The Huron and her two sister ships were the last American naval vessels to be built of iron rather than steel. Equipped with sails to supplement her steam engines. Navigational error caused ship to be caught on a lee shore in heavy seas. 103 were killed.
The Loss of the USS Huron
Following repairs at New York, the Huron left Hampton Roads, VA Friday, November 23, 1877 on a voyage to Havana, Cuba to survey the surrounding coast. On her first night out to sea, the ship encountered a heavy storm blowing from the southeast. The storm combined with a small error in the ship's compass to cause the Huron to run aground off Nags Head at 1:30 a.m., November 24.
Even though the Huron was only 200 yards from the beach, the heavy surf, strong currents and cold temperature prevented most of the crew members from attempting the swim to shore. Most of the crew tried to remain on the ship in the hope that help would arrive. However, no one came to the aid of the sailors; lifesaving stations had been closed until December. The elements eventually took their toll on the storm battered men. Many lost their strength and were washed overboard by waves. One huge wave swept at least 12 sailors away at one time. In all, 98 men lost their lives during the night.
The federal government was severely criticized for its failure to provide adequate funding for the United States Lifesaving Service. Two months after the wreck of the Huron, the steamship Metropolis ran aground twenty-three miles to the north, with the loss of 85 lives. These two disasters prompted Congress to appropriate funding to build additional lifesaving stations along the North Carolina coast and increase their months of operation.
November 26, 1877
MEASURES TAKEN TO GIVE ASSISTANCE.
ONLY FOUR OFFICERS AND THIRTY MEN SAVED -- THE CAUSE OF THE DISASTER.
A LIST OF THE OFFICERS SAVED AND THOSE LOST.
ANXIOUS INQUIRIES AT THE NAVY DEPARTMENT BY THE FRIENDS OF THE MEN ON THE HURON, TO OBTAIN INFORMATION OF THE DISASTER.
A SERF BOAT SWAMPED AND FIVE MEN DROWNED.
Washington, November 24 -- The observer at Kitty Hawk reports the United States steamer HURON struck two miles north of No. 7 station.
At 1:30 A.M., the foremast and mainmast were gone. The steamer will be a perfect wreck. Assistance is needed immediately. The sea to breaking over her and several bodies have already washed ashore of the drowned. The number on board was one hundred and thirty five.
She had no cargo.
The navy department has no advices of the disaster to the Huron beyond that received from the signal office. The department authorities are taking measures to get prompt information, the assistance may be rendered. The Huron was under command of Commander GEORGE P. RAVAN.
A signal despatch from Ripley House, South Carolina, says the steamer Huron has gone to pieces and thirty persons were saved and one hundred drowned.Norfolk, November 24. -- Information was received today that the steamer Huron with one hundred and thirty four souls, went ashore this morning about one o'clock, off life saving station
No. 7, near Oregon Inlet on the North Carolina coast. The wrecking steamer Resolute was despatched to her assistance. Admiral Treachard sent the United States steamer Swatara and the tug Fortune to render assistance.
Later information says she has gone to pieces under unusually heavy sea. No names of the victims or survivors are known.
The Huron left Fort Monroe yesterday, on a cruise to the West Indies. The storm signals were flying three days and it is thought strange that this warning should have been disregarded. There was a fierce storm raging all night along the coast, the wind having blown about seventy miles an hour.
Those who knew the Huron say she was not a first class job. She was built at Chester, Pa., and was first christened the "Alliance" but was afterwards named Huron. She was a third rate screw five hundred and forty one tons, and when she went ashore she had a crew of 149 men and 11 officers. She carried four guns and was schooner rigged.
The theory of those well acquainted with the coast is as follows. The Huron got caught in the height of a gale, and while trying to hold on head to the wind, her machinery gave way, her sails were useless and she drifted ashore.
It appears that there was no assistance rendered the crew from the shore life saving station not having been manned.
The signal observer at Kitty Hawk reports as follows: Among those saved were E. F. WERBORTEN of Pennsylvania, cadet, engineer; LUCIEN YOUNG of Kentucky, engineer; GEORGE R. RYAN; JOSEPH MURPHY, ship's cook; CARY N. SANDERS of Pennsylvania, passed assistant paymaster; PATRICK KANE, seaman. The other names are now withheld.
Assistance is wanted immediately. The men were only half clothed. Only four officers and thirty men saved. The captain perished. Capt. PALMER a name is not given. The Huron is completely under water and is a total loss. In conversation among naval officers, ideas are advanced as not improbable as to what rendered the steamer so helpless as to drift upon dangerous shoals. No one just now can satisfy himself with any theory, though several believe her engines must have broken down. If such was the case, she would of sheer neccesity dropped her anchor, and this it is thought among some naval officers she certainly did, but the cable being unable to stand the strain must have parted, with the awful result that the telegraph from Kitty Hawk publishes.
The fate of the unfortunate captain and officers and crew of the Huron is sadly discussed throughout the city. The officers were nearly every one of them well known here, and were all regarded in every particular as capable and energetic navigators and seamen. Telegram from Kitty Hawk, at 8 P.M., says: Have just returned from wreck. Distance eight miles down. No men at work at present. Walked there and back with medicine and such other articles as I could carry. No horse was available this morning. This morning the chief officer refused to give the names of those lost or saved. He feared to break the news too suddenly in the relatives.
The steamer Chowan left this evening under Lieutenant Watson, with stores and men for the relief of the survivors of the Heron disaster.
Ensign YOUNG, senior surviving officer of the ill fated ship is at Nagshead, N.C., and confirms the report that thirty men and four officers were all that were saved. He says no assistance could be rendered from the shore.
Washington, November 25 -- The secretary of the navy and the chief clerk of the department, were both on duty today, awaiting telegrams from near the scene of the Heron wreck. Excepting a brief telegram received over the wire belonging to the signal office, the department is unadvised of anything further than the knowledge of last night.
Secretary Thompson has been applied to from many quarters by the friends of the Huron's officers and crew, for information, and in all instances replied, giving whatever news was to his possession, and say, encouragement that was proper and possible with the light that guided him.
Hope is not dead within the hearts of many, who are constrained to think that others in addition to the names mentioned among the saved are ashore lower down on the desolate, barren beach, and that some days may yet elapse before all that escaped may be gathered up. The Huron had a good compliment of ships' boats, and it is probable that others may be heard from. The following officers were saved: Master CONWAY; Ensign YOUNG; Cadet Engineer WERBARTON; Assistant Engineer DEERING.
The following is a list of officers lost: Commander RYAN; Lieut. SIMONS; Lieut. PALMER; Ensign DANNER; Paymaster SANDERS. Two officers, Master WRIGHT and Master FRENCH believed to have been on board, are not yet accounted for.
The cause was thick weather and a fresh gale directly on shore. The fore and aft sails were set, the rear fore sail and main sails were bent and the fore storm stay sail was stuck between one and half past one in the morning.
The boats washed from the boat davits were lowered first, with the caller which swamped ten minutes later.
Lieutenant PALMER was drowned about the time the Captain was. The living saved themselves by swimming ashore. There was no aid from shore except when near the beach.
The man of war Powhattan and Swartara and the brig Fortune are anchored abreast of the wreck. Flag communication was opened with them through the steamer D. & J. Baker. No assistance can be rendered from the steamer as the surf is still very heavy. The survivors will go to Norfolk this evening.
The signal observer at the scene of the wrecked Heron reports at 5:25 P.M., the surf boat of the wrecking steamer D. & J. Baker, in attempting to land, was swamped with nine men on board. JAS. S. JACKSON, STEPHEN BELL, DENNIS McCAY, WILLIS WALKER and Capt. J. J. GUTHRIE, paymaster of the Life Saving Service, were lost. The bodies have not been recovered. J. M. WRIGHT; K.W.S. FRENCH; E. W. LOOMIS; J.J. BURKE were all lost from the Huron. Their bodies are not yet recovered.
Boston, November 25. -- Intense interest here at the news of the loss of the Huron. Her commander, GEORGE P. RYAN, being a native of this city, and very highly esteemed by a large circle of friends. He left his wife and four children here but ten days since, expecting to be absent only a few months.