The Wreck of the "Evening Star."

    Early on the morning of October 3rd, 1866, the paddle-wheel steamer, Evening Star, enroute from New York City to New Orleans, went down in a ferocious hurricane off the Atlantic Coast. At the time, it was the biggest marine disaster in America's history. Of the 278 passengers and crew that shipped with her, only 17 survived. The passengers included an incredible mix of Civil War veterans, business men, families, circus performers, magicians, entertainers, a full French opera and ballet troupe, and, (depending upon which newspaper report you read), from twenty-five to ninety-five young courtezans, also en route to New Orleans, where they were to become members of two newly established houses of ill-fame. Among the members of the crew who perished that day was John E. Wynkoop, the ship's cook.

    This is a story of tremendous courage and bravery in the face of terrible odds. The newspaper accounts are hair-raising and one wonders how anyone at all survived the disaster. The storm arose suddenly on the 2nd of October and by six o'clock the next morning the ship gave a sudden lurch and quickly sank, having battled the storm for over fourteen hours. She was 180 miles east of Tybee Island, deep in the Gulf Stream.

    Earlier, when it became obvious that the ship couldn't be saved, the Purser, Ellery S. Allen, had given all the life-preservers to the ladies, what few of them there were. The Evening Star, much like the Titanic forty-six years later, was woefully unprepared for a sudden disaster of this magnitude. Beside the shortage of life-preservers, she carried only six metallic life-boats, capable of carrying approximately ten people per boat. One of them capsized immediately when the crew tried launching it before the ship sank, tossing the women into the frenzied sea. The other boats, while free of their davits and fastenings, quickly filled with water and turned turtle when the Evening Star went down. Three of these were only found later, by accident, floating among the spars and flying driftwood which were being hurled about in all directions by the wind and the waves. One passenger, William H. Harris managed to grab a fragment of the saloon, which he managed to pull himself up on, but he was thrown off again and again by the violence of the waves, tearing his hands and body on the nails and splinters in the pieces of wreck.

    He later recalled, "While drifting about in this way I could see the whole of the wreck as it lay before me. I saw the hurricane deck, two hundred feet long, crowded with human beings, herded together. Some of these were standing, and some sitting, all helpless and despairing. I now drifted near a life-boat, keel up, for which I abandoned my piece of wreck and swam. Others were clinging to it, whom I assisted to right it..." They climbed in, "but after this we were frequently upset, each time losing one or more of our number, again adding to them by picking up others. Helpless to manage the boat, which was filled with water and drifting at the mercy of the sea, we passed and repassed the wreck during the day. Towards evening we lost sight of it."

    Many of the passengers and crew, including the Captain, William Knapp, were killed by flying driftwood, while others succumbed to exhaustion and exposure and simply slipped beneath the waves.

    Peril is a great equalizer. Again William H. Harris notes, "The women on board the ship behaved nobly during the terrible scenes of the tempest, yielding a ready compliance to all orders given them. There were about forty prostitutes on board the ship, but they had behaved with great propriety from the first. There were but two or three exceptions to this, and they were not particularly bad. Most of the women had been obliged to remain in their rooms or in the saloons, previous to the storm, owing to the rough weather. Many of them were sea-sick, as, indeed, were many of the men. One of the prostitutes who was the proprietress of an elegant house of ill-fame in New-Orleans, had a beautiful pair of ponies on board and a fine new carriage. They were all anxious to work when danger appeared, and some of them did good service."

    "We all set to work baling, and worked as long as we could, the women laboring as hard as the men. They would pass the empty buckets, while the men carried the full ones. They worked quietly in all that terrible storm without a murmur. We had some trouble with the Frenchmen of the Opera Troupe, in consequence of their not being able to understand English. However, they did their best, and worked willingly when they understood what to do."

    As seems to be the case in the aftermath of disasters, controversy reared it's ugly head, with lots of finger-pointing and innuendo. An official investigation was made of the tragedy and recommendations made, none of which were acted upon, apparently. The more things change, the more things stay the same...

    Chris.


The Wreck of the Evening Star
    Disaster in the Atlantic Ocean on October 3rd, 1866.

Dreadful Disaster.
     From the New York Times, New York, Tuesday, 9 October, 1866.

The Calamity at Sea.
     From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Wednesday, 10 October, 1866, p. 2.

Marine Disasters.
     From the Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Wednesday, 10 October, 1866.

The Evening Star Disaster.
     From the New York Times, New York, Thursday, 11 October, 1866.

A Despatch From Savannah...
     From the Village Record, Waynesboro, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, Friday, 12 October, 1866.

The Loss Of The Evening Star.
     From the Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Monday, 15 October, 1866.

The Evening Star, Particulars of the Great Disaster.
     From the New York Times, New York, Monday, 15 October, 1866.

The Evening Star, The Second Mate Saved.
     From the New York Times, New York, Tuesday, 16 October, 1866.

The Evening Star Disaster.
     From the Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Tuesday, 16 October, 1866.

The Evening Star, Correct List of Passengers, Officers and Crew.
     From the New York Times, New York, Wednesday, 17 October, 1866.

Names of Lost on the Steamship Evening Star.
     From the Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Wednesday, 17 October, 1866.

News in Brief.
     From the Erie Observer, Erie, Pa., Thursday, 18 October, 1866.

The Evening Star Disaster.
     From the Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Thursday, 18 October, 1866.

The Evening Star Disaster.
     From the Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Monday, 22 October, 1866.

Georgia, More Disasters from the Late Storm.
     From the New York Times, New York, Tuesday, 23 October, 1866.

A Severe Storm...
     From the Huntingdon Globe, Huntingdon, Pa., Wednesday, 24 October, 1866.

The Wreck of the Evening Star.
     From the Huntingdon Globe, Huntingdon, Pa., Wednesday, 24 October, 1866.

Loss of the Evening Star.
     From the Columbia Spy, Columbia, Pa., Saturday, 27 October, 1866.

All Sorts.
     From the The Compiler, Gettysburg, Pa., Monday, 29 October, 1866.

Shipwreck of the Evening Star--Statement of a Surviving Passenger.
     From the Agitator, Wellsboro, Tioga County, Pa., Wednesday, 7 November, 1866.

The Loss Of The Evening Star, Result of the Official Investigation.
     From the New York Times, New York, Saturday, 10 November, 1866.

The Evening Star Disaster, Report of the Government Committee of Investigation.
     From the New York Times, New York, Sunday, 11 November, 1866.

The Report on the Evening Star Disaster.
     From the New York Times, New York, Sunday, 11 November, 1866.

Mass in Paris for the Artists on the Evening Star.
     From the New York Times, New York, Sunday, 9 December, 1866.

Burning Of The New Orleans Theatre.
     From the Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Wednesday, 19 December, 1866.

Created March 9, 2004; Revised June 7, 2006
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Copyright © 2004-2006 by Christopher H. Wynkoop, All Rights Reserved

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