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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, October 18, 2003

Historic Hawai'i wreck found

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Two large anchors found in a cavern on Kure Atoll's reef are believed to be from a historic 1870 shipwreck.

Photo courtesy Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve

A model of the three-masted side-wheeler USS Saginaw is on display at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum in Vallejo, Calif.
Archaeologists diving in a reef channel on remote Kure Atoll have found the 133-year-old wreck of the USS Saginaw, whose crew was involved in one of the most heroic and tragic maritime rescues in Hawai'i history.

A team of marine archaeologists went to Kure, 1,000 miles northwest of Kaua'i, in August as part of a summer field reconnaissance in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. While diving on the reef looking for any sign of the storied Saginaw, the team found a trail of metal artifacts.

The reserve's maritime heritage manager and team leader Hans Van Tilburg described finding large iron anchors resting on top of one another, tucked in a shallow cavern. Copper drift pins used to join the major timbers of the vessel lay twisted on the bottom, and bronze gudgeons, the straps that held the rudder to the stern of the ship, were snapped in two.

"Heavily encrusted and welded to the reef itself were two small iron (cannons), the waist guns of the ship," Van Tilburg said.

The cannons were the key to the wreck's identity. No other ships known to have wrecked on Kure — whalers, a coal ship and fishing boats — carried cannons.

The Saginaw was a 155-foot Navy ship, the first American warship built on the West Coast. It was used for anti-piracy patrols on the China coast and preventing Confederate ships from attacking West Coast interests during the Civil War.

Because it is a Navy ship, and the government has not relinquished title, it is under the jurisdiction of the Naval Historical Center, which will determine whether any of the wreckage will be recovered or how it might be conserved.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands form a vast network of islands, reefs and shoals that have trapped dozens of ships that were in the area for whaling, guano mining, fishing, coal transport, collecting bird feathers and eggs and — not insignificantly — salvaging ships that wrecked there.

The Saginaw was built during the transition from sail power to steam, and had both. Its boiler powered big side-wheels. When Congress sought to turn Midway Atoll into a coal-refueling station for the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., it dispatched the Saginaw to bring in the divers and engineers who would blast a channel into Midway's lagoon.

As the ship was leaving Midway, its captain decided to stop by Kure, 60 miles beyond Midway, to check for castaways. The crew misjudged the strength of the current on the overnight sail, and at 3:22 a.m. Oct. 30, 1870, the Saginaw was hard aground on Kure's eastern reef.

The surf rose and broke the ship in half as crew members clung to the stern. The ship's main mast had fallen onto the shallow reef, and the crew used it as a bridge to crawl to the calm waters of the Kure lagoon. All 93 men aboard survived the wreck.

They made their way to Green Island, a few acres of coral and sand near the edge of the reef. Five men volunteered to sail for help. They used parts of the wreckage to modify a light, 22-foot captain's boat for the trip and set off Nov. 18.

Storms carried away their oars and the food ran out, but after 31 days, the five, too weak to control the boat, reached the waters off Kaua'i's north shore and washed into the coastal surf.

John Andrews and Peter Francis were swept away and killed. Lt. John G. Talbot sank in his heavy clothing. Coxswain William Halford managed to pull James Muir ashore, but Muir died on the beach.

Talbot's body was shipped to his home in Kentucky. Andrews and Muir are buried in Nu'uanu Cemetery on O'ahu. Francis' body was never found.

Halford caught a ship for Honolulu the next day, and the steamer Kilauea was dispatched Dec. 26, reaching Kure on Jan. 3, 1871. The remaining Saginaw crew members, who had survived on monk seals, albatrosses and rainwater, were brought safely to Honolulu 11 days later.

Halford earned the Medal of Honor and survived to serve in World War I in his 70s.

The 22-foot boat that carried the five heroic crew members now lies in the Castle Museum in Saginaw, Mich.

Van Tilburg said there are still undiscovered parts of the Saginaw, including its engine and the massive paddle-wheel shaft. And while the configuration of the known wreckage confirms the crew's reports on how the vessel broke up, there is still much to be learned.

"Further discoveries can uncover details of the salvage of the wreck and the experiences of the survivors on the island," he said.

California marine archaeologist Tom Layton of San Jose State University said shipwrecks can bring history to life.

"You can take a vessel of this kind that seems not very important, and use it as a vehicle to deal with a lot of stories. It gives you the opportunity to look at a specific place and time and provides us with a new revisionist, fresh look at history," he said.

Van Tilburg's team included Brad Rodgers and Kelly Gleason of East Carolina University's Program in Maritime Studies and Andrew Lydecker of Panamerican Maritime Inc.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.