A Dramatic Discovery about Asa Eldridge

December 3, 2017 Vin Miles No comments exist

Much of my research for The Lost Hero of Cape Cod was performed using online databases of historical newspapers, in particular those published between 1815 and 1860. For US newspapers, my primary source was Newspapers.com, which has excellent coverage of the major papers in most towns and cities that were sizeable during the relevant period. Recently, however, I became aware of the extensive collection available on another website whose name does not immediately signify that it carries historical newspapers: GenealogyBank.com. This site excels in its coverage of papers that are (relatively) obscure, more locally focused, and/or more targeted to specialist audiences–such as the New-York American for the Country, the Shipping and Commercial List and New-York Current, the Charleston Courier, the Commercial Advertiser, the Boston Weekly Messenger and the Baltimore Pilot and Transcript. I mention these publications in particular because from editions published in 1839 and 1840, I was able to piece together a dramatic episode in Asa Eldridge’s career that had escaped my previous research, and which is therefore not reported in the The Lost Hero of Cape Cod.

This episode fills a gap in the narrative that careful readers of the book may have noticed, between Eldridge’s final voyage to India in 1839 on the Timore and his first voyage to Liverpool on the Colombo in April 1841. During this period, it turns out, Eldridge had command of a 643-ton ship called the Norway, built in Medford in 1839. The dramatic episode occurred late in 1840, as she returned from her second voyage to Europe. The first had been uneventful, following a typical itinerary from Boston to Mobile and New Orleans to pick up cotton, then across the Atlantic to Liverpool, and from there back to New Orleans – in all likelihood carrying salt and/or manufactured goods. For her second voyage just a couple of weeks later the Norway headed for France rather than England, sailing to the Normandy port of Havre (nowadays known as Le Havre) via Havana. It was on the return run to New Orleans that disaster struck. On November 5, thirty-three days out from Havre and under full sail, the Norway ran right into Cay Sal Bank, a coral reef about thirty miles north of Cuba. She was badly damaged below the waterline, and after a day sitting on the reef had twelve feet of water in her hold. Captain Eldridge had no choice but to abandon ship. Fortunately the Norway’s plight had been noticed by passing vessels, and everyone aboard was saved. She had 82 passengers in total, 22 in cabin class (including the former Governor of Louisiana and his family) and 60 in steerage. The cabin passengers were retrieved by the brig Henry Lee from New York and taken to Apalachicola, while those in steerage ended up in Key West, courtesy of the brig Hallowell from Bath. Captain Eldridge and his crew stayed on board until a salvage vessel arrived, shortly after the passengers had been picked up. Any hopes the salvagers had of making a big profit from a valuable cargo were quickly dashed: the fancy French furniture and silk the Norway had been carrying were ruined. But the cargo did at least include wine and jewelry that could be salvaged.

New Orleans in 1842 (from a print in the collection of the Library of Congress)

This previously forgotten episode in Asa Eldridge’s career bears some striking similarities to the disaster that brought his career to an end over fifteen years later. In this case, the Norway was under full sail when she hit the reef, going too quickly for Eldridge to take evasive action. And when the Pacific was lost in 1856, she was (according to the most common version of events) proceeding at full steam when she hit an ice floe in the Atlantic, with Eldridge again having insufficient time to take evasive action. In both cases, therefore, Eldridge could be accused of proceeding at a speed that was excessive in view of local conditions. But there were mitigating circumstances. The Norway struck the reef at one o’clock in the morning. at which time the darkness would have made it difficult to see very far ahead; if the weather had been cloudy the previous day and evening, Eldridge would not have been able to take the sextant readings needed to calculate his position accurately, and so might not have known how close he was to the reef. And in the case of the Pacific, other ships crossing the Atlantic in the same month reported ice fields much further south than usual; Eldridge might simply have been steaming along on his normal route with no expectation of encountering ice, and could easily have run into it with no warning—especially at night.

What both of these episodes illustrate is the challenge that captains of merchantmen constantly faced in balancing risk and safety. Quicker voyages meant earlier delivery of cargoes and profits, and earlier availability for additional money-making runs. But they also meant taking risks, pushing vessels hard even when conditions were hazardous. And as the losses of the Norway and (especially) the Pacific showed, this could all too easily lead to calamity.


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