On Tuesday 6th January 1852 the American sailing ship Columbus went ashore to the east of Hook Lighthouse and was wrecked. Despite the efforts of those onshore 14 were lost including three female passengers. It was arguably an avoidable tragedy but as is often the case in these circumstances, the fates seemed to conspire to see the noble ship meet her doom in the graveyard of 1000 shipwrecks.
The aftermath of this incident was felt far and wide but none more so than in the locality. However this story focuses on the event as seen through the eyes of Captain Robert McCerren, Master of the Columbus. Residing in the Imperial Hotel in Waterford for some weeks after, he handled the salvage of the vessel’s cargo of cotton bales and he also provided his own analysis of why the Columbus was lost, appearing before a number of sittings of the Harbour Commissioners and writing to the press.
McCerren was operating for the American company Black Star Line out of Liverpool. In 1848 he had been given command of their new ship Columbus, having previously served as Master on their vessel America. The Columbus was advertised at that time as offering the best in accommodation and care -particularly to those escaping the Irish famine. The company ran as many as 18 ships. The vessels were described as American Packet Ships and the phrase “Queens of the Western Ocean” was coined in recognition of their speed and sailing ability.
The Waterford Mail of Wednesday 14 January 1852 reprinted a letter written by Captain McCerren into the circumstances of the loss.
Waterford, Jan 10th 1851
Messrs Washington Jackson & Sons, LIVERPOOL.
Gentlemen— lt is my painful duty to inform you of the loss of the ship Columbus under my command, 28 days from New Orleans, to your address ; in consequence of heavy gales from South, and thick weather, I was unable to get an observation after passing long. 13.50 W. and 49.20 N., on the 6th whilst running for Tusker.
At 5 p.m. I made the Hook lighthouse, and from being unable to see the land it had the appearance of Tusker. At half-past 5 saw the light and found that we were embayed. I then hauled to Southward, but could not weather Saltee’s light ship. I then wore and stood to westward and weathered the Hook light, thus having the harbour of Waterford fairly open, stood across the bay to Dunmore, discharging rockets every three minutes for a Pilot, and was seen by many persons from the pier of Dunmore, this being the proper pilot station.
Finding no pilot I was obliged to wear and stand off, and in endeavouring to weather the Hook light was forced by heavy rollers on the rocks ; during the time it was blowing a gale and heavy sea, driving on the iron bound coast I cut away the anchor before striking, to keep the ship’s head to sea. When the ship struck at 9. p.m. 1 was so near that I hailed the people shore, and was answered.
I despatched a boat in hopes of getting a line shore, but she was capsized, and the mate and two men saved and one drowned. In attempting to lower the life boat she was dashed to pieces against the ship. I then cut away the mast, and the ship held together until 5, a.m. when the bottom and top separated soon after broke amidships carrying away the stern frame, and with Edward Simmons, third mate, and two men, who were lost.
We then secured the ladies to a portion of the wreck. About this time ten persons were near me, the second mate assisting me in holding the ladies—the last piece fell over on us, and but four persons and myself were washed onto the rocks. Of the crew eight seamen, names unknown, Edmond Simmons, of New York, third mate, are lost, passengers, four in number, all lost—names are, Mrs. Falcon, Workington, Miss Clementina Burke, from the Island of Ascension, her way to Portsmouth, two steerage passengers, names unknown.
I feel it my duty to state, that, though no assistance was rendered from the shore, for want of means, to project a line or life boat, by which all could have been saved, as the ship held together for eight hours, every was made at the risk of life, by the people on shore, assisting all who reached the rocks, and immediately carried them to the houses, and bestowed every care and attention that could he given. I must mention, particularly, Mr. Harwood, of the coast guard, Doctor Hamilton, of H. M. Cutter, the Sparrow, Mr. Breen and Mr. Carroll, keeper of the light, and his assistant. More active benevolence could not have been exercised—the warmth of feeling and hospitality will ever he remembered by me.
P.S. —To add to the distress of all on board the moon became totally eclipsed at the moment of breaking up.
McCerren also wrote a letter to the Editor of the Waterford Mail:
Sir —Permit me, through the medium of your paper, the privilege returning thanks the Rev. Peter Dunn. of Templetown, for his untiring exertions, in his clerical capacity, in restoring lost property, preventing plunder from the wreck of the ill-fated vessel commanded by me.
With much pleasure I publicly mention an extraordinary act honesty the part of James Breen, of Herrylock, a poor boy, who picked up, unperceived, a small bag of American gold, which he returned to me in the presence of his pastor, the Rev. Mr. Dunn.
By the insertion of the above, you will do an act of justice, and oblige
Your obedient servant.
Master of the late US. ship Columbus.
Commercial Hotel Buildings,
January 13, 1552.
The Mail added this paragraph to the Captains letter:
“The following is, we understand, a list of the persons lost the Columbus: 3 ladies, passengers, 2 Irish sailors; 2 Dutch sailors; 2 Scotch sailors; 3 American sailors; 1 English sailor, and two steerage passengers (male and female)”[AD This was an error in the report as far as I can find out, one of the lady passengers mentioned above, from Waterford, elsewhere named only as Mary was in steerage, as was her nephew who she had travelled to America to bring home] “one of whom was on his passage home from California to the neighbourhood of Waterford.”
There’s a lot in this story to digest. You can’t help wonder is this a case of what is described as getting your own version out into public before other accounts emerge. McCerrens original miscalculation with the lighthouses seems to have cost him his job, however. In 1853 he was on the Defiance [A rather appropriate name given his personality?!] where he was involved in an altercation with the Peruvian Navy while collecting a cargo of Guano from the Chincha Islands.
In subsequent weeks the events associated with the wreck were foremost in many people’s minds and the results were far-reaching. The conduct of the pilots was a matter of investigation by the Harbour Board with a war of words in local papers too. But the reality was that having sailed into harbour near low water on a spring tide, there was little the pilots could do for a sailing ship of this size, and this would be bourn out – despite the fact that the pilots were generally the whipping boys of both the Board and the press in that era. The matter of the confusion between Hook and Tuskar would also be considered but would take several more years to resolve. The reaction and the impact are something I will return to at a later stage to explore.
For another account, could I recommend an article by Liam Ryan of Fethard in On the Hook Parish Annual 2021 p 57 which seems to be a first-person account of the tragedy from Robert McCerren