Alfred D Snow – Prelude to a disaster

Alfred D Snow Andy Kelly image

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

Remembering the crew of the Alfred D Snow

Last Sunday there was an understated but very fitting memorial ceremony for the crew of the sailing ship, Alfred D Snow. The ship grounded in Waterford Harbour on January 3rd 1888 and all 29 crew aboard were drowned. The memory of the tragedy lives on however, on both sides of the harbour. And Sundays ceremony saw the great great grand daughter of her captain lay a wreath in memory of the crew. 
image courtesy of Andrew Kelly
The Alfred D Snow was a three masted fully rigged all timber ship which was built in the Samuel Watts shipbuilding yard in Maine USA.  She was 232 feet long with a beam of 42 feet.  She departed San Francisco on Aug 30th 1887 bound for Liverpool with a cargo of wheat under Captain William J Wiley. On that trip was his 18 year old nephew, John. Approaching the Irish coast she encountered a storm and had to try find shelter in Waterford Harbour.  However the ship struck the bottom close to Broomhill in Co Wexford and got stuck fast.  Heeling over, the waves crashing aboard, the ships boats were launched with some difficulty and one managed to make it away but it was swamped and all aboard were drowned. The remaining crew took to the rigging in the hopes of salvation, which never arrived. In total all 29 crew died, mostly American but also men from England, France, Germany, Norway and Russia.  
During the days that followed the captains body was recovered and was shipped home for burial in a lead lined, brandy filled casket. Other crew men were interred in Ballyhack, but most were never found. Pieces of the wreck floated in all along the harbour.  These were secured by the coastguard apparently and were auctioned off. Timbers were used in the making of the Strand Tavern in Duncannon, the bar of the Ocean Hotel in Dunmore, now the Three Sisters.  They were also used in house construction throughout the harbour and I believe a table from the ship was taken from the tide by a Cheekpoint fishing family and for many years after had pride of place in the living room.  One of the more interesting artifacts that was salvaged was the ships figure head.  It was for many years the property of Capt. Richard Farrell, former Harbour Master of Waterford and it stood in his front garden. I understand it was sold during the 1980’s to a London antiques dealer.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Grogan
Following an earlier account that my wife Deena wrote, Betsy White, a direct descendant of the ships captain and his nephew, sent an email seeking more information on the area and the events.  Betsy was planning a trip to Ireland and was trying to locate the various placenames associated with the story. Over the space of a year we exchanged many emails and photographs creating a clearer picture for Betsy and helping in some way in her planning of the trip.  The highlight for me last week was to finally meet her and to witness her lay a wreath in memory of all those who died.
Betsy White with Jim FitzGibbon of Slade following the wreath laying
The captain’s last resting place
photo courtesy of Betsy White
According to Betsy, the only way the captain was actually identified was because of a ring he was wearing. (Betsy also informed me that the ships carpenter was also returned home to be buried, he was identified by a measuring stick found in his pocket). She also told us that the trip was to be the captains last.  It was undertaken to pay for a new home.  He was interred in his home town of Thomaston, Maine and his wife Cordelia is buried with him having died in 1913. The ship and her crew are still remembered today by the Thomaston Historical Society and here’s hoping the same will be said in our own harbour for many years to come. 

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Smuggling in the Suir Estuary

This months guest blog is provided by James Doherty. It takes a look at the incidence of smuggling in the harbour from a historical perspective. Its a very exciting topic, and one that has not received much attention in the past. I sincerely hope people enjoy reading it as much as I have.
One of the first instances of formal taxation dates to the reign of King John I, when in 1203 he ordered a tax placed on woollen goods leaving his jurisdiction for the continent. Inevitably as soon as rulers sought to levy taxes men sought ways to avoid such taxes. The history of smuggling is intricately linked with the history of taxation.
Smuggling in its
simplest form is the movement of goods from one jurisdiction to another with the
express purpose of avoiding taxation or levies. The non-payment of duties owed
makes the smugglers goods considerably cheaper than his legitimate competitors
whilst still offering substantial financial return.
By its nature
smuggling is a difficult subject to research; the most successful smugglers are
the ones that no one has ever heard of. The level of detection is low and
primary sources are scarce. The majority of historical evidence comes from the
perspective of the people trying to catch the smugglers. This article hopes to
provide a brief explanation of the factors that influenced the growth and
decline of smuggling, the type of goods smuggled and provide some local
examples of this clandestine trade.
Revenue cutter pursuing a suspect circa 1830
Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Generally when
people think of historic smuggling the image that comes to mind is teams of men
unloading casks of brandy or gin, however a wide range of products were smuggled.
In addition to premium items such as spirits a  wide range of other  items were moved such as tea, wool, salt, playing cards, banned publications (such as
bibles during the penal times) and people
leaving Ireland as fugitives.

Being relatively light and highly taxed
spirits, tea and tobacco were a popular choice for smugglers. However the
earliest large scale smuggling in Ireland revolved around more mundane items
like wool and salt. Wool and salt provide two good examples of the two main
external factors that influenced Irish smuggling namely taxation and trade
To pay for his
military campaigns King William III introduced a tax on domestic salt
production in England in 1693[i].
However this tax did not apply in Ireland which had the unintended consequence
of leading to an explosion of smuggling from Ireland into England. This
smuggling was carried out on such a scale as to decimate the traditional salt
industry on the coast of England[ii].
Throughout a
large portion of its history England followed the economic theory of mercantilism.
The basic tenant of this theory is that imports into the empire had a negative
effect whilst exports were positive. During the 17th and 18th
century parliament in Westminster passed several acts that were designed to
restrict Irish and benefit English trade. In 1663 the Cattle Acts prohibited
the export of cattle to England this encouraged Irish farmers to switch to wool
production. When the Irish wool trade flourished it threatened manufacture in England.
As a consequence of this perceived threat to industry the taxes on wool imports
into England (which already were subject to duty) were greatly increased with
the Woollen Acts of 1699. A novel feature of this act stated that it was
illegal to be buried in a shroud made of Irish wool (unless you were a victim
of plague). Effectively excluded from the English market these trade
restrictions greatly increased the scale of wool smuggling from Ireland into
France where the price of wool remained high and the markets open[iii].
Example of a medieval burial shroud
accessed from:

One of the
earliest recorded local mentions of the clandestine trade dates from October
1594 when Sir William Russel Lord Deputy of Ireland “granted a commission to
search in Wexford, Rosse, and Waterford for prohibited wares to pass for France[iv]”.
The Lord Deputy didn’t state what wares his men were looking for but wool would
have been likely.

The high-water
mark of smuggling was from the period of 1750- 1850. This period saw high
taxation as England fought a series of wars with France. It was also a time of
high consumer demand for luxury products which were smuggled into the Ireland
such as tea, spirits and tobacco. The beginning of the 19th century
would also see increased preventative measures with revenue cruisers patrolling
Irish waters and the formation of the Coastguard.
Waterford would
play a key role in the war on smuggling, when seven permanent cruiser stations
were established in Ireland one of the locations chosen was Dunmore East[v].
The successes and failures of the Dunmore based cruisers such as The Hound or The Pygmy was covered extensively by the local papers[vi].
The often substantial seizures by these cutters gives an idea of the scale of
smuggling being carried out along the Irish Coast during this time period.
1822 would see
the formation of the Coastguard which was an amalgamation of several services
and ended the piecemeal approach to combating smuggling. As a series of
station houses and accommodation for the Coastguard was established, private
houses were rented as a temporary measure.  The only area along the coast where this rental
caused difficulty was Ballymacaw Co. Waterford. The Inspector General of the
newly established force Sir James Dombrain noted that all available houses where owned by a local merchant with
smuggling connections. In the same report Dombrain stated that the smuggling in
this part of the coast was being carried on to an extent “that almost exceeded
The smuggling
sloop Isis provides a good example of
the activity Sir James Dombrain lamented in his report. In September of the
same year that the Coastguard was established the revenue cutter Richmond seized the sloop Isis after a 6 hour chase which had
started  near the Saltee Islands.  A modest 18 kegs of gin were discovered on-board
after the sloop was inspected at Waterford Quay. Its prime cargo however was
tobacco, the Isis contained 300 bales
of tobacco weighing over 13000 kilos. Although the Isis had sailed from Holland it was revealed that a local man from
Tramore was part of the crew. When earlier in the same week a similar vessel
was seized its cargo was valued at between 6 and 7 thousand pounds[viii]
(worth nearly a million euro in modern terms).
An artistic impression of gin smuggling
Accessed from:

The Isis was a dedicated smuggler whose
success relied on evading the authorities. Another tactic employed was that of
deception. Smugglers would hide contraband cargo amongst legitimate cargoes in
a very similar way to how a lot of modern smuggling is carried out. The covert
hiding of tobacco became more popular as the number of seizures mounted
throughout the 1820’s. A couple of weeks before the seizure of the Isis members of the Coastguard inspected
the schooner Nelson. Hidden amongst
the cargo of apples and potatoes lay a large amount of tobacco[ix].
The following years would similar levels
of activity with the local papers reporting in 1825 that Waterford Gaol held 33
men on smuggling charges with three ships captains out on bail[x]

Ships like the Nelson and the Isis primary cargo was contraband tobacco with their crews taking a
calculated risk with the hope of earning a tidy profit. Opportunistic smuggling
was also widespread throughout the first half of the 19th century.
Sailors returning from countries where tobacco was cheap often brought smaller
amounts of tobacco with them with the view to supplementing their wages. In
1825 the Morning Register newspaper reported that two ships recently returned
from Quebec were being held on the quay in Waterford as tobacco had been found
on board. In this case the paper reported that one young “lad” had been
convicted of smuggling[xi].
It is unlikely that a young man perhaps on his first voyage would take it upon
himself to engage in smuggling so the reasons why he was convicted over his
shipmates can only be guessed at.
An advert to twart the smugglers
Accessed from:

A darker side to
smuggling existed and as preventative measures increased the smugglers often
resorted to brute force or the threat of violence. The reports of smuggling
seizures and chases mentioned if the smuggler was armed or not and the level of
force used by the revenue cutters to seize vessels.  An early violent encounter occurred in December
1792 when the Waterford Herald reported on two incidents of smuggling the first
was a seizure of 320 kilos of tobacco at Bunmahon and the second was an armed
confrontation between an unnamed ship  and two revenue cruisers.  It was reported that one of the cruisers sent
a boat to board the smuggler which was fired upon by the smuggling crew. Despite
the best efforts of the two revenue ships in this case the smuggler escaped[xii].

preventative measures would force smugglers to change their tactics it was a
change in economic policy that would lead to the eventual decline of smuggling.
From the 1840’s on the British would start to move towards a policy of free trade which saw the removal of import duties and the lessening of taxes. This
policy made smuggling less profitable and the practice gradually died out.
It is very
difficult to measure the size of smuggling activity along the Irish coast with
some estimates saying that half of all tobacco consumed in Ireland was
contraband during parts of the 18th and 19th century. It
is evident however that large scale smuggling occurred along the Irish coast
and was organised on an impressive scale.
This is the third or our guest blogs. The intention is to offer a platform to others who are writing about the maritime heritage of Waterford harbour an opportunity to publish their stories. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email me at The only criteria is that it needs to have a maritime connection to the harbour and a maximum word count of 1200 words. I will format, source the photos if required and add in the hyperlinks. Guest blogs will be published on the last Friday of each month. Our next guest blog is scheduled for Friday 31st March and comes from Brendan Grogan. Its a piece about his Grandfather, Captain Farrell who went to sea at age 16 in 1878 and went on to become a master mariner and harbour master of Waterford. I can’t wait to share the story with you.
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[ii] Ibid
[iii] History of the Commercial and Financial
Relations between England and Ireland from the Period of the Restoration
[iv]Journal of Sir William Russell, Lord Deputy. From 24 June 1594 to 27
May 1597.
[v] King’s Cutters and
Smugglers 1700-1855, by E. Keble Chatterton
[vi] Example :  Waterford Mirror
[vii] Sir James Dombrain and the Coastguard
[viii]  Waterford Mirror : 25/09/1822
[ix] Waterford Mirror : 30/08/1822
[x] Waterford Mirror : 01/12/1825
[xi] Morning Register :19/07/1825
[xii] Waterford Herald :13/09/1825

The SS Alfred D Snow and Cheekpoint Green

When I was a child I used to come to the cottage on the Green on Sundays, long weekends and summer holidays.  It was my Grandparents, Tommy and May White’s house and it was always full of cousins, aunts and uncles and lots of gatherings and parties were held there.  Grandad had bought it in the 1950’s from “Billy the Green” Doherty who had reared a large family in the house.

The summers were the best because you got to play all day on the Green and be with your friends from morning til night.  The village was always busy in the summer months too with fishermen on the quay, coming and going from fishing, mending nets, checking boats.  There were always visitors on holidays and people coming to Mac’s for food.

When the cottage was full with cousins Nanny would make up extra beds in the sitting room and we would all pile in.  In the mornings the jackdaws in the big open fireplace would waken us with their squawking and flapping wings. 

My favourite place to sleep though, was in the small back bedroom. We were told this was an old ships cabin from a ship that had been wrecked in the harbour many years before.  This room had a low wooden ceiling with some iron rivets across it in places.  There was a small skylight which was then closed in place but could have been opened in the past to allow fresh, if salty air into the cabin on a ship that crossed the Atlantic for her trade.  It was a cosy room and often too hot on a warm summer evening.  It was only years later that I learned that the cabin came from an American ship called the Alfred D Snow.

The Alfred D Snow was a three masted fully rigged all timber ship which was built in the Samuel Watts shipbuilding yard in Maine USA.  She was 232 feet long with a beam of 42 feet and was built in 1877. 

image courtesy of Andrew Kelly

She left San Francisco on Aug 30th 1887 bound for Liverpool with a cargo of wheat under Captain William J Wiley.  She had fair weather on the trip, including the rounding of Cape Horn but as she came up towards the Irish Sea a south east gale blew up and the captain found that evasive measures were required.  The crew battled bravely but the storm grew in force and they were forced to call into Waterford Estuary to try find some shelter.  Sails were dropped, leaving her without much helm and they tried to inch the ship in under the hook peninsula that would have given them some shelter.  However the ship struck the sand close to Broomhill and got stuck fast.  Heeling over, the waves crashing over, the ships boats were launched with some difficulty and one managed to make it away but it was swamped and all aboard were drowned.  The others took to the rigging in the hopes of salvation.

On land the people were helpless to give direct assistance.  The Dunmore East lifeboat was called but didn’t respond until much later, which was a matter of controversy at the time.  The tug Dauntless did try to respond.  She was sheltering at Passage East but as she approached one of her paddles broke and she drifted helplessly away back up the harbour.  As the gale continued to roar and the seas continued to pound, the ship started to break up and the remaining crew were washed away and they too were drowned. 

In total all 29 crew men died.  Mostly American but also men from England, France, Germany, Norway and Russia.  There was an Irish crew man named Michael O Sullivan but I haven’t found out where he came from.  However in researching this piece I did learn that there was a survivor; the ships dog, a sheepdog, managed to swim to shore and climbed up the rocks to safety.

During the days that followed the Captains body was recovered and was shipped home for burial in a lead lined, brandy filled casket, (I wonder did he like a drink?).  Other crew men were interred in Ballyhack, but most were never found.  Pieces of the wreck floated in all along the harbour.  These were secured by the Coastguard apparently and were auctioned off.  That’s one possibility for how it arrived in Cheekpoint.

A model with the cabin behind the foremast
image courtesy of Andrew Kelly

Locally, it is said that it came to Cheekpoint quay and using rollers was brought up the village and the backroad and then down behind the cottage and put in place.  The Boreen wasn’t wide enough apparently.  It remained as it was until a few years back when my cousin renovated the house, so that in total the shipwrights at Samuel Watts yard created a cabin that lasted over 130 years.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to sleep in the cabin, but I don’t know if I would have slept so soundly had I known the whole history of the ship at that time.

Deena Bible 23/8/2014
Piece first read at the Heritage Week event in Reading Room Cheekpoint

With thanks to Andrew Kelly for further information.
John Power – A Maritime History of County Wexford Vol 1(2011)

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at to receive the blog every week.
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