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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

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 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p107  Chapter VII

Ensign Coontz

To the Bureau of Navigation — The Small Salary of an Ensign — Alaskan Assignment — The Blizzard En Route to the Coast — Sitka — A Tax Sale That Yielded a Small Fortune.

Weary and exhausted I started for home July 1st, there to await my commission and orders. I had applied for the Atlanta. The captain and the executive had expressed their desire for my further services. To my surprise I received instructions to report to the Bureau of Navigation in Washington. I wondered what it meant, but put in my appearance on August 1st. Six years had elapsed since I entered the Academy, and Colonel Hatch appointed Arthur L. Willard, of Kirksville, Missouri, as my successor. I saw him on my leave and arranged to have him go east with me. He joined me in Hannibal and we went to Washington together. I took him to Annapolis and showed him the Maryland Avenue iron gate. Willard was admitted, of course, and made a fine record. He is now (1930) a rear admiral and commandant of the Washington Navy Yard.

On reporting to Commodore Walker at the Navy Department I found three of my classmates — Tawresey, Fenton and Rust, already there. We were ordered to assist in the preparation of the Navy's new secret code. I shall not reveal the inside history of the code, but we were locked in a private room at the Department and worked like beavers. The senior man was the present Rear Admiral John Hubbard; W. W. Buchanan, recently deceased, was second.

Fenton, Tawresey and I decided to live together. Rust was married. How he managed to live on $83.33 a month we never learned. We found we could get an entire floor  p108 at 1338 H Street, northwest, for fifty dollars a month. It had a sitting-room, a room with two beds, a single bedroom and a bath. After deducting from our pay the rent and the wash money we found that we must board cheaply. In the next block, adjoining the Jefferson Club, we had breakfast and supper for twenty dollars a month. We nearly starved to death! The pieces of steak were two inches square, and there was seldom a second helping. From a woman who had a lunch counter in the center corridor of the State, War and Navy building we could buy a sandwich, a piece of pie and a glass of milk at noon for fifteen cents.

Toward the end of the first month we decided that it would be necessary for us to go elsewhere in order to get enough food. Every Saturday night we bought three pounds of candy and ate it, but that only helped until Sunday morning. We disliked to tell Mrs. ––––––––– that we intended to leave her, and finally agreed to throw dice to see which one of us would break the news to her. It fell to my lot to do so. In fear and trembling I went to her after a meal when my companions had decamped. She said it was impossible because she had arranged for two soirées a month commencing in October, and she felt that young ensigns as we were should be introduced to polite society in Washington! Bashful as I was, Fenton and Tawresey were even more afraid of the girls and of society than I. I reported to them and we decided not to return to the boarding house again, but to forfeit the rest of the board for the month in order to avoid giving her a chance to tell us that we must not leave. We then boarded at the New York Hotel at New York Avenue and Fourteenth Street and lived sumptuously, because we had plenty of bread and meat. It was there that I learned to eat Philadelphia scrapple.

Finding that there was more work to do on the code than was expected, and being anxious to get out of Washington, Lieutenant Hubbard had our classmates Eberle and McCormick ordered to aid us.

 p109  Officers think promotion is slow now but Fenton and I figured out that by the time we reached the age of forty-eight we would be lieutenant commanders, and that when we should be sixty‑two, which was then the retiring age, we might possibly be captains. Promotion, however, is always more rapid than is anticipated. Wars and other events hasten it. When I was only fifty-three, in 1917, I was nominated to be a rear admiral and was in the eleventh year of service as such when retired.

Repeatedly we asked Commodore Walker to let us go to sea because $83.33 a month was small pay. He said that if we stuck to our task we could go to the European station. That was not inviting, however, on one hundred dollars a month. We were paid semi-monthly, and upon receiving our pay checks on August 15th, we went directly to the treasurer of the United States, and were much surprised to learn from the cashier at the pay cage that it was unusual to cash checks for strangers. He advised us to place them in bank. We demurred and asked to see higher authority. In the end we were allowed to draw our money at the treasury.

One day I received a telegram from my father stating that an old friend, Dr. Hearne, of Hannibal, and his two nieces from Kentucky, the Misses Scearce, were coming to Washington to attend a medical convention, and asking me to show them the sights. I invited Eberle to help me. They were good looking blue grass girls from Versailles, Bourbon County, Kentucky. We took Susie and Annabelle to a white houseº reception. Susie preceded me in the line, and when the aide to the President inquired her name she said "Smith." I nearly dropped. Later when I asked her the reason she said that no one ever got the name "Scearce" correctly, and that it made no difference to Mrs. Cleveland what her name was. Looking back I believe she was a philosopher.

In November Commodore Walker sent for Eberle and me and told us that the newly built fisheries steamer Albatross was at the Washington Navy Yard and that she  p110 was going to the Pacific and the Arctic. One of us had to be assigned to her, and we could decide between us which one it should be. After looking over the vessel I stated that I was willing to go anywhere, but that I did not care for the Albatross and the fish commission. Eberle wanted to go and was so enthusiastic about it that McCormick applied to go as an additional officer and his request was granted.

The ensigns wanted more pay and earlier promotions, and soon after I arrived in Washington I was made secretary of the ensigns' committee. We did not want to remain ensigns for nine or ten years. I took a leading part in the work of the committee and in that of all committees of the line officers. It was years before we won our fight.

That fall the St. Louis ball team won its association's pennant, and Detroit won the champion­ship of the other league. Eberle and I were "fans." I asked Lieutenant Hubbard for permission to see the game in Washington between St. Louis and Detroit. He granted it but demurred as to Eberle. When I got to my seat at the game, however, Eberle was sitting beside me and I asked no questions. St. Louis won 11 to 4.

In December, 1887, my sister was to be married in Missouri, and as our work was nearly completed I sought and received permission to go home.

In Henry Ward Beecher's church I had heard a lecture on Alaska by Father Duncan, a celebrated missionary, and I had also listened to the tales of the territory told by Hiero Taylor. I concluded I would like duty in Alaska. The detail officer, De Bree Higgins, had refused me, but in thinking the matter over en route to Missouri I decided to make another effort to get such an assignment. Much to my surprise I received orders while I was at home. I shall always remember how my mother cried when I read them to her, for it was very difficult to reach Alaska in those days and it was thought that there  p111 was nothing there except ice and snow. After my sister's wedding I started on the long trip.

It was a miserable winter. There were great blizzards and one in New York City had caused the death of the statesman, Senator Roscoe Conkling. I reached Kansas City in safety and took the Union Pacific to Denver. We ran into a blizzard in Kansas. The snow and sand came through the Pullman windows and piled up in the car. We reached Denver late and I had several hours to spend with my friends the Carstarphens. They showed me all of the city they could and particularly the million dollar saloon with silver dollars inlaid in each square foot of flooring. It was a beautiful day and as we rode through Denver we could see Pike's Peak and the mountains.

Soon after I left Denver trouble began. By the time we reached Cheyenne a heavy snow had fallen and the train was far behind its schedule. Near Rawlins we ran into a big snow drift and there was another long delay. The food became exhausted and the fires went out except in the sleeper. The passengers decided that the women and children should be placed in the sleeper and under the circumstances the conductor agreed. In my heavy navy overcoat and high overshoes I managed to keep reasonably warm. We were finally dug out by a snow plow and ran down the grade to Green River, Wyoming, where we were again detained, this time for three days. The temperature was fortyfive degrees below zero and we ran the danger of freezing our ears, nose and feet when we ventured out of doors. The townspeople wore sacks bound about their feet when they went out. Only three rooms in the hotel were provided with stoves, and I rented one of them at a dollar a day. I had many visitors during the day and until late at night. After eleven o'clock I let the fire go down, and in the morning I found myself stiff with cold.

Many of the passengers were out of money and the railroad had to feed them. We had two other delays at  p112 Pocatello, Idaho, and at Huntington, Oregon, before we arrived opposite Portland. There the Willamette River was frozen over and people and teams were crossing on the ice. I have never asked anyone to believe this story, but when, forty years afterwards, a United States senator in Seattle declared that he was in Portland at the time I gave him my thanks.

All of the hotels in Portland except the Esmond charged a dollar a day for rooms; excellent meals with wine were seventy-five cents. I landed there with an old Alsatian, August Quitzow. He was booming a place called Yaquina, of which I had never heard. It rained all the time I was in Portland, and I was quite lonely. Captain Chamberlain, of Hannibal, saw my name on the hotel register and came to see me. Commander Uriel Sebree, of Missouri, also was kind enough to call upon me. He was the lighthouse inspector for the Columbia River, Puget Sound and Alaska District. The delays between Kansas City and Portland had caused me to miss the steamer sailing January 18th; it had taken ten days to make the trip. I waited for the old Idaho until I got tired and decided to go to Seattle and Port Townsend and catch the steamer at one of these places. I enjoyed the night I stayed at Tacoma, where I registered at the Hotel Tacoma which was then new.

I went to Seattle on the old North Star. Steamers like the Indianapolis now make the trip in two hours, but I was much longer. There were only two wharves at Seattle. I landed at one, crossed the street and got the only vacant room in the old Brunswick Hotel at a dollar and a half a day. The room was about thirty feet long and directly over the bar which, like all others in Seattle at that time, kept open all night, and I did not sleep well.

Having been a long time on the road I had run out of money and telegraphed my father for thirty dollars. By going on to Port Townsend I made a grievous error. I registered at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, part of which extended out over the water. My room was cold, damp  p113 and leaky, and the place was filled with lumbermen and miners. The office and bar were in a big room on the ground floor, and gambling and drinking went on all night. A man was killed near me the first night, and the second night they carried a Chinaman with smallpox out of the hotel. I made no acquaintances but read all of the sea stories of W. Clarke Russell from The Sea Queen to theº The Wreck of the Grosvenor. That, together with a long walk during the day, kept me engaged. When the Idaho arrived I was awakened at midnight and went down to pay my bill to the bartender who also acted as cloak and cashier of the hotel.

"Mister," he said when I had settled, "will you have a drink?"

It was a cold night and I told him I would.

"What'll you have?" he inquired.

I thought for a moment and recalled the term, "Hot Scotch," which I ordered.

He reached across the bar and exclaimed, "Shake, Mister! For the last five days we have been betting whether you were a gambler or a preacher."

I forgot to ask him how they would decide.

We put out in a fog and within a few hours the Idaho collided with an inbound vessel and damaged her starboard side. I was shaving at the time, and by the mercy of the Lord the razor simply fell out of my hand and dropped on the deck.

Captain Hunter decided to return to Seattle and transfer his passengers to the old sidewheeler Ancon. My money was getting low again, and I had to call on my father for another thirty dollars. In the meantime the purser, when I told him of my financial condition, permitted me to sleep on board the Ancon, but I had to get my meals on shore. Learning that I was a young ensign the deputy marshal of Alaska came to me and told a hard luck story. He said he had a wife and eleven children in Sitka. I lent him ten dollars and was left with only seventeen dollars to live on for twelve days. Six years later  p114 he repaid me. After I saw the eleven children I never felt like pressing him for it. Before we sailed again I was obliged to patronize restaurants where meals could be had for twenty-five cents.

We got away at last on February 13th. On the steamer were business men, miners and a few women. I particularly recall Nicholas Haley and his son, John. The boy was making his first trip out of Alaska and had gone as far east as Chicago. "Viola," a little girl on board, used to sing:

"For my father was a Spanish merchant,

And before he went to sea,

He told me to say, 'No, Sir,'

To all you said to me."

I stil hum the tune.

I had a room with a man named Gibson, who later ran the Juneau-Douglas ferry.

The trip to Alaska was cold and generally clear. I had long looked forward to it and was not disappointed. Old Captain George had been a pilot since 1866, and probably was with Captain Walter Queen when the Saranac was lost in Seymour Narrows.​a All hands were saved on the craft, but the captain was court-martialed for stepping off the ship just ahead of the pilot. According to the rule of the sea he should have been the last man to leave the vessel.

Ten years later in 1897 it fell to my lot to make the tide tables for Seymour Narrows. Many know its dangers from personal experience. I thoroughly enjoyed Discovery Passage and Johnstone Straits and the various reaches in southeastern Alaska. We passed Bella Bella and our first stop was at Tongass Narrows. There Customs Inspector Crittenden, of Kentucky, boarded us for the remainder of the voyage. Wrangell was not at its best at that time as mining on the Stickineº River had been temporarily suspended. The hull of a passenger boat still showed well up on the beach. The story is that there  p115 were no accommodations for the miners and camp followers during the Cassiar gold rush, and this vessel had been grounded and used as a hotel. The owners made a fortune and eventually abandoned the ship. I saw Wrangell Narrows for the first time and all the many inlets through which I was later to pilot vessels, and subsequently we visited Douglas Island and Juneau.

At Douglas I met a young Virginian and wishing to be hospitable I asked him if he would have a drink. He ordered champagne and I barely had money enough to pay for it. Times at Douglas were good!

We reached Sitka via Peril Straits on Washington's birthday, February 22, 1888, at midnight and anchored in the harbor. The wharf was in too bad condition to warrant attempting to go alongside. The next day was beautiful and clear, and I saw the sights of Sitka harbor.

I had been fifty-four days making the trip from Washington to Sitka. The distance — a part of which is through British Columbia waters — is 4,500 miles. Mileage had to be paid through the auditor for the Navy Department at the Treasury in Washington. My pay at the end of February amounted to two hundred dollars more, and when I received a check it was for five hundred and sixty dollars. I could not get it cashed in Sitka and sent it on to my father. It was fortunate that I did so, for several years later, when I married, that five hundred and sixty dollars had been augmented to two thousand five hundred dollars. For an ensign getting a hundred dollars a month on shore, two thousand five hundred dollars is a fortune! That money helped to carry me along through the nine years I was an ensign.

It happened that several days after my father received the check he was walking along a street in Hannibal and passed the court house. An auction sale of land was in progress and as he stopped the auctioneer sang out, "Give me a bid on this property, Mr. Coontz!"

Jokingly my father said, "Five dollars!" As he started to go on the auctioneer said, "Sold!"

 p116  Asked the name of the purchasee my father said, "R. E. Coontz." It developed that there were two houses on the property. The owner had left Hannibal for parts unknown, and never returned to claim his holding, as he could have done under the tax laws. The houses were rented for several years and then sold. The amount helped to make up the $2,500.

It is said that there are four especially beautiful harbors in the world: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Naples, Italy; Sidney, Australia; and Sitka, Alaska. I can vouch for the last two, but as the expression is, "See Naples and die!" I have kept from going into anchorage at that port.

There are many interesting stories of Sitka, of the early Russians and their troubles, of the great Baranof Castle built by Governor Baranof, of the massacre at old Sitka, and of the transfer of authority to the United States by the purchase of 1867.

Thayer's Note:

a The crew were taken off by H. M. S. Rocket, a composite screw gun vessel operating out of Esquimalt Naval Base: see F. V. Longstaff, Esquimalt Naval Base, p178 f.

Ripple Rock seamount was a major hazard in Seymour Narrows, and would eventually be responsible for many shipwrecks, that of the Saranac being the first; the summit of one of its two peaks lay just 3 meters beneath the surface of the water. It was finally blown up in 1958. Good details can be read at Museum at Campbell River, and YouTube has an excellent short video, including archival footage of the explosion, the world's largest non-nuclear explosion up to that time.

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