In Our Waters
Daniel Webster grabbed his wife’s docile hand. It was cool to the touch. He looked into her eyes. Though stoic and reserved in her manner, her eyes very rarely deceived him. He then turned and looked out the window of the New London Northern Railroad car. A fierce and freezing rain pelted the glass. The wind’s fury remained incessant and loud despite the rough and tumble of the train rumbling down the steel tracks. Across from Webster, a friend, appeared apprehensive as well. Webster thought of his responsibilities in New York. Then he returned his focus on the inclement weather. Norwich, Connecticut and not New York, he reflected would be their destination. The train’s engineer began slowing the engine’s progress into the station. As the train slowed to a stop, Webster announced his plans to disembark. His wife’s eyes perked at the news and the two, along with several friends with whom they were traveling, followed suit and disembarked. Others remained aboard the train and after the brief stop, the engineer stoked the fires and engaged the engine. The engineer pulled on the lanyard above his head and with the shrill tort of the whistle, the New London Northern Railroad train churned away from the station. A steamboat was bound for New London and many of the passengers aboard the train were bound to board the Atlantic on their final leg of their trip to New York City.
The steamship Atlantic, a wooden hulled vessel built by Bishop and Simonson, had been launched in May of 1846. Owned by the Norwich & Worcester Railroad Company, she was noted as one of the largest and finest steamships serving on the waters of the Long Island Sound. At the cost of $150,000.00, she had proven a sound investment for the company with her speed and efficiency since the start of her regular voyages from New York on August 18, 1846. Passengers enjoyed her “commodious saloons and staterooms” and her novelty use of light powered by gas fixtures.1 While her voyages had all been on-time and smooth, all of that would change on November 25, 1846 when Captain Dustan scanned through the pilot house windows at the docks at New London.
With gale-force winds blowing against his vessel, Dustan knew that landing at the wharf would test his skills of nautical seamanship. He bellowed orders to his helmsman as he took in the conditions and wind direction. He reached into the pocket of his vest and pulled out his watch. He clicked it open and looked at the time. He quickly closed the watch, mumbled under his breath, and pushed the chained watch back into his vest pocket. He was losing too much time. He had to moor up and take on his passengers.
After three quarters of an hour, the Atlantic was finally safely moored to her wharf. Captain Dustan sent orders to his crew to take on passengers and to ensure that all gear was carefully stowed and prepared for the next leg of their voyage to New York City. Dustan watched from the bridge as the passengers, all braving the cold and icy wind, boarded the vessel after twenty or so passengers disembarked. He again reached into his pocket and looked at his watch. It was eleven-thirty in the evening. Soon, he reflected, he and his passengers would be leaving. Despite the remarks of the boat’s first pilot Mr. Allen stating “I think we shall have pretty rough weather out,” Captain Dustan was resolved to his ship’s mettle. “Very well,” he replied confidently. “We’ll try it.” Two and a half hours later, Captain Dustan grabbed the arm of his executive officer, James Stetson. “It is time to shove off.” Stetson passed orders to the deckhands. The Atlantic slowly maneuvered away from the wharf and took a heading toward her final destination with a total complement of passengers and crew at over one hundred souls.
Despite the icy conditions of the Long Island Sound and the whirling and wicked winds of the gale, the powerful engine of the Atlantic pushed her steadily through the waters. Captain Dustan asked his navigator for their position. Nine miles past the lighthouse, the officer replied. They were finally, despite the weather conditions, making up for lost time. Captain Dustan and his officers remained vigilant in the pilot house as the passengers, due to the early morning hours, rested “comfortably” in their staterooms or in the saloons. Suddenly, there was a horrific shattering sound. Captain Dustan immediately ordered Stetson and one of his engineers to investigate. They returned with upsetting news. A steam-pipe connected to the steam chimney had burst. The engine had completely failed. Captain Dustan passed orders to his deck officers. Immediately, the deck hands worked to set the anchors amidst the frigid seas that were careening over the wooden decks. The Atlantic, tethered to the bottom of the Long Island Sound by her two anchors, would have to ride out the gale, dead in the water.
The blast from the bursting steam-pipe coupled with the loss of the rhythmic thrum of the ship’s engine had rustled many of the passengers from their sound bound slumber. Many questioned the deck-hands and servants as to the status of their voyage. All were offered assurances of the well-built and stout ship as the crew passed out life jackets. Passengers began to converge in the saloons to offer comfort to one another as the steamboat rocked amidst the winds and waves. It was, as is the scene when relative strangers are thrust into a situation, a mixed lot of souls. There was a recently married young couple. A mother with her infant child of a mere eighteen months of age. A man who had been gone from home for three years and who was en-route to see his wife and four children. A father huddled with his wife, his young married daughter, a twelve year old son, and one younger daughter, and two younger sons. The father and his family listened to the calming voice of a reverend of the American Board of Missions. All were looking for salvation and solace.
While Reverend Armstrong offered prayers and solace to the passengers and crew, others assisted in other ways. One of the passengers offering comfort to the others aboard was Doctor Charles Augustus Hassler. A United States Navy surgeon, Hassler had spent many years at sea aboard the U.S.S. Vandalia, the U.S.S. Decatur and the U.S.S. Falmouth during the Mexican War.2 Nearby, First Lieutenant Allen H. Norton, then serving as an Assistant Instructor of Infantry Tactics at the U.S. Military Academy, was assisting various passengers including six women, two infants, and four children. Another military officer, Lieutenant Maynard, of the U.S. Navy, working with Mr. Edwards, assisted the crew in fashioning planks together to be used as make-shift rafts, should the vessel be placed in an even worse situation. Keeping busy and assisting others offered a sense of calm through a delicate and stressful situation. And though many of the men aboard remained reserved and calm throughout the night offering a warm smile and advice to those suffering from the stress of the situation, they were clearly cognizant of the circumstances of their collective situation. Listening to the howling wind and the slam of waves across the steamboat’s decks, they and their fellow passengers knew that they would have to remain prepared for the very worst if the situation deteriorated.
Meanwhile, as Doctor Hassler, First Lieutenant Allen H. Norton, Lieutenant Maynard, Mr. Edwards and others calmed and assisted their fellow passengers, Captain Dustan paced the decks, receiving updates from his officers throughout the night. Winds increased with each passing hour and the steamship rocked with each icy wave. Captain Dustan and Stetson conferred. To alleviate some of the “sailing effect” of the ship in the gale-force winds, they would remove several sections of the boat. Dustan and Stetson supervised the crew as they removed steam-pipes and began, using axes, breaking down the pilot house. Meanwhile, other crewmen were ordered to alight the vessel of her cargo. “Cases of boots, shoes, barrel of flour, stoves, etc.,” were thrown overboard. A package containing seven thousand dollars’ worth of plates and china was tossed into the swirling seas. One passenger, clung to a package containing six to eight thousand dollars’ worth of intricate lacework. He offered to any person aboard the valuable package as long as they could guarantee him safe landing ashore. Another passenger, Mr. Gould of the Adams Express Company emptied a barrel on deck of its original contents and placed inside a large sum of bank-bills he was ferrying for his company to New York. The barrel resealed, it, like the rest of the earthly goods, was sent overboard to try and save the ship. As these individual scenes continued, the crewmen went about their work. No amount of money could offer salvation to the situation. Only working together offered any chance of survival. The work was difficult under the weather conditions but the crew knew the importance of their duties. At dawn, as the winds continued to buffet the vessel, the ship’s colors were lowered to half-mast as a distress signal. Another steamship was on the horizon and maneuvering toward her to offer respite. Captain Dustan peered through his binoculars. It was the steamboat Mohegan.
The Mohegan offered to assist but little could be done without endangering both vessels and their complements of passengers. Captain Dustan ordered his steamboat’s colors lowered. The Mohegan could offer no assistance. Over the course of the day, several other steamships including the Massachusetts and the New Haven, attempted to offer assistance but they, like the Mohegan, were unable to do so effectively. The Atlantic would have to ride out the storm on her own.
By the afternoon of the first day, the winds appeared to be easing in their ferocity. Captain Dustan and his men welcomed the change in the weather. The anchor chains and lines were holding well and all believed that they could await assistance to port. Their feelings of good cheer though quickly diminished when the wind changed directions and increased in its intensity. The Atlantic began pulling on her anchor chains. Captain Dustan and his officers watched as the rocky lined coast of Fisher’s Island came into sight. Darkness quickly shrouded the ship as she inched closer and closer toward the shallows.
At four o’clock in the morning of November 27, 1846, the steamship took a terrific wave across her stern. The Atlantic shuddered and then both of her anchor lines parted with a sickening double crack. The steamboat, no longer tethered to the bottom, careened toward the rocky shoreline. Passengers and crew alike prepared for the boat to go aground. Stetson and several of the crew pleaded with their captain to take shelter from the elements. Captain Dustan turned to his men and offered a reply. “If the Atlantic goes, I go with her.” He then ordered Stetson, his chief mate, his clerk and one of the deckhands to go forward as the vessel neared the shoreline. Charles Christian, the deckhand, was ordered to lash a line about his body so that he could be lowered over the side to try and reach land, after braving the breakers, to request help with the passengers. As the steamboat got closer and closer, Christian was lowered over the side. A huge wave buffeted the hull. Christian was snapped free from his line and tumbled into the breakers. Fighting for his life, he began swimming amidst the maelstrom for shore. The waves continued to careen across the decks. Stetson, holding tightly to one of the railings, looked back and saw Captain Dustan standing stoically on the upper deck. Another wave slammed across the bow. Stetson, losing his grip, slid into the waves alongside the clerk and chief mate. All were now in the water and fighting for their lives.
The Atlantic, though solidly built, was no match for the horrific mixture of winds, waves, and rocks. The wooden hull shattered into tinder sending passengers, crew and the officers into the dark and icy waters. Many clamored through the breaking up vessel looking for salvation. Some were lucky and were tossed free from the wreckage. Others were trapped in the crumbling timbers of the once proud steamship as she broke apart at the base of North Hill on Fishers Island. Locals offered assistance but little could be done. Within minutes, the only remains of the vessel visible was her engine assembly and one of her masts with the ship’s bell. As the hours passed and as the bodies of the dead were pulled to shore from the shallows, the bell continued to toll as if a sound reminder of those lost.3
The loss of the Atlantic on November 27, 1846 was a horrific tragedy. Despite the efforts of Captain Dustan and his crew, the elements had taken their toll. Only fifty-six of the ship’s total complement had survived the hellish ordeal with over forty souls taken by the gale-whipped seas and winds of the Long Island Sound. For those who decided not to take passage on that fateful evening, they had avoided a date with the devil by delaying their departure until calmer weather. Daniel Webster, a statesman and orator, his wife, several friends, and others who had decided to spend their time ashore, had made a faithful decision that had spared them a chance of near certain death.4 For others though, including Captain Dustan, Dr. Charles Hassler, Lieutenants Norton and Maynard, and over forty-other souls, the 1846 Thanksgiving voyage of the Atlantic would serve to be their last moments alive, in our waters.5
1 The Atlantic utilized lights powered by gas – the first documented use in steamboats.
2 Hassler’s father was Ferdinand Hassler, who served as the First Superintendent of the Coast Survey. Hassler’s daughter, Mary Caroline Hassler married Simon Newcomb who would rise to the rank of Rear-Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Hassler’s granddaughter Anita Newcomb Magee followed in her grandfather’s footsteps and became a surgeon of noted historic distinction as being the only female doctor in the United States Army during the Spanish-American War. She would later assist in the formation of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy Nurse Corps.
3 The four hundred pound bell of the Atlantic has a very interesting history as described by the research of Pierce Rafferty in his article “HLF Museum Files: The Bell that Got Away.” The bell, according to his research, was recovered from the wreck and was subsequently placed aboard the Floating Church of the Holy Comforter by Reverend Benjamin C.C. Parker after the reverend’s diligent efforts coupled with a lady patron’s subscription effort to raise funds for its purchase. In 1883, the bell was moved “ashore” and placed in the Chapel of the Holy Comforter which “became part of the North River Station of the Seaman’s Church Institute. In 1927 it was transferred to the Seaman’s Church Institute at 25 South Street. In 1991, the bell was once again moved to the South Street Seaport where if remains to this day, placed above the main entrance to the facility.
4 Included in the fourth volume of The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster is a letter from Daniel Webster to Fletcher Webster. Though contemporary news reports regarding the last voyage and wreck of the Atlantic, Daniel Webster was set to board the vessel for her pending voyage to New York but decided, last minute to break from those plans in Norwich, Connecticut. The letter, referencing November 27, the day the Atlantic was lost, starts with Dear F, You will be glad that we did not venture on the Sound to-day, after the terrible loss of the Atlantic. We arrived here about 1 oclock; heard the Atlantic was in danger, on or near Fisher’s Island, having evidently reed injury; but as nothing could get her, it could not be told whether she was ashore, or at anchor…” The letter continues indicating that Webster learned further particulars from the executive officer, Mr. Stetson. Webster further indicates in his letter that the wind had gone down and that the waters would be smooth the following day. “If it is, we shall proceed on our journey, over L. Island. If not, we shall wait for settled weather. After a disaster so appalling, one does not wish to encounter risks.” Whether or not Mr. Webster was supposed to be aboard the Atlantic, based on original plans or not, remains unclear. His “alleged” plans to be aboard may simply have been related to his renown and a use of “journalistic” license by newspaper reporters of the era.
5 The exact number of those lost remains unclear. The ship’s manifest was lost during the destruction of the steamboat. Some accounts indicate that Lt. Maynard may have survived the horrific grounding. A twelve year old boy was left an orphan when his entire family – father, mother, and four siblings perished in the wreck. In total, he was the sole child to survive the disaster. The passenger offering respite with his thousands of dollars of lace was found lifeless along the frozen sands of Fishers Island, strewn about in his earthly lace goods. Mr. Gould’s use of barrel would prove to be fruitful. It was found several days later, three miles away, with its contents intact and safe. Mr. Gould was also witnessed saving many of those caught in the surf after he was washed overboard. Mr. Gould survived the disaster. Reverend Armstrong perished. The Mohegan, which had weathered the gale, returned to aid those of the Atlantic – ferrying home the bodies of the dead to Norwich. One of the bodies aboard was that of the Atlantic’s skipper, Captain Dustan.