Hawaiʻi’s islands, atolls and reefs have gotten in the way of many transiting ships. To date, seventeen ship wrecks have been discovered and documented in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (the northwestern islands in the Hawaiʻi archipelago.)
One such ship was the USS Saginaw, the first naval vessel built at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California in 1859. She was a 155-foot wooden side-wheeler that was powered by sails and steam engines.
The new side-wheel ship sailed from San Francisco Bay on March 8, 1860, headed for the western Pacific, and reached Shanghai, China in mid-May. She then served in the East India Squadron, for the most part cruising along the Chinese coast to protect American citizens and to suppress pirates.
Over the next few years, the Saginaw worked in other parts of the Pacific, from Alaska to Mexico.
In 1870, she was assigned to Midway Atoll, where a coal depot in support of transpacific commerce was to be built. For six months, she served as a support vessel for divers as they labored to clear a channel into the lagoon.
Then, in October 1870, she sailed for San Francisco, but, as was the practice, she first sailed to Kure Atoll en route home to rescue any shipwrecked sailors who might be stranded there.
As she neared this rarely visited island, Captain Sicard navigated his ship cautiously through heavy swells under reduced sail. The moon had set, but they did not expect to be within range until daybreak. At 3:15 am, waves were observed breaking ahead of the ship.
The captain ordered the sails taken in and engines reversed but within minutes the Saginaw struck an outlying reef and grounded. Before the surf battered the ship to pieces, her crew managed to transfer much of her gear and provisions to the island.
At daylight, the ship’s boats were lowered, and the crew of 93 men made their way across the reef to Green Island as the Saginaw broke apart and sank beneath the waves. One last match was used to start a fire. Short rations were a concern, but even more critical was the limited amount of fresh water.
In such a remote location, the captain and crew could not count on a passing ship to save them. They fashioned the captain’s 22′ gig into a sailboat and five volunteers, headed by Lieutenant John G. Talbot, the executive officer, set off for Kauaʻi, nearly 1,200-miles away. The others were Coxswain William Halford, Quartermaster Peter Francis, Seaman John Andrews and Seaman James Muir.
December 19, 1870, thirty-one days later, they reached Kauaʻi. There, after 1,200-miles in a tiny boat, the 5-member crew suffered unfortunate losses.
Here’s an account by Coxswain William Halford, “Sunday morning the wind allowed us to head southeast with the island of Kauai in sight, and Sunday night we were off the Bay of Halalea on the north coast. …”
“Just as I got to the cockpit a sea broke aboard abaft. Mr. Talbot ordered to bring the boat by the wind. … Just then another breaker broke on board and capsized the boat. Andrews and Francis were washed away and were never afterwards seen.”
“Muir was still below, and did not get clear until the boat was righted, when he gave symptoms of insanity. Before the boat was righted by the sea Mr. Talbot was clinging to the bilge of the boat and I called him to go to the stern and there get up on the bottom. While he was attempting to do so he was washed off and sank. He was heavily clothed and much exhausted. He made no cry.”
“Just then the sea came and righted the boat. It was then that Muir put his head up the cockpit, when I assisted him on deck. Soon afterward another breaker came and again upset the boat …”
“… she going over twice, the last time coming upright and headed on to the breakers. We then found her to be inside of the large breakers, and we drifted toward the shore at a place called Kalihi Kai, about five miles from Hanalei.”
Coxswain William Halford managed to pull James Muir ashore, but Muir died on the beach. All but Coxswain William Halford had died. Within hours of Halford’s arrival, the schooner Kona was dispatched for Kure.
He was brought to Oʻahu and the US Consul there. King Kamehameha V subsequently sent his steamer the “Kilauea” to rescue the shipwrecked sailors, which arrived sixty-eight days after the shipwreck. All of them survived on monk seals, albatrosses and rainwater.
Halford received the Medal of Honor for his bravery; he retired in 1910. The 22-foot boat that carried the five heroic crew members now lies in the Castle Museum in Saginaw, Michigan.
In 2003, a team of maritime archaeologists discovered features of the wreck site inside the lagoon at Kure Atoll. A few days later, divers came across a portion of the wreck site that included two cannon, two anchors, a gudgeon and several small artifacts such as sheathing tacks and fasteners.
Later, a team of maritime archaeologists returned to the site and discovered dozens of new artifacts including bow and stern Parrott rifled pivot guns, 24-pdr broadside howitzers, steam oscillating engine, port and starboard paddlewheel shafts, rim of paddlewheel, anchors, brass steam machinery, boiler tubes, rigging components, fasteners, rudder hardware, davits and a ship’s bell.
In 2008, a team returned to the site to continue survey. And, with plans to develop a maritime heritage themed exhibit at the Monument’s Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Hilo, NOAA maritime archaeologists obtained the appropriate permits to recover the USS Saginaw’s ship’s bell for conservation and display.
The 2008 team documented additional artifacts, and collected additional still photographs and the first high definition video footage of the site. The ship’s bell and deep sea sounding lead now reside at the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Hilo.
Lots of information and images here are from a summary on the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument website.