San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter VI.

The sunken rock that we were sounding for was considered so dangerous to navigation that it was deemed advisable to use great caution in approaching it.

The old whaling captain who reported it had given the position, but the Bureau of Navigation at Washington wanted it verified by Mr. Wadham before placing it on the charts; hence the great care that we used in "feeling our way along." One beautiful morning, when there was scarcely a ripple on the water, the navigater took his observations of the sun, and reported to the captain that we were just ten miles from the dreaded rock. Extra lookouts were detailed, and a quartermaster was sent aloft with a long glass to keep a sharp lookout for breakers. The speed of the ship was reduced to barely steerage way.

At last we were directly over the dangerous place. The drift lead with fifty fathoms of line out had been kept over the quarter all the morning with a picked man tending it, to report as soon as it touched bottom. In addition to this, to make it doubly safe, the hand lead was kept going from the fore chains all the time. All hands, from the captain to the quarter gunner's "chicken," were on deck, looking over the bows and the sides of the ship.

The men at the leads kept reporting "no bottom," until Mr. Wadham gave the signal to stop. Surely he could not have made any mistake about the position! The captain and "Humpty Dumpty" had taken observations, too, and they said that the navigater's figures were correct.

We then steamed around on a circular course of a mile, and described a hollow square, with the lead going all the time; but still "no bottom" at fifty fathoms. Then we stopped again, and let out seventy-five fathoms, and then a hundred fathoms with the same results. "Very, very strange," said the navigater; and everyone else was of the same opinion.

"Try a deep-sea sounding," said the captain.

The shot and cup were soon adjusted, and Billy Thompson reported "All ready."

"Heave!" said the navigater, and the shot was lowered into the water, and the drum began to reel off wire.

"Stand by to stop her on short notice," said Mr. Wadham, as the one hundred fathom mark was reached. The drum kept revolving,--one hundred, two hundred, three hundred fathoms. "What! What!" exclaimed the navigater; four hundred, five hundred. "Great Heavens! no bottom yet?" yelled the captain. Soon the indicator registered one thousand fathoms, then fifteen hundred, two thousand. It was now impossible to stop the wire without breaking it, so we just let her rip.

The three thousand fathom mark went out, and it began to look as if there was not enough wire on board to reach "the sunken rock that made it so perilous for ships sailing on the Atlantic." When the thirty-three hundred fathom mark was reached, Billy Thompson remarked that it was the deepest sounding that we had struck. Just then the wire slackened, and the reel was stopped as the indicator registered the deepest water that we found on the whole expedition--335° fathoms, equal to nearly four English miles.

Thoroughly satisfied that American commerce was in no immediate danger from the sunken rock, we abandoned deep sea sounding on the Atlantic, and shaped our course for the Straits of Gibraltar.

Up to that time we had experienced very little trouble with the weather, and it began to look as if we were to have an exceptionally fine weather voyage. But old Neptune had had his weather eye on somebody on board, and he came down upon us when we were least expecting him. I think Mr. Wadham was the "Jonah."

During the mid-watch one night, while we were going along under topsails and courses, with the wind abeam, making about nine knots, the quartermaster noticed an ugly looking cloud up to windward. Lieutenant Fechteler was officer of the deck, and he gave the order to "reef the foretopsail."

The halliards were lowered away and the weather braces were rounded in. As the forecastlemen and foretopmen went aloft we were greeted with a shower of hail. The main topmen were sent aloft to lend a hand in reefing the sail, leaving only the afterguards on deck. While in this predicament we were struck by a terrific squall that threw the ship almost on her beam's ends.

Mr. Fechteler ordered the quartermaster to "put the helm bar hard up, and let her go off," but, with the main sail and main topsail set and the foretopsail lowered, and the wind abeam, she of course refused to go off, and instead, rolled over until the entire lee rail was under water.

It looked as if she would never right herself again. All hands were called on deck to "save ship." Captain Jewell having been thrown clean out of his bunk, as the ship keeled over, rushed out on deck and took charge. The first thing that he did was to order the main sail clewed up. As soon as this was accomplished she righted herself, and went off before the wind. The storm moderated after the squall, and by sunrise we were running before a strong breeze with all sail set.

On the evening of October 3 we sighted Cape St. Vincent light, on the coast of Portugal. This was the first land that we had seen since we sailed from New York.

Early on the morning of the 4th we came to anchor in the harbor of Gibraltar, distance from New York 3526 miles. I shall never forget my first impression of this great British stronghold. Sailors just call it "The Rock." The great black mass, rising up almost perpendicularly out of the sea, inspires one at first sight with a feeling of awe. The more you look at it, the more thoroughly convinced do you become that it is impregnable.

This historical stronghold is called the "key to the Mediterranean." The famous Krupp guns there are too well known to the readers of the monthly magazines and Sunday papers for me to perpetrate a lengthy description of them here. The City of Gibraltar, standing on the side of the hill, reminds one of Vicksburg, Miss., and it also resembles Hong Kong, China.

On the 9th of October we sailed from Gilbraltar, and on the 15th we arrived in Valletta, Island of Malta. This island belongs to England, and the harbor of Valletta is the rendezvous of the British fleet in the Mediterranean.

There are many interesting things in Valletta: The catacombs and underground passages built by the Knights of Malta are similar, in a smaller way, to those of Rome. The historical Cathedral of St. John's is said to have had gates of solid gold, and Napoleon Bonaparte is accused of having taken them away along with other golden fixtures.

I wanted to buy a Maltese cat to bring home to my mother, but was informed that the only one on the island was owned by the American consul, who had brought it there from the States. This breed of cats has become extinct in its native country.

We sailed from Malta on the 21st of October. A very extraordinary thing occurred on sailing day. The officers gave a little party on board in the afternoon, and quite a number of ladies and gentlemen from Valletta attended. When the party broke up, Paymaster Smith went ashore in a gondola with some of the ladies, one of whom, I believe, was a "friend" of Captain Jewell's. Something had evidently happened that displeased the captain, for no sooner had the guests left the ship than he gave the order to "unmoor ship and get under way." The lines were cast off, and the ship was soon steaming out of the harbor. A large number of boats and a big English steamer, coming into port, blocked the narrow entrance to the harbor so that we had to stop a few minutes. The paymaster took advantage of the opportunity by coming off in a small boat. He managed to get hold of the Jacob's ladder, and crawled up over the stern just as the signal was given to "go ahead, full speed." Young Wade, the mail orderly, who had been sent ashore on duty, was not so fortunate. He got left in Malta.

The day after sailing two stowaways were found in the coal bunkers. They were brought on deck, where they were identified as soldiers of a Royal Scottish Highland regiment stationed at Malta. They had come on board as visitors, and, on learning that we were going to Egypt, had decided to accompany us. When we arrived at Port Said, Egypt, on the 26th of October, we found that we would have to wait there several days before we could get through the Suez Canal.

Paymaster Smith, U.S.N., returning aboard the Essex, at Malta, after the Ball.

This delay enabled Mail Orderly Wade to overhaul us; he having been sent on from Malta on one of the Peninsular and Oriental steamers, which happened to call at Valletta soon after we sailed.

Egypt is a very low-lying country. The land is only a few feet above the level of the sea. From the deck of the ship approaching the coast, the trees and houses and even people and animals are visible on shore before any land can be seen. Port Said is a very dull place. It is only a coaling station, with a few stores which have been built there since the canal was opened.

After remaining at Port Said five days, we got away on the 31st of October, and proceeded on our way through the canal. Being a man-of-war, we had to stop and haul into the locks fully a dozen times to let other steamers pass before we got through. At that time ships were not allowed to go through the canal at night.

We reached Ismailia about sunset, where we hauled into the lock and tied up for the night.

After we got the ship made fast nearly everybody on board went in swimming in the canal.

The Khedive of Egypt has a beautiful Swiss cottage near the canal at Ismailia, where he goes to recuperate after his periodical jag.

At daylight on the morning of November 1st we got away from Ismailia, and proceeded on through the canal. We saw, walking along the bank of the canal, our two Scottish Highlanders who stowed away at Malta. Captain Jewell had put them off the ship at Port Said, and then they had stowed away in some steamer and got thrown off of her about midway between Port Said and Suez.

At ten o'clock we stopped at Suez, and sent the mail ashore; then we got under way and steamed out into the Red Sea.

It was somewhere along here that Moses and the Israelites crossed over, the time they went on that famous strike and decided to run away from Egypt, without notifying Pharaoh so that he might employ a new "gang" to fill their places.

At that time the Isthmus of Suez was probably a very narrow neck of land; perhaps only a few hundred yards wide and several miles long. It was undoubtedly covered with water six or eight feet deep at high tide.

Before calling his men out Moses familiarized himself with the rise and fall of the tide. He calculated so well that he reached the water just at the beginning of ebb tide. Naturally he was in advance of his people. Stretching his walking stick out over the water he commanded it to break away and let him pass. The rest of the Israelites came up about that time, and, seeing the water recede, they supposed that the Almighty had done it to oblige Moses. Indeed it would have been a very foolish thing of Moses to tell them any better, when he saw that they actually believed that he had such a "pull" with God. In due time the whole crowd of Jews walked over on dry land. Several hours later Pharaoh started out in pursuit, with his faithful employees, and, perhaps, a few deputies. Following their trail through the sand, he reached the isthmus at the beginning of flood tide. Pharaoh knew nothing about the tide, and, seeing the tracks of the Israelites, he followed on. The tide rose and caught him before he got over, and he and his men were all drowned through his sheer ignorance. I think, however, that Pharaoh was more to be pitied than blamed for his ignorance of the tide, because there were no summer resorts on the coast in those days, and that was probably the first time that he had ever had occasion to go to the seaside. It was a mean thing for Moses to fool him in that way, but Moses, as leader of the first great strike, did not intend that the iron-hearted Pharaoh should catch him. While Pharaoh was getting cooled off Moses made good his escape.

The class of society that Ex-cook Manager Schonevaldt always catered to at the Hotel del Monte.--Picture reproduced from the S.F. Examiner, July 29th, 1894.

People who go to the seaside resorts nowadays learn a great deal. They not only learn all about the rise and fall of the tide, but they come home pretty well posted about the rise and fall, principally the latter, of young girls who go there to have a good time, and have it regardless of consequences. If that famous hot-bed for scandal, called the Hotel del Monte, where the Parvenucracy and dove-shooters go, and where young "society ladies" go into the gentlemen's bathing tank in a seminude state, in order to get their pictures published in the Examiner, had existed in those days, I think that Pharaoh would have been there.

You can find almost any kind of society that you ever heard of at Del Monte.

The kind of female society that kings are fond of is very abundant there during the "season."

Since writing the above I am pleased to learn that Del Monte has been supplied with a long felt want in the position of manager: namely, a gentleman.

Mr. Arnold, formerly of the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, has succeeded the arrogant, low ex-cook, Geo. Schonewald, as manager of beautiful Del Monte.

For many years the better elements of California society have steered well clear of this beautiful spot, on account of the objectionable class that Schonewald, who could not speak English intelligibly, always catered to.

I am glad to see that the owner of the hotel--the Pacific Improvement Company--has at last opened its eyes to the real cause of the apparent unappreciativeness of the more refined classes, who have boycotted this place which nature--though handicapped by a pitiable, ignorant, alien menial--has made so charming.

Under the management of gentlemanly Mr. Arnold, Del Monte will come to life again, and will be appreciated and patronized by respectable society. Messrs. Botsch, Junker and Pine, and the other civilized employees of the house will no doubt appreciate the change of management also.

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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