Sonoma Democrat > 29 October 1857
Arrival of the Steamer Panama.
Two Weeks Later from the Atlantic States.
Terrible Shipwreck and Loss of Lives!
The mail steamship Panama, arrived at San Francisco on Thursday last, bringing the news of one of the most heartrending disasters that has ever taken place on our Coast, in the total loss of the steamship Central America, (formerly the George Law,) off Cape Hatteras, carrying down nearly five hundred passengers, mostly returned Californians, and $1,600,000 in treasure. The circumstances of the disaster we give below, as related by R. T. Brown, of Sacramento, a passenger on board the ill-fated ship: —
We left Aspinwall on the afternoon of September 3d, at 4 o’clock ; arrived at Havana on Monday evening, the 7th. Left Havana the next morning, about 6 o’clock. I did not go on shore at Havana. The weather was fine. Sept. 9, Wednesday morning, the wind blew fresh. Sept. 10, Thursday morning, strong wind, at night, very strong, almost a hurricane; Sept. 11. Friday morning, there was a heavy and severe gale. I sat from 8 o’clock in the morning until 12 at noon watching the progress of the storm. The steamer, all the time, had her head to the sea, and acted handsomely, and never appeared to even strain, for there was no creaking noise of that character. The wind was very strong, but the sea was excessively high. At that time the vessel behaved so well that I made up my mind to wait two weeks for her at any subsequent time that I would wish to go to California. There is but one opinion on this subject held by all of the fifty passengers saved on the Ellen. Capt. Badger said that he never saw a ship behave better. The only apprehension that I felt was that her machinery might give out or become damaged. During the morning the spanker was set, but in an hour it was blown away. At 12 o’clock I went down stairs; I was there hardly an hour, when word was given to get all the buckets ready, Capt. Badger giving the order. At 2 o’clock all hands commenced bailing. At this time one of the engines—that on the starboard side stopped, owing to the fire in the furnace going out. At 2 o’clock the fire in the furnace on the starboard side went out, and that engine , which had been working but slowly, also stopped. The reason was that they could not get coal, on account of the water which had come in. After the fires went out, the steamer went into the trough of the sea. There were two lines of buckets formed from the lower well-hole near the cabin, to the deck—about fifty men in each line, beside fifty men forward, who were bailing from the well-hole on the steerage side of the steamer. We worked assiduously and laboriously, and succeeded in preventing the water from in creasing upon us by the rapid use of the buckets. Until dark, the water in the hold was not so deep but that we could sec the pig-iron in the bottom, which was carried there for ballast. Near dark it commenced gaining on us considerably, and continued to gain until she sank. The pumps aft, on deck, were entirely out of; order, and would not draw the water. Men, however, worked them all night. During Friday afternoon, they succeeded in getting up steam again for a short time.
Sept. 12, Saturday morning. I worked six, hours, only resting once or twice, but afterward we discovered that no water had been drawn up by them, and that our labor was, accordingly, lost. The discharging pipe of the pumps is on the side below the deck and out of sight—hence the ignorance of the futility of their labors. I first took hold and worked three hours, but finding that we were not gaining on the water we had them repaired. We then went to work again, although I told them that I did not want to waste strength upon them unless they were doing some service. In about two or three hours, one of those who repaired them came to us and said they did not work to effect, as he had discovered, on examination, that they brought up no water. We then went to work to haul a rope which was attached to barrels, which were passed up and down through the skylight. The man who tried to repair the pumps said they were all out of order. The bailers were at work, also, all of the preceding night. and they worked faithfully, consisting of passengers, fore and aft. I do not think that any one slept that night, except some few who laid down from exhaustion. I did not sleep a moment from Thursday night until I got on board the barque Ellen on Saturday morning, when I immediately fell asleep, being completely worn out and exhausted. About three o’clock on Saturday a sail hove in sight. We fired a gun and placed our flag at half-mast. It proved to be the barque Marine, of Boston. We then considered ourselves safe. She came near, and we told her our condition. She lay about a mile distant, and we sent the ladies and children in three small boats to the barque. There were thus sent about twenty six ladies. Accompanying the ladies, was Judge Munson, of Sacramento, Albert Priest, of Jamaica. L. I., and Theodore Payne, of San Francisco, besides three or four others, whose names I do not know. The engineer, George E. Ashby, assumed the sole charge of the last boat, and, as some approached, endeavoring to get in. he drew his knife and threatened to stab any other one who should attempt to get into the boat, there being four or five already in her; but, watching his opportunity at a convenient moment, he jumped into the boat and pushed off in a cowardly manner. Among the rescued passengers, there is but one opinion, and that is that the loss of the steamer is to be attributed to him, in letting the fires go out. He is now on board the Empire City.
The ports of the Central America could not be closed tightly in the lower cabin and the vessel leaked very badly at the shaft, so much so that the engineer had previously asked for blankets to stop the leak. One of our small boats was washed away on Friday, and two were stove in launching.
About dark, a schooner hove in sight, and passed us on the starboard side ; she was told our position by the captain. Her captain replied that he “would lie by;” but on the contrary, they passed, and we saw nothing more of them. She passed so quickly that we could not ascertain her name. She was rather small, and clipper built, but of sufficient size to contain us all. At that time the storm was not very severe. We then had but one sail on our mainmast. The brig Marine was fast disappearing. She would have probably taken on board more passengers, but she was disabled in her sailing gear, so she could not control her motions, and had to run before the wind. We now perceived no hope of keeping afloat much longer, and nearly all prepared for the worst by procuring life-preservers and floating materials.— Three rockets were discharged, and just after a heavy sea broke nearly over her, Carrying two or three hundred souls with it as it receded into the ocean, of which number I was one. The life-preservers were mostly all tin, and were therefore not of much service, as a slight dent from coming in contact with a solid substance would destroy them. But few cork preservers were on board.
I had, previously to being struck by the sea, gone on the hurricane deck, and taking the square cover to a hatchway, tied ropes around it and carried it to the starboard wheelhouse, to be ready for use when she sunk. I had hardly got there when this wave carried me into the ocean ; I had also a cork life-preserver on, and held tightly to one of the ropes I had fastened to the hatchway. I went down and remained until nearly strangled. The sea was as high then as at any time, but it was less windy.
When I came up and had freed my eyes from water, so as to look around, the steamer had disappeared. The sea was literally covered with human beings and floating objects. A fearful cry — almost a yell—shrieked in my ears, which seemed to arise from all of them at once. I succeeded on getting on a piece of the hurricane deck, where I was soon joined by a companion—Mr. John D. Dement, of Oregon City.
This was about 8 o’clock in the evening. We remained there all night, tossed about, the clouds had dispersed and it was starlight. On the morning of Sunday we saw a sail, and succeeded in attracting attention. At eight o’clock we were picked up by the Norwegian barque Helen, we having been in the water twelve hours.
We were the last ones rescued. No others were in sight, and we saw none afterward. Forty-eight passengers were already onboard. At the request of Mr. Easton, the captain had continued his search until he found us. Two hours after we met the barque Saxony, boarded her and obtained two barrels of provisions. We transferred five passengers to her, who so desired, as she was bound for Savannah.
On Tuesday, the 15th inst., we met with the dismasted barque Cuba, of Gloucester, and obtained two barrels of bread.
She was also otherwise injured. She asked no assistance of us. We also saw the propeller Thomas Swan, bound for Charleston.