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Injury and Destruction of Vessels by Earthquakes, Report of the Secretary of the Navy, December 1868

Related Resources:

Tsunami (Tidal Wave) Disasters and the U.S. Navy
Photos of USS Wateree beached by tsunami
Photo of USS Monongahela beached by tsunami
Reports of USS Powhatan and USS Wateree


Excerpt from Report of the Secretary of the Navy to Congress, December 1868.

A violent earthquake which occurred in the harbor of St. Thomas and in that vicinity, on the afternoon of November 18, 1867, caused the stranding of United States steamer Monongahela; and two other vessels of the squadron barely escaped serious injury.  The DeSoto, in the harbor of St. Thomas, was swept from her moorings by the force of the waves, both chains snapping, and was thrown violently upon the iron piles of a new wharf, but fortunately the next wave carried her again into deep water, and she sustained but little injury.  The Susquehanna, in the same harbor, succeeded in getting away from her dangerous position without damage.


The Monogahela, which at the time was anchored off Frederickstadt, island of St. Croix, was carried by a wave over the warehouses and into one of the streets of the town.  She came back with the returning sea and was left on a coral reef at the water's edge.  Fortunately, but five of her crew were lost, and no very serious injury was sustained by the ship.  As it was deemed practicable to re-launch her, the officers and crew remained by the vessel.  On learning the facts, the United States bark Purveyor (formerly J.C. Kuhn) was put in commission at New York, provided with all necessary appliances for launching, and on the 17th of January left for St. Croix, where she arrived on the 31st, and the party, under the supervision of Naval Constructor Davidson, commenced preparations for getting Monongahela afloat.  The first attempt failed, but on the 10th of May a successful effort was made.  She was safely launched, and left St. Croix on the 13th of June, arrived in New York the 29th, and was put out of commission July 8.


On the 13th day of August last, a violent earthquake visited the western coast of South America, by which two of the vessels of the South pacific squadron were lost to the service.  The storeship Fredonia had, in consequence of the prevalence of yellow fever at Callao, been moved up to Arica, and was there with the Wateree quietly riding at anchor.  A short time after the shock of the earthquake was felt the sea receded, leaving the Fredonia on the bottom, and a moment after the waters rolled in with such power as to break her to fragments.  Twenty-seven officers and men were drowned – three officers who were on shore, and two seamen who were rescued, being all that were saved.


The Wateree was thrown ashore and left high and dry about 500 yards from high water mark.  She was badly strained, and her position was such that the expense of any attempt to launch her would have exceeded the value of the vessel.  Under these circumstances it was deemed for the best interests of the government to sell her, and the necessary directions were accordingly given.  But a single man was lost from the vessel – a seaman in charge of the captain's gig, on the beach, who was carried out to sea by the waves.


Rear-Admiral Turner was at Callao, in his flag-ship, the Powhatan, when this calamity occurred, and as a matter of security steamed out of the harbor until the next morning.  On learning of the disastrous results of the earthquake at Arica, he proceeded to that point.  The Powhatan, on application of the authorities of Peru, was permitted to convey surgeons, nurses &c., for the relief of the thousands of sufferers at Arica.  The commanding officer of the Wateree also furnished such aid as he could to the destitute inhabitants, with provisions from the ship's supply.  The senior officer at Valparaiso promptly responded to an application of the Chilean government, by placing the Tuscarora at the services of the authorities to convey provisions and other necessaries to the sufferers along the coast.


Source: Report of the Secretary of the Navy With an Appendix Containing Bureau Reports, Etc. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1868): xxix-xx.


10 January 2005