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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p135  Chapter IX

A Difficult Undertaking

The Pinta to San Francisco for Repairs — Convoying an Insane Fireman to St. Elizabeth's — "All Aboard for the White House" — Asleep for Twenty-three Hours.

In accordance with instructions we prepared the old craft for the long voyage to San Francisco, and found much to take on board. The ship had not been to a navy yard since 1883.

We had several enlisted Indians on board the Pinta, and when we landed at Port Townsend we allowed one of them, Koshook by name, to go ashore for a few hours. When it came time for the ship to leave he had not returned, and as we were averse to allowing an Alaskan native to remain in the town alone, the Master-at‑Arms was sent ashore to look for him. He found him on a street corner, only two blocks from the wharf, watching an engine and two dump cars. The engine ran the cars to where they were filled with earth, hauled them back, dumped them, and then repeated the operation. The boy was so fascinated with the sight of that engine which he regarded as almost human, that he had forgotten to return to the ship.

In San Francisco the boy was taken to the circus. Back on board ship one of the crew asked him if he would write to his friends in Alaska and tell them about the show. He shook his head and said, "No. If I told them about the elephants and the camels and the rhinoceros, they would say, 'Koshook, he one big liar.' "

We had a very heavy sea and it took us five days to make the outside trip from Port Townsend to  p136 San Francisco. The Pinta rolled fearfully; so much so that the water entered the pilot house; and all were seasick, except Lieutenant James T. Smith. Twenty-four hours out, when I was ill and had to go on watch at eight o'clock in the morning, the executive, Hodgson, opened a quart of champagne at breakfast. I drank it, went to the deck and sent for beefsteak and coffee which I consumed before the effect of the wine wore away. I took the deck and afterwards was not seasick.

Anchored in San Francisco Bay we found several Coast Survey vessels, manned by naval officers, many of whom I knew. I went on shore with Paymaster Webster, and we found some cronies at the Occidental Hotel​a who insisted that we go to a celebrated drinking place across the street. I did not make a practice of drinking liquor, but threw a twenty-dollar gold piece on the bar and paid for the third round of drinks. My change was practically all in silver dollars, as greenbacks were scarce. The same evening I escorted a young lady to the Baldwin Theater, on Market street, and later to the old Palace Restaurant. We had supper and I attempted to pay for it with three silver dollars. To my surprise the cashier weighed each piece, and then calmly told me they were counterfeit! The situation was embarrassing before a young lady, but with another twenty-dollar gold piece I paid the bill and we left the place.

I learned that San Francisco was flooded with counterfeit silver dollars at that time. But when I returned to the man from whom I had got mine, I received no satisfaction; if the dollars were bad, he had been imposed upon as well as myself!

The Pinta went on up the bay to the Mare Island navy yard. We learned that there would be no money available for repairs until July 1, and all we  p137 could do was to lie alongside the dock. The terrible hurricane at Samoa,​b of which we had first learned at Victoria, had occurred in March, and from time to time the survivors of that awful disaster reached Mare Island — most of them in poor physical condition and short of clothing. The change from the tropics to the Mare Island climate brought on several cases of pneumonia, and one of those who died was Lieutenant Frank R. Heath.

Vallejo was still a small town, and we spent most of our time at parties on Mare Island, where the Nelson and Moore families were most hospitable. I had a wonderful trip in the Napa Valley where I visited the McPikes, old friends of my father and mother. I think Mrs. McPike's father, old Doctor Crane, then living, started the grape industry in that part of the state. We visited the vineyards scattered throughout the valley and enjoyed ourselves generally.

A Russian man-of‑war visited Mare Island and the officers gave a big dinner. We were instructed to send two from our staff, and knowing what heavy drinkers the Russians were, the senior officer selected our representatives with great care. He decided upon Passed Assistant Engineer John L. Hannum and Assistant Paymaster E. B. Webster. At four o'clock the next morning, while I was officer of the deck, Hannum and Webster walked down the Mare Island dock, apparently quite sober. They stated that they had left the Russian officers and others under the table of the ward room of the Russian ship.

By this time I had saved two hundred and forty‑two dollars, which was a big sum to an Ensign in Alaska, whose pay was only a hundred and nine dollars a month. I telegraphed Commodore Walker, chief of the Bureau of Navigation, which I had left when ordered to sea, and requested a month's leave  p138 of absence. I packed my trunks and waited five days for a reply. One day at lunch Assistant Surgeon W. F. Arnold came in from a visit to the naval hospital and related the case of a fireman who had escaped twice from the Independence, and at Madrid to swim to Vallejo. On the second attempt he had been picked up off the magazine wharf, about a mile south of the ship. He said the Commandant of the yard was anxious to get the man to St. Elizabeth's, the government insane asylum, in Washington. Just then a telegram came from Commodore Walker granting me a month's leave, provided it would not delay the preparation of the Pinta for sea.

I went at once to the Commandant's office to interview Commodore A. E. K. Benham. This efficient and genial gentleman of the old school inquired my business, and I informed him that I wished to volunteer to take the insane fireman East. I had visions of two enlisted men being detailed to assist me, and was somewhat startled when the Commodore asked me if I thought I could take the man alone. Being only twenty-five years old and unaccustomed to handling insane persons, I boldly answered, "Yes."

"Very well," said the Commodore. "I shall make out your orders. Get the railroad tickets in San Francisco, and the man will be turned over to you at the Port Costa ferry."

An hour later I received this order, which is shown with all endorsements:

Commandant's Office
Navy Yard, Mare Island, Cal.

August 6, 1889


You will proceed to Washington, D. C., with Frederick Staade, Fireman, an insane patient now at  p139 the Naval Hospital here, and deliver the said Staade to the officer in charge of the Government Hospital for the Insane in that city.

Upon completion of this duty you will report to the Navy Department.


Your obt. servt.,

A. E. K. Benham,


Delivered, August 6, 1889,
A. C. Hodgson, Lieut. Commander.

Ensign Robt. E. Coontz, U. S. N.
U. S. S. Pinta

Navy Yard, Mare Island.

Navy Department Approved,

August 13, 1889

J. G. Walker,

Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Navy Department Bureau of Navigation

August 13, 1889,


J. G. Walker,

Chief of Bureau.

Navy Pay Office
Washington, D. C., Aug. 13, 1889
Paid $251.20, mileage from Mare Island,
Calif., to Washington, D. C.
G. E. Thornton, Pay Director, U. S. N.

I arose early the next day and proceeded to San Francisco. With the assistance of A. Frank Gomez I bought a round-trip ticket to Chicago and return by way of Hannibal, Missouri, for one hundred and thirty-five dollars. I then got Staade's transportation to Washington, arranged for a section in a sleeper, and saw that I would not have to change trains in Chicago. I took the overland express out of San Francisco at six o'clock, feeling in good spirits, with practically a free trip east assured.

Up to this time I had not seen the insane man.  p140 When the train stopped at Port Costa I went out to meet Staade. Two petty officers hustled him on board the sleeper, placed one white clothes bag and one black one in the berth, and then left me.

The first question my trans-continental companion asked me was, "Where is my thousand dollars?"

To my amazement I learned that he had been allowed to have two or more drinks of liquor. I thought for a moment and then answered.

"We are on the way to get it."

He had on a white hat, a blue jumper and a pair of white working trousers. The sleeper was filled with women and children and I gave him my traveling cap and a linen duster, such as were worn by travelers in those days. He was stout of frame, with a muscle that was appalling, and had had sixteen years of service as a fireman. Any thought I might have of handcuffing him if he got obstreperous vanished when I saw that with one blow of his handcuffed fists he could smash my skull.

In the section opposite me were an Australian lady and her grown daughter, en route to England. She watched us intently, and about the time we reached Sacramento she leaned over to me and whispered, "Excuse me, young man, but isn't there something peculiar about your companion?"

Tired and hot, I blurted out, "Yes, madame, he is crazy."

"Oh," she exclaimed. "You see, this is my first trip through your country, and I have read so much of the rough miners who become wealthy that I thought perhaps your companion was a rich miner and that you were his son!"

I could not retort to this insult, but I was reminded of the words of Lieutenant David Peacock's famous song, "For He Looks Just Like a Doghouse, and Much Resembles Me!"

I had the porter put pillows and cushions in the  p141 lower berth, thinking that Staade would sleep there, and that I would sit in the smoking compartment. He refused, however, to go to bed in any such place. About eleven o'clock I took him into the smoker and from then on until five he told me the story of his life, over and over again. He had three ideas in his confused brain. One was that he was a Chinese and that his business was to dissect people, to cut them up into the smallest parts after they were dead. Another obsession was that he had saved up his money during a voyage in the South Pacific until he had $1,989 on the books, but that at the end of a certain quarter he was made to sign for $989, and that someone got the thousand dollars remaining. He also said he had a saloon on Georgia street, in Vallejo, and a wife and two children who lived there. Repeatedly, and realistically he described the place to me, the rooms in the house, the personal appearance of his wife and children, until I began to think they must really exist.

I carefully explained to him that we would see the President and the Secretary of the Navy immediately upon our arrival in Washington. The imaginary loss of the thousand dollars must have been the primary cause of his insanity.

At daylight I dozed off, sitting up in my seat. At six o'clock I was rudely awakened by the conductor, who said, "Say, Mister, come out and get that friend of yours. He has turned out all the people in the tourists' sleeper, and is giving them bits of paper and soap."

I rushed into the tourist's car and found Staade with his black bag, in which he carried some old German newspapers torn to bits and pieces of salt water soap which he insisted upon giving to every passenger.

On the pretext of getting ready for breakfast I  p142 induced him to go back into the proper sleeper, and about that time we stopped at Reno or Truckee. We took a table and the waitress asked him if he would have coffee.

"Yes, sir," he replied.

"Ham and eggs?"

"Yes, sir."

The girl was insulted, but I explained to her that he seldom saw women and said "Sir" to everyone.

We finished breakfast and when the conductor yelled "All aboard" Staade grabbed all the oranges, apples and bananas in the fruit dish on the table and ran out. I paid the manager twenty-five cents in settlement for the extra fruit. After that I had a private talk with each eating house proprietor before we started our meal.

We worried through that hot August day somehow, and at night, in the sleeper which we occupied, I found an army lieutenant named Ord,​c traveling East with his wife and children. He kindly offered to sit with my charge for a few hours while I slept in the smoking compartment. This was a good chance to get some much needed sleep.

About nine o'clock I was aroused by a succession of yells, and on rushing of the sleeper and found that two of the Ord children had fallen out of the upper berth. The outboard child had seen her father talking to Staade, leaned too far out, and in falling had grabbed the inboard child and down came both of them. No bones were broken, and Lieutenant Ord was game enough to amuse Staade until one o'clock. Without the sleep which his relief afforded me I would have been desperate. The next morning we reached Ogden, where we changed sleepers and started on the twenty-four‑hour run for Omaha.

In a chair car which was attached at Ogden Staade found a sympathetic listener. We sat there until two o'clock in the afternoon, when we returned  p143 to the sleeper. As were passing the ladies' dressing room Staade made a dash for it, got inside and locked the door. I took a seat near by, expecting he would soon emerge, but he didn't. After an hour or more the conductor and porter tried to get him to open the door, but to no avail. In the meantime we could hear him doing something inside and began to get worried. About five o'clock he opened the door suddenly and came out. As we walked up the aisle he exclaimed, "Well that was the dirtiest place I ever saw, so I cleaned it up."

He had, there was no doubt about it! He had torn up his blue shirt and scrubbed the paintwork, windows and floor. The conductor demanded that we leave the car, but I showed my orders and finally persuaded him that the road would have trouble with the government if he put us off, so he allowed us to remain. By eleven o'clock that night I was very weary, and arranged to pay the porter fifty cents an hour while he allowed Staade to talk to him. I sat down in the berth and immediately fell asleep.

About two o'clock in the morning I awoke and went into the smoking compartment. The porter was sound asleep, and my insane man was gone! I aroused the porter and he admitted that Staade had talked him into unconsciousness about one o'clock. We got the conductor and made a quick search of the train, but failed to find my traveling companion.

The last stop had been at Ogallala. While packing my valise, preparatory to leaving the train to search for the missing man, I had visions of a court martial for "neglect of duty" in allowing a lunatic in my care to escape. About an hour later we stopped at a cheerless station on the Platte River. I was about to start uptown when I heard some excitement at the forward end of the train. The  p144 fireman came running down the platform yelling, "We have found him in the tender!"

It developed that he had slipped the porter at the last stop, walked down to the engine tender and had got aboard. There he seated himself in the coal and surveyed the prairie scenery along the Platte River. I determined never to lose sight of him again, and I didn't. I was awake for the next sixty hours.

We arrived in Omaha that night, and the following afternoon reached Chicago, where we got the Baltimore Ohio Limited.

When we finally rolled into Washington late on the afternoon of August 12th Staade insisted upon going to the White House at once. I told him we must first go to a hotel and clean up. I had not shaved since we left San Francisco, and did not intend to let him get possession of a razor. I explained the situation to a burly hackman, and gave him five dollars. As we climbed aboard into his conveyance he yelled, "All aboard for the White House."

We drove across the river to St. Elizabeth's, entered the "hotel," and I got a receipt for my prisoner from the asylum authorities. Staade requested me to purchase for him a necktie before we called on the President and the Secretary of the Navy. I went out to get the necktie and never returned!

The hackman drove me to the Ebbitt House, where I got a room and took a bath. I then sat down on the edge of the bed, and the next thing I heard was loud pounding at my door. It was three o'clock the next afternoon. My non‑appearance for nearly twenty-four hours had worried the hotel people. I determined that next time I would register from Antioch, so they would think I was one of the seven sleepers and not disturb me. I had slept without any clothing on me, but it was  p145 August, in Washington, and I didn't catch cold.

I rushed to the Navy Department, reported, drew my mileage, returned to the hotel and went to bed for another eighteen hours. Then I started for Missouri, and slept most of the way.

My leave was shortened by telegraphic orders, and I returned to Mare Island.

Thayer's Notes:

a See p86.

[decorative delimiter]

b The hurricane at Apia in 1889 is told by R. E. Johnson in Thence Round Cape Horn, p141 f. (which includes a photograph).

[decorative delimiter]

c According to Heitman's Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, there were only two lieutenants named Ord in the service in 1889: Edward Otho Cresap Ord[, II] and [his nephew] James Cresap Ord, from a well-known military family. Digging a bit deeper, triangulating from various online sources:

James Ord was a first lieutenant in 1889, and at the time had only one child, a girl who had just turned two.

Edward Ord (the son of Gen. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Edward Ord for whom Fort Ord was named many years later) had just been promoted to first lieutenant, and in 1889 had three children, all boys: eight‑year‑old Edward and seven‑year‑old Harry, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James not quite three. I've found no good information as to where he might have been stationed in 1889, but quite possibly at Benicia Barracks, California where he himself was born and where just two months after the episode recounted here, his wife gave birth to their fourth child.

My reconstruction: the lieutenant who bailed out our young ensign was Edward Ord returning with his wife and their three children from a visit in California; their two older boys shared a berth, and the youngest, still an infant, was with his mother, traveling in a separate sleeping car. Our writer never saw Mrs. Ord with her three-year‑old; and refers to one of the two other boys as being a girl — a plausible mistake given their age and that they were probably in nightgowns.

An interesting fact is that Lt. Ord had been a midshipman at the Naval Academy in 1875‑1876, completing his plebe year; had he graduated, he would have outranked Ensign Coontz in the Navy, who surely would have told us had the subject come up in their conversation: but our ensign was clearly traveling in civilian clothes, and there would have been no reason for them to talk about the Naval Academy.

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