Mexican Silver Dollars at Galley Head
P.O’Sullivan, Bandon – 1 November 2006
In 1870, The Liverpool and Mississippi Steamship Company took possession of a new ship, The Crescent City, which had been built at McMillan’s yard in Dumbarton near Glasgow. The Crescent City and her contemporaries had some very unusual features that harked back to the slow transition years from sailing ship to steamship. Early steamships were unreliable and might even run out of coal if delayed on the high seas by bad weather. Sailing ships on the other hand, though much slower, were exempt from these constraints and could rely on ever-present wind to reach their destination eventually. Futuristic ship owners of mid to late 1800s tended to adopt a cagey approach to buying new ships by specifying vessels that combined both sail and steam, such craft which included the Crescent City, were rated as composite ships.
The Crescent City was built expressly for the New Orleans-to-Liverpool trade, her name being derived from the old name of New Orleans. Her dimensions were 325 feet long, 35 feet beam and 25 feet deep in the hold. Her registered tonnage was 2003 with a 215 horse-power two-cylinder (compound) steam engine. Today her mammoth engine lies on its side on a rocky seabed east of the Dhuilig rock, and proves to be a great attraction to sport-divers who pause to marvel at the diversity of fish sheltering, among the crank-shaft and piston rods. Conger, Ling, Pollock, Ras and Lobster dwell among the shadows within the engine’s crankcase. The long-silent engine was designed to propel the Crescent City from New Orleans to Liverpool in eighteen days; unfortunately, she was robbed of the opportunity to prove her worth as she was wrecked off the Galley Head on her maiden voyage. Her lines had a Clipper ship grace about them; her hull being long and sleek. A single funnel punctuated her decks between the masts; her cargo hatches and steam winces were larger than average While essentially a cargo ship she also had limited passenger accommodation of the highest quality
In the summer of 1870 the brand new ship, Crescent City, eased her way down the well-greased slipway of her builder’s yard on the Clyde. Having cast off her drag-chains she was towed by tug to her fitting-out berth at McMillan’s yard. Here she took on board her steam engine, her two boilers and all the paraphernalia required to propel the ship and power her steam winches. Droves of engineers and craftsmen swarmed aboard the ship daily to install her machinery and assist in fitting her out As she neared completion, she took on provisions and coal for the voyage Captained by Henry Williams, the Crescent City set a westerly course for the Firth of Forth. Soon she emerged out onto the Irish sea and steamed a southerly course to her home port of Liverpool where she would start her working life.
On 23rd November, 1870, she departed Liverpool bound for New Orleans on her maiden voyage. Her captain, Henry Williams, had made several transatlantic voyages under sail, however, this was his first steamship he must have been excited at the challenge. His outbound ship carried general cargo, some passengers, and a forty-one-man crew which included four ships engineers, and three mates (experienced officers with masters’ certificates) The Crescent City enjoyed fair weather throughout the voyage and docked in New Orleans on 19 December, nineteen days later. Her cargo was duly discharged and her empty coal-bunkers replenished for the return trip.
When coaling was complete her steam-winches hissed into action as they swung out their booms to transfer dockside cargo to the forward and aft holds of the ship. Her new cargo included four-thousand bales of cotton, two-and-a-half thousand bags of maize and two tons of silver bullion. At least half the bullion was made up of Mexican silver dollars and the remainder in silver ingots contained in forty boxes or kegs. For reasons of security the silver was not stacked in the cargo holds but rather in the Lazarette Hatch, a small compartment over the propeller. All was ready by 12 January 1871 – the heavily burdened Crescent City departed New Orleans for Liverpool. On this occasion she had only two cabin passengers, a Mr. Lee and a lady companion who had booked passage as the ship was about to cast off its lines.
All went well until the 26 January when the ship encountered a severe north-west gale. The Atlantic bared its white fangs as the violence of the gale increased. An unrelenting procession of waves drove green tons of water crashing against the ship’s sides. Each exploding wave sent salvos of spray high into the air above the ship’s masts. An exceptionally heavy wave swept away the top sails completely. It was as though the wave was seeking to overlap the boundaries that Nature had fixed to its dominion Lesser waves crashed on deck spreading out in a boiling sheet of white bubbles and foam At intervals immense seas swept right across the ship’s deck almost setting her on her beam ends Captain Williams only thought was the preservation of his ship and the lives of its crew. He hove-to in mid ocean by setting the bow of his ship into the raging sea to ride out the storm, this life-saving maneuver endured for three storm-tossed days and nights. Unfortunately, it also exacted a heavy toll on his coal supplies; he would have to put into the Azores for coal to enable him to complete his voyage to Liverpool
The Crescent City subsequently docked in Fayal, the main shipping harbour in the Azores. She remained docked for three days as coal supplies were taken aboard – meanwhile her battered and fatigued crew welcomed the opportunity to snatch some much needed sleep. On completion of the coaling operation, bunker hatches were secured and ropes cast off as the Crescent City set sail once more – she had survived her ‘baptism of fire’ in the Atlantic gales of recent days. However, the dreaded gales returned once more to dog the ship’s progress, this time the winds blew with great force In a westerly direction. Torrents of stinging rain were accompanied by dazzling flashes of forked lighting. The white gleam of the lightning cleaved the darkness and in an instant seemed to light artillery, with scarcely an interval between flash and crash. It was as though Mother Nature was applauding the mayhem she had created on that terrible night. While the lightning storm had vented its fury in a few hours the unrelenting wind blew with a tropical fury for three more days before finally abating – The Crescent City laboured inexorably onwards. However, one misfortune was replaced by another when the calming wind gave way to dense fog. By the seventh of February the fog lifted briefly to reveal up the entire ocean only to vanish again into the blackness of night. Within seconds of each flash came a thunder-clap like bursting the Sun and blue skies, Captain Williams took immediate advantage of his opportunity by using his sextant to establish his position. It seems he erred in his task as unfolding events would soon reveal. Unfortunately, the skies soon closed in as fog returned to confound the mariners – the ship was now steaming at a comfortable nine knots. Captain Williams ordered his helmsman to change course to enable his ship to steer a more northerly course, the mate on the bridge disagreed with the Captain’s decision but was overruled. The Captain believed himself to be nearing Waterford, In fact he was entering Rosscarbery Bay and on a collision course for the notorious Dhuilig Rock. The Galley Head Lighthouse had not yet been built – the nearest lighthouses being Kinsale on the east and Fastnet on the west. Unfortunately, both were obscured by the fog
At half-past one on Wednesday morning both cabin passengers and most of the crew of the Crescent City were asleep in their bunks – all was going well it seemed. Ten minutes later the second mate on the deck gazed III stunned disbelief as he observed white breakers on the port bow. He immediately summoned the Captain who was in the chart-room. On reaching the deck, the captain ordered the helm to be put hard-a-starboard and the engines full astern. Within minutes of the rock being sighted and before the ship could respond she struck hard on the Dhuilig rock and began to flood rapidly by the bow. The shock of the crash was sufficient to wake the entire ship. There was a wild rush of bodies to the deck including the lady who was in her night gown. Water poured in rapidly causing the ship to settle deep in the water. The Crescent City had four watertight bulkheads which might have contained the inrush of water had they been closed, however, it is more likely that all were open to facilitate working the ship. As the tide fell and exposed more rock, the doomed ship began to heel over. Williams ordered both anchors out on full chain and the ship’s four lifeboats to be launched as they prepared to abandon ship.
The crew had to abandon all their possessions, Mr. Lee, the male cabin passenger claimed that he was unable to recover ninety-five pounds in gold, which was among his possessions. The Captain snatched a few nautical instruments and boarded a lifeboat to remain at the ship’s side for a long as possible. The three remaining boats set off pulling on their oars toward Dirk Cove. Meanwhile the Captain asked the carpenter to re-board the struggling Crescent City to assess the damage. The Second Mate, in defiance of orders also re-boarded and recovered six boxes of silver from the Lazarette hatch. Meanwhile, water continued to pour into the ship when suddenly a burst of white steam and smoke enveloped the scene, the incoming water was now pouring over the boilers’ fire-grates and quenching the fires with deafening hissing noise. In a final death-rattle, the suffocating fires belched forth clouds of soot and coal from the single smoke-stack on deck Those still on board now realised that the Crescent City would soon make her plunge to Neptune’s realm, the ship was promptly abandoned to her fate.
Captain Williams and his boat crew bade farewell to the sinking Crescent City and set off the follow their companions into Dirk Bay. Within a few hours all four life boats had reached the safety of Dirk Cove and proceeded to disembark With their six boxes of silver – by early morning most headed for Clonakilty In yet another twist, the rising tide dislodged the partly flooded Crescent City from her rocky bed on the Dhuilig and swept her eastwards to the full length of its anchors chains where she sank in deep water. Pressure from the cotton cargo burst the hatches open and allowed the bales to float to the surface where they were subsequently recovered by boatmen and towed Into Long Strand to be carried off by horse-cart
The ship’s insurers, The Salvage Association of Liverpool, were subsequently notified of the disaster; they responded by dispatching a Captain Cawkitt, a helmet-diver, and a surveyor to the scene of the wreck. The wreck was now invisible from the surface and obliged the investigators to spend three days, sweeping, grappling and diving before she was located. Diving continued in a sporadic fashion for the next three months, bad weather constantly interrupted progress However, on 30 March 1871, six boxes of silver dollars were recovered along with 170 loose dollars. The following day another box and 2,706 dollars were recovered; the diver reported that the ship was by now badly broken up. Long weather delays again suspended operations until 29 May when 3,789 dollars were recovered and twenty battered bales of cotton. Two years later, one box of silver dollars and two boxes on silver bars were recovered. By now all hope had been abandoned of recovering her cargo.
In a subsequent hearing, Captain Williams was found to have been negligent by his navigation error and by not taking depth-soundings with his lead line. His Captain’s certificate was suspended for two years. Mr. Lee, the cabin passenger, took an action against the owners to seek compensation for the loss of his ninety-five gold sovereigns – his case was dismissed in court when he was reminded that he should have checked in his valuables to the ship’s purser and obtained a receipt
In 1889, eighteen years after the disaster, a helmet-diver named O’Hare, negotiated a deal with the owners to recover silver dollars. He reported that the ship was in a bad state but that the engine was in good condition and could be salvaged with the help of explosives. He described the coins as being scattered over an area of two acres of rock and crevices and so disfigured that it was difficult to recognise them. O’Hare claimed that despite all his efforts, all he found was a few hundred coins. Various reports would seem to indicate that about half the silver was recovered; however, it seems more likely that the amount was much higher.
The Crescent City was not the only ship to be confounded by fog that night in Rosscarbery Bay. The 300 ton brigantine ship, Cecil, had struggled for three tempestuous weeks in the same blindness of bad weather. Throughout that time her crew reported that they could neither see Sun or Moon. The Cecil, owned by a Liverpool Company, was seventy-five days out of Lagos bound for Liverpool with a cargo of coconuts and kegs of Sherry Hours before the Crescent City catastrophe, the fog-bound Cecil had entered Rosscarbery Bay at high water and cast her anchors. Presumably her Captain, Clements, must have been apprehensive about his ship’s position in the rapidly shoaling water. As the tide fell her anchors began to drag allowing the wind to drive the Cecil ever closer to the perilous shores fringed in a foam of roaring breakers. Her predicament was noticed from the shore and rockets were fired to summon help from the nearby coast guard stations. The Carbery Volunteer Life Corps with their rocket-and-line apparatus were first to arrive on the scene. Shortly afterwards they were joined by the coast guards of both Dirk and Millcove stations. Mr. Taylor, the officer in charge of the Dirk Cove Station judged that the struggling Cecil was not yet within range of the rocket apparatus; however, her plight worsened by the minute as each battering wave caused her to drag her anchors. Suddenly an immense wave turned the fragile ship broadside to the breakers and nearer her doom The rocket men sprung into action as they launched rockets and lines, alas their equipment fell short of reaching the stricken ship Unknown to the rocket parties, Mr. Taylor, and a crew of volunteer oarsmen managed to launch a boat and battle through the maelstrom of breakers in a dare-devil attempt to reach the Cecil Meanwhile the Carbery team succeeded in getting a rocket line aboard the stern of the Cecil.
In a parallel effort to save life, Mr. Taylor and his oarsmen succeed in reaching the Cecil after a very severe pull on the oars and despite being almost swamped twice Once alongside they dragged on board all eight crewmen of the Cecil leaving the ship to be tossed helplessly by the breakers where she was reduced to matchwood within hours. At 1.00 a.m., the oarsmen, drenched to the skin and with aching arms made the shore safely through the roaring breakers. The intrepid rescue party, almost blind with fatigue and chilled to the bone, had barely time to gain their breadth when a frantic messenger on horseback came galloping towards them to seek help for a big steamer that had recently crashed up on the Dhuillg rock – they would later learn her name, The Crescent City.
Today the rusting remains of the Crescent City repose on the rocky seabed east of the Dhuilig Rock. Her loss reminds us of the bad-tempered nature of the Atlantic and the all-to-often fog dangers facing mariners on the days before life-saving radar was invented. Her gangly two-cylinder steam-engine and low pressure boilers remind of the embryonic days of steam development. Her enormous masts that once carried billowing canvases remind us of the mistrust ship owners placed in the reliability of early steam power Above all the Crescent City and the humble Cecil remind us of the bravery of the rescue teams from Dirk, Rosscarbery and Millcove. These men fearlessly put their own lives at great risk as they faced near-impossible odds to pluck eight terror-stricken sailors from the jaws of death