1852: Vicissitudes of Ocean Exploration

Memories of a Rear-Admiral book cover

Book cover of Memories of a Rear-Admiral. Click image for larger view and image credit.

Rear Admiral S. R. Franklin, brother of Major General William B. Franklin of Civil War fame, wrote his “Memories of a Rear-Admiral” in 1898 after a long and distinguished career spanning more than half a century. Rear Admiral Franklin’s career included surveying service with the Coast and Geodetic Survey, deep ocean exploration for the United States Naval Observatory, Civil War combat service, various post-war naval assignments including command of the MOHICAN, the WABASH, and the FRANKLIN, as well as shore duty as head of the Naval Observatory. He served in the Pacific and on the European station during this period and met heads of state and European royalty in his capacity as a senior naval officer.

The following account details some of his experiences on the United States Navy Brig Dolphin in the fall of 1852. This ship was then under orders from Matthew Fontaine Maury of the United States Naval Observatory to make soundings in the North Atlantic Ocean between New York and Ireland. Not all ocean exploration cruises go well, and the Brig Dolphin on this particular cruise had its share of vicissitudes. The following is Franklin’s account of his experiences during this cruise. The narrative begins right after his assignment to the Dolphin.

“.... About this time the Dolphin was being fitted for a cruise in the North Atlantic, to take deep-sea soundings between the coast of Americas and the coast of Ireland, with a view of ascertaining if a plateau existed which would render feasible the laying of a cable between the two shores. She had already been once employed in this arduous service. The appliances for this kind of work were very crude at that time, and I do not think the methods then employed could have been very satisfactory. Since those days deep-sea-sounding instruments have reached a high state of perfection. In addition to this work, we were directed to examine the ocean for dangers that were marked doubtful, with a view of erasing them from the charts, and also for determining surface and deep-sea currents. It always seemed to me most absurd to start a small vessel, which in bad weather had all she could to take care of herself, across that stormy area of the North Atlantic extending from New York to Ireland, just at the beginning of the season when gales were to be looked for, which it was but reasonable to suppose would, in all probability, continue to blow, with short intervals of moderate weather, more or less for the following six months. I understand that the Dolphin, having already been loaned to that institution for this especial work , would have been placed by the Navy Department on regular cruising duty if this examination had been deferred until spring. The result of this cruise goes to show how unwise it was, and how little forethought was exercised.

We sailed in October, bound on a cruise northeast, and, as might have been expected, were dashed into gale after gale; and, although we made some attempts at deep-sea sounding, I doubt if any of the work done during the cruise was of the least service. We continued on, however, when, upon reaching a point about the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, we encountered a hurricane which gave us our coup de grace, and caused us to square away for Lisbon, about the nearest point where we could find a harbor sufficiently secure to repair damages. Before proceeding further with my narrative, I will mention the names of the officers of the Brig Dolphin. Her Commander was Lieutenant Berryman; I was, although a Passed Midshipman, the Executive Officer and Navigator; the watch-officers were Truxtun, Morris, and Kennon, Passed Midshipmen, and Garland, who was a Midshipman; the Surgeon was Dr. A. A. Henderson.

First bathymetric map printed
Soundings on this map come from the Dolphin. This was the first bathymetric map ever printed. Click image for larger view and more information.


On the night when the hurricane struck us I was lying in my bunk, and although I knew that it was blowing fresh, I had no idea of the violence of the wind until Truxtun, who had kept the first watch, came down to turn in. As he was marking the strength of the wind, I said, “What do you mark the wind?” “Twelve,” he replied. “Why,” I said, “twelve means a hurricane.” He then said, “If this is not a hurricane, there never was one.” But the wind continued to increase, and at daylight it was blowing harder than I had ever known it to blow in my experience. We were lying to, under the shortest possible canvas we could show -- I have forgotten whether it was the fore trysail or main stay-sail. At all events, it was all she could stand, and with this she was heeling over nearly on her beam ends. The Captain suggested getting her before the wind. I advised him against it, and he did not insist upon it. My opinion then was that she would swamp, and I think so now. I told him I did not think we could do any better than we were doing under the circumstances. But the Brig continued, if any thing, to heel more than ever, and every now and then we would ship an ugly sea. The Captain and I then held a consultation, and we determined to throw the lee gun overboard. Our battery, which was on a peace footing, consisted of only two 32-pounders. I accordingly went to work with a gang of men, and had nearly all the preparations made when the Brig made a deep lurch, and at the same time shipped a tremendous sea, which swept me and my men down into the lee scuppers. I thought I was gone, and while I lay in the water for a very brief instant I felt a sort of indifference as to whether I was ever going to get up again or not. However, the Brig righted almost instantly, and to my surprise I found myself on my feet again. I then jumped up on to the cabin trunk, put my arm around the main-boom, and with the assistance of my gang of men, who by this time were also on their feet and at their stations, the gun was launched into the ocean. We were obliged to throw overboard also a great many deep-sea-sounding reels, made very heavy by the twine with which they were bound; and as they were stowed in the launch, amidships, and high above the rail, they made a good deal of top-hamper. The Brig now became a great deal easier, and I felt that the worst was over. One of the heavy seas which struck us stove in the Brig’s side to such an extent that eleven of the stanchions which supported the bulwarks were carried away, and one of the seams near the water’s edge opened to a considerable extent.

After we had escaped from what at one time seemed almost certain destruction, when the Brig was in imminent danger of foundering -- and if she had done so no one would have been left to tell the tale -- a new danger threatened us, which seemed even more alarming than that which we had just passed through. When the cyclone was at its height, a tank of linseed-oil had been wrenched away from its securings and the contents thereof discharged into the hold. There was so much to be thought of during the storm that no one seemed to think of what the consequences of this drifting oil might be. The wind and the sea had both abated, so that we took advantage of it to strike our only remaining gun down into the hold. After this had been done I went below, and was trying to get some much-needed rest in a hammock, when I heard all hands called to quarters. I immediately rushed on deck, and was met by the officer of the watch, who informed me that the Brig was on fire. I went forward at once, thinking that the linseed-oil might have saturated the sails in the sail-room, thereby producing spontaneous combustion. I had the sail-room broken out and the sails placed on deck, and found no traces whatever of fire. The smoke continued to ascend from the fore-hold, and it was evident that the origin of the fire was there. We hoisted barrel after barrel, and found nothing until a barrel of pitch came up all blackened and charred, showing that the fire had made some headway where this pitch-barrel came from. The next hoist brought up a crate of oakum which had been entirely saturated with the oil, and partly consumed from spontaneous combustion. Had it been in close contact with the pitch but a short time longer the fire would have been communicated to the pitch, when I think we could not possibly have escaped destruction. We threw the burning crate overboard, and then made an examination of the hold. By this time the heat had decreased considerably, yet we continued to deluge the place with water, and persevered in doing so until it became evident that we had reached the seat of the trouble when we found the crate of oakum. It was a very close call, for the staves of the pitch-barrel were nearly burned through, and discovery before this was entirely accomplished was all that saved us. The fire was very demoralizing, and caused a good deal of consternation; and as I was working my way back aft along the weather bulwarks -- for the gale had not yet subsided -- I heard a poor devil of a Marine, who was in a great state of alarm, say to his surrounding comrades that the gale was bad enough, but the fire was much worse that the gale ever was. There was now nothing to do but abandon our northern cruise, which the commanding officer at once determined to do. Fortunately the winds favored us, and we ran along nearly two hundred miles a day, reaching Lisbon, which was about fifteen hundred miles off, in about eight days. We went to work at once to repair damages, which occupied a period of about six weeks....

Our repairs were now finished, and we bade good-bye to our friends and the Opera, and sailed away from the Tagus. We touched at Teneriffe and communicated with the Consul, saw the famous Peak, and then made the best of our way for Madeira. There was no especial hurry for our getting home now. The cruise had been a failure, and we might as well show the flag here and there, and trifle away a little time before approaching our own coast while the stormy season was still upon us. We were not much of a man-of-war, to be sure, as one gun of the two with which we started was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and the other in the hold. We passed a few days agreeably at Madeira, and then ran into the tropics, and made a sort of zigzag course to the westward between the parallels of twenty and thirty degrees north latitude, doing some work in our line, but nothing, I fancy, that was ever of any use. We finally reached Norfolk, I think, some time in March, 1853, after the most uninteresting and uneventful and useless cruise that one could possibly conceive of. I went to Washington, visited the Navy Department, and was detached in about the time it takes to tell about it....”

Citation: Franklin, S. R. 1898. Memories of a Rear-Admiral, 134-140. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers.

Note on Transcription: The following account was transcribed from the original by NOAA Central Library staff, April 2002.