Sunday, April 22, 2012

Steamer City of Houston ~ 23 October 1878

Steamer City of Houston
As was common in steamships of the day, the City of Houston was fitted out with two masts and auxiliary sails that were, in this case, barkentine rigged. Her primary route was New York to Galveston via Key West, FL. She carried passengers in spacious accommodations and much–needed supplies in her ample cargo holds.

Fast steamer service was more desirable than the bouncy, dusty, weeks-long travel suffered by stagecoach. When the City of Houston left New York on October 20, 1878 her departure was like any other: 34 passengers, many of whom were emigrants, eagerly looked forward to landing in Galveston a week later.

But two days from port she ran head-on into a gale moving north along the coast. The storm quickly increased in intensity until the City of Houston was engulfed by mountainous waves that slapped her hull with rivet-loosening violence. The bilge pumps could not stem the rising tide and the boiler fires were soon damped. The engine coughed its last and the ship was driven broadside to the sea where she wallowed sickeningly in the troughs. By this time it was two in the morning on October 23. Captain Stevens roused the passengers from their staterooms and explained the situation as he passed out life preservers, telling them to stand by and be ready to abandon ship.

The outlook was bleak. The lifeboats were prepared, but it seemed sheer madness to put people into the wave-tossed sea, especially women and children, and expect them to row to shore in the dark during a tempest. They were abreast of Frying Pan Shoals, and off an area nearly as desolate as the plains of Texas. There seemed little chance for survival. “Signals were burned from the pilot house, but it was intensely dark and raining heavily, so that no vessel saw them.”

The ship was settling by the stern, where the water had risen to a depth of 10 feet. A little brig was seen 10 miles to leeward at daybreak, but owing to the wind she could not reach them. The steamer was now beginning to sink, and the boats were about to lowered when the steamship Margaret arrived. An hour later the passengers and crew were all safely transferred to the Margaret, although there was a heavy sea running at the time.

Newspaper Article:
New York Times, November 1, 1878

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