THE CHRISTMAS THAT WASN’T
by Bob Brooke
May you and yours find peace and joy this holiday season.
n October 20, 1878, John Campbell and his sister Anna made their way to school in Galveston, Texas, the gateway to the new southwestern frontier. Christmas was just two months away, and they were already dreaming about what exciting gifts they might get. Eight-year-old Anna had her heart set on a French doll. Twelve-year-old John wanted a pair of leather boots. Both of these items lay in boxes on their way to the docks in New York Harbor.
Horse-drawn wagons filled with goods tried to make their way through the throngs of people to the docks in New York. One particularly busy ship was the City of Houston. Heading for Galveston, this voyage of the Houston began like most others, her spacious cabins full of hopeful emigrants and her hold full of cargo of general merchandise to supply the needs of the new pioneers.
Crates of Singer sewing machines, iron kettles, grinding wheels, lamp parts, door knobs, rope, clothes pins, wire, locks and keys, shoes, patent medicines, and even tooth brushes stood next to those holding more luxurious items like Haviland china and silver serving pieces. There were boxes of personal items, too, like spools of thread, straight pins, and bolts of cloth for ladies to make into new dresses, and felt hats, men’s and ladies’ leather boots. And in among the many boxes lay special items–sleigh bells, snuff bottles, marbles, miniature porcelain dogs and bird whistles, wooden croquet sets, harmonicas, and china dolls–items that would make perfect Christmas presents for loved ones. Some of the dolls, with bisque or porcelain heads, had been imported from Europe. Wide-eyed frontier children would also be expecting red rubber balls, wooden farm animals, toy tea sets, and lead toy soldiers on horseback. For toddlers, there were toy tops and alphabet and building blocks, and for babies, rattles and teething rings.
The Houston, a barkentine outfitted with two masts and auxiliary sails, regularly carried passengers and freight between New York and Galveston by way of Key West. Passengers could expect to spend a little over a week onboard the ship.
Two days out of New York, the City of Houston ran headlong into a storm that was moving fast up the East Coast. The storm rapidly intensified, with gale force winds and monstrous waves that shock her violently. Water flooded her engine room, dampening the boiler fires. Soon, the engine stopped, leaving the ship to helplessly founder broadside in the troughs, where she wallowed helplessly. By this time it was 2:00 A.M. on October 23.
"Rouse the passengers from their cabins," Captain Stevens ordered his first mate. As the sleepy passengers gathered below deck, the first mate and a member of the crew handed out life preservers as the captain explained the situation. "Water has flooded the engine room," he said calmly, "putting out the boiler fires. This has left us with no power, thus no control over the ship. Each one of you must put on a life preserver and prepare to abandon ship, should the need arise."
Stevens knew the outlook was bleak, but he didn’t want to cause unnecessary alarm. "Prepare the lifeboats!" he ordered. But as he looked out at the angry waters, he realized it would be pure folly to put the ship’s passengers in them on the wave-tossed sea, especially women and children. How could he expect them to row to shore in the dark during this storm? Even if they made it alive, how could they survive on that desolate shore?
The City of Houston foundered off of Frying Pan Shoals, an area about as desolate as the plains of central Texas. The captain saw only a slim chance for survival.
"Burn the Coston signals from the pilot house," Stevens shouted to one of the crew. In a few moments the red glow from the signals lit the deck, but the sheets of heavy rain all but blotted them out before any nearby vessel could see them.
"She’s settling by her stern," reported the first mate. "The water is nearly ten feet deep in the engine room.
As first light came up over the horizon, the lookout shouted, "Ship to leeward, Captain!" But the furious winds prevented the little two-masted brig, some 10 nautical miles away, from reaching the stranded ship.
Hope of rescue faded as the steamer began to sink by her stern. Captain Stevens knew he had to order the lifeboats launched. Just as the crew began lowering the first boat, the steamship Margaret, bound for Fernandina, Florida, on Amelia Island north of Jacksonville, appeared on the horizon. She dashed towards the City of Houston full steam ahead. Her crew immediately began to transfer the Houston’s passengers and crew to her deck. An hour later, all were safely aboard the Margaret.
Hours later, the City of Houston sank beneath the waves, leaving only her masts showing above the surface. Furniture and boxes, the only things left to mark her existence, bobbed about. Her cargo, destined for stores in Galveston, had been valued at $150,000. But the tragedy of it all was that boxes, packed with Christmas presents, now sat on the ocean floor. Young John Campbell would have to wait to get those new leather boots, and his sister Anna would once again have to play with the old worn cloth doll she had loved for years.
I hope you enjoyed this brief excerpt from my newest book,
SHIPWRECKS AND BURIED TREASURE: THE OUTER BANKS, now in bookstores.
A book makes a perfect gift for someone you care about.
Look for my new books:
The Everything Family Guide to Mexico, The Everything Family Guide to Coastal Florida ,
and How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques
on sale now in your favorite bookstores and at Amazon.com.
(Buy directly from Amazon.com by clicking on the book titles.)