The 11 June 1880 Tragedy: Stonington and Narragansett

Disasters, no matter how slight, are of public interest, and the 11 June 1880 tragedy between two American passenger steamers was no exception. The accident happened between 11:30pm and midnight in dense fog. At the time, the SS Stonington was west bound heading to New York as its sister ship the SS Narragansett was sailing east towards Providence, Rhode Island. The Stonington then collided with the Narragansett in the Long Island Sound a few miles off Cornfield Point at the mouth of the Connecticut River.

 11 June 1880 tragedy between SS Stonington and SS Narragansett

The 11 June 1880 tragedy showing the Stonington hitting the Narragansett. Public domain.

Shortly after the collision, news of the accident broke and reached Providence. Before long the news of the disaster spread, and the local Providence depot was thronged by anxious inquirers hoping to gain information about their beloved relatives or missing friends. The first news out of Providence stated:

“At about 9 o’clock this morning our city was shocked by various reports that the steamer Narragansett of the Stonington line had been sunk in the Sound during the storm of last night. The news flew like wildfire, and the meagreness of the reports only added to the excitement and dread. Newspaper and telegraph offices were at once besieged by eager seekers after intelligence, and the depot was a scene of wild excitement.”[1]  

When the Stonington bow crashed into the Narragansett, it struck on the starboard side with terrible force. The Stonington’s outer planking was ripped below the waterline for about fifteen feet. The Narragansett was in much worse shape. A massive hole allowed water to rush in, which then disabled the ship and plunged it into darkness. In addition, a gas meter on board exploded and a fire started.

On the night of the 11 June 1880 tragedy most passengers had retired by 11pm and no one was aware that there was impending danger lurking in the thick fog. When the crash happened, some travelers were startled awake, some passengers were thrown out of their berths, and some people remained sleeping. For travelers asleep, crew members began to raise the alarm to rouse them. For those who had not retired, their shrieks and cries could be heard on deck. When frightened passengers appeared on deck many were clothed in nightclothes, scanty attire, or half naked. They were also half awake, unsure what happened, and did not know what to do.

“The wails of women and children mingled with the agonized shouts of men, while the entire throng rushed aimlessly to the side of the vessel, where the quick commands of officers and the shouts of crew indicated the trouble to be located. A sense of the fact that a collision had occurred at midnight … with no point of land in sight had scarcely been realized by the terrified passengers ere shouts from below came up, adding to the already terrible confusion.”[2]

Officers and crew members on the Narragansett appeared and tried to create order amid the confusion. It was obvious that the steamer would not stay afloat and that the focus needed to be on saving lives, which was made difficult because of the suffocating smoke from the fires that had erupted and were spreading fast. The Boston Globe reported:

“A scene of indescribably wild confusion ensued on both boats. The passengers rushed frantically from their staterooms … One of the officers on board the Narragansett is described as ever pacing up and down deck and assuring the frantic passengers that everything was all right, but a moment proved the worst fears well founded. In two or three minutes a blaze was seen rising from the hold near the centre of the steamer. Like a prairie fire it spread along the decks, the masts, the rigging, and soon this royal monster of the deep was a mass of flames. Horrors accumulated on horror’s head.”[3]

Boston Globe building in 1889. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another description after the 11 June 1880 tragedy stated:

“Volumes of smoke gushed from the hatchway. The stairways were choked with the sickening fumes of escaping gas. The tank had burst, the gas took fire and in a moment almost the [whole] vessel was in flames. The scene of horror cannot be described as men with their wives or children rushed to the boats or sought some movable object upon which they cast themselves out in the waves, preferring the uncertainty of the dark waters than the horrible death which seemed imminent, as the flames now began to make themselves apparent in flaring tongues through stairways and crevices.”[4]

Steps were soon taken to get passengers into lifeboats as the steamer began to reel “careening more heavily to the starboard side, while below those on the watch could hear the angry gurgle of waters rushing through the ragged rent in the vessel’s side.”[5] As the burning steamer cast a garish red glare upon the scene panicked people unable to get into a boat or find life preservers jumped into the water holding onto anything that would float. Moreover, within fifteen minutes the entire hull was “wrapped in flames.” It was a terrible scene depicted by The Times of Philadelphia:

“The shrieks of mothers, whose children were lost in the confusion, were mingled with the hoarse cries of men who saw the lives of those they cherished going down with inevitable ruin of the steamer, and in the darkness of the night faint cries came up from the waters, as those who had thrown themselves overboard were struggling desperately and in the last weak efforts for life. One of the passengers on the Narragansett was J.H. Wilcox, of Chicago. Mr. Wilcox … had the misfortune to lose a leg and when awakened by the collision instantly feared he should be penned in his state room by the fastening of the door if he did not quickly get out; so, without dressing, and making but one futile grab for his pocket-book, containing $500, which he left under his pillow, he made his way out in to the aisle with his coat and trousers in his hands. By this time the boat had taken fire from the blazing gas and there was a scene of the utmost terror and confusion. A woman flung herself upon him screaming: ‘Save me and my child!’ but Wilcox could do nothing in his helpless condition. He managed to dress himself, and struggle on deck, where the scene of equally mad confusion, disorder and frantic fear [prevailed]. … There was a cry for life-boats and one was cut loose from admiships from near where Wilcox was standing. He threw himself out and fortunately struck safely within it. Others followed him, including a woman, who buried him beneath her weight. Someone cut loose or untied the rope and the boat was pushed off from the burning steamer to avoid being swamped by the passengers, thirteen in all.”[6]

As passengers were trying to save themselves, the Stonington was blowing quick whistles of distress. These distress signals were heard by the City of New York, a ship from the Norwich Line, which then came to the aid of the Narragansett. It pulled alongside and crew members began to assist those on board the Stonington and Narragansett to help save lives. It required quick work because the fire was spreading rapidly, and smoke was everywhere.

Within a half hour of the 11 June 1880 tragedy the Narragansett had sunk. A grisly scene remained on the water’s surface. It consisted of “struggling passengers clinging to life-preservers, mattresses, chairs, tables, planks and everything else with floating capacity. Most of [the passengers] … were nearly naked, some of them were badly scalded, other were nearly helpless from fright.”[7] Moreover, many vivid accounts of the chaos and danger that ensued were told.

11 June 1880 tragedy depicted in this image

The 11 June 1880 tragedy of the Narragansett and the Stonington depicted. Author’s collection.

One traveler aboard the ill-fated Narragansett was Mr. P.P. Butterfield. He stated that when the terrible crash happened it woke him. He rushed to the hurricane deck and later when he talked to journalists about his ordeal it was reported:

“Men started to lower a boat and at least fifty people jumped into it. This was the last he saw of the boat. Many women rushed out of their staterooms-half naked and asked what the matter was. The men, to quiet them down, said that they didn’t think there was any danger. … He got a trunk and jumped into the water, and was in the water two hours. It was so dark he could not get a preserver. He was picked upon a raft, and saved a lady’s life by keeping her head above water by clinging hold of her waist. He saw a great many in the water. … The steamer Stonington had thrown off a large quantity of freight to prevent herself being wrecked. Mr. Butterfield thinks a good many died in their state-rooms, being either smothered, burned to death or drowned. He thinks that at least seventy persons were drowned.”[8]

Another account of the 11 June 1880 tragedy came from Mrs. Christine Bailey of Brooklyn, New York. She was aboard the Narragansett on her way to visit her sister and reported:

“I was lying in my berth when I heard a dreadful crash … I jumped out of the berth, put a few clothes on … and rushed up to the upper saloon deck … When I arrived there the utmost confusion prevailed, and for a few seconds I hardly knew what to do. Finally, an office shouted for everybody to keep cool and put on a life-preserver. I then tried for some time to find one, and finally succeeded in getting hold of one, fastening it around me. By that time the boat was on fire, and people were jumping overboard from all parts of the steamer. I followed their example, but hardly had I struck the water when a man with a lady clinging to him caught hold of me and tried to pull my life-preserver off, I resisted to the best of my ability, telling him that life was a dear to me as to him. After considerable trouble I succeeded in getting into a small boat, which immediately capsized, throwing me again into the water. My chances for getting out then seemed desperate, but, with the exercise of all the strength I could muster, I paddled to another boat, only to find it full of water, and all efforts to turn it over were fruitless. I then saw another boat a little way off, and made for that. After considerable difficulty I, with several others, reached the last boat, which was also partially filled with water. Three times did we get into the boat, only to be thrown into the water again. I was determined not to die, however, … and if ever a person fought for their life I did. The boat last referred to fastened to the steamer Narragansett, which by this time was burning fiercely, and despite all we could do – for there were four ladies and one gentleman on board – the flames scorched our faces in a terrible manner, and it did not seem as if there was … [a] chance of our ever being saved. I myself saw three children drown, to say nothing of the others who were floating around near the wreck and who must have been lost. The most agonizing … part of the whole affair, was to see the poor people in the saloon deck suffer so terribly, for many of them must have been burned to death. … while in the boat waiting for somebody to help us, I could hear the poor creatures in the state-rooms on the saloon deck moaning and groaning in a heart-rending manner. … [I]n the position I was, my hands and face were terribly burned. … Finally … we were rescued and taken on board the Stonington, which immediately put back to her starting place with a number of rescued persons.”[9]

11 June 1880 tragedy showing example of lifeboats being sent out to help survivors

Launching a lifeboat from the 1880 book titled “Launch the Lifeboat!” by Mrs. O.F. Walton with drawings by H.J. Rhodes. Author’s collection.

There were also several accounts involving stories of children. Twelve-year-old Charley Case was safe after his father placed him on a life raft to save him while he “after a long and severe struggle … disappeared under the water.”[10] Another sad story involved Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Stilson of Atlanta. They had two children with them and when the disaster struck the children who had been left in the state room were momentarily forgotten. “It is supposed that both babies were burned before any assistance could be obtained, and the poor mother, when she realized her loss, was in a paroxysm of grief.”[11] Another mother was separated from her two children in the confusion and when she “at length discovered them they were enshrouded in the flames and were literally burned to death before her eyes.”[12] In addition to these sad stories, the St. Joseph Saturday Herald also reported on several strange and unexpected incidents:

“The Rev. Mr. Cushman was on board the Stonington, bound for New York. He is very deaf, and never heard a noise that fearful night. He got up leisurely the next morning, dressed and shaved himself, and went out, thinking the boat was at New York. The Rev. Mr. Lockwood, who was lost on the Narragansett, bade adieu to his friend in New York, and said he had a presentiment he was not going to live long. In his hand were found some excursion tickets, a small map of Connecticut and a few Sunday-school cards. John A. Davis of New York, tried to get a berth on the fatal steamer, but could not. He went by another line. He neglected to telegraph his safe arrival, and on returning to New York found his wife in mourning and his clergyman with his funeral sermon written.”[13]

The 11 June 1880 tragedy had people recalling other tragedies, like the Versailles railway accident of 1842 that like this was made worse because authorities were never able to determine a precise death toll. The exact number who drowned or burned was never accurately determined because the passenger list went down with the ship. In addition, for a time after the accident divers could not search for bodies because freight was lying in the way and made the task impossible. This resulted in floating bodies being recovered several days afterwards by local fishermen working in the area. Initial estimates of the death toll ranged from 30 to 100 dead. However, several articles written afterwards cite the number to be around 52.

Several crucial issues were highlighted that were alleged to have contributed to the unexpectedly high death toll. For instance, finding life preservers on board the Narragansett was claimed to be one problem. Most preservers had been put away in different parts of the vessel making them practically inaccessible to needy passengers who ran up on deck immediately after the crash. In addition, many of the preservers that were located were unusable as clarified by Clarence R. Leonard and his wife. They reported that those awakened after the accident heard shouts from the corridors telling them to put on their life preservers while still in their rooms:

“With some difficulty we found two in our room, and tried to fasten them to our bodies, but they were without proper fastenings, so that, when we got into the water, they were more of an impediment than of use.”[14]

Lifeboats aboard the Narragansett was another critical issue that may have contributed to passengers dying. When some of the boats were launched, they filled water and proved useless because the plugs used to let rainwater drain from them had not be reinstalled and could not be found. Some boats were never loosened from the damaged ship, making it impossible for people to escape in them. In addition, lifeboat oars were often missing and so if a lifeboat had its plug and floated it still could not be rowed to safety once in the water.

There were also complaints about the poor performance and incompetency of the crew and captain of the Narragansett. For example, numerous complaints were raised about the ship’s crew being disorganized. It took several boys from the United States Tennessee steamer who happened to be passengers on the ill-fated Narragansett to organize the ship’s crew, which thus averted further panic by frightened passengers. Another criticism made was that the captain and crew of the Narragansett abandoned the steamer too soon and left remaining passengers to fend for themselves.

Significant controversy also swirled around the ship captains’ differing accounts on the 11 June 1880 tragedy. Each captain presented a different story about the accident, what led up to it, and what caused it. Local inspectors were charged with investigating and determining the truth about what happened on the fateful foggy night of the collision and what investigators discovered revealed extreme carelessness and gross misconduct on both sides.

According to the Hartford Courant, investigators found that George F. Nye, captain of the Stonington, altered the ship’s course without giving proper signals. He also failed to stop the steamer without properly locating the Narragansett. However, it was Captain Young of the Narragansett who was found to be the most at fault:

“[U]pon sighting the Stonington and after the signal had been given to slow and to stop, through carelessness or excitement, the signals were given to go ahead, thereby forcing his steamer across the track of the Stonington, and also contributing to the collision of the two steamers. Captain Young [was] also charged with poor judgment for leaving his steamer in a life-boat with his pilot, so soon after the collision, with so many passengers remaining on board, and in consequence of this and other violations his license [was] revoked.”[15]

Stories of the what the passengers went through related to the 11 June 1880 tragedy were publicized in newspapers and read in horror for weeks. There was also numerous stories in the papers of items continually washing up on shore from having been purposely thrown overboard or from having floated up from the ocean floor after the Narragansett sunk. Among the tales was the sad story of one relic that was found. It was the discovery of a buoy picked up miles away in the Antarctic by a small fishing boat:

“The buoy was stamped with the name of the Narragansett. To it was pinned both ends of a napkin, the loops of which might have spanned the body of a child. Fastened to one of the beckets was a switch of hair, such as ladies use to recruit the stock supply. One end of it was knotted to the buoy, the other was tied to a corner of the napkin. A linen handkerchief embroidered and fringed with lace was used to hold the fastening of the hair [and] clasped in it was a little band of plain gold.”[16]

11 June 1880 tragedy headlines in one newspaper

“Cleveland Weekly Herald” headline about the 11 June 1880 tragedy. Author’s collection.

References:

  • [1] The Boston Globe, “Horrors,” June 13, 1880, p. 1.
  • [2] The Times, “Many Lives Lost,” June 13, 1880, p. 1.
  • [3] The Boston Globe, p. 1.
  • [4] The Times, p. 1.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Boston Globe, p. 1.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] The Times, p. 1.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] St. Joseph Saturday Herald, “Incidents of the Naragansett Disaster,” July 17, 1880, p. 1.
  • [14] The Boston Globe, p. 1.
  • [15] Hartford Courant, “The Narragansett Disaster,” September 25, 1880, p. 3.
  • [16] St. Joseph Saturday Herald, p. 1.

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