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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 16

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 18

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p229  Chapter XVII

A Record Voyage

The Enterprise Cruise of 1901 — The "Flemish Cap" — Edinburgh and the Lakes Trip — To Copenhagen — Sailing up the Baltic — St. Petersburg — Arrest and Release — The Czar, the Kaiser and the King, All in Two Weeks — Antwerp — Through the Kiel Canal — London — Through the British Mediterranean Fleet — Sister Clare — "Man Overboard."

Commanding officer Hughes decided that the 1901 cruise should be a record one. By diligent work, we made the vessel ready for sea at the end of May, and sailed from Boston, June 1. We ran into a heavy sea immediately outside the harbor, and the captain had the misfortune to have a heart attack that night on the bridge. Once clear of the fog, with a fine westerly wind behind us, we made a fast and wonderful voyage by the northerly route, at one time making fourteen knots, and under practically bare poles.

On most maps of North America a shoal is shown northeast of Newfoundland, marked "the Flemish Cap." On one of the annual cruises of the Enterprise, we carried by special permission, the captain's wife and daughter, who were en route to Europe. We also had on board a young staff lieutenant, who was very unsophisticated and ignorant of the unwritten laws of life at sea. He became very attentive to the captain's daughter, and we soon found that matters talked of at the ward room table, were repeated in the cabin. It became necessary to touch him a lesson.

One day at luncheon I casually asked the navigator what time we would reach the Flemish Cap.

"Tomorrow afternoon at two o'clock," he replied.

Then turning to the pay officer, I asked him what fresh  p230 vegetables he could purchase, if we stopped there.

"Onions and artichokes," he answered.

Nothing more was said at the time. When I went to the cabin that night to make the eight o'clock report, the captain told me his wife and daughter had been chiding him because he did not know the ship was going to stop for fresh vegetables the next day. They told him they knew it was true because Mr. Blank had said so! Then I had to tell the captain the joke. The next afternoon, much to the amusement of all the officers on board, the young lieutenant was on deck, eagerly waiting to be the first to report to the ladies the news of the sighting of the Flemish Cap. He is still waiting, but not on the deck!

Our cruise this year was to carry us to Scotland, Denmark, Russia, Germany, Belgium, England, Spain and the Madeira Islands. The state board of commissioners had directed the commanding officer to take on board a Mr. Baker who had been an instructor in mathematics on the ship during the preceding scholastic months.

There were no accommodations for Mr. Baker in the ward room, nor in the adjacent rooms, so it became necessary to construct a special compartment for him abreast the engine room hatch on the main deck. At first Mr. Baker was very seasick and used to leave his door open to get more air. The door faced forward, and after his recovery, he would sit on a stool just inside his room with his back against the open door, and read until very late at night, oblivious of the fact that the light from his room shone directly on the hammocks of some of the cadets.

One night, just after I had turned in from the first watch, I heard a rumbling down the deck, the sound of an impact, and then a falling body. The master-at‑arms promptly reported to me that one of the cadets had taken a large head of cabbage, and from well forward on the port side, had rolled it down the deck in the direction of Mr. Baker's room where it hit his chair, knocked it from  p231 under him, and precipitated the thoughtless guest on the deck, without doing him any physical injury, but greatly impairing his dignity.

I knew the matter could not be investigated that night, nor the culprit found. I instructed the master-at‑arms to endeavor to bring the guilty one before the mast the next day, so that I could handle the case.

Before Mr. Baker could reach my room with his complaint, I turned out my light, and left instructions that I was not to be disturbed until four o'clock the next morning. The master-at‑arms reported early that the offender had not been found.

At eight o'clock I reached the mast, where all complaints were reported, and there I found the irate Mr. Baker, still indignant, and pa­cing up and down the waist deck. I realized that the matter must be handled tactfully, and as soon as I called for offenses committed, and before anyone could respond, I commanded Mr. Baker to appear at the mast. As he stepped forward, I said:

"Mr. Baker, I understand that a very serious charge has been placed against you!"

"Me? Why, what can it be?" he inquired with astonishment.

"Mr. Baker," I continued, "you are charged with the serious offense of refusing to receive a present of fresh vegetables while at sea. In fact, I am told that last evening, even with a shortage of vegetables on board, you refused to accept a cabbage that rolled into your room! What have you to say?"

Mr. Baker gulped, hesitated, finally laughed and walked off, and the case was closed right there.

On June 25, we were at the north end of Scotland, going through the Fairway passage, and on the following day we anchored safely in the harbor of Leith, a seaport of Edinburgh, where later we were allowed to moor along the inner dock. We were a weary outfit and needed rest.

My time to go ashore came on a fine Sunday morning,  p232 so I packed a heavy suit case and walked to a street car line. To my surprise and disappointment, I found that street cars did not operate on the Sabbath, nor could I get a cab. I was obliged to walk all the way up to the town of Edinburgh, where I engaged quarters at one of the Royal Hotels. The word "Royal" so often is used in connection with hotels abroad, that I do not recall its other name. I retired and slept well.

The next morning I started out to see Edinburgh and the surrounding country. I decided to get on top of a touring coach. After I had seated myself in a restful position, a talkative gentleman sat down beside me. After a few attempts to start a conversation, my part being in monosyllables, he said:

"This is a wonderful country, but you ought to see my country!"

"Yes," I replied, "and what is your country?"

"The United States of America."

I wondered if he thought I was an Englishman, a Greek, or a Dutchman. He expatiated on the beauties of America, until finally I said:

"Yes, your country is a great one. How far west have you been?"

"I have been as far west as Niagara Falls," he boasted.

Then he told me that he was born in Italy, had migrated to the United States some fifteen years before, reared a family and become naturalized. He had saved his money, returned to Italy for a visit and was then going back home. I did not tell him that I was descended from some eight generations of Americans, for fear that I might hurt his feelings.

I saw the principal points of interest in Edinburgh, all the way from the Castle of Holyrood and the John Knox house, and still believe that there are portions of that long, splendid main thoroughfare of the city, that can not be excelled anywhere. I regard Edinburgh as one of the beautiful cities of the world.

 p233  A little later, Lieutenant Carter and I took the lake trip across the Trossachs, via Corstorphine, Sterling and Ivermain, ending at Glasgow. Both of us were still tired from watch in three on the twenty-five days' cruise, and finding that the scenery did not compare favorably with what we had known in America and other parts of the world, we dozed off in our chairs about two in the afternoon, and then lay down on the deck benches to sleep. We were awakened by some of passengers looking at us and commenting with pity, because there must be something the matter with us because we did not stand up and view with wonder our surroundings. However, we saw Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond before we reached Glasgow. We visited the exposition the next day and found it well worth seeing. I returned to the ship and was somewhat annoyed when I found that I had made the run from Glasgow to Edinburgh — from salt water to salt water — in two hours.

From Edinburgh, we proceeded across the North Sea to Copenhagen, and had a good day to see the coasts of Sweden and Denmark. Here, we met the old Hartford, again in commission, but now a training ship. An exposition was also being held in Copenhagen. We saw the art galleries, zoos, and points of general interest, and Munroe and I had one pleasant trip to Hillerod or Fredericksborg, in the center of Denmark. The old moat surrounding the castle was still to be seen. I noted a long and wonderful frieze in this castle. I think it began with scenes from about the time of William the Conqueror. We followed it from room to room, and much to our surprise, we suddenly found ourselves in the dining-room where the prince was having a luncheon! Our apologies were accepted.

We also went to Helsinger in the northeast of Denmark, directly opposite Sweden.

From Copenhagen we had the remarkable experience of sailing up the Baltic. I shall never forget the happenings and my feelings on that trip. We had to anchor,  p234 first at Kronstadt, and from there proceed under steam up the Neva to St. Petersburg. We were obliged to take a pilot because the channel stakes were so placed in the river that they could be easily moved, in the event of the appearance of an enemy. The ship was honored by being allowed to go close to the Nickolasº Bridge and tie up to the buoys. The current is strong and in winter when the ice freezes, the street car rails are laid on the ice.

The usual calls were exchanged and I remember particularly we were told when we called at the American Embassy that the salary of Ambassador Tower was $17,500 a year, and that he paid $24,000 a year out of his own resources for the rent of his house. Conditions have been somewhat improved since that time.​a

The Czar, who looked very much like a German to us, came up the river from his summer palace to visit the Charlotte. There were three torpedo boats ahead of him and two behind him, to protect the monarch. We saw everything of interest there was to be seen — the parks, St. Michael's and St. Peter's Museums, the wonderful art galleries, the great palace of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the Winter Palace with its one hundred rooms. Munroe and I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a British gentleman, Captain Byron Mallory, who had been wounded in the Boer War. He took us to the Summer Palace where we saw some wonderful Van Dykes and Rubens. We also went to Peterhof, where the Czar and his family were living, as it was in the month of July.

We saw, too, the Nevski Prospect and all the beautiful churches, and visited the great ship building plants.

The lower classes among the people lived in brick houses with long skins dividing the interiors into rooms. We saw the droshky drivers with their great black bear coats which they sleep in during the winter. Their pay was four dollars a month.

Traveling was slow. There was a policeman in the  p235 center of the street on each block, who stopped vehicles and took their numbers. We eventually hired a German guide from Riga. He spoke the Russian language fluently, and as he knew just what fees to give, he saved us more than the ten dollars a day which we paid him for his services.

I was invited by Mr. & Mrs. David Bell McGowan, newspaper writers, to visit them at their country home northeast of St. Petersburg. Dr. Gregory, of the Enterprise, accompanied me. We went by train and left it at the railroad station where we had been instructed to stop, and following the directions that had been given us, we got into a droshky. There were three of them at the station, and we happened to get into number two. Nothing happened. After waiting a proper time, we endeavored to get the driver to start. He shook his head, and said what we understood to mean "No!" A gentleman who spoke English chanced along at that time, and told us that we must get into the first droshky, or else we would not be taken from the spot. The gentleman proved to be the great writer on Russian matters, Mr. George Kennan. He was also on his way to visit the McGowans. The occasion was a wonderful revelation for us.

I had expected to find the serfs, who lived on the land they did not own, a morose and solemn people, but on the contrary they appeared to be as happy and free as little children.

At the conclusion of our visit we started back to St. Petersburg with Mr. Kennan, and were surprised to see a large number of armed Russians in the car which we occupied, and in which, apparently, we were the only civilian passengers. When we reached St. Petersburg, we were all placed under arrest. The doctor and I told them that we were American naval officers, and after a short time, we were released. Mr. Kennan, who had written several articles exposing conditions in Siberia, was detained for two weeks, at the end of which time he  p236 was deported from Russia, with instructions never to return again. I admired his bravery, for I had read the stories of his travels in Russia and Siberia. Personally, I had had enough adventure and did not leave the ship again while we were in Russian waters.

At that time, one could not register at a hotel in Russia, without a passport. Several of our officers made an overnight trip to Moscow, remaining for a day and returned to St. Petersburg on the night train. We left the Russian capital about July 25, having had beautiful long days and short nights while we were there.

The day before we reached Kiel, we passed the royal German yacht, and standing on the quarter deck was Kaiser Wilhelm II. With our glasses, we had a good view of him. We considered it a somewhat remarkable coincidence, that upon our arrival at Flushing, from Kiel, the newly crowned King Edward, of England, was there on board a vessel in the harbor. Thus, within two weeks, we had the privilege of seeing three European monarchs, the Czar, the Kaiser and the King.

From Flushing, owing to the strong tide, our pilot advised us to club down to Antwerp on the flood tide. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had in this line of work, and it kept us on the alert, amid all the shipping, dropping the anchor, clubbing down, sheering with the helm, and finally, reaching the good berth reserved off the Antwerp dock.

I enjoyed Antwerp thoroughly, and when my time came to leave the ship, I stopped at the Hotel Antoine, almost opposite where our ship lay. From there, I made a trip to Brussels and to Waterloo. At both Antwerp and Brussels I saw the art galleries, and the wonderful Weirtz Museum in the latter city. I was particularly interested in the skeletons of the Iquanodons.º

Gregory and I climbed the steps of the cathedral in Antwerp, and when we reached the top found a lone woman there who had fainted. The doctor revived her,  p237 and we carried her down that great flight of steps to terra firma.

We took an afternoon to visit Waterloo, leaving the train at Braine-l'Alleud station. We saw the huge British lion and thoroughly explored the battlefield.

Diphtheria broke out on the Enterprise while we were at Antwerp, but the local authorities were kind enough to take the patients ashore and hold them there until we left the port.

Returning with our Massachusetts cadets we decided to pass through the Kiel Canal, and accordingly made the trip by way of the extreme southern part of the Baltic Sea. We remained twenty-four hours at Kiel and obtained permission to make the canal passage. It was a slow, all‑day trip, and still is. Unfortunately, the first night out our commanding officer became ill, and remained in bed practically throughout our homeward voyage. He died a few years later.

We had the pleasure of going up the Thames River and tying to buoys at Gravesend where there is always a very strong current. Mr. C. J. Pethrick, of the United States Despatch Agency, at London, well known and well beloved throughout our navy for his helpfulness to officers during many years, met us and outlined an interesting program of events both for officers and men, while we were in British waters. He died in March, 1929. I saw him in London in September, 1928, and endeavored to induce him to write his memoirs. He had had more than sixty years of service, from messenger boy to despatch agent.

In those days the navy always had quarters at 41 Craven street, London. Room and bath, with breakfast of beefsteak, ham and eggs and coffee, was only five shillings — one dollar and twenty-five cents in American money.

While in London, on two days' leave, I made the  p238 usual purchases of English clothes. This being my first visit there I wished to see some of the clubs and the life of the metropolis. I went up with Ensign Richardson, who had a friend there. This friend advised him where to take me to dinner and what shows to see. We went to the dining place, and made the expensive error of ordering dinner a la carte. The bill was something astounding — about five times what we would have had to pay for the regular dinner.

I forgave Richardson for this, and we went to see a double bill, entitled, The Man From Blankley's and A Previous Engagement. Because of the cost of our dinner experience we purchased front row seats in the first balcony. At the end of the first act Richardson and I went out into a small vestibule where he could smoke. In the corner was a bar, and behind it an English barmaid. We were walking up and down when the girl set three glasses of English ale on the counter. There was no one else present, and as she kept looking at us Richardson said to her,

"Who are the drinks for?"

"One is for you," she replied, "one is for your partner, and the other is for me, and you are going to pay for all three."

He did.

Stories of English barmaids are unreal. I never saw a good-looking one during all the time I was in England, nor a young one. If there are any of either, we must have over­looked them.

We saw the British Museum — a place where I would like to spend months — the Tower, London Bridge, St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey.

Late in August we left Gravesend, and started, under sail, for Gibraltar. The captain went on the sick list, the navigator became ill, and Richardson and I were left to run the ship, with watch in two watches, under canvas. We sailed across the Bay  p239 of Biscay safely, but Richardson had not navigated for years and we almost ran down Corunna, Spain. From Cape Finisterre we hugged the shore all the way to the south end of Portugal, and were so close in at Lisbon that, with powerful glasses, we could see the entire city and the mouth of the Tagus.

At St. Vincent we headed east for Gibraltar, and after narrowly missing three sailing vessels in a "levanter" we encountered the British Mediterranean fleet, and actually passed through the center of a squadron. The men on deck, being inexperienced, were not aware that the ships were men-of‑war. However, we reached Gibraltar in good condition, and waited there for the full recovery of our navigator. We found the Saratoga and the Castine in port, with Captain W. J. Barnette and H. P. Jones on the former, and Werlich and Dinger on board the latter.

The British had the usual gymkana for us at Gibraltar. We enjoyed going up the Rock as far as permitted, and looked for the "Sign." We met the third generation, I believe, of the Sprague family, whose members have been United States consuls there since the foundation of our government. Our stay at Gibraltar was not long.

We laid in the usual supplies of whiskey and wines at both Sacconi and Speeds, and left the Rock on September 1, anxious to get our sick captain home. We drifted along the coast for several days. The wind failed when we left the northwest coast of Africa, and varying steaming with sailing we were longer than usual in reaching Madeira. Here we had the news of the assassination of President McKinley.

Sister Clare came on board the Enterprise on the first boat and told me that the money we had paid her for the laundry work, the previous year, for the one hundred and fifty persons on our ship, had actually saved the  p240 convent, and that the Mother Superior invited us to come ashore and visit the place. I made extensive purchases of the laces they offered for sale, and divided them among the officers. I have often wondered what became of that sweet-faced nun, Sister Clare, and what her story was and her life before she entered the convent. She was English, or part English, and I could not understand how she came to be in a Portuguese convent.

We had a good run from Madeira to Boston, making the voyage in thirty days, with only a few incidents.

Gilson, one of our cadets, had a narrow escape from drowning at sea, September 24. Going over my diary I find the following:

"September 24. Tuesday. A rough and horrible night. No restful sleep. Rolling and hot, but a good run under sail — 143 miles — latitude, 23‑42, north, longitude, 44‑47, west. At 10:25, during my watch on deck, Cadet W. B. Gilson, who was foolishly out on the whisker boom, holding to the grab rope with one hand, was washed away when the vessel pitched. The cry 'Man overboard,' went from one to another. I gave the order 'Starboard, and clear away the port life boat.' Soule, the cadet at the wheel, obeyed the order like an old timer. The wind was aft on the port quarter and we were under square sail. Gilson, by remarkable luck, caught on the sea painter of the whale boat (life boat), and gradually slipped aft each time he went under. The ship answered helm promptly, sail reduced, and hands got in the main chains. A sea finally brought Gilson alongside and he was grabbed and hauled on board. He had a death grip on the sea painter, and we had to cut it both sides of his hands. He was unconscious, but finally came to. Our starboard lifebuoy was let go, without order, in the confusion, but it was deemed inexpedient to  p241 beat back against the strong trade winds, or to send a boat to regain it."

On October 5 many of us had ptomaine poisoning from eating canned clams. I held up as long as I could in consideration of the other sick officers on board, but finally went under. When the doctor examined me he said I had no pulse, and that it was all over with me. I refused to take that view of my condition, and in about ten days I was much improved.

I had written from Madeira to Captain Nicholson, the detail officer, asking if I could continue on at sea after our arrival in the United States. It was then the fall of 1901, and I had been on sea duty since March 3, 1896.

When I reached Boston I found a letter stating that, as I had never been assigned to a battle­ship, I would now be ordered to the Wisconsin, the Iowa, or the Oregon, stationed on the Pacific. That was agreeable to me and as soon as I found my wife and family well and safe in Boston I wrote Nicholson that my first choice would be the Wisconsin, my second the Oregon and my third the Iowa. In about four weeks I was advised that the Wisconsin had sailed for Samoa, that the Oregon was in ordinary at Puget Sound, and that the Iowa had started for Panama en route for the east coast. My orders read to the Philadelphia, and bore the appearance of having originally been made out for the Iowa, with the name of that ship erased and the word Philadelphia substituted.

It was hard luck not only to miss one of the battle­ships, but to have to go back to the old Philadelphia, no longer the pride flagship of the Pacific, but just one of the vessels of the fleet.

Among our civilian officers was one who, although somewhat advanced in age, was nevertheless a gay gallant. In the course of his adventures he met a young lady who desired to learn typewriting, an art  p242 in which girls were not so proficient as they are now. He gave her lessons at her home, and was indiscreet enough to let some of his fellow-officers know what he was doing. One morning, while at breakfast, he was called to the telephone, and a gruff voice told him that the person talking was the father of his pupil, and that he had learned that the officer was married. He said he was then within two blocks of the ship, and was coming to kill the man whom he accused of paying unwarranted attentions to his daughter. Being afraid to go ashore, the officer rushed about the ship seeking a hiding place. He found one under the bunk of the master-at‑arms. The space was only about eighteen inches deep. He told his story to the master-at‑arms, who helped him to get under the bunk and concealed him behind a piece of oilcloth. He remained there without food or water until eleven o'clock that night, when he gathered enough courage to emerge and hasten home. It developed later that a fellow-officer had called him on the telephone, disguised his voice and represented himself as the irate parent. The typewriting lessons, however, were discontinued.

My wife had an old‑time Alaska and Virginia friend, Miss Sallie Ball, as her guest, and for the next few weeks we had a round of parties and entertainments. I was getting the most I could out of Boston, as I knew that soon I would be detached from the Enterprise. There were several Missouri girls at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and among them our friend, Miss "Tommy" Ely. I invited all of them to a tea on board the Enterprise one afternoon, and had some of the young officers of the ship present. In return they asked my wife and me to dinner at the Conservatory. I learned that upwards of seven hundred girls ate in the dining-room and that I would be the only man there,  p243 but I accepted, with the proviso that I be given a seat within ten feet of the door, so that I might have opportunity to escape in case the young ladies attempted to haze me.

With my family I left Boston on November 23, and once more visited my home in Missouri. When a naval officer lives in the middle west he is at a distinct disadvantage, as compared with those whose homes are on the seaboard, because it is much easier for the latter to reach their domiciles.

Thayer's Note:

a Not that much, actually. American ambassadors, especially to the pleasanter or more prestigious posts, are often wealthy political appointees being rewarded for their financial contributions to the president's electoral campaign; in exchange, much of the entertainment at their embassies comes out of their pockets rather than the government's entertainment expense funds.

Even career diplomats, however, — civil servants not favored with deep pockets — wind up paying a fair amount in entertainment expenses inevitably incurred and never reimbursed by the government. My father, retiring as consul general in 1965, calculated that the government owed him something like $10,000, which was never paid back to him. (For the record, he hated the drudgery of the round of cocktail parties and dinners that he was obliged to attend — sometimes as many as four "functions" an evening, and rare were quiet evenings at home. My mother enjoyed them, although she grew very tired of champagne and rich food.)

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