San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter XI.

On the 5th of November, 1887, the day after my arrival in San Francisco, I went up to Mare Island and reported on board the U. S. S. Independence, and made application a day later to Captain J. W. Philip, for my discharge from the navy.

The captain said that it was against the rules and regulations of the Navy Department to discharge apprentices on the Pacific Coast, but he would telegraph to Washington and see what he could do for me. Walking over to his desk, Captain Phillip wrote out a telegram and, handling it to me, he said: "Take this up to Admiral Belknap and tell him that I told you to ask him to approve it."*

[*Note: Admiral Belknap retired from the Navy in the year 1892, after having spent about forty-six years of his life in the service of the country. He resides with his family at his home on Beacon Street, Brookline, Mass. He bears the distinction of having fired the last hostile shot at Fort Sumter.]

I did as the captain instructed me. Going up to the admiral's house, I rang the door bell and the butler let me in. The admiral spoke very encouragingly to me, and besides approving the telegram, he gave me some good advice,--for which I am very thankful,--and then ordered the coxswain of his private steam barge to take me over to Vallejo in order that I might send the telegram off right away. This special courtesy from the admiral just prior to my promotion was appreciated.

A few minutes later the young lady operator at Vallejo sent the following message over the wires:


November 7, 1887.

To Chief of bureau of Equipment and Recruiting, Navy Dept.,
Washington, D.C.

Respectfully request that W. H. Chambliss be given his discharge here to enable him to take an officer's position on Mail Steamer. He waives all claims to transportation East. Please answer soon as possible. Steamer sails soon. Chambliss' enlistment is out.


(Approved) BELKNAP,

The next morning Captain Philip sent his orderly to tell me to come into his cabin. I had read a great deal of nature's own noblemen, and had heard certain people spoken as such, but when I left the Independence that afternoon for San Francisco, it was with a firm conviction that I had met one in the person of Captain J. W. Phillp, USN. I still think so. It was not on account of the great favor that the captain did for me that made me form such an exalted opinion of him; it was his highly refined and courteous manner, and his manly way of saying and doing things. Having informed me that he had just received a telegram from the Navy Department at Washington granting my request for discharge the captain proceeded to give me some good advice. which I shall never forget.

No man could make a mistake in acting on any advice that Captain Philip might favor him with. He went on to tell me that frankness and truthfulness were among the first qualifications of a gentleman, and that if a person would make up his mind to be perfectly natural and straightforward in all things, and stick to it, nothing could prevent him from getting along in the world.

faithfully yours
Geo. E. Belknap
Rear Admiral, U.S.N. (retired).
"When a foreigner who has only been in this country a few years says that he has as much right here as a native-born citizen, I deny it."-Belknap.

After paying me a compliment that I could not repeat here for fear of being called egotistical, Captain Philip informed me that he had recently commanded the City of New York -- in fact, had brought her out to San Francisco from Philadelphia, by way of Cape Horn, when she was a new ship. He considered her one of the best ships under the American flag, and he congratulated me on being so fortunate as to get a position on her along with "so courteous a gentleman as Captain Searle."

Captain Philip then shook hands with me and bade me good-by. Then I walked over the gangway of the Independence, and stepped down into the steam launch, and out of the service of the United States Navy, a full grown American citizen.

Crossing over to Vallejo, I boarded the steamer Julia,and was soon on my way to San Francisco. While I was glad to be out of the navy, I had no regrets for having served three years and three months under the commands of such refined gentlemen as Captain Arthur R. Yates, Captain Silas Terry, Captain Theodore F. Jewell, and Captain Philip.

The next morning, November 9,1887, I reported for duty to First Officer T. P. Deering on board the steamship City of New York,was immediately appointed to the position of quartermaster.

The principal duty of a quartermaster of an ocean steamer is to steer the ship. One of the quartermasters must be at the wheel all the time at sea.

While the steamer is in port, the duties of the quartermaster correspond with the duties of an ensign on a man-of-war of the second class-that is, he stands the deck watches and looks out for the ship at night.

At sea, as well as in port, the quartermaster is in a position to see and hear a good deal more that goes on among the passengers than even the captain. He can't help hearing and seeing, no matter how distasteful some things may be. As he is only a junior officer, the passengers are not so particular about how they act in his presence as they generally are when one of the higher officers or the captain is round. I once asked an old see captain--I do not mean Captain Searle--why he had never married, and his reply was that while he was quartermaster he had seen so much of the carryings-on of married ladies traveling without their husbands, that he had decided to stay single until he got able to give up going to sea, so that he could live on shore. The old sinner argued that since the wives of gentlemen who live on shore act so funny as soon as they get on board ship and out of sight of their husbands, it stands to reason that a sea captain's wife left on shore would to the same thing during her husband's absence.

The more I saw of the married portion of the traveling public,--and I have seen a great deal--especially ladies who go off on sea voyages while their husbands are toiling sway in their offices, the more I thought of what the old captain said about them; and the more I think, the more thoroughly convinced do I become that there was a good deal of sound logic in his words, even if it did sound a little crude. It is a mistake for a seafaring man to get married and go off to sea, leaving his wife in San Francisco.

It is bad enough when these men have homes of their own to leave their wives at during their absence; but when it comes to leaving a young wife in one of those Pine Street or Sutter Street "family" boarding houses, among the "fruit-pickers," while the husband goes off to China or Australia for a two months' voyage, it is enough to distress the most indifferent husband in the world.

It would seem that no married man could live a more unsatisfactory life, or be placed in a position that would render him more unhappy, than he who runs between San Francisco and distant foreign ports, while his wife stops all alone in a boarding house, such as the Vella Blista.

Incredible as it may seem to the uninitiated, there are others who are worse off twenty time over, in this respect, than the ordinary steamship men. Those others are the naval officers who go off on long cruises, and are sometimes separated from their wives and children for periods of three years at a time. I heard a young man, prominent in San Francisco society, give a touching illustration of the uncertainty of this sort of life not long ago. Although the young man did not mean to betray any of the little secrets that his mother may have intrusted to his keeping, his own words will serve to confirm the general opinion of the public concerning the inadvisability of those long separations.

It happened at a large dinner party at the Palace Hotel. After several speeches had been made by other distinguished guests, the young man in question was called upon. He responded very promptly, and entertained the party at least ten minutes by relating the history of the wonderful military achievements of his father, who was captain in the navy. He finally concluded his narrative by stating that he was born at the close of the Civil War, and that at the time of his birth his "father" nd mother had not seen each other in four years.

To my esteemed friends who go to sea for a living, I wish to offer this piece of friendly advice: Don't get married unless you can live on shore with your wife.

If you feel that you must get married, anyhow, for God's sake give up going to sea, unless you have a home of your own for your poor wife to live in during your absence.

Source: Chambliss, William H. Chambliss' Diary; Or, Society As It Really Is. 1895: New York.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License