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The Last Cruise of the Steam Frigate Missouri

by Nov 17, 2019

U.S. Steam Frigate Missouri departed Norfolk, Virginia in the evening on the 5th of August 1843, bound for Alexandria, Egypt. There were 384 officers and crew aboard, and a mascot bear named Bess.

On August 18th, the crew gathered on deck, as the first sight of land rang out, of Mount Pico in the Azores.

A crewmember, William Bolton recalled: “Much to our satisfaction, our commander decided to anchor at Fayal, opposite Villa Orta.”

As they neared land, the decks were cleared, boats were lowered, the drum beat to quarters, and a salute of seventeen guns was fired.

During their stay, coal was replenished, fresh produce was brought aboard and there was considerable bartering for souvenirs until the order came: “All hands unmoor the ship!”.

They continued and arrived in Gibraltar on the evening of the 25th.

The next morning everything was made ready for receiving supplies. Venders boats also came alongside with fruit, cigars and souvenirs for those with money; the Master-at-Arms making sure no rum was brought aboard.

Supply launches soon arrived with additional coal and unloading continued into the early evening. Down below, Firemen were oiling and cleaning the engine, work progressing rapidly, as their stay was to be short.

That evening, at five minutes past eight, a shout was heard and alarm bells were quickly sounded:

“Ring the bell! Ring the bell! Fire! Fire!

Flames were seen rising three or four feet above the fore hatches. In an instant bucket lines were formed, the engine pumps were manned, and the fire hose hauled to the forward hatchway.

The flames were feeding on hemp, oil, turpentine and paint, growing stronger every second, and spreading, getting dangerously close to the 2900 pounds of gun powder in the forward magazine.

A gunner raced to the after magazine where 5700 additional pounds of gun powder were stored, with orders to drown it. Below, engineers and firemen were making every effort to hold back the flames, without success.

The order was given to open the twelve 4 ½-inch Kingston valves located in the bottom and bilge. In a few minutes in-rushing seawater was waist-deep. The engine pumps continued their work and the crew passed bucket after bucket desperately trying to save their ship, until smoke, heat and exhaustion finally overcame them.

As the alarm bells sounded, the town and crews aboard other ships in the harbor awoke to the alarm bells and help hurried toward the burning frigate. But it was already too late. Nearly engulfed in flames now, the ship swung round and careened over, and Captain Newton called out the order to abandon ship.

Many of the crew swam to shore, others were picked up by boats in the harbor. The ship’s mascot bear, “Bess”, in a panic, climbed out on the extreme end of a spanker-boom. One crewman in a boat returned to the flaming ship, trying to force the bear overboard, but the bear turned on him and was last seen running along the flaming deck before the forward powder magazine finally exploded, sending debris high into the air.

“Thus perished, in one night, the most magnificent steam frigate that ever crossed the Atlantic.” (William Bolton).

Source: A Narrative of the Last Cruise of the U.S. Steam Frigate Missouri, By William Bolton (one of her crew); 1843.