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Rev. Lewis P. W. BALCH-story aboard "Great Western" during hurricane, 1846

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Rev. Lewis P. W. BALCH-story aboard "Great Western" during hurricane, 1846

Posted: 1176475841000
Classification: Query
Surnames: Balch
This article was posted in the newspaper in October, 1846. Fascinating tale of their survival aboard the "Great Western" steamship during a hurricane. It was so interesting I transcribed a good bit of it, and thought others might be interested. Virginia Mylius

Passage of the Great Western. We lay before our readers this morning the following detailed narrative of the awful perils encountered by the passengers on board the steamer Great Western, in her late trip from Liverpool to New York. This well written and thrilling narration is said to be from the pen of the Rev. Dr. Balch, and its accuracy is attested by a most respectable committee of passengers to whom its publication in the newspapers was confided.

Saturday, Sept 12, 1846. The steamship Great Western, B.R. Mathews, Esq. Commander, left Liverpool at 4 o’clock pm having on board 126 passengers, Captain, five officers, five engineers and 74 crew, in all 211 persons. “The weather, generally, was pleasant for the season of the year, and our progress good, averaging 200 miles a day.

Saturday, Sept 19….”at 8 pm the wind increasing and variable to the westward…. At 10 freshening gales and ugly weather; sea getting up and tossing high. At midnight, increasing gales and heavy squalls.

Sunday, Sept 20th, 2 am… the sea rising frightfully and breaking over and against the ship; 4 am the wind increased to a heavy storm, and the sea running most furiously at the ship. The wind veering to the NW at the same time, and the ship breaking off into the trough of the sea, rendered our situation more critical. A great quantity of water got into the engine room from the sea breaking over the ship, which was pumped out by the lee bilge pump.”

Sunday morning most of the passengers assembled in the cabin and saloon. Their haggard faces told too surely of the sleepless and anxious night which had passed. Even though most ignorant of nautical affairs could not fail to discover that we were in the midst of great peril. Few could dress with their usual care, owing to the violent pitching and constant rolling of the vessel. The stewards abandoned any attempt to prepare the breakfast table, and both then, and throughout the day, were obliged to content themselves with bringing such articles of food as were most convenient, to those who felt any disposition to eat.

11 am: A heavy sea broke over the fore part of the starboard wheel house, or paddle box, which started fastenings, and washed them to leeward, and with much difficulty they were temporarily secured. To understand this, the reader must bear in mind that the Great Western is, so to speak, 3 stories high forward and aft, and 2 in the waist or middle of the ship (portions not quoted) In the wait… or middle lower story is occupied by the engine room, the roof or covering of which is the main deck. On this main deck, in the centre, are placed the chimney, gallies and ice house. The various offices appertaining to the stewards and police of the ship, at the sides. This part is open above, and protected by the wheel houses and sides of the ship, which rise to the height of 14 feet. The width of the paddle box is about 12 feet. The ice house contained some seven or eight tons of ice, and was fastened by cleats and stanchions. Let the reader imagine the force of the sea and the height of the wave, which, rising over the paddle box, struck the ice house and the large iron life boat above it, twisted them from their fastenings, breaking the ice house into two parts, ripping off the planks, crushing the starboard companion way, and only prevented form making a clear breach in the sides of the ship by a sudden lurch to port.

11:30 am… word was passed among the passengers that two of our boats were gone, and the others were likely to follow, the davits and bolts beginning to give. But not a remark was made, each spoke to the other only through the eye. And the ominous silence which pervaded the whole company, told how sensibly all felt themselves in the very presence of the King of Terrors, uncertain of their doom.

It was wonderful to see how a few short hours changed the condition and feelings of all on board. The grades and distinctions incident to so large a company, varying in social position, citizens of almost all countries, and professing different creeds, yet, in the presence of so imminent danger, all distinctions seemed merged into one common emotion of awe, as we stood together in the court of the great leveler, Death. With this intense feeling which bound us together as one, came also another of an opposite and repelling character. Every heart was deeply occupied with its individual grief’s and memories, as it not another shared the peril. Home, with its loved ones, and a thousand cherished hopes and joys, rose fresh to the view, and with a power like the storm swept over the mind and left it like the ocean, tempest tossed and troubled.

At noon, storm and sea raging in all its fury, sea still breaking over the ship, a heavy sea struck the larboard paddle box and smashed it to atoms; sprung the spring beam, breaking the under half; shattered the parts of the ship attached thereto. A splinter struck the captain on the head while standing on the poop; the force of the blow, together with the sea, carried him over the lee quarter, and he was only saved by the nettings.

After this sea had passed over, we found the water had gained on the pumps. (During a lull) the hatches were battened down and the skylights partially covered. A passenger wrote: “To convey an idea of the appearance of all around is out of my power. In the words of Sheridan, “the tempest roamed in all the terror of its glory.” The wind howled, roared and bellowed, like the constant mutters of the thunder cloud. Huge waves of tremendous height and volume rose in mad display around the ship, threatening every moment to break over us amidships and crush the vessel. Sea after sea striking us with terrific noise, caused the gallant ship to stop for instant, tremble and shake in every timber from her stem to her stern post, reeling and lurching, tossed to and fro, again she would gather fresh strength, and with her wheels half hid in the wild water, again and again receive the thundering blows of an element that seemed armed for our destruction.”

1pm, whilst most of us were seated in agonizing suspense in the lower cabin, holding fast to the tables and settees, a sea struck the vessel, and a tremendous crash was heard on deck; instantly the cabin was darkened, and torrents of water came pouring down upon us through the skylights. “Scarcely had the waters reached the floor hen all in the cabins and state rooms sprang to their feet, and simultaneously, as if by concert, the ladies uttered a scream of agony, so painful, so fearful, and so despairing, the sound of it will never be forgotten; and heaven grant that such a wail of anguish may never again be heard by me. Several fainted; others clasped their hands in mute despair, whilst many called aloud upon their Creator.” (description of damaged to topside of ship explained)

This was a period of intense emotion. I was sitting in the upper saloon, striving to protect some ladies from injury. (portions not quoted). “T'was an anxious hour. My eye wondered over the different groups in the saloon. Resting one while on a Father passing from one to another of his family, and cheering with a kind word an interesting group of daughters. Then on a young wife, folded to the bosom of her husband without a syllable being uttered, but the action spoke volumes, and again upon a mother whose children had been left in America, as she clasped her hands as if in secret prayer, whilst her husband and her Father gathered around. It was an awful hour. The most thoughtless amongst us cowered in their secret hearts before a danger, which none but a fool or a brute would have mocked, and all therefore accepted the invitation to meet in the cabin for prayer.

Rev. Mr. Marsh read the 107th Psalm. Rev. Dr. Sucker prayed. Rev. Dr. Breecher made a few solemn remarks. Rev. Dr. Balch repeated the words of Our Saviour, “Let not your heart be troubled, ye believe in God, believe also in me,” commenting briefly on their consoling import, and then invited all present to join with him in the Lord’s Prayer; after which he pronounced the Apostolic benediction.

Night approached. (Quoting from the gentleman previously quoted) “Amid this accumulation of horrors, and still more to add to our alarm, night gathered in around us. The wind, far from abating, was on the increase, the lulls in the storm being less frequent, and the squalls, if anything, more terrific. The whole ocean was one sea of foam, lashed up into terrible waves, wild and angry, whilst the spray and wind seemed driven through the rigging and over the ship, as if with demoniacal power. As darkness came, clustered together in the cabin, we all thought and reflected on our fate. Most, if not all of us, had given ourselves up for lost.

In the evening, about 9 o’clock, the Rev. Mr. Balch, at the request of several passengers, administered the Holy Communion to the cabin, to upwards of 60 persons, many of whom received it there, for the first time in their lives. (portions not quoted) It was a most solemn scene. Mr. Balch first read the service appointed for a storm at sea, after which, the whole communion office. The terrible conflict of the elements which raged without was rendered yet more striking by the impressive stillness which pervaded that company of Christ’s disciples within. (portions not quoted).

After the communion, I returned to my state room. The gentleman who shared it with me had gone below to die, as he expected, in company with his daughter and son-in-law. Left therefore alone, taking a last look at the pictures of my little family and commending them, and all dear to me to the grace and protection of God, I laid down and slept peacefully.

Monday, 21st. 12:30 to 8 am, the form raging in all its fury, and the sea a perfect foam, until 8 am, at which time the clouds began to break, and the squall less furious. At noon the storm ceased; but then continued more violent until 2 pm, at which time it ceased gradually with the wind, having lasted about 36 hours.

At half past 5 o’clock on Monday morning, we were in the greatest possible danger. Mr. Stevens, one of our passengers, who was an eye witness, says of it… “a peculiar lifting of the haze in the east, with an appearance of an amber colored belt of light, low down on the horizon, warned us of an approaching blow. Presently it came, a perfect tornado, driving before it the clouds of spray, and as it neared us, fairly lifting up the white foam from the waves, like a shower of rain. As the squall struck us, the ship careened over and buried her gunwales in the ocean, and lay for a few moments stricken powerless, and apparently at the mercy of the savage waves that threatened to engulf us. This was the trial, the last round fought between the elements and our gallant vessel. At this critical moment, the engine was true to her duty. Still went on its revolutions and round and round thundered her iron wings. Gradually recovering her upright position, the good ship, with head quartering the sea, came up to her course, and all was well. It was the climax of the storm, the last great effort of the whirlwind kind, to send us to the sea-giant’s cave below.”

On Monday about 12, the storm had abated sufficiently to admit of standing on the upper step of the companion way with safety. It was sublime, but an awful spectacle. The ocean still labored under the effects of the hurricane. (portions not quoted) At times the Great Western seemed as if lowered by unseen spirits into her watery grave; and every moment you expected it to be filled in, and her requiem sung by the winds amidst the wilderness of waters.

But our danger was past, and with grateful hearts on Tuesday morning all assembled in the cabin to render an act of common prayer and thanksgiving. After the religious services, Archibald Graces, Esq. of New York, was called to the chair, and the Rev. Mr. Marsh appointed secretary, and they drafted a Resolution:

A committee was appointed to express their gratitude to “Almighty God for his great goodness in our almost miraculous deliverance from destruction, and also to the captain, officers, and crew of the ship, for the arduous labors, and their skill, firmness, and perseverance, in carrying the ship through her late perilous condition.”

The Committee:

Chair: Archibald Gracie, Esq. New York
Secretary: Rev. Mr. John Marsh
Rev. Dr. Lyman Beecher of Cincinnati
Rev. Mr. Lewis P. W. Balch,
Dr. James A. Washington
Dr. W. Detmold of NY
Mr. A. Hutchinson of Georgia
Mr. F. Mather of Geneva (JS. Mathieu)
Mr. Thomas Rawlings of England

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