San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter V.

ON the second day of September, 1886, the Essex, fully equipped for the long cruise, cast off her lines from the dock at the Navy Yard, and swung out into the East River.

After a good deal of backing and filling as we picked our way through the great fleet of ferryboats, steamers, tugs, and every kind of craft imaginable, we passed under the great Brooklyn Bridge, and steamed on down past Castle Garden.

Passing the famous Bartholdi Statue of Liberty, on Bedloe's Island, on our starboard hand, we went ahead full speed down the Bay and through the Narrows.

As we steamed on out toward Sandy Hook, we passed the big Guion Line steamer Alaska, lying on the sandbar with her bow high and dry up out of the water. The Alaska, bound for Liverpool with a large list of passengers, had run aground in trying to get out to sea during a dense fog. It was at high tide when she struck, and as the water ebbed away she remained hard and fast. A perfect swarm of tugboats hovered around her, taking her passengers off and lightening her, so that she could be floated with the next tide. This was accomplished eventually, as we saw by the papers after we arrived on the other side of the Atlantic, a month later.

The Essex could not begin to carry coal enough to steam all the way across the Atlantic, so, as soon as we were clear of the pilot grounds, Commander Theodore F. Jewell ordered the chief engineer to haul fires and lower the smokestack, and send all the black squad--the firemen and coal heavers--on deck to assist the seamen.

Favored with a fair breeze from the westward, we made sail to top-gallant sails, and shaped our course for the Azores, or Western Islands.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean under canvas is rather slow work, at best, for any man-of-war. Having an idle propeller to drag through the water, our progress was so retarded that the best speed we could make was about ten knots an hour; and we could not do that with anything short of a moderate gale on the quarter. This, of course, we were not so fortunate as to have all the time. We had to stop over thirty times during the voyage to take deep sea soundings. These soundings made no end of trouble, and on one occasion came very near causing a duel between two of our most promising young officers.

Some old whaling captain had reported a sunken rock somewhere off the coast of the Azores, and the Essex was ordered to look it up on her way to the Mediterranean.

Lieutenant A. V. Wadham, the navigater,* had charge of the sounding apparatus, and he detailed a regular crew to man it, consisting of Ensign Hoggett, Quartermaster Billy Thompson, Seamen Apprentices Jarrett, Schipperus, and myself. The deep sea sounding machine consisted of a wheel or drum two feet in diameter and six inches wide. Around this drum was wound several thousand fathoms of very fine copper wire. To the end of the wire there was attached a piece of brass pipe about a foot long and two inches in diameter, fitted with a valve in the lower end so that it would bring up specimens of sand or mud or anything soft that it might strike on the bottom. This piece of pipe was called a cup. A sixty pound shot with a hole through it was used for a sinker. The cup, which was made to fit the hole in the shot, was fitted with a spring, which held the two together until they struck the bottom, when the shot became detached and remained on the bottom, leaving the cup free to be hauled up.

[*Note : The navigating officer of a man-of-war ranks next below the first lieutenant. The spelling of his title with an "e" instead of an "o" in the last syllable is a naval technicality, not mentioned in Webster. Some navigaters are not navigators.]

U.S.S. Essex under sail.

The sounding apparatus was placed on the end of the bridge extending out over the starboard side of the ship, and it was fitted with indicators, which resembled the face of a clock, to tally the number of fathoms of wire out. It was also supplied with a little steam engine to reel up the wire.

Like everything else on board a man-of-war, there was a lot of ceremony and "red tape" attached to the sounding machine.

Lieutenant Wadham would come up on the bridge, tell the officer of the deck to stop the ship, and have the boatswain's mate sing out for the "sounding gang"; then the fun would commence.

Jarrett and Schipperus would go down to the shot locker and bring up a shot; old Billy Thompson would attach the cup and fit the shot on, and report, "All ready, sir," to Mr. Wadham, who would then give the order to "Heave!" which meant to lower the shot down into the water. My duty in the performance was to look after the indicator and keep tally of the fathoms of wire out; one turn of the drum was a fathom. I was required to sing out "Mark!" at every tenth fathom, so that Mr. Hoggett could keep tally also. If our figures did not agree with the indicator when the job was finished, Mr. Wadham generally told us what he thought of us. He never called us anything worse than "land-lubbers," or "hay-makers," however, because he was too "religious" to call us anything that would reflect on our ancestors.

Mr. Wadham never used any of those harsh descriptive adjectives by which the conversation of nearly all sailors is distinguishable, but I have a strong suspicion that he frequently thought them.

Sometimes the cup, together with a thousand or so fathoms of wire, would remain on the bottom to keep company with the shot; then we would catch the devil, so to speak. One day we tried to get a sounding when there was a heavy sea on. We could get the bottom without much difficulty, and could tell how many fathoms were out, but getting the cup back was where the trouble came in. The ship would drift over the wire, and a rough place in the copper on the bottom of the ship would cause it to break off, and down would go the cup. Then we would reel in what was left of the wire, get the kinks out of it, put on another cup, and try it again.

After losing about six cups and as many thousand fathoms of wire, Mr. Wadham decided that Thompson was to blame for it all, and I know that he was sorry he was "too religious" to swear at him.

"Thompson," said Mr. Wadham, "if you lose another cup you had better get hold of the end of the wire and go down with it, for you'll be better off down there in Davy Jones' locker than on board this ship."

"Aye, aye, sir," said old Thompson, as he lowered the seventh cup over the side. The words were hardly out of his mouth when the wire, which had got a kink in it during the excitement, snapped off, and away went the cup.

In obedience to the command of his superior officer, Thompson started to dive overboard, but Mr. Wadham countermanded his order by telling Billy to "Belay!"

Mr. Wadham then went aft and reported to Captain Jewell that it was too rough to take soundings. "I think it's a d--d nice time for you to discover it, after losing seven cups," said the old man, as he sung out to the quartermaster to "put her on her course"; "those cups cost the Government forty dollars apiece."

The captain then gave standing orders to the chief engineer to get up steam enough to give the ship steerage way whenever there was any sounding to be done.

Mr. Wadham got excited one day, and in trying to keep the ship from drifting over the wire, he gave the signals "go ahead," "stop," "back," "go astern," etc., in such rapid succession that the engine-room bell was kept going like an alarm clock.

The engineer on watch stood it until patience ceased to be a virtue with him, then he yelled out up through the ventilator, "What in hell's the matter up there?"

Young Lippincott, whose duty it was to pass the word along, passed it up to Mr. Wadham just as he got it from the engineer.

"How dare you tell me anything like that?" yelled Mr. Wadham; and he ordered Lippincott to go to the "mast," while he sent for Mr. Bicknell, the first lieutenant. Mr. Bicknell, whom all the boys called "Humpty Dumpty" on account of his small stature, and "Burnsides" came up, and Mr. Wadham explained to him that Lippincott had asked him "What in the hell was the matter with him?" Then Lippincott explained that he had merely passed along the word as he had got it from the engineer. That acquitted Lippincott, and he came up forward and told his friends that Mr. Wadham was crazy.

Then Mr. Bicknell walked aft and said: "Mr. Fechteler, what the devil do you suppose is the matter with Mr. Wadham?" "I'll be d--d if I know," replied Mr. Fechteler, as he signaled to the boatswain's mate to "pipe mess gear."

Mr. Wadham made several other bad breaks which rendered him very unpopular with the boys, right from the start. Among other things, he wanted us to read the Bible and sing psalms during our watch below, and he even volunteered to lead us in prayer; but these were not popular studies, for we remembered distinctly that nothing of the kind was included in the articles of enlistment. So, from that time on, Mr. Wadham became known as the "missionary officer."

One day he came on deck, called out the "sounding gang," stopped the ship, and proceeded to take a sounding without reporting to the officer of the deck. Lieutenant B. F. Walling was on watch, and he very promptly took Mr. Wadham to task for usurping his authority, and he did it in a way to make the navigater remember it.

Going forward to where the sounding gang was at work, he addressed Mr. Wadham about as follows:

"What do you mean, sir, by taking charge without reporting to the officer of the deck?"

"I am navigater of this ship," replied Mr. Wadham, "and I have a right to stop her whenever I feel like it."

"I don't care a d--n who you are, or what you have a right to do!" said Mr. Walling; "when I am officer of the deck I want you to respect me as such, and if you don't know how to respect the officer of the deck, I'll teach you."

By this time all the watch on deck had crowded around, and some of the boys had roused out the watch below to see the fun, for there was every prospect of a set-to. The man-of-war's-man is a sport, in his way, and nothing suits him better than a fight. When he can't get into a fight himself, his next greatest pleasure is in seeing others get battered up. So a fistic encounter between two officers was not to be missed under any consideration. For several minutes the two lieutenants made the air blue with choice nautical language that would hardly do to repeat in this book. It looked as if one was afraid to fight and the other dared not. At last Mr. Walling got tired of the row, and, suggesting to the navigater the advisability of going to a certain warm place, the name of which was quite familiar to the boys, he went aft and began to pace up and down the poop deck, muttering something about the inaptitude of "d--d missionaries" for sea service.

The navigater dismissed the sounding gang, went aft to the cabin, and reported Mr. Walling to the captain. He told the "old man" that Mr. Walling had been using abusive and vulgar language to him and insulting him in the presence of the crew. This was all summed up as "conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman."

Captain Jewell rang for his orderly, and sent word up to Mr. Walling to have his relief called and report to him at once.

It so happened that the gentleman who was to relieve Mr. Walling was no other than Lieutenant A. F. Fechteler, who is now the son-in-law of our esteemed townsman, United States District Judge W. W. Morrow of San Francisco.

Mr. Fechteler was enjoying a quiet afternoon snooze when the orderly woke him up and informed him of what had happened, and he made use of some pretty strong language about the two gentlemen whose differences had caused him to be so unceremoniously robbed of his beauty sleep. Possibly he was in the middle of a beautiful dream of the day when he would come to San Francisco and capture one of the prettiest girls who ever graced the halls of the Palace Hotel. At any rate, while putting on his clothes he expressed the opinion that Mr. Walling ought to have had better sense than to pick a row with Mr. Wadham, and that the latter was a "cussed fool" for reporting him.

In due time Mr. Fechteler went on deck and relieved Mr. Walling, and that gentleman went down to the cabin and reported himself to the captain.

After informing Mr. Walling of the charges which had been preferred against him by the navigater, Captain Jewell asked him what he had to say for himself. In a very few words Mr. Walling told the captain that the navigater had stopped the ship and taken charge without notifying the officer of the deck, and that he, as officer of the deck, had asked the navigater what he meant by it, and the navigater had insulted him and called him names in the presence of the crew.

The Lieutenant Walling-Wadham Sunday morning Set-to on the Essex, with the crew for an audience.

Under the law for the government of the United States Navy, Captain Jewell could have ordered both Walling and Wadham under arrest and recommended them for a court-martial; but he did not do anything of the kind. As captain of the ship with orders from the Navy Department to proceed on out to the Asiatic station, the old man did not consider it necessary to have such little misunderstandings recorded in the log book. So he decided to settle the case in a way that proved satisfactory to everybody, and especially to all the deck officers.

He issued a standing order to the effect that when the navigater had any deep sea sounding to do, he should relieve the officer of the deck and look out for the ship himself while taking his soundings. As it frequently took an hour, and sometimes two or three hours, to get a sounding, this would give the deck officer a chance to go below and take a nap.

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.


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