Story from John Vonderlin
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Do you remember Harry R. Truman’s, brief moment on the world’s stage? He was the owner of the Mt. St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake, who refused to leave even though the volcano was displaying ominous signs. Well, the wreck of the Colombia in 1896 at Pigeon Point, produced another such character as Harry, a crusty, matter-of-fact, common man, that was set in his ways, felt he had to answer the call to duty, irrespective of the danger, and performed his job admirably under difficult circumstances, and because of that caught the public’s imagination. Whether Mr. Collins, suffered Mr. Truman’s, fate I don’t know yet, but here’s the story of “Collin’s Capers.”
This article appeared in “The San Francisco Call,” on July 18th, 1896. Enjoy. John
DISMANTLING THE COLOMBIA
All Hope of Saving the
Steamer Has Been
STRIPPING THE WRECK
Everything Moveable is Being
Transferred to the Schooner
CAPERS OF FIREMAN COLLINS
Vexing Tribulations of the Ship’s
Baker, Whose Bird School Was
ON BOARD P.M.S.S. COLOMBIA,
wrecked off Pigeon Point (via Pescadero, Cal.), July 17.–To-night the ocean is calm, with a light wind coming in from the thin fogbank to the west. There is a long, graceful swell sweeping over the surface of the waters of the little cove, slightly rocking the stranded steamer and passing on to break and die away on the beach. High over the waves that are peaceful now and over the land, redolent with the bay and over the wounded thing prostrate on her bed of reef, the solemn white tower stands and sends its flame afar, afar to the ships at sea. The stranded vessel has settled down on the rocks and is awaiting the end, the furious incoming of the billows that will heave themselves against her strong frame and crush it with their irresistable power.
Through the rents in her bottom the tides ebb and flow, and the water stains on the bulkheads mark their rise and fall. A glass gauge in the fireroom that once told the level of the water within the boiler now tells its height without. The flood is washing through the coal-bunkers, and the hulk seems filled with ink. It flows outside, and the vessel wallows in waves of Stygian blackness. There is about twenty-five feet of water in the forward compartments and somewhat less after when the tide is high. But there will be no more so long as the rocks are beneath her; they have done their worst and are holding her for the storm swell.
It is a cruel, a fatal, but a secure resting-place the Colombia found in the fog that bewildered and misled her helmsman. While the sea is still and the wind asleep they are stripping the steamer, and two schooners moored alongside are receiving the plunder.
The cabin and stateroom furnishings went long ago and now the heavy articles are being removed. Wenches, anchors, chains and all the machinery above the water are hoisted out and sent away. The splendid engines,which ran like a lady’s watch, cannot be moved now and must probably share in the general destruction that will overtake the hull. At present they lie in twenty feet of black, oily water. The donkey engine is alive and is being used to strip the hulk. However, its time of labor is limited to low water, as the rising tide floods its furnaces and the fires quenched.
The genius of this forlorn hope is Fireman Collins, and he is a hero. The iron floor of the apartment being submerged, he built a rude staging with a few planks. These are slung so that he can walk on them from the coal-bunkers to the furnace. There Collins stands and fights for his fire. He occasionally stumbles on his insecure perch and drops a shovel of coal into the water and sometimes he drops himself in, but Collins never minds a little thing like that. He watches flood marks on the bulkhead, and by this tide-gauge, when it gets so high, knows when his staging will be covered and the waves will lap over the grate-bars. Then he retreats to the deck above and waits for low water. The under part of the boiler is always submerged, but he keeps steam on with the upper part of the water in the boiler and with his fire roaring to overcome the cold of the fluid that washes around him.
This is the way Collins explains it, and he insists that he knows all about donkey engines. The check valves and other parts of the machinery are out of sight, but this invincible fireman rolls up his sleeves and hunts around in the water until he finds them and all is well.
Collins? Collins is worth a column, but he has other troubles and does not hesitate to tell them. He has only one pair of shoes. Firemen in the Pacific Mail are not gifted with many or expensive belongings and he wants to keep those shoes out of the sea water, so he pulls them off and goes barefoot when his tide gauge on the bulkhead marks the rising. Then, sohe says on his honor, the crabs clinging to the staging nibble at his toes and bother him in his work. Often he grows desperate and drops hot clinkers on the mischievous crustacians.
Then he procured a boat hook and went sealing in his aquarium. He crawled carefully over the great engine’s cylinder, and after splashing around for some time captured the prize. It was a pair of is own brown overalls, which he had lost from his locker when the ship went on the rock.
Yesterday morning Collins thought he saw a big codfish moving around a submerged brass steam gauge, as though it was examining the shining thing, with a view of having one made like it. That fish, Collins though, would be a tooth-some addition to the rather slender fare of the fireman’s table, where leathery salt beef is the piece de resistance. Collins doesn’t think in such elegant language, but that is about the idea running through his ingenious and lively brain.
He procured several lines and hooks and with bait calculated to lure things finny [word missing]
Yesterday Collins thought he saw a seal swimming around in the compartment. Visions of a new $750 jacket for Mrs. Collins floated through his mind and he prepared to secure the visitor. He called Chief Stewart Rodell and wanted to know what kind of bait he could land the creature with. That person informed him that there was a revenue officer on the deck above, and an arrest for pelagic sealing might follow any attempt to capture one of the furry wards of the Treasury Department. Collins insisted that the seal was now a part of the freight of the Colombia , and that as it was of domestic manufacture it was not subject to duty and was out of the reach of the customs officers.
Then he procured a boat hook and went sealing in his aquarium. He crawled carefully over the engine’s great cylinder, and after splashing around for some time captured the prize. It was a pair of his own brown overalls, he had lost from his locker, when the ship went on the rock.
Yesterday morn Collins thought he saw a big codfish, moving around a submerged brass steam guage, as though it was examining the shiny thing, with a view of having one made like it. That fish, Collins thought, wold be a toothsome addition to the slender fare of the fireman’s table, where leathery salt beef is the piece de resistance. Collins, doesn’t think in such elegant language, but that is about the language running through his lively and ingenious brain.
He procured several lines and hooks and with bait calculated to lure things finny from the vasty deep industriously fished all day. He could not attend his tackle and keep his almost flooded furnace hot, so he made fast his line to an electric-light wire and let them swing. No fish came to Collins’ hooks that day and the lines hung limp while the fireman’s mess discussed the strong old salt horse.
The indomitable Collins says that when the vessel hit the reef he was in a port bunker with a lantern after coal and one of the sharp rocks pierced through close to him. He examined the projection and found it covered with shellfish, which he immediately began to pick off with his shovel. Collins is an easy narrator.