the distant perspective of more than a century-and-a-half, it’s hard
to imagine what the master of the New York must have been thinking
that afternoon when he ordered his deck hands to cast off the lines
and make for San Luis Pass.
Since it would be another decade before Galveston
had a telegraphic connection to the outside world, chances are Capt.
John D. Phillips had no inkling he would be steaming straight into
harm’s way. With 30 passengers and 23 crew members, the 160-foot steamer
crossed the sand bar at the mouth of Galveston Bay and plowed into
the Gulf swell as the helmsman steered a familiar course for New Orleans.
The Morgan Line flag at the ship’s bow and the Stars and Stripes on
her stern snapped crisply in a growing wind, salt spray flying up
to her wheel house as her cross-head steam engine turned her two paddlewheels.
It was Sept. 7, 1846. The New York’s final voyage had begun.
Some of the people paying $15 for the two-day trip probably got seasick,
but the New York was a comfortable, well-appointed ship. Before long,
however, those who had made the trip before began to realize the ride
was rougher than normal.
In the wheelhouse, the captain began to realize why. His barometer
had been dropping steadily and was continuing to fall. Somewhere in
the Gulf, a tropical cyclone was churning.
in 1837, the New York had been operating between Galveston
and New Orleans since 1839. When the United States annexed Texas
in 1845, shipping magnate Charles Morgan succeeded in getting the
first contract to provide the new state with mail service. For three-fourths
of the postage, he carried mail sacks from the Crescent City to Galveston
for distribution across the rest of the settled portion of the vast
new addition to the U.S.
Texas’ statehood soon triggered war between
the U.S. and Mexico. The New York had made several charter runs from
New Orleans to the military’s supply depot at Brazos Santiago on the
southern tip of Texas that spring.
Now she was back on her regular schedule. The first night out, the
New York pitched on an ever-roughening sea. The next day, the New
York’s paddlewheels could make no headway in the face of gale force
winds and an even heavier sea. Hoping to ride out the storm, the captain
ordered the anchor dropped.
At 2 a.m. on Sept. 7, the winds that had been coming from the northeast
circled around from the southwest, swinging the New York on her anchor.
Before the captain could get her prow back into the wind, a giant
wave broke across the 22-foot-wide steamer and she began shipping
For two hours, the crew tried desperately to get the New York headed
back into the wind. But at 4 a.m., she lost her wheelhouse and her
smokestack to a giant wave that doused her boiler fires.
Just before the wheelhouse and the helmsman were swept to sea, the
pitch of the ship rang its bell one time. That, a survivor later said,
“was the most solemn sound that ever fell upon my ear. I thought it
the death knell to many, perhaps all.”
Overpowered by the hurricane, the New York went to the bottom. Thirty-six
people managed to survive, but 17 passengers and crew, including five
children, drowned. In addition to the loss of human life, the New
York carried some $30,000 to $40,000 in silver, gold and bank notes.
Those who lived to tell the tale clung to floating debris until another
Morgan Line steamer, the Galveston, arrived and pulled them from the
The shipwreck made big news in Galveston
and New Orleans, but given the ongoing war, the story did not hold
the public’s interest for long. Far more people were dying on the
battlefields as Americans fought to hold on to Texas.
hundred forty-four years later, the brief period of newspaper coverage
concerning the long-forgotten disaster got a Louisiana oilfield worker
interested in finding the New York and the silver and gold she had
in her hold when she went down.
Using his electronic fish finder as well as connections to shrimpers
familiar with the area, he found the wreck site in about 50 feet of
water in 1990. A salvage operation netted only a few coins, but the
dates stamped on them were prior to 1846.
Seven years later, the U.S. Minerals Management Service, a federal
agency charged with overseeing oil and gas production in U.S. waters,
conducted a more formal archeological investigation at the site. A
magnetometer survey showed the distribution of the wreckage, including
the location of the ship’s distinctive steam engine. Divers examined
the wreckage in 1997 and again the following year. But no one found
the silver and gold.
© Mike Cox
- September 7, 2004 column, modified August 15, 2014
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