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Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1889. Part 2. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890): 95-98, 118-120.

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Typhoons and Hurricanes: The Storm at Apia, Samoa, 15-16 March 1889

Storm at Apia, Samoa, 15-16 March 1889

Since the 1780s, American merchant ships had been traveling the Pacific Ocean to China, trading ginseng, furs, and silver dollars for tea, chinaware, and silks. As this trade increased during the 19th century, United States diplomatic policy focused on securing commercial access to both Chinese ports and the many island groups across the Pacific. Although Samoa was off the main trade routes, American missionaries and steamship promoters encouraged governmental interest in the islands. At the same time, Britain and Germany, each with colonial possessions nearby, were also interested in the islands; for example, German merchants in particular were deeply involved in the Samoan copra trade. During the 1870s, all three powers established treaties of friendship and commerce with Samoa and secured the right to establish coaling and naval stations at Pago Pago.

In the late 1880s, German intervention in the civil war that broke out in Samoa outraged American public opinion and tensions grew in the islands. By March 1889, three American warships had been sent to Apia, Samoa, there joining three German warships, and one British, in a watchful standoff in the harbor. On 15-16 March 1889, a violent storm struck the islands, destroying or disabling six of the seven warships in Apia Harbor. Screw steamer USS Trenton, screw sloop USS Vandalia, and gunboat USS Nipsic were all wrecked, resulting in the deaths of 51 sailors. All three German warships also sank, killing 150. The disaster did ease tensions, paving the way for a previously scheduled conference at Berlin and eventually the islands were brought under a German-American protectorate in 1899.

Report of Rear-Admiral L.A. Kimberly

APIA, SAMOA, March 19, 1889.

SIR: It becomes my painful duty to report to the Department the disastrous injury and loss sustained by the vessels under my command in the harbor of Apia during the hurricane which swept these waters March 15 and 16. When the gale commenced there were in the harbor the following men of war: U.S. ships Trenton, Vandalia, and Nipsic; H[er].B[rittanic].M[ajesty's]. ship Calliope, and H[is].I[mperial].G[ermanic].M[ajesty's]. ships Addler, Olga, and Eber. There were also a few merchant vessels and small craft. The Nipsic had the inner berth, and the Trenton (last to arrive) had the outer berth.

Indications of bad weather appeared during the forenoon of Friday, March 15, and at 1 o'clock on that day I commenced preparations to meet a gale by sending down the lower yards [that carried sails] and housing topmasts. Fires were lighted [in the ships' propulsion boilers] and steam raised. By 3 o'clock the gale had developed. It blew hard during the evening, and about 8 p.m. we parted our port bower [anchor] cable. During the night it blew with great violence, but with aid of steam the vessels kept in good shape till morning. At daylight we had hoped for a moderation of the wind, but were disappointed. The gale set in with renewed fury, and early in the forenoon it was evident that some of the inner ships were ashore and those nearer to us were riding uneasily. The flag-ship lost her wheel about this time. It carried away with a crash and seriously injured some of the helmsmen. Relieving tackles [ropes and pulleys designed to operate the rudder and steer the ship in the absence of the steering wheel] and spare tiller were applied promptly, but it was discovered that the rudder was broken, and soon it was entirely useless. 

The wind by this time was blowing with hurricane force and the seas were very heavy. The ship had begun to make water [i.e., to get water inside the hull from leaks or water coming down the hatchways from waves breaking over the decks] during the early morning. The hand pumps were manned and all bilge pumps in the engine-room put on. The water gained and threatened to put out the fires [in the boilers]; the greater part of it seemed to be coming into the hawse pipes. It could be checked in this way but not stopped; for the violence of the seas was so great that it would force back everything that opposed it. All hands were set to bailing, and the handy billy rigged, but by 9:30 a.m. the fires had been put out and the men driven up from the fireroom. Work at the hand pumps and with the buckets continued from this time throughout the gale, with the hope of being able to relight the fires and keep the ship afloat.

A little before noon the Calliope was seen to be very uneasy at her moorings, and soon she steamed towards us, having parted or slipped her cables, and making an effort to go out the harbor she came near colliding with us and steamed out in the face of the hurricane. In the afternoon, with the wind having hauled [changed direction] a little, the flag-ship was more unsteady at her moorings and parted two chains, one soon after the other. We then drifted over towards the eastern reef, escaping the wreck of a merchant bark by the mere chance of her dragging as we approached her. We drifted until our stern was almost against the reef for a long while and pitching heavily. We drifted in this position along the reef for a considerable distance until we came to where it turned more toward the eastward. Here we found smoother water and our remaining anchor seemed to hold quite well for a time. This position, however, put us directly in the hawse of H.I.G.M.S. Olga, which vessel had one of the smoothest berths in the harbor at this time. She as riding well and had control of her engines. Efforts were at once made to heave over the 8-inch rifle-gun from the forecastle, to assist in holding, but it could not be done in time. We slowly drifted upon her, and she avoided us twice by skillful use of helm and engines, but soon after cut into our quarters, first on side, then the other, carrying away boat's rigging and quarter galleries [the windows which protruded from the hull on each side at the stern], but not essentially injuring the hull. 

During this time the officers of the flag-ship made every effort to manage her by the storm sails [fore-and-aft sails rigged between the masts] and putting men into the rigging. We drifted by the port side of the Olga, and across to the western reef, dragging the anchor and tailing now on the western reef as we had before done on the eastern. Some of the wrecked vessels were now in plain sight; Nipsic well inshore on good bottom, stern to the seas; Vandalia sunk against the reef, masts standing and tops and rigging filled with men; spray and surf flying to their mastheads. Eber nowhere to be seen. Adler on her side, high on the reef. The Olga had turned for the shore and going ahead under steam and sail was beached on god bottom and in a good position, stern to the seas.

All this time the gale was blowing with unabated fury. About 6 o'clock we were expecting to strike the reef momentarily. It was directly under our stern; but, as on the eastern side, an under tow or current seemed to carry us along the reef and keep us just clear of striking. This we came down to where the Vandalia was lying, and it was evident that our stern would soon strike against her port side. As we approached her rockets were fired, carrying lines, with the hope of rescuing the people on her masts. This proved very successful, and the men from the main and mizzen were rescued first. Soon after we struck the Vandalia with violence, and her main and mizzen masts went by the board [i.e., broke off and went overboard]. We then swung gradually and settled into a position alongside of her, just touching the bottom, and our stern grazing a small wreck and the reef. The men were rescued from the foremast of the Vandalia, and thence on during the night we continued to beat upon the bottom and against the Vandalia with great force.

The wind during this (Saturday) night blew with hurricane force, squall following squall with hardly any appreciable interval. The seas, however, were not so high as they were further out, and we got through the night without additional serious misfortune. 

Just before daylight the flag-ship was visited by two boats manned entirely by natives, who carried lines to the shore. This was dangerous work, owing to the darkness, to the sea and current, to the reefs and wreckage, and to the difficulty of approaching the Trenton on account of the Vandalia's wreck.

The men were kept at the pumps and buckets without cessation, with a view to hauling off the ship, if possible, and keeping her afloat when the gale abated. In the morning the wind moderated. It was then ascertained that the propeller was missing. The ship had settled hard on the bottom, and the water could not be reduced; it was up to the engine-room platform and rising. Under these circumstances, and in the absence of any docking facilities or marine railway appliances [used to haul a ship out of the water for repair] and powerful pumps, the abandonment of the ship became necessary. Stores were gotten up as rapidly as possible, and people got their effects ashore. Immediately thereafter the crew was set to work getting out and saving from her everything possible. On Monday the water was up to her gun deck, and she had settled more to port and was still lower in the water. 

The Vandalia is completely submerged, only her foremast and headbooms showing above the water. The Nipsic is lying in about 7 feet of water at low tide (rise and fall about 4 feet). She would probably have to be hauled astern some 500 feet to float her at high tide. She has lost her smoke-pipe, also her rudder, and her propeller is badly damaged. Her crew remain on board, and she keeps her bilges free of water by the steam-pump. I have ordered a board to investigate at once the possibility of saving the Nipsic, and to further investigate and report upon all circumstances connected with the loss and damage of the vessels by the gale. The report of this board will be forwarded by the first opportunity after its receipt by me. The crews of the Vandalia and Trenton are in barrack on shore. The Calliope steamed into the harbor this morning, showing signs of having experienced heavy weather. She goes to Sydney as soon as possible for repairs, and through the kindness of Captain Kane [British Royal Navy] her diving outfit has been turned over to us, and it will be of the greatest assistance in saving stores. I commend his services to the Department, and trust that they will be regarded as worthy of recognition. 

Lieutenant Wilson goes to Auckland to report the catastrophe to the Department by cable, and to charter a steamer to take to San Francisco the Vandalia's crew and others of the squadron who are sick and disabled. By the Calliope I send a duplicate dispatch to Sydney to be forwarded by the Unites States consul to the Department. 

I have also received the most valuable assistance from Malietoa Mataafa [Samoan chief] who has sent a large number of his men to help in getting stores and public property from the ships. 

The Calliope when she went out of the harbor carried 90 pounds of steam [pressure in her boilers], making seventy-four revolutions [per minute of her propeller], and then was just able to make headway against the gale; and when outside, during the period of four hours she made no headway, engines running at full speed.

I regret to report the following loss of life: 

On the Vandalia, four officers and thirty-nine men, viz:

 Capt. C.M. Schoonmaker.  Frank Lissman, sergeant.
 Paymaster Frank H. Arms.  E.M. Hammer, seaman.
 First Lieut. F.E. Sutton, [M]arine [C]orps.  George Gorman, carpenter.
 Pay Clerk John Roche.  M. Craigin, captain after-guard.
 George Murrage, bayman.  William Brown, first quartermaster.
 B.F. Davis, engineer's yeoman. T.G. Downey, paymaster's yeoman. 
 M.H. Joseph, engineer's yeoman.  Michael Cashen, corporal.
 N.B. Green, bayman.  Nicolas Kinsella, corporal
 H.P. Stalman, bayman.  H.C. Gehring, private marine.
 C.H. Hawkins, steerage steward.  Adolph Goldner, private marine.
 C.E.G. Stanford, landsman.  Frank Jones, private marine.
 W. Brisbane, cabin steward.  George Jordan, private marine
 Joseph Griffin, first-class fireman.  John Willford, private marine.
 M. Erickson, ordinary seaman.  Henry Wixted, private marine.
 Thomas Kelly, second-class fireman.  Aylmer Montgomerie, private marine
 W. Howat, coal heaver  John Sims, private marine.
 C.P. Kratzer, ordinary seaman.  G.H. Wells, private marine.
 Thomas Riley, landsman.  Charles Kraus, private marine.
 John Kelly, ordinary seaman.  Ah Kean, cabin cook.
 Henry Baker, landsman.  Ah Pack, seamen's cook.
 John Hantchett, sergeant.  Pen Dang, landsman.
   Yee Hor, ward-room cook.

On the Nipsic, seven men, viz:

 Joshua Heap, apprentice.  David Patrick Kellcher, coal heaver.
 George W. Callan, apprentice  John Gill, seaman.
 Hentry Pontseel, coxswain.  Thomas Johnson, cabin steward.
 William Watson, first-class fireman.  

On the Trenton, J. Hewlett (landsman) was struck on the head by the breaking in of a port, and died soon after.

During the entire time Captain Farquhar showed great care and good judgement in handling the ship through this terrific gale and never left the bridge. He was ably seconded by his executive and navigating officers, who did all in their power to save the ship. In fact, so far as I could observe, all the officers behaved extremely well under the trying circumstances and performed their duties cheerfully, effectively, and as well as could be desired. 

This disaster I classify among the incidents and accidents inseparable from the prosecution of duty. Its magnitude, however, gives it a distinguishing feature which, fortunately, the service is rarely compelled to witness. 

Captain Farquhar has demanded a court of inquiry. No disinterested officers are available here. I therefore respectfully refer the entire matter to the Department, and if further investigation is deemed necessary I should be pleased to have a court of inquiry ordered. 

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Rear-Admiral, U.S. Navy,
Commanding U.S. Naval Force on Pacific Station.



Special Report of Rear-Admiral L.A. Kimberly - Conduct of Officers and Men.

APIA, SAMOA, April 16, 1889.

SIR: I take pleasure in calling the attention of the Department to the efficient and indefatigable services rendered by the following officers, who were on shore or who reached shore during the recent hurricane at Apia, which was so destructive of life and property:
Ensign John L. Purcell, U.S. Navy.
Lieut. John A. Shearman, U.S. Navy.
Ensign H.P. Jones, U.S. Navy.
Ensign H.A. Field, U.S. Navy.

These officers worked incessantly, doing all that it was possible to do in saving the Nipsic, in efforts to launch boats and get lines to the Vandalia, and in patrolling the beach and saving life. They all worked until overcome by physical exhaustion. Ensign Field was in ill health when he left the ship and worked until 4 p.m., when he succumbed. He has since been on the sick-list and nigh unto death. Ensign Purcell and Lieutenant Shearman did not yield until after midnight and were promptly at hand early the following morning. Ensign Jones, in addition to his services on the shore, is highly commended by his commanding officer in a letter to me of March 26, of which the following is an extract:

I beg to call your attention particularly to the valuable services of Ensign H.P. Jones, jr., who was officer of the deck of the morning watch and who superintended the steering of this ship properly and carefully for two long hours to prevent the Olga from cutting us down. He stood bravely at his post by my side on the poop through all the storm, rain, and volumes of smoke, when at times we could see but a few feet ahead, as the blinding smoke and heat were simply terrible. Mr. Jones is a young officer of great promise, and bids fair to be of value to the service and to his country.

Ensign C.S. Ripley and Pay Clerk S.T. Browne are worth of notice for their active efforts and the valuable assistance they rendered. 

Teoteo, a Samoan of Apia, made a desperate attempt to swim off to the Vandalia with a line while the gale was at its height. The heavy surf, the jagged reef strewn with wreckage and swept by strong currents, through and over which he attempted to pass, made this effort one of exceeding danger, and in the futile attempt he nearly lost his life. I have learned of no greater risk of life for others being accepted by any one on this occasion, and I commend him to the favorable consideration of the Department, trusting that his bravery will be recognized in so enduring a manner that his example will be kept in memory and the spirit that animated him fostered and developed wherever acts of courage and sacrifice are cherished. In his intrepid effort Teoteo was assisted in the management of the line by Toga, a native of Samoa, whose father was a Tongan. 

Charles Fruen, sr., a native of Apia, saved the life of Surgeon E.Z. Derr, of the Nipsic, and in doing so risked his own. 

Seumanutafa, chief of Apia, and Selu Leauanae did excellent service in saving life, and took the lead in directing the work of the natives. They organized boats' crews and carried out the suggestions of the offices. Seumanutafa took charge of and steered the boat which was the first to carry lines to the wreck in the early morning of the 17th, while it was yet dark, and the passage across the reef and approach to the Trenton was beset with difficulty and danger.

All the Samoans were faithful, alert, and diligent in their efforts to save life and assist the unfortunate people. Conspicuous among them were the following:

 Tatopan.  Sofa.
 Paniola.  Tualagi.
 Sigito  Papalii.
 Fanala.  Muniaiiuaga.
 Folau.  William Hunkin.
 Charles Freun, jr.  Neamea.

Of the foreign residents of Apia, the United States vice-consul, Mr. W. Blacklock, was pre- eminently conspicuous for his energy and good services, not only in saving life, but in caring for the immediate and pressing wants of the survivors of the Vandalia, the most of whom were taken to the consulate. Too much cannot be said in justice to his exertions and hospitality on this occasion. 

Mr. J.P. Dunning, correspondent of the Associated Press, and Messrs. H.J. Moore, Albert Vicking, Peter Paul, and J.S. Pike, of Apia, were conspicuous in the work of saving life and property, and deserve particular mention in this regard for most praiseworthy services.

From a letter by Commander Mullin, of the Nipsic, dated April 26, I quote as follows:

Among my own crew those who rendered services and set examples were John Callahan (quartermaster), who had the mid-watch on the night of March 16, and who was stationed on the quarter to watch the movements of theEber, which vessel was close under our stern, and to report her approach to the officer of the deck, who was watching the Olga, close on our port beam; Also Quartermaster R.H. Taylor, who was at the conn from 4 a.m. to the time the vessel was beached, never leaving it once, but conning the vessel amid the volumes of smoke and soot which were sweeping aft after the smoke-pipe had been carried away. We were steaming ahead through the night watches. James Lane and Henry Pontseel, seamen, were at the wheel from 1 a.m. till the vessel struck and during the collisions with the Olga, and remained there without flinching. I regret to say that Potseel was drowned. Chief Boatswain's Mate John Bradley and Boatswain's Mate William Cosgrove were very conspicuous during the night in doing all possible. Bradley has been a most valuable man to the Nipsic, and on more than one occasion has he shown himself a thorough seaman. I would be pleased to see him get a boatswain's warrant, for which I now recommend him. He is our leading spirit in times of danger. Brooks Cason, quartermaster gunner, acted as my messenger during a good part of the night and assisted me greatly. He is a brave lad and always at the proper place in time of need. I would recommend the above-named men for medals of honor.

Sergeant Grupp and Private William Campbell, U.S. Marine Corps, were conspicuous in worthy and earnest efforts along the beach, aiding the officers and assisting in every undertaking to save life and property. 

I commend to the notice of the Navy Department, Lieut. John M. Hawley, the executive officer of the Nipsic, for his zeal and energy in getting the Nipsic afloat after she was beached. He had the entire charge of this work, and to his efforts in a large measure is due the fact that the Nipsic is now afloat without more serious injury, and with the possibility of future service to the Government.

Naval Cadets J. A. Le Jeune, L.A. Stafford, and H.A. Wiley, serving on the Vandalia, are commended as follows, by Lieutenant Carlin, commanding the survivors:

The gale was terrific and the danger extreme, the ship being on the brink of destruction for fifteen hours. These young officers did their duty in the most commendable manner, distinguishing themselves for coolness, zeal, and pluck.

I have in previous letters to the Department called its attention to the important services rendered me by Malietoa Mataafa, and to the exceeding kindness of Captain Kane of H.B.M.S. Calliope. These services are fully described in my report dated March 19, Nos. 21 and 25; March 20, No. 22; and March 21, No. 23; but the subject-matter of the present letter would be fatally deficient without a marked reference to them. 

I have endeavored in the foregoing to make a just statement of the worthy efforts made by the persons mentioned, my chief sources of information being the written reports of eye-witnesses; and I now respectfully refer the matter to the Department with the statement of my conviction that prompt recognition and reward, commensurate with the character of the services rendered, will be but a simple act of justice, and in the cases of our own men will operate to the great advantage of the service.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Rear-Admiral U.S. Navy,
Commanding U.S. Naval Force on Pacific Station.


Note: Naval Cadets were graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy who served two years of sea duty before becoming fully-fledged officers. Naval Cadet John Archer Lejeune, USNA 1888, became a Marine Corps officer and was later the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps 1920-1929.


Related Typhoons and Hurricanes Sources:

Hurricanes and the War of 1812: Documents on Selected Storms Affecting Naval Operations

Samoan Hurricane by Rear Admiral L. A. Kimberly, USN

Typhoons and Hurricanes: Pacific Typhoon, 18 December 1944

Typhoons and Hurricanes : Pacific Typhoon June 1945

Typhoons and Hurricanes: Pacific Typhoon at Okinawa, October 1945

Typhoons and Hurricanes: The Effects of Cyclonic Winds on U.S. Naval Operations

Published: Tue May 26 15:06:15 EDT 2020