New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Loss of the Royal Tar

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This is the story of the ship ‘The Royal Tar’ which was built in Saint John and sank in 1836 with the loss of thirty two lives. The story is by W.K. Reynolds, and appeared in The New Brunswick Magazine, Saint John, Volume 1, 1898.

This is one of those tragedies which occupies some place in our collective identity but which has, from all outward appearances, been forgotten. The story is therefore repeated here, once more, for those thirty two.

 Royal Tar

A depiction of the Royal Tar, from the collections of the Nova Scotia Archives


The Loss of the Royal Tar

The loss of the St. John steamer Royal Tar, in the year 1836, was in many ways one of the most remarkable marine disasters in the annals of the Maritime Provinces. For many years it held a leading place in the stories of strange events handed down from father to son, and even at this day the older people can recall the intense interest with which, in their younger days, they listened to the recital of incidents of the notable casualty. A few years ago the writer published a partial account of the disaster in one of the St. John newspapers (Daily Telegraph, Oct. 26, 1896), and since then he has gathered further facts which now enable him to present the story in a form worthy of preservation by the students of local history.

The Royal Tar was the pioneer steamer on the route between St. John, Eastport and Portland, Maine, and the establishment of this line to connect at Portland for Boston was an enterprise of no small importance on the part of some of the people of St. John. This steamer was built at the shipyard of William and Isaac Olive, Carleton, and launched in November, 1835. It was of 400 tons burthen, 146 feet keel, 160 feet on deck and 24 feet beam, and was fitted and equipped in an unusually fine style for those days. The cost was about $40,000. One half interest in the venture was owned by John Hammond, and the remaining half was held between Daniel McLaughlin and Mackay Brothers & Co. The steamer was commanded by Captain Thomas Reed, father of the late Thomas M. Reed.

There was great rejoicing in St. John when this fine steamer was completed and ready for the route. The trial trip took place in the harbor on Monday, the 2nd of May, 1836, and was an event in which a large number of citizens took a lively interest. Between two and three hundred guests were on board, and after the boat had steamed around the harbor, and had made the run from Partridge Island to Reed’s Point in fifteen minutes, there was a general jollification at the expense of the owners. A hot luncheon was served, and a contemporary account says it was accompanied by “rivers of sherry and oceans of champagne.” The steamer had been named the Royal Tar in compliment to the reigning king, William IV, and among the toasts was one to “The patriotic and beloved sovereign from whom the ‘Royal Tar’ is named The Sailor King.” On June 5 the steamer made its first trip to Eastport and St. Andrews, and in returning made the run from Eastport to St. John in less than five hours, a record breaking trip for that era of steam navigation. The steamer also made the run to Fredericton and back, and thereafter was put regularly on the route to Portland once a week and once a week on the river route.

The Royal Tar arrived at St. John from Portland on its regular trip on Monday, October 17, 1836, and sailed from its berth at Peter’s wharf on Friday, October 21, having on board the crew of 21, and 72 passengers, including a number of women and children. Captain Reed was in command, and had with him Francis Black, mate; N. Marshall, engineer; J. Kehoe, second engineer; W.G. Brown, steward; and Margaret Watts, stewardess. The pilot was a Mr. Atkins. The passenger list was larger than usual, as it had the members of Fuller’s menagerie, or “caravan,” as it was called in those days. This show had been travelling through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and gave an exhibition in St. John before starting on its return to the United States. The wild animals included an elephant, two camels, and the usual variety of captive beasts and birds which go to make up the stock of a menagerie. In addition to these was a large wax work exhibit. There was also a huge show wagon called an omnibus, as well as wagons required for carrying the cages, with the horses needed to draw them. The caravan was exhibited on the ground at the corner of Charlotte and Union Streets, the field, at that time extending along Union street as far as the present site of Hamm’s stables and along Charlotte street to the alley north of Dr. Pidler’s house, now owned by S.F. Matthews. The Humberfiled Academy, then a new building, was on the corner. Everybody went to see the show, which was a great one for those times, and there was a large crowd at the wharf, at the foot of Duke street, to see the animals depart and to hear the band play on the deck of the steamers.

When the Royal Tar left St. John it had all this large caravan aboard, and save for the greater proportion of human beings must have appeared like a modern Noah’s ark. There was heavy weather along the coast in the latter part of October, 1836, and when the Royal Tar left Eastport on the evening of the 21st, the wind was found to be blowing so hard from the westward that the steamer put into Little River for safety. The gale continued for three days, but on the afternoon of Monday, the 24th, another attempt was made to resume the voyage. Finding a heavy sea outside and the wind still from the westward, the steamer put into Machias Bay and again came to anchor, remaining until midnight, when the wind shifted to northwest and the voyage was again resumed.

According to the narrative of Captain Reed, published in the papers of that time, all seems to have gone well until about 1.30 in the afternoon of the following day, Tuesday, Oct. 25, when the engineer reported that the water had been allowed to get too low in the boiler. This appears to have been a case of carelessness, due to the neglect of the second engineer. On hearing this report, the captain ordered the engine stopped and the safety valve opened, the steamer being brought to anchor about a mile and a half from Fox Islands, in Penobscot Bay. The fire in the furnace was extinguished, and it was supposed that all danger from the overheating was over. The force pump was set at work to supply more water to the boiler, but in about half an hour the steamer was found to be on fire under the deck over the boiler. The discovery was made by Brown, the steward. An effort was made to extinguish the flames by means of hose attached to the pump, but it proved unavailing. The fire spread rapidly and it was plain the steamer was doomed.

The scene of horror that ensued may be in part imagined. The steamer was ablaze in the middle, while the crew and passengers were madly rushing to and fro at the bow and stern. The shouts of excited men, the shrieks of helpless women and the wails of little children were mingled with the roars of terror from the imprisoned wild beasts, while the fierce crackling of the advancing flames told of the increasing in peril of death, the only way of escape was by two boats, capable of carrying less than a third of that number. Captain Reed, with two of the crew, lowered the small boat at the stern and got into it, in order to prepare rafts and save as many people as possible. At the same time sixteen able-bodied men lowered the large quarter boat, into which they jumped and rowed away, leaving their fellows, with the women and children, to escape as best they could. The selfish fellows kept on rowing until they reached Isle Haut, several miles distant, while many of those they had abandoned were dying amid the flames or being engulfed by the sea.

In the meantime the Royal Tar’s cable was slipped, the jib and mainsail were set and the steamer endeavored to make for the nearest land. Captain Reed stood by with the boat, and as the terrified passengers began to jump overboard was able to save several lives, including those of J.T. Sherwood, British consul at Portland, and James H. Fowler of St. John.

The scene of horror increased every moment. Those on the steamer crowded still more closely to the bow and stern. Shrieks of despair and shouts for help filled the air. The roaring and screaming of the beasts and the glare of the flames suggested pandemonium let loose on the sea. The larger animals, freed from their fastenings, rushed around the deck. Six horses and two camels were pushed overboard and started to swim to the land, but only two horses reached it. The big elephant, after tramping and bellowing in terror, rushed to the side of the steamer and jumped overboard. In doing this, and in its struggles in the water, it upset a raft of planks and ladders, on which a number of people had found refuge, and several were drowned. Finally, the animal started to swim to the land, but never reached there. Every animal of the caravan, except the two horses, perished either from suffocation in the flames or by drowning.

Help for the perishing people was near at hand, however, for the fire was seen by the U.S. revenue cutter Veto, commanded by Howland Dyer of Castine, which reached the scene half an hour later. This was a schooner of 40 tons, and its boats were so small as to be of little use in the work of rescue. Captain Reed and his men, however, used their boat with the result of saving about 40 more persons. The last boat load was put aboard the cutter at 5.30 and landed at Isle Haut about 7 o’clock in the same evening. By the time the last survivor had been rescued, the burning steamer had drifted five or six miles. It was then a sheet of flame and was being blown rapidly out to sea. The light disappeared from view about 10 o’clock.

A few days later a schooner passed a dead elephant floating out to sea. Later, a traveler’s trunk, with about $90 in money in it, was picked up, and on the 12th of November a schooner arriving at Portland reported having passed the remains of a burned steamer near Cash’s Ledge. The trunk was the only trace of the effects ever brought to land.

The number of those who lost their lives was 32, of whom 29 were passengers and three of the crew, including Margaret Watts, the stewardess. Among the five cabin passengers lost was Mr. Price, of the St. John river. Of the forward passengers, those lost were four men, nine women and ten children. Several of the women, despairing of rescue, threw their children into the sea and jumped after them. One woman swam twice around the steamer before she sank and was drowned.

Among the St. John men who were saved were several whose names were well known in later years, including Andrew Garrison, Captain John Hammond, John Ansley, George Eaton, James H. Fowler, and W.H. Harrison. Stinson Patten, of Fredericton, was also among the saved. Of this number the only survivor is Mr. William H. Harrison, now in his 86th  year, who is a resident of Sackville, N.B. When the account before referred to was published in 1896, Mr. Harrison expressed his satisfaction at the accuracy of it, and the Sackville Post gave some of his personal recollections of this disaster. Mr. Harrison was in his 24th year at the time of the memorable calamity, and had taken passage for Portland as the shortest way of reaching Upper Canada. While the steamer was burning he made several attempts to construct a raft, but failing in the effort he made himself fast to the stern of the vessel as far as he could get from the flames. Others availed themselves of the same means of safety, and among them was Alexander Black, of Pugwash, N.S. This was probably the mate, whose name appears in the list as Francis Black. While the only remaining boat of the Royal Tar was transferring the imperiled passengers to the U.S. cutter, the burning steamer was drifting rapidly out to sea. Messrs. Harrison and Black had to cling to it nearly three hours before they were rescued.

In addition to the loss of the steamer and cargo, a large amount of money in bills and specie was destroyed in the fire. There was no insurance on the vessel or other property and the total loss was estimated at about $100,000.

In the work of rescue Captain Reed received great help from W.G. Brown, the steward, and both were greatly exhausted by their labors. They, with others of the crew, reached St. John on the following Saturday, in the schooner Ploughboy from Eastport. Here a fresh shock awaited Captain Reed. In the newspapers of that week was this notice:

Died, on Tuesday morning, after a short illness, William Grant, son of Captain Thomas Reed, in the 18th year of his age. Funeral on Saturday at 2 o’clock, from his father’s residence, when the friends and acquaintances of the family are requested to attend.

The boy had been in apparent health when the Royal Tar started on the 21st, but had died after an illness of 48 hours, on the very day the steamer was burned. He was buried a few hours after his father’s return. His name is found on a stone in the Old Burial Ground.

The friends of Captain Reed in St. John soon after presented him with a purse of $621 in recognition of his work in rescuing the passengers and crew, and Steward Brown received $110 as a gift from a number of the young men of the city. Captain Reed became harbormaster of this port in 1841, and died in August, 1860.

For a number of years it was the custom of the St. John men who survived the disaster to sup together on the 25th of October in each year. One of the last of these survivors, apart from Mr. Harrison, was Mr. George Eaton, who died on the 20th of October, 1886, five days before the fiftieth anniversary.

Sixty years ago St. John had among its local poets a genius named Arthur Slader, who was the author of a story in verse of the burning of the Royal Tar. There was also a still more remarkable rhyme, composed by somebody else, which was placed on a canvas outside by The Hopley Theatre, at Golden Ball corner, as an advertisement of a panorama of the burning of the Royal Tar. The lines ran: The Royal Tar, she went too far, / Her boiler got too hot; / She’ll never see St. John again, / Because she’s gone to pot.

How, in the face of such a calamity, such a rhyme could ever have found popular acceptance is not clear at this day, but a popular quotation it was for many years after the event, as some who are still comparatively young men can attest. Possibly it took with the crowd because of the jingle, but certainly not because it was an appropriate commemoration of one of the saddest of tragedies.


Written by johnwood1946

August 21, 2013 at 9:06 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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