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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 14
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p181  Chapter XIII

Lieutenant — Junior Grade

The Philadelphia at San Diego — Coast Cities Festivities — Hard Work — Examination for Promotion — The Meaning of "Acapulco" — To Port Angeles, Rifle Practice and Maneuvers — "Mr. Apple Butter" — South American Cruise — Chile and Peru — The Oregon — St. Elmo's Fire — Cholera.

When I joined the Philadelphia at San Diego, Calif., on March 3, 1896, the senior watch officer was Lieutenant Frank A. Wilner, who was then forty-five years old, and still a watch officer; a fact which shows how slow promotion was in those days. Wilner had been in the naval service for twenty-seven years. Soon afterwards, however, he was ordered to the Adams as navigator, and was relieved of standing watch.

The flagship usually went unaccompanied by other vessels. Admiral Beardslee was in command of the Pacific Squadron, and Captain Charles S. Cotton in command of the Philadelphia. The ship had a fine personnel of officers, with Ingersoll as executive. I relieved Harry A. Field, and had to be ordered as a watch officer to rate the ward room — and this was after fourteen years of service!

I found my division encamped on North Island. It was overgrown with brush, and had only a few trees; its only building was an old barn. We made a clearing for parade grounds, and had some wonderful and efficient drills. At night we sat around a camp fire. It was a time when at Coronado and San Diego one worked hard and played hard. The Coronado Hotel was the center of all social activities, and there were many. My wife who had been in Alaska visiting her family joined me later at Port Angeles.

 p182  We had, of course, to accede to requests to visit various ports, and I recall one such occasion which resulted rather unfortunately. We anchored in the harbor of Port Hartford, the seaport of San Luis Obispo. A committee came from the city and invited us to a banquet. Being on watch I was unable to attend as did the captain and several of the officers.

A dashing character in that part of California (his name began with M), took charge of the affair and ordered large quantities of champagne — some say a thousand dollars' worth. At daylight the special train arrived bringing the captains and other officers back to the ship, and they told us of the wonderfully good time they had had at the banquet. When we reached a northern port, however, we read in the newspapers that after the dinner the waiters hired for the occasion had drunk hundreds of dollars' worth of the champagne that remained. Our friend M., who had guaranteed to pay for the wine, declined to do so.

The editor of a local newspaper suggested that the bill be sent to the officers of the ship, "for," he said, "large quantities of it were poured own the thirsty gullets of the men of the sea." The affair was suppressed in some manner, but whenever thereafter we wished to joke one of our fellow-officers who attended the banquet, we would inquire if he had paid his share for the champagne, and whether or not his gullet was dry.

We were so short of officers that the three who were left stood on the night watches, and the captain put on midshipmen in the day time. We had some excellent men of the class of 1895.

Those were the days of flower shows; and Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and other California cities, vied with each other in such pageants. I remember that at Santa Cruz, they dammed up the river to make a Venetian lake, and had a very beautiful and creditable display.

My cousin, Mr. George Brewington, now nearly one  p183 hundred years old, lived in Watsonville, near Santa Cruz, and came there to visit me.

The best attractions, of course, were at Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. In the last named city, it was arranged that the queen of the carnival and her attendants should have as escorts the officers of the Philadelphia. Pictures of "Her Majesty" and her maids were sent to us, and we decided to make choice of them by throwing dice. I was among the first to win, and selected one of two sisters whose father, Judge Wellborn, was a member of Congress. When we marched into the hall to meet the queen and her ladies, we went directly to the girls we had won, and they wondered how it all could happen so quickly. One of the officers made a faux pas by telling the girl he was with that on the throw of the dice, he had tenth choice!

Sometimes, one has an actual experience in real life, such as is found in fiction, and such a one happened to Willard and me.

A military looking gentleman, apparently of means and distinction, and evidently of English extraction, came on board the Philadelphia while we were in San Francisco Bay. He had luncheon with us, and during the afternoon, announced that his preference in drinks was for champagne. He enjoyed himself so much that he remained for dinner. After the meal was over and he was smoking a mild cigar he recounted various stories of his travels and prowess in other lands, while he was in the British Army. In fact, I believe he remained overnight and for breakfast, on board. When he left the ship he invited several of us to go down to the famous club at Burlingame, where he was staying. Upon his insistence our executive officer decided that Ensign Willard and I should go. The gentleman — who parted his name in the middle — met us at the station with a trap, took us to the club, ordered Scotch whiskeys in large quantities — incidentally drinking most of it himself — showed us his stable of horses, and in the afternoon took  p184 us to the polo grounds where we met many of the younger set, both men and women whose names were well known in the society of San Francisco and other California cities. Both Willard and I, being from Missouri, were discreet and allowed the impression to be made that we were quite accustomed to that sort of life. We said little and listened much. At the end of a long and perfect day we returned to San Francisco.

A month later we were horrified to find an article in the San Francisco Chronicle stating that the gentleman who had been our genial host had suddenly disappeared leaving his bills unsettled at the club where he had entertained us so lavishly, and that a number of drafts for large amounts on London exchanges, with which he had paid for his racing stable and other luxuries had been returned with the statement that he had no funds available. It was all very sad, particularly for the young ladies to whom he had paid such marked attention. I assume that those who introduced him at the club had to pay the debts of the "gentleman." Willard and I made no further inquiry, and were a little reticent at that time about telling the story.

At Santa Cruz I went ashore early one morning, and alongside the dock whom should I see but my old friend, Guy Brown! He asked me first if I could hold the boat for a few minutes, and then if I would lend him a dollar, as he wanted to get something to eat at a nearby lunch counter. I gave him the money and held the boat while he devoured what I considered to be a hearty breakfast. On the way to the ship he told me this story.

He had been on duty at the branch hydrographic office in Portland, where he had many many friends. They had given him a big banquet, and in turn, he had entertained some of them the night before he left the city. The dinner had cost him more than he had expected it would, and after paying for it he had exactly twenty-five cents remaining — and it was a forty-eight hours' ride to Santa Cruz! Brown was a proud individual, and he ate  p185 only twenty-five cents' worth of food during the two days. As soon as he saw the Philadelphia and me his troubles were ended. A few square meals with plenty of coffee, on board ship, put him in good condition again.

While at Monterey orders came for my examination at Mare Island for promotion to the grade of lieutenant, junior grade. I had been in the navy fifteen years, and it was necessary, of course, to pass the examination. Captain Cotton was kind enough to give me leave of absence to get away from the flower shows along the coast, and I went to Vallejo, where I took a room at the old Bernard House, known to all old timers in the navy. I shut myself up and studied hard for six days. My only visitors were mosquitoes, and they nearly drove me crazy. When I reported I found the board of examiners composed of Rear Admiral Barker, the Commandant, B. H. McCalla, head of the Equipment Department, and W. E. Sewell, of Navigation. In spite of all my studious work for the examination I was not asked a question upon which I had prepared.

McCalla gave me some original problems in engineering and ordinance, and Sewell, who was obsessed with navigation matters, introduced me to some work that called for many conic sections. I remember two of McCalla's questions. One was, "Why not use the same kind of coal in peace as you would in war?" Another one was, "Placed in command of a small cruiser at Red Rock, Calif., at 2 A.M., you are ordered to capture and destroy Mare Island by daylight," or something to that effect, with all attendant information as to offense and defense. I hesitated on the second question for a few minutes before answering and McCalla inquired impatiently, "Well, what's the matter?"

I replied that there were two solutions to the problem, and I wanted to think it over before venturing on either one of them.

I passed the examination and rejoined the Philadelphia at San Francisco in July, before she sailed north.

 p186  When we anchored in San Francisco Bay our executive, Ingersoll, decided he would do the unusual thing and go on shore the first evening, leaving "Tom" Phelps, the navigator, in command.

At dinner that night the chaplain had two lady guests. As nearly all our officers were absent, one lady sat at the right of Phelps. He was tired and angered and answered her many questions in monosyllables. Finally she said:

"Mr. Phelps, what interesting places you must have visited on your travels!"

"Yes," said Phelps.

"What was your last port on this trip, Mr. Phelps?"

Acapulco, Madam."

"Oh, Mr. Phelps, what a funny name for a town."

"Yes, Madam," replied the navigator, "the name comes from two Greek words, 'Aca,' meaning, 'Hot as hell,' and 'pulco,' all the time."

Up to the late '80s we had a South Pacific squadron and the ships made long stays in Peruvian and Chilean waters. In fact, the Shenandoah which cruised there from 1883 to 1886 never got farther north than Panama.

Hold‑ups were frequent in San Francisco. Ensign Willard was walking down to the dock there one night after attending a theater when he was stopped at the corner of Market and Battery streets, and ordered to throw up his hands, which he did. Willard had spent all of his money for the show and something to eat afterwards, so, when the thieves began to search him he quickly told them that they could have half the money and jewels they found upon him. Upon searching him thoroughly they discovered that he had nothing they wanted, and after cursing him roundly allowed him to go.

We were at Monterey, July 4, 1896, to help celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the hoisting of the American flag by the United States forces. Among those present were at least two survivors of that incident of half a century before, Major Sherman and Quartermaster Toler.

 p187  We reached Port Angeles, Washington, in the summer of 1896, and drilled for about two months. The squadron was rather a motley one — the Monterey, the Alert, the Marion, and other ships of that character — but the admiral insisted upon having maneuvers. We practiced rifle shooting on the range at Ediz Spit, and had a landing party at the mouth of Morse Creek, all of which added to our fund of general information.

The order came suddenly to get our landing forces together, and in a very short time we had the boats out, the food and gear in, and were steaming along the beach. We landed several times, marched into the interior and pitched camp. Only once did we communicate with the outside world while we were there. We found farmers who supplied us with milk and honey. We brought sails from the ship and constructed tents for the men, and smaller ones for the officers. Our beds were the boughs of fir trees. We had with us the champion snorer of the navy — not to mention his name — but we made him move a half-mile upstream where only the native mosquitoes could hear him.

During the summer at Port Angeles, Rear Admiral Beardslee and his wife had a young lady from Portland visiting them. She had not met many navy men, and was anxious to be pleasant and courteous. One night the admiral and his wife gave a big dinner party on shore to some of his officers and their wives, and it was her duty to meet the guests at the door. The officers were all from the same ship, and of course were well acquainted with each other. My wife and I were the first to arrive. The young lady asked us to stand next to her, and as the other guests came, they were introduced and stood in line.

The young lady could not remember my name, probably never having heard it before that night, and when the third lady, Mrs. Winterhalter, appeared (the living in the same house with us), she again asked my name. I lost patience and said, "Mr. Apple-Butter." It was by that name that she presented me to  p188 Mrs. Winterhalter who, having been on the stage, was able to control her emotions. I was introduced to each of the twenty-four diners as "Mr. Apple-Butter," and she could not understand why they all laughed.

Of course, when we returned home I was properly and severely scolded. For a long time after that incident when the officers on the Philadelphia could not recall a man's name, some one would suggest that it might be "Apple-Butter."

While we were at Port Angeles, Edouard Remenyi, the famous violinist and his troupe, visited the town. They not only gave us a wonderful concert on shore, but were kind enough to come aboard the Philadelphia and entertain the officers in Captain Cotton's quarters.

Port Angeles has had its successes and its reverses, but is now a thriving city. We went from there to San Francisco where we received orders for a South American voyage. This suited everybody. I think its purpose was a good-will visit to Chile, a country with which we had had rather strained relations since the Baltimore incident several years previously, when some of our men were killed on shore at Valparaiso.​a

Cruising along the coast, with all of its attendant liberty, had got some of our men into a condition where salutary measures were needed, and for that reason while we were still north, Admiral Beardslee decided he must have courts that would impose severe sentences. One of these, whose members had been selected by the present Rear Admiral Willard, was known as The Winterhalter Court, because Winterhalter was its president, and as soon as its first two or three sentences became known, its fame went abroad. On the court were Blish, George Hayward, I and several others who were more or less hard-boiled. When its work was finished there was little need for others for a long time.

In San Francisco my wife and I had quarters at the Bella Vista in Pine Street, known to all old‑time naval officers. It offered special rates to the navy. Two  p189 squares distant I could get a Sutter street car that would take me to the wharf where the Philadelphia was docked.

The Philadelphia was a fine old cruising ship. We made the run to Callao, Peru, on the first leg of the cruise, reaching there in December, 1896. We had the usual social activities, chiefly at Lima, and the government took us on two excursions in the President's private car to the top of the Andes. Physical examinations to determine the condition of heart and lungs were necessary before we were permitted to make the ascent. I know now that we ascended too rapidly. We left the ship at six o'clock in the morning and were at the summit of the mountains at two in the afternoon. There were several casualties, and some of the officers did not fully recover for three months. Some of those in my party, however, felt so well, that when we reached the Galera Tunnel, we had a snowball fight. Fifteen minutes later, I experienced the sensation of seeming to have an iron band across my forehead, from temple to temple, that was crushing my skull.

That night we ran down to an elevation of 11,000 feet, and after I lay on my face in bed for two hours, I recovered. On our train we took up a bridal party whose wedding we had attended. That was a mistake, for the bride did not recover from the mountain sickness until after she returned to the seacoast.

From Callao we steamed on to Valparaiso. The run was made in four days, against the current. The weather was clear and the view of the snowcapped Andes was truly marvelous. I have never yet seen its equal. A heavy wind was blowing at Valparaiso, and I missed my new year's dinner in order to finish mooring to the buoys with the wire hawsers.

We did not see as much of the city and of the country as I would like to have seen. There was a bull fight at Santiago, but I did not attend it. I did not think I would enjoy the spectacle, and I have never seen one.  p190 I consented to let all four watch officers go, while I remained on duty with a few juniors.

A trip to Vina del Mar with Captain Randolph Dickens, of the marines, was most enjoyable. There were very few American girls in Chile, and most of them belonged to families of men who were employed by W. R. Grace & Company. We went on board the fine ships of the Chilean fleet and saw their wonderful electrical equipment, which was quite new at that time.

The Philadelphia started north in January, and stopped at Callao only long enough to coal, and then made a straight run for Acapulco. I shall always remember the delightful afternoons on the forward bridge of the old ship where we use to gather in the first dog watch to read or converse.

While on the South American cruise I had instructions to find the location of the guns in a certain fort. I had to go ashore in civilian clothes, register at a first-class hotel, spend money freely, and in some manner get the desired information. I succeeded in having the wife of an official drive me into the fort without knowledge of my purpose, and by the exercise of some tact obtained the facts sought. I have seen pictures of fortifications, taken by a camera concealed among four officers sitting in a carriage, and some of them were very good. I would dislike to perform such a mission again, because if one were caught his government could not well be asked for support.

On reaching Acapulco, we found the Oregon there, awaiting inspection. The admiral insisted that it should be done immediately. One of the inspectors was Lieutenant Stoney who had qualified as third vice-president of the fat men's club of the Pacific, and he certainly did perspire when he crawled through the double bottoms of the Oregon. I had been on board the battle­ship in the summer of 1896, had gone over the vessel, and I thought then that nothing larger could ever be built. I was also in San Francisco when she had her final trial trip. Returning  p191 to the harbor she carried a big placard telling the speed she had made, which was probably near seventeen knots. On her smoke stack was a broom, and a big painted sign which read, "Scott has got the Cramps." Scott was the president of the Union Works where the Oregon was built, and the Cramps had constructed the Massachusetts, at Philadelphia.

Our families joined us at San Diego, where we had a repetition of the experiences of the winter before, and almost before we knew it, we were ordered to Guatemala. We made the run down in seven days. One night, for the first time in my life, I saw St. Elmo's Fire. The dictionaries say that St. Elmo's Fire appears at the top of masts on a dark, damp, misty night. It looks like fire coming from a wick in a small black ball, and is certainly a ghastly sight. I entered it in the ship's log, and called the necessary witnesses so that I could prove its existence to our navigator, W. P. Elliott, who was a doubting Thomas.

Those who have ever anchored off San José know what making a Guatemala landing means. A huge basket raised by a crane is swung from the sea to the dock, and passengers and supplies are put ashore in that manner. With several hundred men to land, each carrying a rifle and a pack of baggage, it is not a pleasant experience. We enjoyed the trip up from the coast, for, after we left the lowlands, and reached a higher altitude, the weather was cooler and the scenery more attractive. I have forgotten why we went under arms, but we did.

We were quartered in an old building that had once been a jail or a fort, and sleeping accommodations were far from good. The food, after our own gave out, was bad. I remember the great quantities of beans we had and the poor black coffee. For the first time I used a safety razor, and not knowing how to handle it properly I cut a great gash in my right cheek.

We drilled on a broad plain near Guatemala City and all the people, including the Americans, came out to see us  p192 perform. At the conclusion of the drill, with the sun still shining, the band played some patriotic selections, and the crowd was moved to tears. As we were leaving the drill grounds I made the mistake of drinking from an old well which had been opened up by my men before I reached the place. I think I must have picked up cholera germs. We returned to the ship and gave a big party the same afternoon on a very rough sea. The women who had ventured out were violently sick, with two exceptions, and we had large quantities of ice cream and cake left on our hands.

Corbett and Fitzsimmons had their big bout that night in San Francisco. Our ward mess arranged with an American on shore, named Stewart, to have the returns sent to the ship in a small boat before we sailed at two o'clock in the morning. Just as we were about to start a boat came off with two bulletins. One stated that Fitzsimmons had knocked out Corbett, and the other that Corbett had died in the ring. All the way up the coast this was the chief topic of conversation, and we wondered whether the death of Corbett would prevent prize fighting in the future. We learned later, of course, that this report was false, a little joke perpetrated by Mr. Stewart, but it certainly did cause talk and speculation.

The morning after leaving San José the captain's steward was taken ill at six A.M., died at noon, and was buried at two P.M. He must have had cholera. The doctors said that at the time of his death he weighed only a little more than sixty pounds. As he was in my division I superintended the funeral, and saw his body go down to the depths with a cannon ball at his feet.

I then went down to the ward room and drank a bottle of ginger ale, before I took off my sword. At the table I was seized with violent cramps, and had to be carried to my room by McLemore and George Hayward. I had contracted the dread disease. I remember they gave me straight bismuth, and nothing else. I heard them talk about how ill I was, and how little chance there was of  p193 my recovery. I made up my mind there was only one thing to do, and that was to stop eating altogether, as whatever went into my stomach seemed to aggravate the disease. Thereafter, when water was brought to me I poured it into my basin, and threw the bismuth back of my bunk. I began to revive a little. Others who drank of the spring water were affected, and one man who was ill was so imprudent as to drink a little shellac before we reached San Diego. Naturally he died.

I stood watch at San Diego but had a relapse, and it was decided that I must leave at once for San Francisco and go to the naval hospital at Mare Island. The newspapers printed an account of my condition, and told of the disease on the ship. One of the papers stated that I was dangerously ill, and it fell into the hands of my wife. She telegraphed Winterhalter. It was Saturday and the message lay on his desk until Monday. I was placed aboard a steamer and reached San Francisco safely. My wife met me and I was taken to the hospital. I was there for six weeks, and was given no food except eggs, rice and milk during the entire period. I had excellent care, however, and finally regained my health. Since my recovery I have rarely, if ever, suffered from cramps. Notwithstanding, I do not recommend cholera as a remedy for that trouble.

While convalescing, I enjoyed my stay there, and my walks as soon as I was able to move. I think before I left the hospital I knew every foot of Mare Island. None of the more recent industrial buildings had then been erected. Lieutenant Hodgson, my old shipmate, was a patient, as was also Armin Hartrath, of the class of 1888.

Hartrath was an interesting character, accomplished, witty, and a delightful story teller. He could reel off yarns by the hour. He is long since dead.

Thayer's Note:

a The Baltimore Affair was nominally caused by an attack on American sailors from the U. S. S. Baltimore by a Chilean mob on October 16, 1891; but ultimately caused by Chilean rage at the Itata incident, May thru October of that year, in which in fact the United States forced the Chilean naval ship Itata to obey neutrality laws and surrender to a United States marshal — although the result was admittedly not achieved by American naval prowess, but by negotiation. The Baltimore Affair came to an end with Chile backing down to a threat of war by the United States (Galdames, History of Chile, tr. Cox, pp403‑404). The story of both incidents is told in detail in "The Itata Incident" (Hispanic American Historical Review, V.195‑226).

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