Thomas W. Badger and the sinking of the Central America

Excerpt from: Letters Home of Gold Fields and Lost Ships: Correspondence from Thomas W. Badger and Thomas N. Badger to Relatives on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1863 – 1953
by Curtis J. Badger and Lynn M. Badger
Published by: Salt Water Media

When visiting family back home in Virginia, Thomas would take a ship from Oakland to Panama, cross the isthmus by rail, and board another ship for the second leg of his journey. He knew the sea well and preferred traveling by ship to overland travel. He first went to sea at age 15, working as a deck hand on various boats sailing out of east coast ports.  By the time he was in his twenties, he was the captain of his own ship.

SS Central America Frank Leslie's Illustrated  Newspaper - Library of Congress. Public Domain.
SS Central America Frank Leslie’s Illustrated
Newspaper – Library of Congress. Public Domain.

Thomas liked to take the Central Americafrom Panama to New York. He had sailed on the Central America three times prior to the fall of 1857, and he was very familiar with the ship. He once described her as “one of the best and staunchest ships afloat.” Tom and Jane Falkenburg were married in late 1856, and in September 1857 they planned a honeymoon trip aboard the Central America to introduce her to the folks back home.

The Central America was by all accounts a handsome ship. She was a steam powered, three-masted sidewheeler, built in New York in 1852 and originally christened the George Law. She was now owned by the U.S. Mail Steamship Company, and her master was Capt. William Lewis Herndon, who, like Thomas, went to sea at age 15. Capt. Herndon, now 44, was a Navy veteran who had risen to the rank of commander in 1855. He had taken a leave of absence from the Navy to take the helm of the Central America two years earlier. This would be the ship’s 45th voyage from Panama to New York.

Capt. Herndon and his crew had sailed from New York on August 22, 1857, heading for Panama. On the same day in San Francisco, Capt. Tom and Jennie, as he called her, boarded the Sonora and headed south. They would link up with the Central America in early September at Aspinwall, and from there travel north to New York and visit family in Virginia.

The Central America arrived in Aspinwall on September 2, and the crew quickly began restocking the ship with coal, food for the passengers, medicine, rigging, and other supplies. One hundred bags of mail and several tons of gold were transferred from the Sonora. The United States Mint opened in San Francisco in 1854, and there were freshly minted gold coins, heavy gold bars, and money of private coinage. Consignees, including the American Exchange Bank and Wells Fargo and Company, had $1.6 million in gold secured in the Central America‘s hold. In addition, many passengers carried large sums of their own. Thomas and Jenny carried a valise with $20,000 in gold pieces.

The Central America was loaded, inspected, and ready to set sail. At 4: 15 p.m. on September 3 Capt. Herndon gave the order to cast off. The ship, fully loaded with nearly 600 passengers and crew, was on its way north. The first stop would be Havana, Cuba.

It took exactly four days to reach Havana, and it had been beautiful cruising weather, blue skies with a nice breeze, warm days and cool nights. During the brief layover, some of the men went ashore to stock up on Cuban cigars, which were very popular in America and were being imported by the millions annually. It was hurricane season in the tropics, but all was calm in Havana. The current topic of concern was a yellow fever outbreak, not the weather.

The Central America left for New York shortly after breakfast on Tuesday, September 8, still sailing under clear skies and a brisk breeze. Passengers passed the time by strolling on the promenade deck or reading books, newspapers, and magazines. Card playing was popular among the men.

On Wednesday at 5:30 a.m., Second Officer Frazer noted in the ship’s log that Cape Florida passed 75 nautical miles to the west. At noon he noted that there was a fresh breeze and head sea, and that since leaving Havana the Central America had traveled 286 nautical miles.

The weather quickly began to deteriorate on Wednesday afternoon. The barometer dropped, the rain began, and the wind began to blow with the force of a gale. Most of the passengers believed the storm would pass during the night, and they would awake to find clear skies in the morning. On Thursday, it was obvious that the Central America had sailed into a hurricane. Thomas arose at 6 a.m. and by 7:30 he and Jennie were on the deck. Thomas went below and noticed that the ship’s engine appeared to labor sailing into the heavy seas, and that the chief engineer seemed concerned. He checked back later in the day and noticed that the engine was running even slower.

On Friday the storm continued unabated, as the Central America followed the track of the hurricane as it made its way northeast up the coast. Thomas noted on Friday morning that the ship was “free from water, with head to the wind, laying very easy, and engine working slowly.” At 9 a.m. the chief engineer reported that the leeward bilge was taking on water. Captain Herndon ordered that the pumps be used, but they failed to reduce the water level. The ship’s list, and the violence of the sea, made it impossible for the coal passers to use wheelbarrows, so Captain Herndon ordered all available crew to use buckets and baskets to pass coal to the engine room. It was essential to keep steam up and to keep the bow into the sea.

A second leak was discovered around a shaft leading from the engine to the starboard paddle, and at 11 a.m. Captain Herndon met with passengers in the first class cabin area and asked the men to form bucket brigades to pass coal and to bail water from the steerage area. By noon water had covered the Boor in the coal storage bunker and the ship lost power. Seas broke over the decks and flooded the staterooms.

Through the day and into the night men bailed water, but to no avail.  At daybreak the captain ordered the flag hoisted half-mast in a signal of distress. The Central America was in a frequently used shipping lane, and the hope now was to keep the ship afloat until the passengers could be rescued. The men bailed continuously for 22 hours before a sail appeared on the horizon at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

The brig Marine of Boston had taken on a load of molasses in Cardena, Cuba and was heading north when she passed to the lee of the stricken Central America. Capt. Herndon hailed the brig and asked the captain, Hiram Burt, to lay by, as the Central America was in “a sinking condition.” Capt. Burt replied that he would remain as long as he could.

The Marine, which itself had been battered by the storm, stood by to take on passengers, and women and children would be the first to go. Although the worst of the storm had passed, there still were 30-foot seas, making the task of loading, unloading, and rowing the lifeboats extremely difficult. To further complicate things, the Marine was not capable of maneuvering close to the Central America and was slowly drifting away. Crews of both vessels worked steadily throughout the afternoon, and by evening all of the women and children had been transferred, as well as a few of the men.

As darkness fell, those remaining on the Central America realized that they would not be rescued by the Marine, and most realized that the ship would not make it through the night. The men put on what life preservers and metal life buoys they could find, and doors and other wooden structures were gathered to be used as rafts.

A depiction of the sinking. J. Childs (engraver & publisher) National Maritime Museum, London. Public Domain.

The Central America went under stern-first, and as she entered into the sea she took along hundreds of men, who were sucked into the void left by the ship. Some re-surfaced, but many did not survive the first ten minutes in the water. Those that did clung to hatch covers, planks, doors, and anything else that would float. Thomas said later that he found a six- foot long plank and clung to that.

Captain Anders Johnsen of the Norwegian bark Ellen was heading to Falmouth, England with a load of logs. At 1 a.m. Sunday he was standing on the quarterdeck with his helmsman, Gustav Jacobsen, when out of the darkness the men heard all around them the agonized cries of human voices. He roused his crew, put up lights, and began pulling survivors aboard. They pulled in the last survivor at 8 a.m. and continued searching until 11 a.m., and then they headed for Norfolk, Va.

Jane had been on the second lifeboat that transferred women and children from the stricken Central America to the brig Marine, and she feared for the life of her husband. According to a story in theNew York Herald, the women had gathered in the cabin of the Marine, and around 9 p.m. a man entered and notified them that the Central America had gone down. “The steamer has sunk. I saw it go down, and every soul on her has gone to Davey Jones’ locker,” he said.

The women comforted each other with the knowledge that the men had life preservers and other items to keep themselves afloat, so they did not give up hope. Still, it would be hours before families would know the fare of their loved ones. Jane was taken to Norfolk with the other women and put up in the National Hotel. Thomas, who had been rescued by the Ellen, was also taken to Norfolk, but he and a group of other men boarded the night steamer Louisiana to Baltimore. Jane got word at the hotel that her husband had been saved, and, very relieved, she left the next morning for a reunion in Baltimore.

More than 400 passengers and crew members died in the sinking of the Central America. Thomas and Jane were one of only four couples to survive the disaster.

Silver speaking trumpet on display in the Ker Place Museum.
Silver speaking trumpet on display in the Ker Place Museum.

Thomas was one of the many heroes of the Central America tragedy. His experience as a sea captain aided greatly in keeping the ship afloat long enough for many passengers to be rescued. In appreciation of his efforts, the Central America New York Fund Committee presented him a large silver speaking trumpet engraved with mementos of the disaster. The inscription reads, “Presented to Captain Thomas W Badger in token of their high appreciation of his conduct on board of the steamer Central America, at the time of the loss of that ill-fated vessel. New York, May 17, 1858.” The trumpet today is on exhibit at Ker Place in Onancock, Va., home of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society. A metal life preserver of his is on exhibit at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.

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