August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
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.
On August 18 the Missouri put in to Fayal, in the Azores, to load fresh provisions, water, and two hundred tons of coal. The crew dickered with the dozens of bumboats surrounding the ship, lured on by offers of fresh fruit and vegetables in exchange for old clothes and empty bottles. Men, women, children, and dogs swarmed on board from the bumboats. The bear, in the forefront of those dickering for fruit, simply seized a whole basket of delightful-looking grapes and made off, followed by the vendor in close pursuit. When he got too close, Bess, in a rather unladylike gesture, snatched off the seat of his pants. The crew did not intercede; superstitious as sailors are, they thought it better to be on the side of their own mascot. If no ill befell her, none would befall them. Besides, Bess, who had a record of previous sea duty in the U.S.S. Ontario , was entitled to the respect accorded any good shipmate.
The uniforms of the sailors were filthy after loading coal at Fayal, and the men were ordered to scrub their clothes. Then, when the boatswain’s mate piped “All hands trice up scrubbed and washed clothing,” the men tied their laundry to a jackstay, which was stretched aloft between Bess’s maintop and the mizzentop, for drying. But the coal-burning furnaces deep below decks neither knew nor cared about those two hundred pieces of clean white clothing triced up in the rigging, as they unremittingly belched up smoke, unconsumed bits of coal, soot, and cinders. The natural draft carried the debris up the thirty-foot-tall smokestack, and if a few bits fell on the scrubbed and washed clothing, it was all in the day’s work of a steam warship.
But the cinders were coming up a little faster than usual, and their quick ascent hardly gave them time to cool off. Indeed, a few still glowed red as they showered down onto the clothes and the furled sails. Little burn holes began to appear, then small flames and puffs of smoke. The cotton clothes, dry in the fresh breeze, were in flames.
The situation looked bad. The Missouri’s luck seemed to be running out, with Gibraltar and their great record-to-be only a day’s run away. Lieutenant Bissell rushed up to the spar deck, saw the clothes on fire, and peremptorily ordered the men to get the clothesline down so that the rigging itself would not go up in flames. This interference annoyed Lieutenant Simon Blunt, the officer of the deck, because the men began running all over the place just when he was methodically assigning them individually to their fire stations—which he had to do then and there, because no standard fire bill had been posted. But eventually the sailors managed to get the clothesline down, removing the threat to the rigging. Luck was with them. The storm of hot cinders abated, and the ship was saved.
On that breezy August 25, while the Missouri made her approach to Gibraltar under the slender crescent of a new moon, Captain Newton relished the bold contours of the historic “Rock”—walled, ringed with many-gunned batteries, rising abruptly to the crown of Ape Hill. He had made it. The record was his. In the harbor, Her Majesty’s seventy-four-gun battleship Malabar stood guard. Newton could make out the red light on the Old Mole and the green light on the New Mole as the Missouri coasted into her anchorage —a little too far inside the five-fathom curve for safety, thought the crew of the British steam vessel Locust . She might run aground, or at least be endangered on a lee shore.
With the leadsmen in the chains chanting “By the mark five,” the Missouri came to anchor. At that moment she cleared the bottom by nine feet, but as her anchor chain paid out she swung inshore until there was only five feet of clear water under her keel. Regardless of the Locust’s criticism, the Missouri was safely anchored. Her luck had held for the second time in as many days, each occasion being closer to disaster than anyone seemed to realize. For the superstitious, however, events happen in threes. Still to come was a third trial of the Missouri’s luck that would join her, the Malabar , and the Locust in a triad of association quite unsuspected by any of them.
Saturday started off with Captain Sir George Sartorious of H.M.S. Malabar and the captain of the Locust visiting the Missouri to congratulate Captain Newton and to admire her ten-inch cannon and her engine with its six-foot cylinder. Dockyard boats brought casks of fresh water from the naval tanks a mile away at Rosario Bay. It was a day of many noisy ceremonies. At 10 A.M. the Missouri fired a seventeen-gun salute to the governor, Sir Robert T. Wilson. The dockyard replied gun for gun. At noon the Malabar fired a twenty-one-gun royal salute to Prince Albert, consort of young Queen Victoria, this being his birthday. And there would be more guns fired as the day wore on to its climax, some on purpose, some not.
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.
The Spanish coal-bargemen, their nerves frayed by the precipitate arrival of the Member from Clare in their midst, cried out, “Fuego, fuego!” “El buque esta encendido, perderemos el bote, larga!” “Corta!” “Corta!” Their voices rose in a hysterical crescendo. Cutting their barge loose, they rowed for their lives. The Missouri ran up emergency blue lights that the Rock answered by firing a signal gun. H.M.S. Malabar fired her forty-two-pounder. Nearly enough guns for the day, one might think, what with the governor’s salute, Prince Albert’s birthday, and morning and evening gunfire at the dockyard; but not quite enough—not yet. There would be two more. The crew of Captain Newton’s gig manned their boat and awaited orders. Someone even remembered to post a sentry over the liquor locker.
Lieutenant Bissell, senior officer on board, had been enjoying his ease in the officers’ wardroom. The O.D.’s messenger was just reporting “All galley fires and eight o’clock lights out” when Bissell, hearing the commotion, rushed up on the spar deck to see what was going on. The bell was ringing, the drum was drumming, and all hell was breaking loose. Bissell immediately saw that he might have to cope with not one but two eventualities: the ship burning up, or worse—if the fire reached the powder magazines—blowing up.
Trying to locate the source of the fire, Bissell ran forward along the spar deck, then down the hatch to the passage between the galley and the engine room, thence back to the open deck, and to the forward hatch where smoke was coming up. Here he found the forecastle sailors, who had assembled the unwieldy force pump, run out the hose, and were screwing on the nozzle—but so slowly that Bissell grabbed the nozzle and screwed it on himself.
Next Bissell turned his attention to the two powder magazines, one at each end of the ship, both full of black powder, the most explosive substance known. The keys for the magazines were in the Captain’s cabin at the other end of the ship. Bissell ran and got them, and ordered the gunner to unlock the forward magazine, which was closest to the fire, and flood it with water. With that peril over, the gunner was to go aft, unlock the other magazine, and await orders.
Meanwhile, Bissell went down to the engine room. There he saw Lieutenant Faron and his men dousing the fire with buckets of water that were being passed to the scene from amidships.
By this time the gunner had been gone five minutes, which seemed an eternity to Bissell, and still there was no report that he had been able to flood the forward magazine. When he did show up shortly, he brought the bad news that he had not been able to get there through all the smoke and fire. Bissell grabbed the keys from him and went to flood the magazine himself. On the berth deck a solid wall of smoke stopped him short and the fierce heat drove him back. He tried another route, lowering himself through a small hatch near the bowsprit, but quickly found that no man could survive there a minute. There seemed no hope. For the first time the enormity of actually losing everything confronted him—for most assuredly the fire would soon reach the magazine and blow the ship to kingdom come.
With this overwhelming thought in mind, Bissell went back to the engine room to consult with Lieutenant Faron. Was there any chance at all of putting the fire out? Faron replied,”I don’t know. I think it doubtful.” Bissell had to resolve that doubt. He considered that the most extreme measures were justified. “Open up the Kingston valves,” Bissell ordered with finality, “take off the handhole plates of the condensers.” Sea water would then rush into the boilers, thence into the condensers, and out through the open handholes into the ship. The ship would of course be flooded and would probably sink, but the black powder would be rendered innocuous and a fearful explosion precluded —or so Bissell hoped.
Seeing that there was no further need for him in the engine room, Bissell returned to the open spar deck—to more bad news. Lieutenant Hunter, in charge amidships, was standing on top of the paddle-wheel housing in order to better direct the bucket brigade; he asked Bissell if he didn’t think it would be a good idea to send the gig into the landing to pick up the Captain. With this shattering remark Bissell realized, twenty minutes after the fire started, that he had committed the cardinal sin of not informing the Captain of impending disaster.
At this moment Captain Newton was making his way along the streets of Gibraltar toward the waterfront, through excited crowds shouting, “El vapor del frigate Americana es del fuego!” The whole bay was in an uproar while Newton cooled his heels waiting for the boat that his second-in-command had forgotten to send in. It was no wonder that Rodman Price thought him “highly excited.” At long last he found himself in his gig. While six expert oarsmen strained to get him back, his once-beautiful ship was burning up before his very eyes. Finally the gig pulled alongside, the quartermaster was hailing, in age-old custom, “Boat ahoy!” and the gig’s coxswain was replying, “ Missouri ,” meaning that the Captain was returning. It was 9:00 P.M. The ship had been on fire for an hour.
Newton climbed up to the top of the starboard paddle-wheel housing, and from this vantage point took hold of the situation with long-accustomed assurance. His first command, “Silence!” brought some semblance of order out of the chaos of noise and confusion. Next, he ordered all the hatches closed in an effort to contain the fire. Then he sent fresh men to relieve the weary pumpers forward. All around him buckets passed in rapid succession, but he could not fail to notice that no water was coming from the aft force pump, and. that the hose from the forward pump was too short. There were no other pumps, and the new India-rubber hoses he had brought from Washington had no couplings on them. There was not much else he could do.
Around him the harbor was alive with boats either rushing to the rescue or simply moving to get a better view of the fire. At the Waterport Gate the Governor himself sent off a relief expedition from the Royal Irish Sappers. Sir George Sartorious personally led them out to the ship. A British officer brought out thirty-six convicts from the dockyard as volunteer firemen. Captain Graham, from the American bark Pans , came over to help the sailing master save his navigational equipment. Gushing rushed out in time to save his diplomatic papers and the letter from President Tyler to the Emperor, but he could not save his gorgeous uniform for the Dragon Throne audience. The Malabar’s pinnace, carrying men equipped with portable fire pumps, axes, and fire buckets, pulled up directly under the Missouri’s fore chains and pumped a steady stream of water into the hull. At ten minutes to ten the Locust came within fifty yards of the Missouri to tow her out farther. It was too late. The frigate, filled with sea water from pump and bucket, valve and boat, was already resting on the bottom in that shallow spot the Locust’s crew had viewed with disapproval yesterday evening.
By ten o’clock the flames had nearly penetrated to the sixty tons of coal that had been loading all day. Lieutenant Faron and his gang of engineers had to abandon the engine room. Unable to stand any longer on the hot decks of the forecastle, they had to abandon that too, together with the forecastle force pump. Only buckets and the portable pumps of the relief expeditions now stood between the Missouri and ultimate disaster, and considering the immensity of the fire, these puny efforts seemed, said a man in the Locust , like “spitting on it.”
It was as light as midday in the harbor. Never had there been such a sight at Gibraltar since the day in 1704 when Admiral Sir George Rooke wrested the Rock from Spain with red-hot shot. From her station at the maintop, Bess could see the sheets of flame spreading from the hatches to the hammock nettings, licking up through the rigging toward her. She started down to the deck.
The Missouri was in extremis .
It was now eleven o’clock. Captain Newton, only short hours ago at the pinnacle of his career, in command of the greatest, newest warship in the U.S. Navy, entrusted with the safe passage of an important minister of state, now stood on another kind of pinnacle, the high housing of the starboard paddle wheel, in stark relief against the flaming wreckage. The flames would soon engulf that pinnacle—but first there was an inevitable decision, a final order only he could give. He called a final officers’ conference up there on the paddle-wheel housing. They had to move fast, for the decks were about to cave in. The decision was made. Newton gave his last order: “Save yourselves!”
Men jumped overboard from all manner of places—through portholes, off the rigging, from yards and masts—before the fascinated eyes of watchers along the yardarms of the Malabar , on the deck of the Locust , and in the scores of boats of the sightseeing flotilla. Seven Missouri crewmen crawled along the lower studding-sail boom waiting their chance, and were thrown bodily into the water when the topping lift parted. Hitherto reluctant for fear of explosions, boats closed in from every direction to pick up survivors, many of whom were very poor swimmers.
At 11:15 the Captain climbed down the Jacob’s ladder to his gig, which this time was waiting for him. In the tradition of the sea he was the last to leave the ship. But no—there was a movement aft, on the tip of the spanker boom where it jutted out over the stern. A boat moved in to the rescue. Arms reached up. It was the bear. The upstretched arms scared her. She fought back like a drowning person, broke away, waddled along the burning decks in a last desperate effort to regain her station on the maintop. Then Bess, the Missouri ’s amulet against accident, was swallowed up by the flames and roasted alive.
While Captain Newton approached the bottom rung of the dangling Jacob’s ladder he could think, during this last split second, that the Missouri was still a commissioned unit of the Navy; but the moment his fingers let go that last rung and he dropped into his gig, that moment she became a wreck, a menace to navigation, a nuisance to the authorities, a costly salvage problem for the United States, a mere port captain’s notice to mariners that “great precautions must be taken by the masters of vessels entering at night—” He dropped into the gig and was rowed away.
But Newton could neither shut his eyes to what was happening nor stop his ears to it. The forecastle deck fell in, carrying with it the two ten-inch guns, which exploded one after the other, as if in final salute to the disastrous day. Flames leapt to the top of the mainmast. The main-topsail yard plummeted into the web of rigging. Seven minutes after Newton let go that last rung, the whole tremendous mainmast with all its yards and topmasts fell to the deck with a sickening crash. At twenty-eight minutes before midnight the foremast also came crashing do’wn, followed by the mizzenmast. Only the smokestack, gaunt and glowing red, remained standing. At midnight it too dropped into a grave formed by the iron skeletons of the burntout paddle wheels.
At 3:20 A.M. the forward powder magazine, which had never been flooded, finally blew up, shattering the whole forefront of the hull. The force of the explosion broke windows ashore, even shook men out of their bunks in the Locust .
The crew of the steam warship Missouri , rescued to the last man, was glad enough to be safe on board the sailing warship Malabar . The night of August 26, 1843, was over.
In due course, Captain Newton returned to the United States for his inevitable court-martial, one of those troublesome formalities that captains have to go through on such occasions. The court found that the accused:
Kept on board turpentine in glass vessels immediately over the machinery in a storeroom with loose floor boards.
Allowed the demijohns to be stored with combustible materials in the starboard engineers’ storeroom, although he did not order them stored there.
Allowed naked lights to be used in the engine room; but that their use was justified by necessity.
Did not keep the pumps in order.
Did not inspect properly.
Failed to maintain such regulations as the safety of the steamship required.
And finally: “the charge is proved and the court do therefore adjudge Captain John Thomas Newton to be suspended from duty for the term of two years.”
On November 21, 1844, President Tyler, who had so gaily waved good-bye to the Missouri on her triumphant departure, signed his approval of the courtmartial’s findings in an uncertain handwriting that seemed to say, “I hate to do this, but it is my duty.” As if to prove it, on March 3, 1845, as one of his last executive acts, Tyler remitted Newton’s punishment.
The old sea dog returned to duty and again took up the thread of his naval career, now winding to a quiet close. He commanded navy yards first at Pensacola, Florida, and then at Portsmouth, New Hampshire; finally, he commanded the U.S. Home Squadron. At the age of sixty-five, in 1857, while serving as a member of a court of enquiry on someone else for a change, Captain John Thomas Newton died of apoplexy.