When Sail Struck Steel -- And Sank It


August 18, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Things must have been a little sad for Tom Brannan that day in 1914 when he reported for duty aboard the spanking new, steel-hulled freighter named the Washingtonian. Ten years earlier, when Tom was only 16, his older brother Howard had shipped out from Baltimore for Cuba aboard the schooner Lizzie Babcock. "Neither schooner nor any crew members were heard from again," newspapers reported.

The months ahead in 1914-15 were to put this second Brannan son in danger in one of the oddest maritime wrecks of modern times. Tom was a member of a maritime family living at 816 William St., South Baltimore. The head of the family was Ben Brannan, chief engineer of the Virginian, a railway company's steamer.

One other Baltimorean -- Milton Worth, of 1434 S. Linwood Ave., Highlandtown -- was on the Washingtonian as it plowed away from Baltimore in midwinter of 1915 with a $1.5 million cargo from Honolulu, largely in sugar.

Mists lay over the waters off Fenwick shoals, 10 miles east of the Ocean City peninsula, and the sea was "heavy." The Washingtonian was moving north for the Delaware breakwater and a call on Philadelphia. Not far away from its last position was the shoal's lightship.

At 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 26, the Washingtonian's crew was awakened by a thunderous crash. The giant spike of a schooner's prow had stoved in the steel hull of the Washingtonian amidships. The impact ripped a fatal hole in the steamer's plates. "The Washingtonian sank within 10 minutes after the schooner struck her and all hands on both craft were ordered to the [life] boats," The Sun reported.

As the men of the Washingtonian lowered boats they could see their assailant "under full sail" drawing away about a mile. It was the Elizabeth Palmer, a 3,000-ton schooner built in 1903. It was loaded with coal, en route to Norfolk from Portland, Maine. The Palmer was far smaller than the steamer and its cargo was worth only about one-tenth that of the Washingtonian. But the force of heavy seas and a speed of 8 knots under sail had given it gigantic cleaving force delivered broadside. "It was evident that the steamer was moving in a direction that would have taken her across our bows and that our lights were seen too late to avoid us," said Capt. George A. Carlisle of the Palmer.

"The schooner, driven by high winds, was speeding like an express train. . . . She struck the steamer almost amidships, just forward of the engine room, and the vessel keeled over to her port side. . . . She filled rapidly and went down stern first," read one account of the disaster.

All but one of the 39 men aboard the Washingtonian were rescued in an effort led by the nearby lightship, which sent emergency signals to a maritime control center in the Baltimore Custom House. The one casualty, and the only fatality of the accident, was a crew member who went back below to retrieve something after the collision. The schooner's men, some plucked half-frozen from the sea, all survived.

Brannan and a number of other crew members were taken to New York City, where the Baltimorean telephoned news of his safety to his family.

Soon after the shipping disaster, a tug left to recover the hull of the Elizabeth Palmer. Its bow was caved in and the deck had been stripped of gear and was awash. According to records in Baltimore's Steamship Historical Association library, the ship was abandoned. To some minds, it had at least won a last moment of revenge for the glorious sailing beauties that had been overtaken by the ugly age of steel.

As for the Washingtonian, a new steamer bearing that name was built and launched in Osaka, Japan, in 1919. It went back into trade under the flag of the original builder, American-Hawaiian lines.

4( An Axis sub would sink it in 1941. *

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