Reports of USS Powhatan and USS Wateree concerning the earthquake and tidal wave of 13 August 1868 at Arica, Peru
Tsunami (Tidal Wave) Disasters and the US Navy
Naval Yarns by Captain Frank W. Bartlett [see pages 1 and 2]
Appearance of the city of Arica.
UNITED STATES FLAG-SHIP POWHATAN, (1st rate,)
Bay of Callao, Peru, September 3, 1868.
SIR: The honorable Secretary may be desirous to learn from me the condition and appearance of the city of Arica, as I found it on my arrival, occasioned by the terrific earthquake of the 13th ultimo, which has devastated more or less of this whole coast.
The upper part of the city, which from its elevation escaped the encroachment of the sea, has not a single house or wall left standing it is in one confused mass of ruins, more or less in every part prostate; whilst the lower part, which comprised chiefly the better and more substantial order of edifices, including a large custom-house of stone mason work, is literally as perfectly swept away, even the foundations, as though they had never existed, and present the appearance of a waste that had been ravaged by the waters of a mighty river, carrying everything before it in its irresistible volume.
The inhabitants of the city, destitute of everything but the clothes in which they stand, are dispersed upon the heights and crests overlooking the city, living under tents of canvas, those who were so fortunate as to obtain them, and under mats, the fabric of the country, without food and without the common necessaries of life, other than those which have been generously bestowed by the charities of sympathizing strangers.
Availing myself of the authority contained in paragraph 158 of the Regulations of the Navy, I directed for their relief a liberal distribution of provisions and clothing of the squadron, which was not only received by them with the most lively demonstrations of joy and gratitude, but has produced a most profound impression upon the minds and sensibilities of the population of Peru at large.
It is of some satisfaction to me to inform the honorable Secretary that three of the vessels of this command were the first of a national character on the spot two French and one English vessel of war coming in afterwards and that the officers and men of our ships emulated and vied with each other in administering to this suffering community, both publicly and privately, in a manner which has left a most memorable record to their lasting honor and reputation, as the citizens of a Christian country.
At the time of my departure it was affirmed that a number of the dead still remained under the ruins, who had not been sought for or removed; the people, crushed in spirit, stricken by grief and paralyzed by fright, seemed without hope, animation or object, and to have surrendered themselves to desperation and despondency, without either the expectation or desire to rebuild for themselves homes upon a spot which has been commemorated by so frightful a tragedy.
It may be a matter of interest to the honorable Secretary, as a physical fact, to be informed that the soundings in Arica bay have been materially changed, by this convulsion, the depth having decreased from the outside of the anchorage, seaward.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Rear-Admiral, Commanding South Pacific Squadron.
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.
Source: Report of the Secretary of the Navy, with an Appendix, Containing Bureau Reports, etc. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1868): 34-35.
Detailed report of the loss of Wateree.
UNITED STATES STEAMER WATEREE, (3d rate,)
Arica, Peru, August 20, 1868.
SIR: I respectfully submit the following detailed report of the circumstances attending the stranding of this vessel on the 13th instant:
At 5.05 p. m. on that day, a rumbling noise, accompanied by a tremulous motion of the ship, was observed. This increased in force rapidly until it was evident that an unusually severe shock of an earthquake was taking place, and I proceeded on deck, and, while standing there, looking at the city, I observed the buildings commence to crumble down, and in less than a minute the whole city was but a mass of ruins, scarcely a house being left standing.
I immediately gave orders to secure the battery, have the second anchor ready to let go, chain ready to veer, and the hatches battened down. I then had a boat called away, and, as there was no indications of the sea coming in, at 5.20 took the doctor and paymaster and proceeded on shore, ordering all boats to follow as soon as possible, for the purpose of rendering such assistance as might be needed. I met Captain Doty on the wharf, and he directed me to send on board for as many men as could be spared, to assist in extricating those who had been buried beneath the ruins; but it was impossible to get the boat to the wharf again, as the sea was by this time rapidly receding. I also met Lieutenant Commander M. L. Johnson, of this vessel, who requested me to give him assistance to extricate his wife from amongst the ruins. I took a party with me, and succeeded in recovering her remains before the water reached the place where she was buried. She was doubtless killed instantly, but it has been a great satisfaction to all of us to be able to give Christian burial at this time to a brother officer’s wife.
At 5.32 the sea commenced to rise rapidly, and the ship, in a violent current, setting along the beach to northward and eastward, commenced dragging. I immediately let go the second anchor, and veered away chain, which brought her up. Four men were stationed at the wheel. About this time the mole was submerged, and the sea had come up to the houses nearest the beach, the people rushing to the Morro. After several minutes there was a sudden reflux, and the ship swung to seaward; sheering her with the helm to keep the chains clear, more chain was veered away, until there were ninety (90) fathoms on starboard, and seventy-five (75) fathoms on port anchor.
A bark and brig in shore of the Wateree were left aground; after a lapse of a few minutes the sea rushed in again, veered away to ninety-five (95) fathoms on port, and one hundred (100) on starboard chain. It was now near 6 o’clock. The brig was washed ashore, and the bark on her beam ends, a wreck. The United States ship Fredonia, Peruvian corvette America, English bark Chanarcillo, and this vessel, were still holding on.
There was an ebb and flow of the sea for some little time after this, the water being covered with floating debris. Several shore boats with people in them were picked up while drifting past us, and one boat with eight (8) men from the English bark Chanarcillo. A little before 6 o’clock Midshipman Taussig was sent in the first cutter to the relief of a drowning man floating past. Between 6 and 7 there was another tremendous rising of the sea, and as it receded the ship was swung violently seaward, and, after holding on for about a minute, the deck stoppers parted, the chain flew rapidly out of the hawse pipes, tearing away compartments between the lockers, and, being both shackled together, brought on the light underneath upper deck. The ship now commenced to drift rapidly seaward, passing very near Alacran island, but clear of it, when the sea very suddenly commenced to rush in again. The vessel swung violently around, and in doing so just cleared the English bark Chanarcillo; a severe strain came upon the chains, and the starboard one parted close to hawse pipes, and the ship drifted rapidly towards shore. About this time saw the America go on her beam ends, and heard terrible groans and cries proceeding from her. The English bark Chanarcillo was also on her beam ends. The sky was now completely overcast. About 6.55 the ship was among the breakers, and several heavy seas broke over her, but did no other injury than throwing the vessel nearly on her beam ends, (she quickly righted again,) breaking paddle-box, bending portion of rim and braces of starboard wheels, jamming the wheel itself against the side, and carrying away store-rooms on the guard forward, and part of starboard hammock netting.
Life lines were got up fore and aft. Shortly afterwards the wheel ropes parted. Several seas came in after this, and, about 7.20, vessel took to bottom, close up to a high bank, about four hundred and seventy (470) yards from, and twelve (12) feet above, high water mark.
Once or twice afterwards the sea came up, but not high enough to float the vessel.
When first beached the ship was lying about broadside to the sea coming in, but was finally washed around until her head lay west half south by compass, and head on to the beach.
During the ebb and flow of the sea the wheels turned very easily, and added but slightly to the strain on the chains. All boats except the “dinghy” were lost. The pumps were sounded frequently during time of being washed ashore, but not enough water was found to cause any apprehension of a leak.
Heavy shocks of earthquake were felt at short intervals from time of occurrence of first one, until the following morning. I cannot sufficiently express my appreciation of the conduct of the officers and men during this trying time, and my great regret is that I am not able to bear personal testimony to the same; but all speak in the highest terms of the officer-like bearing of the executive officer, Lieutenant Commander M. S. Stuyvesant, and from him I have the assurance that every officer and man did his duty faithfully, and that there was at no time the slightest confusion, and when I returned to the ship, at a little after 2 a. m., everything was in perfect order as it was possible to be under the circumstances, and no one would have supposed that the ship had passed through so terrible an ordeal.
I have had the height to which the solid sea wave rose measured, and find that it is 42 feet and 5 inches, and the wash is from 10 to 15 feet higher.
I would specially recommend to the consideration of the government for some suitable reward for gallant conduct and meritorious services during the earthquake, and while remaining at the wreck, the following named men, viz: Richard Fowle, signal quartermaster; Michael Burke, quartermaster; William Reed, quarter gunner; Henry Wilson, quarter gunner; George Woodgate, painter; John Johnson, carpenter; Louis Rector, sailmaker’s mate; Johan Kellner and Martin Green, 1st class firemen; John Cammerson, 2d class fireman; William Richards, George Pettit and William Stonebrink, seamen; John Murphy, 2d, ordinary seaman; George W. Reed, captain’s steward; Louis Mussey, captain’s cook; John Seeley, wardroom cook; Antonio Emanuel, steerage cook; and Charles Brown, cabin boy.
I would not forget to mention my appreciation of the conduct of Midshipman E. D. Taussig, who so gallantly volunteered to save the life of a drowning man, and when he found that he could not make the ship again, went on board the Peruvian corvette America, and there rendered material assistance in securing the battery.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JAMES H. GILLIS,
Commander, United States Navy
Rear-Admiral T. Turner,
Commanding South Pacific Squadron,
Flag-ship Powhatan, Arica, Peru.
Source: Report of the Secretary of the Navy, with an Appendix, Containing Bureau Reports, etc. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1868): 32-34.