Summer Reading: The Easton’s Honeymoon (9)

Van Ransaeller refused to let go while Easton struggled to wrench free. Unable to shake off the chief mate, Ansel finally squirmed out of his coat, leaving the heavy garment in Van Ransaeller’s hands, and the poor man drifted away and drowned.

Although the legality of his act was not on Easton’s mind, common law precedent would support his actions.

Surely Ansel Easton was shaken. As he looked aboutm he saw desperate survivors clinging to floating deris, shouting encouragement to each other.

When Ansel spied “a large plank which had been the front of the berth,” he seized it. This would be his floating refuge for the next eight hours. He was in a semi-stupor, senses dulled, when lights appeared. Is this a ship? Was he seeing things?

He was not delirious. The Norweigian bark Ellen plucked him and 48 other survivors out of the sea. He was given dry clothing and Adeline said he “went to work assisting in caring for those who were saved and calling out the names of every one he knew, hoping to get a response” from any additional survivors in the water.

But there was no point looking for 44-year-old Captan Herndon. It was known by all that he had remained at the wheel of the ship just as he pledged he would. In the great tradition of the sea, Captain Herndon had gone down with his ship.

(Next Part 10)

Summer Reading: The Easton’s Honeymoon (8)

In the blurry panic that followed, somone handed Ansel Easton a life-preserver and a coat, a garment he wore loosely about the shoulders but buttoned tightly around his neck.

“Give me your cigar,” Easton, for the lst rocket,” said Captain Herndon, referring to a final gesture to attract a rescue ship.

As the cigar exchanged hands, the silence of the sea was broken as the waves once more crashed over her deck. The Central America plunged into the black menacing waters.

During those last grim moments some of the passengers had life preservers but the majority didnot, and as many as 450 souls were sucked down with the sinking ship.

Some with life preservers lost them as the powerful suction of the sea tore them from their grip.

Ansel Easton held his breath and desperately clung to his life preserver as he was drawn down into the sea. His vision was impaired and he felt disoriented. Finally he popped to th surface, grasping for air, and was horrified to discover a man’s arms about his neck struggling for the life preserver.

Easton recognized him as Van Ransaeller, the steamer’s chief mate. Ansel Easton had a life- preserver. Van Ransaeller did not. One life-preserver could not sustain both, only one could survive. The two grappled in the turbulent water under dark skies.

(Next Part 9)

Summer Reading: The Easton’s Honeymoon (7)

Adeline Mills Easton must have recounted her horror story a thousand times, and at this critical point in the tale, the Burlingame grande dame must have paused for dramatic effect.

Captain Burt of the brig Marine welcomed the women and children abord, said Adeline, but “he afterwards told me he feared we’d left one stinking ship for another.”

By 6 p.m. all the women and children had found safety aboard the Marine, its destination Norfolk, but their eyes searched the horizon in the failing light for the mortally wounded Central America.

Under dark and ominous skies Ansel Easton stood with Captain Herndon on the wheelhouse of the Central America. It’s safe to say that awaiting doom, they were still troubled by the action of chief engineer Ashby, who had been seen fleeing the stricken vessel in one of the rescue boats reserved for the women and children–a despicable act that would cause great anger and controversy.

Ansel had alrady formed a negative opinion of the chief engineer. Earlier, when the steam engines stopped operating, Adeline had asked, “What does this mean, Ansel?”

“It means, I fear, that the engineer has not done his duty,” he replied, referry to Ashby’s negligence in allowing the pumps to become inoperable.”

To many, the popular Captain Herndon had been heroic. During the last attempts to save the ship, Herndon was ever present, bringing blankets and tools, chores he should have delegated to men under his command. But in those final hours the crew worried only about its own survival, failing to construct a large raft that some say could have saved many lives.

At 8 p.m. aboard the Central America there was an eerie silence, and waves had stopped breaking over the deck. The vessel’s fate was certain and her end near.

(Next Part 8)

Summer Reading: The Easton’s Honeymoon (6)

The horrible thought of helplessly falling into the cruel sea led the men to unbuckle and abandone their gold dust-stuffed belts. The women who had hid bags of gold in their staterooms now threw the $20 gold pieces on the floor. Captain Badger of San Francisco–he of the very heavy, gold-stuffed carpet bag–discarded it in Captain Herndon’s stateroom.

The gold had lost its value and become a burden.

The most anyone could carry were two of the precious $20 gold pieces.

Tens of thousands of dollars of gold were strewn on the deck–and nobody wanted it. Surviving came first.

Despair reigned aboard the Central America. The most useful thing the crew could do to save all was to shoot off flares with the hope that some passing vessel would come to their aid.

On Saturday morning, their fear and despair was lifted when someone pointed to the old brig, the SS Marine, and shouted: “A sail! A sal!”

She, too, was a victim of the storm, disabled and short of provisions, but her Captain Burt was prepared to help as much as he could. That meant rescuing women and children only.

From a steamer trunk Ansel Easton took out a coat, put $900 and valuable papers into the pockets and rolled it into a bundle. He assisted Addie to the deck just as the second boatload was completed.

“With my husband’s kiss upon my lips,” said Addie, “and breathing a prayer for his safety, I found myself swinging from the deck.”

The newlywed was dropped into the bottom of the rescue boat and the world grew dark as the Central America faded from view.

Addie Easton’s heart ached, and she wondered if she would ever see Ansel again.

And what about the Central America and her precious cargo of gold?

(Next Part 7)

Summer Reading: The Easton’s Honeymoon (5)

The storm raged through Thursday night–Friday brought no relief. A defining moment occurred when the Central America “suddenly careened to one side.” It was no longer possible to walk on the deck, and the sails used as back-up for these steam-powered ships were torn to shreds.

According to the San Francisco newspapers, the passengers were startled to learn that the hsip had sprung a leak. The Central America was rapidly taking on water, they were told. The water had flooded the engine room, and the coal-fueled engines had ceased operating.

As sea water flooded the ship, the pumps proved to be defective. The passengers, many of them gold hunters, proposed the construction of box pumps such as those that were used in the California mines–but they lacked the tools and materials needed to fashion the pumps.

Late Friday, Addie heard Captain Herndon’s order: “All men prepare for bailing the ship. The engines have stopped but we hope to reduce the water and start them again. She’s a sturdy vessel, and if we can keep up steam we shall weather the gale.”

Ansel Easton joined the other passengers who grabbed buckets and anything that would hold water. Everybody pitched in, even the women, but the men gallantly rebuffed their offers.

“One touch of shipwreck makes the whole world kin,” observed Addie.

But more water was flooding the engine room than the weary men could bail. Spirits were sagging when Addie Easton, “with great difficulty,” reached her stateroom, and brought back boxes of biscuits and bottles of wine, remnants from her wedding party. She was later praised for refreshing the exhausted men and supporting their waning courage and vigor.

But it was hopeless, and the time to abandon the ship was coming near. The love of gold was forgotten, replaced by the much stronger instinct of self-preservation.

(Next Part 6)

Summer Reading: The Easton’s Honeymoon (4)

A string of unfavorable international events and over-speculation in railroad securities led to stocks tumbling on the New York Exchange.

Stories circulated of investors who made and lost fortunes during a single trading session.

Savvy foreign investors withdrew funds form New York banks, followed by nervous depositors. Some banks were near collapse and newspapers began to print lists of businesses that had declared bankruptcy.

The Eastern banks relied heavily on regular shipments of California gold, and they awaited the large cargo aboard the Central America. Had they the slightest suspicion that the Central America’s gold shipment could wind up on the floor of the Atlantic, their troubles could become much worse.

As the economic situation turned dismal in New York, so did the weather around the Central America. When the steamer left Havana on Tuesday, Sept. 8, there was a strong breeze, and within hours, sheets of deafening rain spattered the ship.

They were on the edge of a whirlwind, known today as a hurricane. This marked the beginning of a tense struggle between the old wooden ship and the wild natural forces of a tropical storm.

By Thursday, the creaking steamer was losing the battle as the winds reached gale force, and the seas grew mountainous.

The passengers, said Addie Easton, became anxious but Captain Herndon remained cheerful and encouraging.

(Next Part 5)

Summer Reading: The Easton’s Honeymoon (3)

Addie and Ansel Easton were privileged passengers aboard the Central America, paying $300 a day for their stateroom. They were regularly invited to the captain’s table, and they found the 44-year-old Captain William Lewis Herndon a magnificent host. He fascinated all with vivid descriptions of his 11-month expedition of the 4000-mile-long Amazon River in South America.

It seemed inevitable that the conversation would ultimately turn to the frightening thought of shipwreck. That was on every passenger’s mind.

There had been a shipwreck recently and this was the season of heavy storms. Captain Herndon confirmed that the captain of that particular ill-fated vessel had survived.

But he shocked listeners with a dose of brutal honesty: “Well,” Captain Herndon, the traditionalist said, “I’ll never survive my ship. If she goes down, I go under her keel. But let us talk of something more cheerful.”

One wonders how much more the passengers would have worried if they had known that some believed the Central America was “unseaworthy”–a rotten old hulk as unstable as a “loaf of gingerbread.”

And while the passengers enjoyed the voyage and good weather, there were disturbing financial rumblings in New York City. The failure of a life insurance company branch had set the scene for the financial Panic of 1857, one of the most severe economic crises in U.S. history.

(next, Part 4)

Summer Reading: The Easton’s Honeymoon (2)

The story of Adeline and Ansel Easton

At Panama, the Eastons crossed the Isthmus in new open-air rail cars–enjoying the short and uneventful 48-mile trip to the Caribben port city of Aspinwall. They they boarded the 272-foot wooden-hulled Atlantic steamer SS Central America bound for New York–a 9-day journey with a one day stopover at Havana.

The trip aboard the Central America was the last leg of the Easton’s voyage. Of the more thaqn 581 passengers aboard the steamer, many were California miners going to their homes back east–gold hunters who had searched for the yellow metal for years.

Many carried great personal wealth. Some women tucked $20 gold pieces in bags they guarded at all times. Men wore belts stuffed with gold dust while one fellow, Captain Badger of San Francisco, concealed $20,000 in gold in a carpet bag that became very heavy.

There was also a commercial gold cargo aboard, plus a secret shipment, together totaling about 21 tons–gold bars ranging from 5 ounces to 80 pounds, including the largest Gold Rush relic, weighing 1,100 troy ounces–and gold coins struck on Montgomery Street at the new San Francisco Mint.

The Central America was truly a “Ship of Gold,”

the title of author Gary Kinder’s 1998 best-selling book.

(Next: Part 3)

Summer Reading: A Honeymoon, A Disaster at Sea & 21 Tons of Gold (1)

Wedding Journey: The Story of Adeline Mills and Ansel Easton***

By June Morrall

(From my “Over the hill stories” series)


Through the decades family and friends of Adeline Mills Easton were so captivated by her account of surviving a harrowing sea disaster in 1857 that the Burlingame grande dame privately published a 38-page book called: The Story of Our Wedding Journey.

But the misleading title masks the horror of the sweet shipboard honeymoon turned ocean nightmare, the kind of sea journey every traveler dreads.

A joyful, romantic future must have been all that was on the mind of 28-year-old Adeline “Addie” Mills when she wed Ansel Ives Easton in a San Francisco ceremony on August 20, 1857.

Both bride and groom came from accomplished, successful families. She was the sister of the conservative financier, Darius Ogden Mills, a New Yorker who had founded a bank in Sacramento and later established the famous Bank of California with the legendary William Ralston.

Ansel had made his fortune selling furnishings to the steamship lines servicing the booming city of San Francisco.

A perfectly matched couple, every detail of their honeymoon itinerary had been meticulously planned. Immediately after the nuptials, the newlyweds boarded the SS Sonora, settling into their first-class cabin as the steamer sailed out the Golden Gate, bound for Panama–a two week voyage.

It was “one long delight,” a continuation of their wedding party, remembered Addie.


(Next Part 2)

***Note: I am one of many “local” writers who has written about this fascinating story. If you can, check out all the versions!