The S.S. Central America
The Hurricane
Taking on water

The US Central America left Havana at nine o'clock on the morning of the 8th with clear weather and every prospect for a pleasant passage. But that prospect began to change on Wednesday, September 9. Virginia birch was chatting on deck when, as she later remembered, "a squall came up, and the wind blew like a hurricane."

By Thursday, September 10, merchant captain Thomas Badger concurred. "It blew a perfect hurricane and the sea ran mountains high." Although Badger and his wife were passengers on this voyage, he commanded his own ship, the Jane A. Falkinberg, back on the West Coast, and he knew a real storm when he saw one.

By that evening the seas were so rough that most people were sick in their cabins. Judge Alonzo Castle Monson later recalled that "the evening games of cards and other pastimes for diversion and amusement usual in the cabin were dispensed with." This must have been a disappointment to the judge, an inveterate gambler. Earlier during the voyage, Commander Herndon and been Monson's partner at whist; but on this night the commander had more important matters on his mind.

If they slept at all, passengers and crew awoke on Friday to find the storm as violent as before, and possibly even worse. The pounding seas finally began to exact a toll on the laboring vessel's hull. At nine o'clock in the morning, Chief Engineer George Ashby reported that the ship was taking on considerable water. A deadly series of misfortunes plagued the vessel during the hours that followed. The combined effects of the gale and flooding caused it to list to starboard, making it impossible for coal tenders to navigate their wheelbarrows through the narrow passages between the storage bunkers and fire rooms.

If the tenders could not keep the boilers lit, the sidewheels would quit turning. This would make it impossible for the ship to keep its bow facing into the waves, leaving it at the mercy of the sea. Efforts by a bucket brigade to pass the coal were in turn undermined when the rising water reached the bunkers and putout most of the lamps.

The gale and waves continued to intensify, and by midmorning the crew was no longer able to hold the storm-buffeted steamer on course. At about 10 o'clock in the morning, the third officer set the storm spencer, but it soon blew to pieces. By then, reported the second officer, James Frazer, the ship "was so high out of the water that she would not head to the wind and sea."

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