of the day. Guards closed the Waterport Gate, and the double-arched Southgate, and all the other gates, securing the bastion of empire for the night.
Nevertheless, work continued in the engine room of the Missouri , dimly lighted by the safe if inefficient globe lanterns bracketed to the bulkheads. In this pervasive gloom a small group of engineers labored mightily over the big main cylinder. They had gotten to the point where they were putting it back together. John Allen was bolting on the cylinder head. Fireman Alfred Clum was tying on the felt packing around the outside of the cylinder and steam chest, securing the twine to the bolts so it would hold the felt in place. William Wilkins was helping them. They were doing the best they could in the absence of an officer who should have been supervising their work but who for reasons best known to himself was not there.
In spite of the globe lanterns, it was so dark that they could not see what they were doing. So they brought in a couple of open lights which, though forbidden, nevertheless were often used and were essential if the work was to be completed. They set one of these open lights on the valve stem guide, and Clum held the other so that Allen could see the bolts.
At this point John Sutton, the engineer-storekeeper, headed for the starboard engineer’s storeroom, which was just above the engine room, to get a beam scale for weighing coal. Entering this twelve-by-twelve cubicle, he stepped onto the loose, removable floor boards and then over that hodgepodge of hemp, spare fire hose, and the two glass demijohns of turpentine. Reaching over a shelf of miscellaneous tools and spare parts, Sutton got hold of the beam scale, but in doing so he knocked over a heavy iron wrench, which fell onto one of the demijohns and smashed it into a thousand pieces. The turpentine poured out into the hemp and trickled down through the loose floor boards. Damn, what a mess, thought Sutton. He took the beam scale up on deck and started back to wipe up the spilled turpentine. He got as far as the forward laddej:—.
Clum was still holding the light for Allen when he noticed the little stream of liquid coming down through the floor boards immediately over his head. Must be, he thought, that Sutton had knocked over one of the buckets of water Clum had seen earlier in the storeroom—Damn, right into the felt we’ve spent all this time on.—“Why are you spilling water on us?” Clum shouted up to Sutton. Then Clum smelled it and knew it wasn’t water. He did not report this interesting little happening because there was no officer on hand to report it to. They worked on for six or seven minutes longer, until the twine broke and the whole sorry mess of turpentine-soaked felt fell down right into the open light that 1 was sitting on the valve-stem guide.
At five minutes past eight the Irish boatswain’s mate, whom the crew called “the Member from Clare” on account of his below-decks politicking, was comfortably seated on the hammock nettings directing the coal loading when he saw smoke coming out of the forward hatch. He yelled, “Ring the bell! Ring the bell! Fire! Fire!” and without further ado jumped directly over the side right into one of the coal barges. Someone did ring the bell. And the drummer boy produced at least one roll on his drum before he dropped it, ran aft, and jumped through the stern port into the water.
“Oh, Jesus, the ship is on fire,” yelled a marine, and he too took to the water.