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The Loss of USS Saginaw

By Jeffery Bowdoin, Curator Branch Head, Naval History and Heritage Command.

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the loss of the USS Saginaw and the tremendous voyage of five of her crew to seek help for their stranded shipmates. The USS Saginaw, the first ship built at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, was a side paddlewheel steamer. Commissioned in January of 1860, she spent the majority of her career in the Pacific. Built as a 4th rate steamer she also utilized sails, as did all steam powered ships of the era; sailing for longer duration cruises and steam power for shorter cruises or when necessity dictated its use. The Saginaw had a full and interesting history throughout her career, but it is her final cruise and the subsequent events surrounding the crew’s rescue that, to me, are among the most compelling. For a full history of the USS Saginaw, please see the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ship’s entry for the USS Saginaw.

During the 1870’s for the Navy, coal was king. It was used to heat boilers, producing steam, which turned steam engines and provided the Navy with a source of propulsion that was independent of the wind. Though Navy ships still had sails until the 1890’s, it was coal that helped propel the Navy until the switch to petroleum based products in the early 20th century. The importance of coal was apparent, so much that in 1869 the U.S. Government appropriated a sum of $50,000 to make improvements at Midway Atoll to allow for a coal depot. To this end, in March 1870 the USS Saginaw, with LCDR Montgomery Sicard commanding, was dispatched to support dredging and channel widening operations at Midway Atoll.

Over the next 6 months the USS Saginaw supported these operations, making multiple trips to Honolulu for provisions and equipment, but by October of that year it was obvious these efforts were in vain. The Saginaw was ordered back to Midway to retrieve the contractor crew and to cease all operations on the project. Loaded with men and equipment, the Saginaw left Midway for the last time on Oct. 28, 1870. On their way back to Honolulu, Sicard made the decision to stop by Ocean Island, what is now called Kure Atoll. Though in the opposite direction of Honolulu, he felt it was his duty to ascertain if any shipwrecked mariners were present on the atoll, as this was a known location for ships to be grounded on the reef. Only 50 miles away, the Saginaw left Midway in the afternoon of Oct. 28 to arrive at Ocean Island during the daylight hours the following day. Sicard then drafted night orders to steam at under 4 knots and to have sufficient watch standers to be on the lookout for breakers or rocks during their transit.

While the ship slowly steamed to the atoll for a midday arrival time, the Pacific Ocean had other plans. Unbeknownst to the crew, currents were pushing the ship farther west than was known. At just past 0300 on Oct. 29, the crew sighted breakers; they had arrived at Ocean Island hours ahead of schedule and in the dark of the early morning. The engines were put in reverse, but given the short distance to the breakers and the lack of steam pressure from running at a low speed all night, it was of little use. At approximately 0322 the ship hit the outlaying reef. Subsequent waves pushed the Saginaw farther onto the reef, making escape an impossibility. Sicard and the rest of the crew quickly realized that the ship was lost and orders were given to bring up the provisions and secure the ship’s boats to save as much as possible. 

The next several hours were a blur for the crew, racing to save food, supplies, and equipment. Tired, frightened, and in some cases drunk, the crew moved material on deck while every few moments bracing as another wave crashed into the hull, her wooden timbers creaking and groaning under the relentless thrashing of the Pacific. Just past 0530 with the sunrise, they saw Ocean Island and the prospect of salvation. As they made their way to bring the supplies onto the boats, wading in the shallow, calmer waters past the breakers, at approximately 0625 the Saginaw broke in two. The constant pounding of the waves against the reef had finally taken their toll on the aging wooden vessel.

The crew toiled all throughout the day, ferrying supplies and equipment to the small, uninhabited area of land they would now call home. Miraculously, none of the crew died during the ship’s grounding. Many were wounded with feet and bare skin lacerations from the sharp reef. Fireman Edward James suffered a broken clavicle when the waves pushed him against the coral. The order was given to abandon the ship at 5pm that evening, the exhausted crew finally able to rest and treat their wounds.

From LCDR Sicard’s letter book, a copy of his letter to the Secretary of the Navy detailing the loss of the USS Saginaw at Ocean Island on 29 October 1870. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy.

 Over the next several days, the crew set up camp, scavenged for wreckage and other supplies that may have been pushed to shore, and began to adapt to life on the atoll. Food and water were in scarce supply, the latter being more of a concern. As luck would have it, the contractors that were on the Saginaw had with them an auxiliary boiler that was recovered intact. The crew was able to use the boiler to produce steam, which was then condensed and distilled, providing fresh water for the men. The crew were reduced to ¼ rations while fishing and the culling of the local seal and albatross population helped supplement the food stores from the Saginaw. Medical issues became more prevalent; an outbreak of dysentery from the high fat, high oil and low carb diet ravaged the crew. Sicard very quickly realized that given their location, and the lack of vessel traffic in the area, they could not wait for the happenstance of a passing ship for their rescue. After being stranded on Ocean Island for only three days, Sicard gathered the crew an informed them that they would attempt to sail to Honolulu to obtain assistance.

Of the boats available, only the captain’s gig was worth considering. The crew brought the open whaleboat onto shore and began the process of making it seaworthy for the 1500-mile journey ahead. That boat itself, 25 feet long and just over 6 feet in the beam, had 8 inches of additional freeboard added. It was then decked over with wood salvaged from the Saginaw, then canvassed. Metal was used to reinforce the gig’s bow and the boat was stepped for two masts, with appropriate sized sails fashioned from the Saginaw’s. All of the modifications were repurposed wood, nails, copper, and sails from the wreck of their former vessel.

As these preparations were underway, Sicard had to decide which crewmembers would undertake this dangerous duty. The Saginaw’s executive officer, LT John Talbot, had already enthusiastically volunteered to be part of this effort. Those chosen were a mix of experienced sailors and men from the contractor dredging crew; in part because of their abilities but also their health, as many of the Saginaw’s sailors were simply no longer physically fit to make the voyage. Quartermaster Peter Francis and Coxswain William Halford from the ship’s regular crew volunteered, James Muir and John Andrewes, both hardhat divers from Boston, were selected. LCDR Sicard enlisted them both into the Navy for a period of one month; Muir was appointed Captain of the Hold and Andrews a Coxswain.

The boat was provisioned with food for 35 days, the estimated time it would take to reach Hawaii, and outfitted with a small heating apparatus and lamp. Sufficient oil and water was also placed inside the boat’s small hold. Engineer Hershcell Main was able to construct a rudimentary sextant from one of the Saginaw’s steam engines, a shaving mirror, and various other metals salvage from the ship. This sextant was the crew’s only means of navigation and though crude, was deemed accurate enough for the task. In the late afternoon of 18 November, the crew of the Saginaw gathered on the shore, recited a prayer, and launched the small gig into the water.

Orders to LT Talbot from LCDR Sicard, directing him to set sail on the USS Saginaw captain’s gig in search for assistance. A copy of these orders were contained in LCDR Sicard’s letter book. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy.

Instead of a direct route, which was impossible because of the prevailing winds and currents, LT. Talbot steered the boat to the north, then east to the appropriate longitude of Honolulu, at which point he turned the vessel to the south. This course added hundreds of additional miles to the voyage, but was unavoidable. After only 5 days, the lamp was extinguished and all of their tinder was waterlogged. The small wooden boat, not designed for a long sea voyage, constantly leaked, which meant the men never stopped bailing water. Their bread spoiled, salt water ruined the coffee, tea, and sugar, and someone had placed molasses in the rice and beans, causing it to ferment, and had to be tossed over the side. As the days wore on, the men lost their strength from lack of nourishment. Fearing they may not survive, all five men inscribed their names on the aft most hatch coaming. One day a bird landed on the deck of the boat. Famished, Halford grabbed it and immediately tore off portions for each man to eat. Though they had lost their heating apparatus weeks ago, they all ate their portions raw. Muir and Andrews were sick most of the voyage, Talbot was struck by severe diarrhea and was ill for over a week. Only Halford and Francis were able to stay “relatively” healthy, though both suffered from extreme malnourishment.

All five men inscribed their names on the aft most hatch coaming. Their names are still visible in the wood today. Photo by the author
LT. John Talbot’s name inscribed in the hatch coaming of the gig. Talbot, a USNA graduate, class of 1866, was the Saginaw’s Executive Officer. Photo by the author.

After 28 days at sea, land was sighted. It was Kaula Rock, a small uninhabited rock formation southwest of Kauai, the nearest Hawaiian island that could provide rescue. At this point, all five men were so exhausted that Tablot knew they would never make it to Honolulu. The crew spent the next several days tacking into the wind to make landfall on the north shore of Kauai. As they approached Hanalei Bay in the evening of 18 December, they decided to wait until morning to make their approach, as the rough seas close to shore made this part of their journey the most perilous. Halford had come off watch, relieved by Talbot, when he went below for rest. Shortly after he was woken by the motion of the boat capsizing. He woke Muir, who was also below, and told him they needed to get on deck. Muir stayed and once Halford came on deck, a wave washed over the men. Talbort ordered the men to change course but another breaker overtook the small gig and capsized the boat. Francis and Andrews were washed away with that wave and drowned. Muir was still trapped below decks while Talbot was in the water. Halford, still on the gig, tried to help Talbot get back on the gig but another breaker rolled the boat again; Talbot drowned without muttering a sound.

The small boat was being tossed about in the breakers, and had finally rolled upright again, allowing Muir to get on deck. His wound was not apparent at the time, but he certainly suffered from one as he was incoherent and unable to assist. The gig rolled two more times before moving past the breakers and into calmer water. They had arrived on the western side of Kalihikai, 4-5 miles east of Hanalei Bay, 31 days from when they left Ocean Island. Halford assisted Muir to shore, who groaned constantly in pain, then made several trips from the boat to shore to ferry letters, supplies, and equipment. Wounded himself with a piece of mast buried in his leg, Halford passed out after removing it. He woke several hours later to find a local, Peter Nowlien, learning over and looking at him. He immediately went looking for Muir, who was no longer on the beach. Muir’s body was located some distance away, his head and face severely blackened. He likely experienced head trauma while below deck when the gig rolled in the surf.

Clothed and fed by the locals, Halford went in search of someone who could help him get word of his shipmate’s distress. He found a ship captain who was willing to travel to Oahu and he landing there on Christmas Eve. Halford immediately sought out the U.S. Consul’s office and reported the situation to Minister Henry Peirce, who in turn chartered the 85-ton fast-sailing schooner Kona Packet, to immediately sail to Ocean Island. While in the process of chartering a second vessel as back up, he was informed that his petition to King Kamehameha V was received and the Hawaiian kingdom dispatched the 399-ton wood screw steamer S.S. Kilauea to assist with the rescue.

Back on Ocean Island the crew were building a 40 ton schooner from the Saginaw’s wreckage, which they named Deliverance, as a backup to the captain’s gig. On January 3, much to the crew’s elation, they sighted the Kilauea, with the Kona Packet arriving shortly after. Hoping to see their shipmates, Sicard was informed of the gig’s voyage and the ultimate sacrifice made by four of the gig’s crew. Celebration turn to sorry when the crew learned of their shipmate’s fate.

Two days later, the crew was loaded on the Kilauea, the larger of the two vessels, and started their journey to Honolulu, arriving on Jan. 14. Amazingly the crew that stayed on Ocean Island survived this ordeal, the only casualties were those that sailed to Hawaii on the captain’s gig. The sole survivor William Halford was awarded the Medal of Honor, promoted to acting Gunner’s Mate and continued his career in the Navy, eventually retiring as an acting Lieutenant.

While the story of the crew of the Saginaw ended with their rescue, that of the small captain’s gig continues. Locals brought the boat on shore and shortly after the crew were rescued from Ocean Island, it made its way to Honolulu. Transported by the schooner Fairy Queen the boat was auctioned to benefit the Saginaw’s crew. On January 25, 1871, a group of locals purchased the boat, then immediately donated it back to the Navy. It was then transported to San Francisco a few days later.

This photo of William Halford on the captain’s gig was taken in January 1871 in the greater San Francisco Bay area. The metal reinforcements to the bow can be clearly seen, which are still in place today. Courtesy of the Histories and Archives Division, Naval History and Heritage Command.
Portrait of William Halford, San Francisco, 1871. Courtesy of the Histories and Archives Division, Naval History and Heritage Command.

The boat went to Mare Island and remained there until 1886 when it traveled to the east coast on the USS Jamestown to serve as a training boat for naval apprentices. In 1889, the gig was brought to the U.S. Naval Academy. In the mid 1930’s ADM Sellers, Superintendent of the Naval Academy contacted Captain Dudley Knox, Curator for the Navy, to assist with research on the gig. ADM Sellers was familiar with the history of this boat and believed it could be used to inspire future generations of Navy midshipmen.  Knox and his team assisted by conducting research on the likely sail configuration to represent the history of the boat as accurately as possible.

ADM Sells drafted plans to display the gig in a predominately glass structure. The Pittsburg Plate Glass company offered glass free of charge; they only wanted recognition for their donation. By Jan. 1938, the academy had a cost estimate of $5,055 to construct the glass-enclosed building to house the gig. There was mention of utilizing Works Progress Administration labor to reduce the costs of this effort. A location was selected between Luce and Macdonough Halls near the basin off Santee road. It appeared as though the gig were to finally be displayed in a location fitting her history.   

Sketch of the proposed glass structure to house the gig on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy

Plans were starting to come together, but unfortunately, ADM Sellers started this effort too late in his tenure, as he was detached from the Naval Academy on Feb. 1, 1938, and retired. He documented his actions for his successor, hoping they would have the boat placed on display, stating, “The Saginaw Gig has always appeared to me to be a living example of heroism and it has a peculiar appeal to all sailormen”. His desire to have a permanent location at the USNA died when Sellers retired. His successors did not take up this cause and the gig was placed on display in a stairwell parallel to the glass windows of the building enclosing the swimming pool. 

In July 1946 the head of the department of Physical Training, Mr. E.B. Taylor, asked that the gig be removed. He stated its presence “darkens the stairway and crowds the upper lobby” He argued that as the USNA had not done anything with it in the past, it couldn’t have been that historically significant to the history of the USNA and should be removed from his building. By Dec. 1946, the Committee on Memorials and Exhibits voted unanimously to recommend to the Superintendent that the gig be removed and offered to another activity, first to the Curator of the Navy. The Superintendent agreed and the boat was transfer in Jan. 1947 to the Curator of the Navy, what is now the Curator Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

The boat was moved to storage at Fort. Washington, MD where it stayed until 1954 when it was loaned to the City of Saginaw, MI. It underwent restoration and repair, and was formally presented to the city by Rear Admiral Emmet P. Forrestel, Commandant 9th Naval District on January 23, 1957. During the next several decades, the boat moved to various display location within the general Saginaw, MI area to include the Saginaw Art Museum, the Saginaw Water Treatment Plant, and eventually to the Saginaw County Historical Museum in 1989. In September 2015 the Saginaw County Historical Museum contacted the Curator Branch, wishing to terminate the loan and return the boat. Later in December of that year, the boat was shipped to the NHHC Collection Management Facility, having been on loan for 61 years.

In December 2015 the captain’s gig from the USS Saginaw was returned to NHHC after being on loan for 61 years. Curator Branch quickly had a custom steel mount made for the gig, to provide proper support along the keel and for the hull. Photo by the author
The bow section of the gig, showing the decorative “S” for Saginaw. The metal strapping was material salvaged from the Saginaw and used to reinforce the bow during her journey. Photo by the author.

In 2017, I engaged with a colleague, Todd Croteau, in the National Park Service (NPS) to ascertain the viability and interest in documenting the boat for inclusion in the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), part of the NPS Heritage Documentation Program. Todd was excited about this prospect and after multiple scheduling conflicts, was eventually able to visit the Collection Management Facility. Using a total station, he documented the boat’s dimensions and took medium format photos. These photos and drawings of the gig are now part of the HAER records held at the Library of Congress.


Line drawings produced as a result of the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Recordings project. Courtesy National Park Service

I am often asked what my favorite artifact is. Like a parent with close to 300,000 children, I could not possibly choose just one, though the captain’s gig from the USS Saginaw is certainly one of my favorites. I have the pleasure of managing a phenomenal artifact collection that contains a treasure trove of amazing history like that of the Saginaw gig. In his report to the Secretary of the Navy, LCDR Sicard wrote regarding the five men who sailed on the gig, “I don’t know that I sufficiently express my deep sense of their devotion and gallantry; words seem to fail me in doing justice to my feelings in that respect”. This boat’s history embodies not just the devotion and gallantry shown by these men, but the Navy’s core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment as well, serving as a tangible representation of these values from actions that occurred 150 years ago that continue to be relevant today. I am excited to preserve and share this history and hope that in another 150 years the Navy still remembers the men of the USS Saginaw and that her captain’s gig continues to inspire future generations of sailors.

https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/ships/ships-of-steam/saginaw.html