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By: indianrivguy , 8:55 PM GMT on October 18, 2011
The 1906 hurricane season was tough on Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Major hurricane 6 devastated Pensacola harbor, even over washed parts of Santa Rosa Island destroying the Life Saving Station there. More than one hundred died at Mobile Bay while Biloxi was the bullseye for the center. A Cat 3 as it crossed the GOM, like Katrina, it weakened slightly just before landfall.
The NE quadrant however produced some storm surge that was unsurprisingly the killer. There are lots of pictures online showing the destruction of what became known as the 1906 Pensacola hurricane.
This story however is about the other major hurricane to affect Florida, this one on October 18, 1906.
The Golden Era of Steam-boating on Indian River was over. Flagler's railroad had killed it just as it had begun flourishing. They simply could not compete with the speed and convenience of Flagler's railroad delivering pineapples and truck northward.
Having brought his railroad to Miama, Henry Flagler was now building his overseas railway to Key West. He had bought and or hired most of the steamships available in the area, to move building materials, men, supplies and water back and forth. Mostly idle and going bankrupt, the steamboat owners jumped at the chance to sell to Flagler's Fleet. And their Captains jumped the the opportunity for work.
My Great Grand Uncle Charles W. Pierce was a pilot and Captain of the steamboat Wanderer, working in the Jewfish Creek area. His wife Yallahs Lizette and son Charles Leon decided to come down from Hypoluxo on Lake Worth to visit. After arriving in Miama on the RR, they booked passage on the steamer St. Lucie, Mastered by Captain Stephan Bravo. Both ship and Captain had a storied history of service on Indian River. Here is a snapshot of the Captains service;
A dashing man of Minorican descent, he was famous for his loud voice, vigor and panache. Probably the favorite of all the Captains who sailed Indian River. A bigger view of him aboard the St. Sebastian.
Here are some images of the St. Lucie.
Here is the track of the storm;
Excerpt from the "Golden Era of Steam Boating on the Indian River 1877-1900" by Fred Hopwood
1906 A hurricane hit the Florida Keys and 130 men were killed when 120 miles-per-hour wind struck construction sites of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. Long Key was particularly hard hit. Captain Steve Bravo, a legendary Indian River steam boat captain who had taken a position with Flagler’s company, was one of the individuals caught in the storm. He was the captain of the St. Lucie, which hauled men and supplies to work camps. Here is a description of the 1906 hurricane from Fred A. Hopwood’s book, The Golden Age of Steamboating on the Indian River (Cocoa: Florida Historical Society Press, Reprint Edition, 1998)
On October 17, 1906, the St. Lucie left the FEC's terminal dock on 5th Street and headed out of Biscayne Bay on an overnight trip to the Keys. Pushing a barge filled with fresh water for workers and carrying 120 passengers and crewmen, nothing appeared out of the ordinary and the trip was regarded by the St. Lucie's captain, Steve Bravo, as routine. So routine, in fact, that Bravo, having brought the steamer safely out of Biscayne Bay, turned command of the vessel over to the first mate, Robert Blair, and retired to his cabin for the night.
Unknown to Bravo, Blair, or FEC officials, a hurricane was battering the Keys and heading directly for Miami. At an inquiry hearing later, Bravo reported that there had been no reason to suspect that anything was out of the ordinary, although "The barometer was showing low, but not more than it had for the past two weeks." The St. Lucie's long and wide steel hull (122' by 24') was considered stable and safe in even stormy conditions. When the steamer encountered the first winds and rain of the hurricane's outer bands, no one was unduly alarmed.
At about three o'clock in the morning, Blair had Captain Bravo roused from his sleep. When the captain reached the upper deck, it was apparent that the steamer was caught in a gale, blowing out of the east. Little did Blair or Bravo realize that these winds were part of the counter-clockwise winds of a larger storm. As the barometer continued dropping, Captain Bravo decided to seek safe anchorage at Elliott's Key and to ride out the storm. Dropping anchor in seven feet of water on the leeward side of the island, Bravo felt that his boat was safe from the storm.
By daylight, however, hurricane strength winds were blowing, and Elliott's Key was under several feet of water. Waves were washing over the lower deck of the St. Lucie, and parts of the boat's superstructure were beginning to give way. Passengers and crewmen were ordered to don life jackets. Suddenly, about seven o'clock in the morning, the winds died out and the waves receded. Captain Bravo ordered the chief engineer to "get up a full head of steam so that the St. Lucie could make a run for it, if necessary."
Despite the lull in the storm, the barometer, which had dropped to a low 28.8 inches of mercury, indicated that there was more bad weather to come.
Second Officer J. W. Grant ordered two lifeboats lowered. Ten men climbed aboard to go to the aid of a schooner that tossed at anchor between the St. Lucie and the shore. Before the men could reach the ship, the lull ended and the storm resumed. The temporary reprieve had been the eye of the hurricane, which had passed directly over Elliott's Key. Suddenly 120 M.P.H. winds struck from the west. The men in the two lifeboats were swept ashore by the renewed winds. Caught in the thicket of mangrove trees along the shore, the men clung tenaciously to the roots and managed to ride out the fury of the storm safely.
On board the St. Lucie, matters quickly turned worse. Bravo ordered a lifeboat to be lowered into the tossing waves. He placed the steamer's only woman passenger, a Mrs. Pierce, and her six-year-old son aboard the boat and then ordered six crewmen to serve as oarsmen. Once released, the lifeboat was grabbed by the waves and hurled ashore, where it came to rest against a building wrecked by the hurricane. Mrs. Pierce, her son, and the six crewmen quickly grabbed hold of the building's structure, an act that saved their lives.
[This was Yallahs Lizette Wallack Pierce and son Charles Leon Pierce, wife and son of my Great Grand Uncle Charles W. Pierce.]
Within an hour, all hope for the St. Lucie was gone. The great steamer was being torn to pieces by the unrelenting winds and waves. Bravo reported to the inquiry board that, "We were fighting for our lives." Large pieces of the superstructure were hurled about like tiny matchsticks, and desperate crewmen struggled to find something to hang on to. It was a hopeless cause.
When the storm passed, nothing remained of the once-proud St. Lucie but debris floating on the surface of the placid water.
On the right, we are looking at the top of the boiler and past that, the sternwheel
In Miami questions were immediately raised about the fate of the St. Lucie and its crew. The Miami Evening Record carried the banner headline, "Where is the St. Lucie?" The paper reported that, "Rumors have persisted that the St. Lucie had been overtaken by the storm and that she had gone down with all on board." The Miami Metropolis headlined its day-after edition, "Steamer St. Lucie is Reported Lost." J. C. Meredith, Flagler's chief engineer, gave credence to the story when he reported that he had traveled from the Keys to Miami on his boat, the Lotus, and had seen no sign of the St. Lucie. The barge the steamer had been pushing, however, was found by Meredith.
The question of the fate of the St. Lucie was answered when, on the following Saturday, the steamer Peerless arrived in Miami with fifty-eight badly battered and exhausted survivors. An additional twenty-five survivors had been ordered off the Peerless prior to its arrival in the city to assist the steamer Virginia collect the bodies of the less fortunate. When these weary survivors protested their impressment into service by the captain of the Virginia, he secured their cooperation only after threatening them with violence.
[My Great Grandfather Frederick Christian Voss was the steam engineer on the “Peerless”, Great Grand Uncle Charlie Pierce was Captain of the “Wanderer.” Imagine his anxiety if he knew his sister in law was aboard the St. Lucie on her way to visit Charles. Imagine his surprise if he didn’t know .. ]
The Metropolis reported that "25 or more are dead, their bodies littering the shores and land of Elliott's Key." Several additional bodies were discovered in the vicinity of Soldier’s Key. The actual number of persons from the St. Lucie who died in the storm will never be known. Apparently no passenger manifest was kept, and within a few weeks, the public lost interest in the disaster. Miami newspapers, ever willing to cater to public interests, pursued the matter no further.
Although some individuals insist that Captain Bravo knew about the hurricane and recklessly proceeded into the storm, an investigation by federal maritime authorities cleared him of any wrongdoing. With no telegraph or telephone communications between Miami and Key West, there simply was no way for any skipper to know about the hurricane in advance.
It took Flagler more than a year to recover from this storm, and continue building his way to Key West. As you know, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 was the end to Flagler's Railroad. The government bought the system and turned it into the overseas highway.
Here is a story from Tequesta Magazine, The Journal of the Historical Society of South Florida. This is a WONDERFUL source and I recommend that you take the time to save the link so you can peruse its contents on a rainy day sometime. I have saved them all, and refer to them often when doing "Florida pioneer history" stuff. I hope to be published there myself someday. Charles W. Pierce has an entire issue devoted to his story "Cruise of The Bon Ton." Dr. Gilbert Voss, famous marine scientist and son of the steam engineer Fredrick Christian Voss on the Peerless in the above story has "The Orange Grove House of Refuge" published there too. Uncle Gill was instrumental in the creation of the underwater marine park named for his friend John Pennecamp.
Here is the contents page for the whole collection 1941-2010 Tequesta
Clicking the title will bring you to the entire 1959 issue
The Wreck of Houseboat #4
The Wreck of Houseboat No. 4 October 1906
By WILLIAM H. SAUNDERS
With the approach of each new hurricane season, I often think over my
experience of fifty-three years ago when I, with 160 other men, was washed
away from Long Key on the morning of the 18th of October, and lived
to tell the tale.
I had been living on the southeast coast of Florida for some fifteen
years, first at "Lake Worth Lagoon", now West Palm Beach, and at Miami
for a part of the time. There had been four hurricanes while I was living at
Lake Worth. I thought that I had learned all there was to know about such
storms. But the fifth one was by far the worst, and I found out a lot more
Henry M. Flagler had made a good start on building the Florida East
Coast Railway from Homestead on the mainland over the keys that stretched
out southwest to Key West. One of the main points where open water had
to be bridged with concrete arches started at Long Key and extended to little
Money Key almost five miles away.
The story of the assembling of men, material and machinery was a saga
in itself. But it is enough for our purpose to say that housing and feeding
needs were met by towing an old Mississippi River barge across the Gulf of
Mexico, making the below decks into kitchen and dining room, and building
a one story frame house on deck that resembled the Christmas Noah's Ark
of our childhood days. The house served as sleeping quarters for some 150
to 175 men as well as offices for the Division Engineer and his men who
were directing the work. Several gasoline powered tugs were used to push
barge loads of material from huge stock piles to the machinery that was
used to set piles, erect the forms, set the reinforcing steel and mix and pour
the cement. It was my fortune to have a marine engineer's license, and by
reason of it to be chief engineer on the tug PALM. The routine work was on
a twenty-four hour, around the clock schedule. Work was getting well into
stride in the fall of 1906, when a hurricane hit Long Key on the morning of
October 18th. As a matter of fact, the wind had increased so much that all
work had been shut down at midnight and all men had retired to Houseboat
No. 4 as the old barge was called.
We were all trying to get some sleep, but for many of us who had had
some experience with hurricanes, it was an uneasy sort of effort. Hurricane
warnings were unknown at the time. The weather bureau had not yet developed
the modern system of detecting and locating them. However, as I look
back to that time, I am sure that the men whose forefathers had lived on the
keys had developed some sixth sense regarding the approach of a hurricane.
It was the practice at the time to hire these conchs as they were known on the
mainland to pilot the many tugs, steamboats, and small launches that were
used to move the men to and from work, carry the officials to and from
Miami and Key West, and move the barge loads of material on the construction
project. Possibly because of this sense of impending storm not one of
them was on the job at the time, leaving the work in the hands of persons
who knew nothing about such storms.
At six o'clock on the morning of the 18th, there was not a single craft
with gasoline power that could be started. They were already wet by the
spray. There was as yet no realization of serious danger, but as a consequence
of the wet engines none of the men on the Houseboat were transferred to
Long Key and greater safety.
By early morning the wind, blowing from the North was so strong that
we all began to fear that the dolphins would be pulled up and let us blow
away, or that the cables would break and set us adrift in the storm. The
cables did break at about seven-thirty, and we were swiftly on our way
southward across Hawk's Channel and into the famous Gulf Stream in a
hurricane wind estimated at more than 100 miles an hour.
While we were still in Hawk's Channel the seas were heavy enough to
show us that the Old Mississippi wooden barge would not last very long.
The working of the hull developed leaks. Efforts at pumping out the water
were useless. As the barge was lifted on the waves the planking on the sides
would open enough that one could thrust his hand into the opened cracks.
When the wave was directly under the barge, those planks would snap
together with a loud crack, and a fine mist would pop out like steam.
The planks were long pieces of timber 14" by 4", four by fourteens.
The sides of the craft were practically straight up, with little or no curve
toward the bottom. They were fastened to nearly upright ribs as well as
being drift-bolted to each other. This was done by boring vertical holes
WILLIAM H. SAUNDERS 17
through two and a half planks and driving in iron rods into the holes. These
holes were so arranged that there was a rod through each plank about every
twelve inches. These drift bolts account for at least seven men coming
through the "journey" alive to be picked up on the following morning.
Below decks the barge was used as a kitchen and dining room. As there
was no installation of electric lights, dependence was had at night on kerosene
lamps, and during the day time to windows that had been cut in those
side planks, well above the water line. The wood for a length of three feet
was cut out, leaving the 'drift bolts' across the openings.
It was about 9:00 A. M. when the flimsy house aboard the top deck blew
away like a pack of cards, carrying an unknown number of men with it. We
were then in very heavy seas, and it was only a few minutes until the top
deck planking had worked loose, and was ready to float away when the barge
finally filled with water, and very shortly separated into loose planks, two
long sides of those drift-bolted 4 by 14 heavy planks, and two partial sections
of the ends of the boat.
Those top planks were about 40 feet long, 2 by 12 inch, and as they
were drifting away some of them headed endwise to the wind, and as they
floated up on a wave, if a few feet happened to project momentarily above
the wave crest, the wind would lift the whole plank out of the water and send
it whirling end over end towards the South. Planks would crisscross other
planks. And I saw one poor chap hanging on to a plank, and another plank
acting like a huge pair of shears, slice into his chest, enough that his heart
showed momentarily before a huge wave broke over everything. When my
raft came to the surface, and I could look again, the planks and the man
were both gone from sight.
I had been told when I first arrived in Florida, that there never was
any thunder and lightning with a hurricane. As far as I had known in the
four storms I had been through that was a true saying. This storm disproved
all old sayings. I have heard some terrific loud cracks of thunder along
the Florida East Coast, but none of them surpassed the loud explosions that
we heard about eleven that morning.
There was one other feature of that old barge that had a very direct
bearing on my own experiences. For some reason the top deck had been
built out with an overhang of some three or four feet, probably to provide
a walk-way all around that house that was used for sleeping, and offices of
the engineers. As the river steamers from Miami must come alongside the
barge to transfer provisions and passengers, this deck overhang would have
caused much damage to the upper works of the steamers. To avoid this a
series of 6 x 6 inch timbers were fastened to the deck edge, and held away
the same distance from the side of the barge at the steamer deck gunwales
by a short 6 x 6 and a three-quarter wet bolt through the lower end of the
upright and the side of the barge. These timbers were about 9 feet long. When
the old barge went to pieces one of these bolts hung on to the end of the
9 foot 6 x 6, and when the side of the barge turned smooth side up, that
timber was threshing back and forth at one end of the 'raft' we were on.
Most of the 10 men that made this raft were able to sit in those windows that
had been cut for light, and hold on to the drift bolts that were left uncut.
I had tried sitting in one of the 'windows' but found I was wider through
the hips than the rest, and I, with another man in the same fix, elected to
hang over the end of the 6 x 6 timber, and grasp the iron bolt and hang on.
Taking turns at having our stomachs against the end of that timber, with the
other chap lying against his back, spoon fashion. When I got home on the
20th, there was a very plain square mark on my stomach where the force of
the waves forced me against that timber hard enough to leave a mark.
It is hard to describe the way the waves rose up some three stories,
and then broke over us and the raft, with tons and tons of water. This lasted
at the worst about three hours. Then the worst of the wind was over, but
the seas seemed to grow higher, until about 4:00 P. M. when the wind
dropped to a light breeze, and we could stand up on the raft.
In spite of the real tragedy of men lost, there were some things that
happened that caused a grin among the rest of us. The water supply on the
houseboat was a square cypress tank bolted together very firmly. When two
men saw this tank float loose from the general wreckage, they saw a sure
way to float, and left the trash they were hanging on, and took over that tank.
They were like two squirrels on the outside of the cage, and every shift of
wave or wind would start the cage to turning, and those two trying to stop
its turning, by one climbing up on one side, and the other sliding down on
the other side. The square shape of the tank was forever scraping and bruising
their bodies from head to foot, and they were probably the worst bruised
of any of the survivors. However, these two were picked up about 5:00 P. M.
and were lucky to have good medical help aboard the "JENNY".
Despite the fact that Clara Barton had the Red Cross pretty well
organized at that time, first aid kits were very rudimentary. Liquid laudanum
was about the only pain relief. As a result, some of the men that were wild
WILLIAM H. SAUNDERS 19
with panic decided to end it all before the barge even went to pieces. Claiming
that as they could not swim and were afraid that sharks would devour their
bodies, they filled their pilot coat pockets with any heavy material they
could find, mostly canned beef, drank about a half teacup of laudanum,
wrapped themselves in a blanket, and lay on the dining tables and went to
sleep. I regret to say that the chief pilot of the PALM, my own tug, did this
very thing. He was a tug pilot in New York Harbor before he came South
to work on that overseas job.
Other men were almost as frantic. I know of my own observation that
before that flimsy house blew off the barge that a large group of them
climbed up under the roof, as they thought they would be that much longer
out of water, with no thought that the house itself would collapse even before
the barge broke up. I am pretty sure none of that group survived.
For myself, I was truly scared, and had very grave doubts that any of
us would be alive when the storm had passed. The main idea in my mind
was that although I had a small life insurance policy, I had some way gotten
the idea that the insurance was very hard to collect if the corpse was missing,
and it took seven years before the courts would certify a legal death. I felt
I just had to do everything possible to come through alive, as my family in
Miami would have a very tough time to make a living. So it was no laudanum
for me, nor any risk of the smashed up house. I stayed outside until
the barge broke up, and was lucky enough to make that long side of the
barge that brought seven of us through alive.
The first man rescued about 4:00 P. M. on the 18th was picked up by
the Austrian Steamer JENNY. A tramp freighter that had loaded from Gulfport,
Mississippi, and Pensacola, Florida, bound for her home port of
Trieste, Austria. This steamer had been in enough of the outer fringes of
the storm near Key West so that her deck load of barreled rosin had all
been washed overboard. The equipment aboard this steamer was very primitive.
One life boat, no electric lights of any kind, and dependent on condensed
steam to lubricate the cylinders of her triple expansion engine.
When this first man was seen, and reported to the Captain, he immediately
followed the immemorial code of the Seven Seas. The steamer was
maneuvered to the windward of the man, and lay broadside to the wind and
seas, undergoing the most sickening rolling, while an oil bag was lowered
to smooth the seas as much as possible, and the lone boat lowered with only
two oarsmen, in the lee of the steamer. The boat was really so small that
five average men made as heavy a load as was at all safe in that wind and sea.
When the boat returned with this man, it was soon found that there
was only one man aboard the steamer that could speak English, a stoker
in the fire room. When he had translated this man's story of what had
happened at Long Key, the Captain ordered his ship to be sailed in large
circles, hoping to save some more men. This was done all that evening and
until 1:30 on the morning of the 19th. During that time they had picked up
forty-nine men from all sorts of wreckage, our seven being the very last.
The Captain afterward stated that no more wreckage or men were sighted.
He decided as he did not have enough stores aboard to feed the extra 49 as
well as his ship's crew, if he sailed for home, he returned to Key West, and
turned us over to the U. S. authorities.
We arrived in Key West about 10:00 A. M., but were not put ashore
until all arrangements were completed. I understand that a price was paid
per head to the Captain for his salvage and care for the group. We were
also furnished new clothing by the Railway company, as most of us had
only rags and ribbons when we landed aboard the steamer. The ship's crew
had divided their few belongings among us but that did little more than
help cover our nakedness.
From Long Key alone there were as many as 150 men on that house
boat, and the day before the Steamer ST. LUCIE had brought some 50 more
men that had not even been set to work nor had their names recorded. The
total number may have been as high as 175. The most diligent search has
accounted for but 72 men that were rescued. So it is very possible that this
was Florida's worst loss of life in a hurricane, up to that time.
A personal touch or two, my eldest son was a messenger boy for the
Western Union in Miami at the time, and he was getting news first hand of
the Long Key disaster. The local Miami paper had reported the probable loss
of "Water Boat No. 4", in the evening edition, but the paper did not get
into my wife's hands until my son had come home that evening. She was
sure that reference to Water Boat No. 4 meant Houseboat No. 4, and that I
was probably lost. When we were allowed to go ashore in Key West I had
filed a telegram telling her of my safety. The press of other telegrams, press
dispatches, and other personal wires delayed mine for about 20 minutes
after that paper had arrived in my home. When a knock came at that time,
my son was at the door ahead of his mother, and there was the night messenger
boy with my wire. I have always been very glad that I filed that telegram
when I did that afternoon.
WILLIAM H. SAUNDERS 21
I also still have the small bundle of a tattered pair of denim work pants,
and a scrap of the shirt I was wearing, when I went aboard the JENNY. As
the PALM was one of the fastest tugs, we were frequently sent to Miami on
special trips for important material when it had run short. I had known
that we were slated to make such a trip on October 20th, and had written that
I would be home on that date. The Steamer MIAMI, belonging to the Flagler
System was in port in Key West through the storm, and as soon as we were
turned over to the Commissioner and properly clothed we were put aboard
the MIAMI for a return to the city of Miami. Accordingly on the morning
of the 20th, we steamed past Fowey Rocks lighthouse about 10:00 A. M. and
went ashore about 11:00.
I was set to work at Miami, and did not return to the work on the Keys
again. I was put in charge of the suction Dredge TOMOKA, then in Lake
Mabel near Ft. Lauderdale. I later had word that the tug PALM had finally
come ashore on Long Key very little damaged, and was again fitted up and
put to work.
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