By the flickering light of a globe lantern, Coal-heaver John Sutton, earning his $18 a month (as much as a ship’s cook or a coxswain), entered the starboard-side engineer’s storeroom on board the side-wheel steam frigate Missouri at 1950 on 25 August 1843, looking for a pair of beam scales to be used in coaling the ship. As he pulled down the scales, a wrench fell from the shelf, shattering a large glass vessel below containing turpentine. Coal-heaver William J. Williams, working in the engine room directly below, heard dripping liquid.
Knowing that the crew kept a bucket of water in the compartment above, Williams and others berated Sutton “not to be dropping his water here.” Sutton responded that they “need not be afraid,” as he wiped up as much as he could of the turpentine, then reassured his shipmates: “No more [will] be coming down.” Satisfied that he had done what he could, he hastened below to see how much had leaked onto the engine, then headed off to report the breaking of the demijohn to Chief Engineer John Faron Jr. Sutton had just reached the berth-deck ladder, en route to the spar deck, when he heard the word that strikes fear into the heart of a sailor afloat: “Fire!”
The splendid warship that lay at Gibraltar that night, alive with activity, had been in service less than three years. Chief Naval Constructor Samuel Humphreys and Naval Constructors Samuel Hartt and John Lenthall had collaborated on her hull design, while Principal Engineer Charles W. Copeland designed the inclined condensing engines for the Missouri and the side-lever engines for her sister ship, the Mississippi. The machinery, 650 horsepower for the latter and 515 for the former, turned paddle wheels 28 feet in diameter and 11 feet across. Each ship was bark-rigged, and could spread 19,000 square feet of canvas. Chief Engineer Charles H. Haswell, who became the Missouri’s engineer officer when she was commissioned, oversaw the building of her engines at the West Point Foundry of Cold Spring, New York.
Laid down in 1839 at the New York Navy Yard (the Mississippi would be built at the Philadelphia yard), the Missouri entered her element on 7 January 1841, christened by a Miss Bailey. Costing $568,806, the Missouri—in time deemed “much [the Mississippi’s] superior in internal arrangement and finish”—was commissioned later in 1841. Both ships operated with the Home Squadron, where operational experience showed them to be “unsuited for cruising in times of peace” and “altogether too expensive” because of their consumption of coal.
While they may have been expensive to operate, the Missouri and her sister each carried a main battery of two pivot-mounted X-inch cast-iron Paixhan guns, each weighing 12,000 pounds and capable of firing a 103-pound shell at an effective range of 1,740 yards at 5-degree elevation, and eight VIII-inch Paixhan guns mounted four to a broadside. The latter, also of cast iron, could hurl a 51½-pound shell that could penetrate a target of seasoned white oak 29.2 inches at 500 yards to 14 inches at 1,500 yards.
Having accomplished the first transatlantic crossing by a U.S. Navy steam frigate, the Missouri, with U.S. Commissioner to China Caleb Cushing embarked on the first leg of a journey that was ultimately to take him to the court at Peking, stood in to Gibraltar to “an ovation by the British squadron and other foreign vessels of war in the harbor,” impressing “even the most critical . . . [with] her size and the beauty of her lines.” Captain John T. Newton immediately put all hands to coaling and watering the ship and performing maintenance on the machinery. It was during that upkeep Sutton’s search for beam scales had such disastrous consequences.
Coal-heaver Alfred Clum, engaged in covering the engine cylinders, had seen “something like water dripping down” and had “sung out to Sutton” as Williams had done. The spilt liquid “had nearly wet through the canvas and felt . . . around the steam chest”—and fell on Clum’s lighted lamp. A “sheet of flame” shot up and ignited the floorboards of the storeroom above. Williams, going back to his work, heard Clum shout: “Fire!” Sutton hearing the same cry, turned and “immediately . . . saw the flames bursting up through the gratings above the steam chest.” Running topside, he grabbed a bucket.
Earlier that day, Captain Newton had gone ashore with Commissioner Cushing to visit U.S. Consul Horatio Sprague, who then accompanied Cushing and the Missouri’s commanding officer to call upon Sir Robert Thomas Wilson, the governor of Gibraltar. Cushing and Newton then spent the balance of the afternoon with Sprague. At 2000, an hour before Newton was to return to the Missouri, he received the “startling intelligence” that his ship was afire. His boat having been sent shoreward as the fire began, the captain, accompanied by Cushing, returned to the ship inside of 20 minutes, with the latter hurrying immediately to his cabin to save the trunk that contained his official papers.
“I found the flames raging with violence,” Newton wrote later, “and the officers and crew exerting themselves to the utmost to overcome them. Every person on board was . . . stationed in such a position where he could do the most possible good.” The crew employed pumps, hoses, and bucket brigades to try to stem the fire’s relentless advance. With one glance telling him of the severity of the blaze, Newton ordered the after magazine flooded—that precaution already “very prudently” taken with the forward magazine before his return.
Governor Wilson immediately sent two stout boats with fire engines embarked, while the British 74-gun ship Malabar dispatched firefighting crews. The allied effort seemed to gain the upper hand, giving the Missouri’s tars hope “that the devouring element was conquered.”
Fanned by a brisk breeze, however, the blaze broke out afresh, driving both American and British sailors from their stations. Seeing “not a ray of hope left to save that noble ship,” Captain Newton sought the counsel of his own officers and those from the Malabar who were on board. All agreed that “there was no hope of saving the ship.” Consequently, Newton ordered all hands “to quit [the Missouri] without delay,” which they did, being picked up by the Missouri’s own boat crews and those from the Malabar and other nearby ships.
At 2330, satisfied that everyone had gotten clear, Captain Newton lowered himself down a rope from the starboard wheel-house to a waiting boat. All of the small craft quickly cleared the side in the event that the magazines had not been effectively flooded. At 0300 the forward magazine exploded, blowing off the forward part of the ship. The officers and men of the ship’s complement survived the disaster (albeit with only the clothes on their backs), but the Missouri’s mascot, a bear, driven aft to the spanker boom, perished.
In reporting the destruction of the Missouri, Secretary of the Navy David Henshaw lamented the loss of more than just a “costly ship” but “an ornament to the Navy.” A court-martial found both Captain Newton and Chief Engineer Faron guilty of negligence and temporarily suspended them from duty.
Ironically, just a year earlier, then-Chief Engineer Haswell had sought a “leaden tank in which to keep the spirits of turpentine.” Higher authority refused the requisition. For want of suitable storage for flammable liquids, “an ornament to the Navy” had been more than tarnished—it had been reduced to a blackened hulk.