Alfred D Snow – Prelude to a disaster

The story of the loss of the American sailing ship Alfred D Snow is well known in Waterford harbour.  Following a ferocious storm overnight the American sailing ship was seen at 9 am inside the Hook with much of her sail taken off and working upriver with an SSW Gale at her stern.  By 2 pm that day, nothing would remain of the ship or her 29 crew after she grounded on the Wexford side of the harbour, close to Broom Hill. But where had she come from and what had she already endured?

Alfred D Snow was a three masted fully rigged timber sailing ship, built in the Samuel Watts shipyard in Maine, USA. Sometimes her type was referred to as a ‘Down Easter’.  She was 232 feet long with a beam of 42 feet.

She sailed into San Francisco bay on what was described as a gloriously sunny day almost 6 months before, on the 20th of July 1887.  She was one of 26 deep sea ships; both sail and steam in the Bay that late afternoon and as the sun set she found herself anchoring beside another ship from her home state of Main the Joseph B Thomas under the command of Captain William Learmond.  As was customary in such situations, the officers and crew made the most of the opportunity to visit each other’s craft and share yarns and news of home.

Alfred D Snow
Alfred D Snow. Image courtesy of Andy Kelly

The skipper of the Alfred D Snow was Captain William Willey and he was described by a contemporary as “handsome with his jet black hair, mustaches, and side whiskers”, and was held in high regard by his crew and the business people he dealt with. 

She was 143 days out of New York having sailed around the Cape Horn.  Tragedy had followed them on the trip, however, not uncommon in the days of sail, as first a 26-year-old Swede named Charles Lindgren fell from the rigging on March 28th and was killed instantly when his head struck the rail.  On April 8th the main topsail staysail block gave way and struck a German sailor, 30-year-old Charles. Brown.  He died two days later of his injuries.  Both men were buried at sea, as was customary at the time.

In the hold of the Alfred D Snow was a mixed manifest including 1000 tons of steel rails and once removed an outbound cargo was secured.  A local businessman William Dresbach, known as the wheat king of California, chartered her to carry a cargo of wheat (3150 tons, valued at $95,000) and 36,000 feet of dunnage lumber.  She loaded her cargo in Oakland and on the 31st of August she sailed out through the Golden Gate Strait into the pacific and turned south for the Horn.  Her trip according to most accounts was described as uneventful, however as we already know, her arrival into Waterford harbour would be anything but.[1]

Approaching the Irish coast a southeast gale started to blow. The crew battled bravely but in vain and as the storm grew in force they were forced to seek shelter in Waterford Harbour. She rounded the Hook on the morning of the 4th of January 1888.  Her sails were reduced, leaving her without much helm, the ship tried to either work its way up the harbour or under the Hook peninsula, in an effort to find shelter.

On land the people were helpless to give direct assistance; despite the turnout of the local coastguard on the Wexford side, the ship and her crew could not be reached from the shore. The Dunmore East lifeboat, Henry Dodd was called but didn’t respond until much later in the day with a makeshift crew, which was a matter of controversy at the time. The paddle tug Dauntless did try to respond. A telegram reached Captain Cotter who immediately departed from sheltering at Passage East.  However, it was a trip in vain; maneuverability was hampered after a paddle wheel was damaged in the fury of the seas. 

An oil painting of the Lynmouth lifeboat Louisa, by artist Mark Myers.©RNLI
A contemporary craft to the Dunmore lifeboat of the time. Henry Dodd was stationed at Dunmore from June 1884.

The crew of the Dauntless could clearly see the ship was grounded.  From a distance, they witnessed the ship heeling onto her side, the waves crashing aboard, and the desperate efforts of the crew to launch a ship’s boat.  They lowered this into the sea with some difficulty and eventually got away with some of the crew.  The onlookers were helpless however as it was swamped and all aboard were drowned. Their remaining crewmates took to the rigging of the ship, hoping for salvation. As the gale continued to roar and the seas continued to pound, the ship started to break up and the exhausted crew was washed away, swallowed up in the surf[2].

Although the memory of the tragedy lives on, I can never help but ponder how unkind fate was to these sailors.  Having endured the roaring forties, the Cape, her surging greybeards, and the might of the wintery Atlantic had she made the Tuskar Rock that night she would surely have survived as she entered the relative shelter of the Irish Sea.  We will never know for sure of course. Several other questions are posed too of course, for example, can we be certain the 29-man crew survived the trip to reach the Irish coast? These will have to wait for another time.

I would like to thank David Carroll, Brendan Dunne, Joe Falvey Mark Holoan and Captain Willeys gt gt granddaughter Betsey White for assistance with this piece

[1] The details of the preceding paragraphs, except the introduction, was taken from an article titled The Wreck of the Alfred D Snow. By Michael D White in the March 2018 edition of Sea Classics.  Vol. 51, Iss. 3 Pp 10-14

[2] Power. John. A Maritime History of County Wexford. Vol I 1859-1910. 2011. Olinda Publications. Kilmore Quay

16 Replies to “Alfred D Snow – Prelude to a disaster”

    1. Thanks Des, there’s a book in that one story alone. I think it’s fascination comes from the fact that it was played out in daylight and young an old were impacted by it

  1. The counter of the bar in “The Hotel” Duncannon was made from one of the spars of the Alfred D. Snow. It was removed and replaced by a “Formica” bar in the early 1970s.
    The Alfred D. Snow is a particularly sad story since there were no survivors.

    1. And not to forget that the bar in the Ocean Hotel was made from some salvaged timbers too Mark, still carries the name of her too

    2. Was the original bar in the Strand Tavern in Duncannon made with timber from this shipwreck ?

  2. Great Work Andrew, as always. I came across this some time ago in Duchas from the Templetown school in Wexford transcribed by the teacher Charles Hearne from the living memory of Lawerence Byrne of Booley whose parents seemed to have had a connection to Craden. The first part is a poem/song and the second part explains it and some other disasters.
    The Wreck of the Alfred de Snow on the Sandbanks of Broomhill.
    Of shipwrecks and disasters we’ve read and seen a deal
    Out off the coast of Wexford, to tell a dreadful tale
    It being on the 4th of January, when a winding gale did blow,
    And nine and twenty lives were lost,
    On board the Alfred de Snow.
    Kind friends I say, attention pay, I won’t detain you long,
    while I will unfold the wonderful facts of this most feeling song.
    My humble pen can scarce begin, these verse for to write,
    There’s no poets brain can ere explain, the horrors of that night.
    That unlucky day she sailed away, to plow the stormy foam
    To say there’s not one soul alive to bring the tidings home
    The night before our ship was lost twas mournful for to tell,
    She was like a feather all in the wind,
    tossed up on every swell

    From the port of San Francisco, she sailed across the main
    Bound for a port of Liverpool her cargo it was grain,
    She tried to make the Harbour, for in shelter of the land,
    That good ship went in fragments, next morning on the strand.
    Are there any heats of sympathy now standing on our shore?
    Oh yes, there’s brave and gallant men, now watching in Dunmore
    They’re ready for to risk their lives to the coastguard’s house they go
    They asked the captain for the boat but he quickly told them “NO”.

    At last I’m told, he gave consent to their noble hearted crew, And in spite of storm, tide and rain,
    To the sinking ship they flew;
    And as they reached the sinking ship, the crew in hopes to save,
    They saw the last let go the mast, and sink beneath the wave.

    T’was a sudden splash that broke her mast, her mains’l split in two
    Her yards were floating by her side, She’s sinking from our view,
    Oh watch that small and fragile boat, now bumping by her side
    Oh Heavens, they are human beings, now floating in the tide.

    Twas the dauntless Captain Cotter with his ‘Dauntless’ ship by name,
    With spirits brave he faced the wave, to their assistance came,
    It was like a thing that wast to be, when close up by her side,
    Her engines stopped, her paddle’s broke, she drifted with the tide.

    You sank last night within our sight, in spite of all our skill
    Our ship today has broken away, beneath the sandbanks of Broomhill
    Their only seven bodies got out of twenty nine in all,
    In consecrated clay they lie today, to await St Michael’s call
    May they take a trip in the Saviour’s ship
    along Jehovah shore,
    And join the other twenty two and part from them no more.

    The ship was lost in Waterford Harbour about fifty years ago, (1888), on the sandbanks of Broomhill. These banks are a great stretch of shoal to the East side of the Harbour. The catastrophe was witnessed by my own Father and Mother, from Credan Head on the Waterford shore.
    The poetic account is not exactly correct. Witness accounts say that during a dreadful storm this large sailing ship came around the Hook Head under full sail that morning. To account for her being under full sail entering an unknown harbour it is said that the crew were sick with some plague probably.
    She drove like a sheeted ghost up the harbour. The Dunmore pilot boat by the usual procedure in a storm went up the Waterford shore in the lee of the land, expecting the ship to shorten sail and heave-to to be boarded by a pilot as soon as she too would come in lee of the land.
    She carried right on until she struck on the banks a long way out from the Wexford shore. These banks would have been plainly discernible by the broken water upon them and any sailor’s instinct would have ordered him to keep to the Waterford side, to the windward side, in the storm.
    The pilot boat could not venture out of the lee of the Waterford side.
    She returned to Dunmore.

    How the crew were visible on the masts and spars in desperate hope of rescue.
    Captain Christopher Cherry, coxwain of the Dunmore lifeboat, “Henry Dodd”, fired the maroon to summon the crew. Cherry’s own wife and daughter flung themselves on him to prevent him going.
    Even so, he went down to the boat with the crew, but at last he did not go. He was a fine seaman and might have been able to affect a rescue. The light lifeboat was simply whisked by the hurricane away up the harbour without getting near the doomed ship. The men were now seen to be dropping off the spars one by one.
    There was a paddle steamer named the ‘Dauntless’ on the river between Duncannon and Waterford in those times. Captain Cotter, her skipper made a vain effort to reach the wreck.
    The body of the captain of the ‘Alfred de Snow’ was got on Duncannon strand still warm. The hull went to pieces immediately.

    Lawrence Byrne, Booley, tells that it happened 63 years ago. Charles Hearne, 35 N.T. Templetown N.S. Co Loc Garman, transcribed these stories from Laurence Byrne.

    The Wreck of the Kinsale

    This also occurred some years previous to 1900 AD. The ship was driven in sight to the cliff near the sandbanks of Broomhill, to a great clais called Hell Hole. Something went wrong outside the harbour. She became unmanageable. She was a large steamer laden with porter and general cargo.
    At the mouth of the Harbour the mate urged the captain to let go anchor, but he, said to be drunk, said, “no, we’ll drive her in to Hell”. This expression gave the name “Hell Hole”.
    Lawrence Byrne remembers as a little boy seeing all the neighbours trampling the banks and shores with lights that night.
    Three men were saved by a few women who tied their aprons together and let them down over the bank like a rope to where the men were clinging. On being brought to a house, one of these survivors lost his senses and dashed up the big open chimney in terror. She is said to have been a Scotch boat.
    Lots of barrels of porter came ashore during the night and the men stove in some of them. They used all kinds of vessels to hold it, and as drinking vessels. Some even drank it from their boots.
    There is another clais nearby called “Cotton Hole”. It is said that a ship laden with cotton went in there also within living memory.
    Lawrence Byrne also remembers wreck of a ship at Credan Head, called the “Stowell Brown” and at the Hook named “The Royal Aster” laden with yellow corn. During the early years of the war, while I still attended school at the Hook, I remember the wreck of the ‘Margaret’.
    German submarines were very active on the Waterford steamship route. It is said that they used have submarine fuel tanks on the bottom of the sea.They were very much at home on the east coast of the Hook. I often saw the foamy tail of their periscopes. Men from them used sometimes come ashore in collapsible boats, even posting letters locally.
    The ‘Margaret’ was a steamship laden with coal, with a crew of 22. She had been injured out near the Saltees by a mine or torpedo. Another ship took her in tow. She towed her just to Hook point.
    The weather was very rough. The tow rope was broke, but as things seemed to be alright with the towed vessel, the other continued on. It was night time.
    At Hook point, there is a part or line of the sea where the Eastern tide meets the Harbour tide. Even in steady weather this place is very troubled and rough at certain stages of the tide. It is called the ‘Race’ of the Hook.
    There, a couple of hundred yards out from the lighthouse, ‘the Margaret’ foundered. Mr. Kennedy, the lightkeeper on watch, could hear the drowning cries of the men.
    He was powerless, as the only boat available was a light currach, in which he could do nothing without a powerful crew. The crew were all drowned.
    The upper parts of the vessel’s masts were visible over the sea for long after.
    Much of her cargo of coal came ashore in the ‘channs’. Though it does not float, coal rolls easily along the seabed, especially during stormy times.

    1. Hi Donnie, thanks for all that, fascinating reading.
      I was reading a newspaper report about the inquest where only one line was given to Captain Cotter of the Dauntless, basically saying they went down but all hands were lost when they arrived.
      It flummoxed me because I was reared on a story similar to what you provided.
      I’m hoping to get the inquest transcript or report for another time

  3. Was the controversy you mention due to the Dunmore Lifeboat crew refusing to answer the call out?. I recall reading somewhere that the crew were all dismisseD from the RNLI. And that the crew who actually went to the Alfred D. Snow were some locals who made up a “scratch” crew.

    1. That’s right Jack, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. The Cox was a man named Cherry, a seasoned sailor and pilot. He was pilloried at the time, but I never heard a word said against him growing up. Think there’s much more to it than the official version. The scratch crew were led by two fishermen from Tenby

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