Monday, November 26, 2012

The Wreck of the Evening Star

The Wreck of the Evening Star 
                                   by Gray Edenfield

                                                                                 Atlantic Ocean during a Hurricane 

Everyone has heard of the Titanic, but few people can name the ship that was associated with the worst nautical tragedy in American history before that point. Indeed, few have heard of the wreck of the Evening Star, yet this shipwreck (which predated Titanic by almost fifty years) was considered the greatest maritime disaster of its time, and Fernandina Beach is a prominent part of its story.

            The Evening Star was a passenger steamer, and it left New York bound for New Orleans in late September, 1866. There were 278 people on board, 14 of those were crew, and one was the captain. The Evening Star was sent to sea with no spare sails or spars, and lacked a ship’s carpenter to make repairs as needed in case of a disaster. The ship carried 6 lifeboats, each with room for about ten people - enough to save less than a quarter of those on board in the event of an emergency.

The ship ran into a hurricane 180 miles off the coast of Tybee Island, Georgia, on October 2nd.  During the early morning hours of October 3rd, the ship began taking on water. Attempts were made to bail water out of the engine room, but these were to no avail. At around 5:00 am, Captain William Knapp made an announcement to the passengers that the ship would surely sink.

During the commotion caused by the storm, only four of the ship’s lifeboats made it into the water. All were capsized several times, and subsequently bailed out by the people inside them - this sad cycle continued for hours until one boat was cleared out completely, and all aboard were lost. Two of the boats drifted for two days, and were later rescued by a passing ship and taken to Savannah. The last boat began a harrowing 5 day journey that brought them to the shores of Fernandina Beach, Florida. Most of the men on this boat were crew members, the only Evening Star passenger on board was an actor and former Union soldier from Brooklyn, New York, named Frank Girard. He left a detailed account of his experiences, via a letter written to a friend back in New York. From this document we get a passengers perspective on the incident.

In the devastating final moments before the ship went down, Girard suffered a broken nose and got a large laceration on his leg. After clinging to a wooden trunk to keep himself afloat, Girard spotted a lifeboat with five crewmen and five passengers inside and attempted to pull himself in. One of the sailors attempted to hit him with an oar to knock him out of the boat, but Girard was able to fight the man off and stay inside. He writes about his shock and dismay over the actions of the sailors in his lifeboat.  Other passengers who had to that point survived by clinging to broken pieces of the ship tried to enter the boat, only to be rebuffed by the sailors.  As one young man tried to climb into the boat, his hand was slit by one of the sailors.  Another crewman threatened to “brain” Girard with a piece of wood as he moved to help an older woman into the boat. Girard looked on with disgust as the sailors rifled through the pockets of anyone who succumbed to starvation, thirst, or exposure. After they died, the sailors would steal their clothes and throw the bodies overboard. Some of the passengers became so thirsty they began to drink salt water, which led to their deaths. Girard followed the example of the crewmen, who survived by drinking their own urine.

After three days of drifting they were able to fashion a makeshift sail and rudder, hoping they would be able to guide themselves to land or a passing ship. The men - including Girard - began to suffer from delirium, and spent a lot of their time talking nonsense, screaming, and fighting amongst themselves. Besides a small fish that somehow jumped into the boat and was eaten raw after being fought over fiercely, the men had no food whatsoever. Girard had no means of treating his leg wound, and it began to grow numb.

On the morning of the 5th day, the lifeboat finally found itself in sight of land.  The small boat had traveled almost 150 miles, all the way to Amelia Island, Florida. At this point 5 men were left, Girard, and 4 sailors. They came ashore somewhere near Fort Clinch, and drug themselves out of the boat. Girard was unable to stand due to his leg wound and asked for assistance from the sailors. They ignored him and left him lying on the beach. Girard began to drag himself across the ground hoping to come across someone who could assist him. After crawling for about a mile and a half, he came across a puddle of rain water, and was able to drink water for the first time in five days. Meanwhile, the sailors had come to the door of a cabin only to be refused injury until they could produce the injured man. The sailors backtracked hoping to find Girard so they could use him as a means of proving they were truly in need of help. They came upon him about a mile from the cabin, and now they eagerly helped him to his feet and carried him the rest of the way.

 With Girard in tow, the sailors made it back to the cabin, where the old gentleman and his wife welcomed the party in and sent for a doctor. The doctor informed Girard that his leg would have to be amputated. Girard objected wholeheartedly, and fortunately he found a supporter in Fernandina’s Mayor, Sammuel T. Riddel (the owner of the cabin sent for not only a doctor, but also the town mayor). Girard was taken to Riddel’s home where he spent the next three weeks recuperating. New doctors were brought in to treat Girard’s leg wound. They diagnosed a contusion, and said the bone had to be scraped clean. Girard refused to take chloroform to numb the pain, because he feared they might be planning to amputate his leg while he was unconscious. After recovering from his wounds Girard returned to New York by train, and so ended the long and arduous journey that took him all the way from Brooklyn to Amelia Island.

Of the nearly three hundred souls that departed New York on the Evening Star, there were only seventeen survivors. The United States Government created a board of inquiry to investigate the incident. The board determined that the ship had been sent from port with an insufficient amount of crew, and badly in need of repair. She was in no shape to withstand the dangers presented by hurricane season in the Atlantic. It was also stated during the inquiry that, had the ship had a competent carpenter on board who could repair damage as it occurred – like mending the ship’s disabled rudder – the sinking might have been avoided. A few of the ship’s crew, survivors from the other boats (the two that made it to Savannah) wrote their own accounts of the tragedy, which can be found online. Frank Girard passed away in 1900, at the age of sixty. He was twenty-six years old when he boarded the Evening Star on its ill-fated last voyage.  His first-hand account of the entire ordeal, including his time in Fernandina, can be found in the Archives of the Amelia Island Museum of History.

 American Composer Henry Clay Work wrote a song about the wreck:

               When the "Evening Star" Went Down  

                            (by Henry Clay Work)

[GIF Score]

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

George R. Fairbanks: Fernandina's Renaissance Man

George R. Fairbanks: 

Fernandina’s Renaissance Man

photo by Stephan Leimberg

In his time, George Rainsford Fairbanks was an attorney, historian, citrus magnate, newspaper editor, soldier, author, and a politician.  Though he was born in New York, Fairbanks adopted the state of Florida as his home for most of his adult life.  He helped found the Historical Society of Florida and served as its first Vice President.  Fairbanks was also one of the co-founders of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.  He was a great friend and colleague of David Levy Yulee, his father Moses Levy, and William Pope Duval.  Moses Levy, the owner of significant tracts of land in Central Florida, engaged Fairbanks to tend to his many pressing legal matters.  Fairbanks also served on the board of directors of Yulee’s Florida Railroad, and owned stock in the company. His lifelong thirst for knowledge made George Fairbanks one of the brightest and most well-rounded minds of his day and a great chronicler – not to mention a part of – Florida’s history.

 Born in Watertown, New York on July 5, 1820, George was the second son of Jason and Mary Massey Fairbanks.  Although George was born into a fairly wealthy family, his father and maternal grandfather had both recently earned their respective fortunes.   Jason was a self-made man with little formal education who parlayed his skills as a tanner into several business ventures, eventually employing up to 500 people.  He was also a respected public servant, serving as a county sheriff and treasurer and as a U.S. Marshall for almost 30 years.  Mary Massey’s father built a lumber mill and settled his family in the area that would become Watertown before it was a city.  Mr. Massey bought a great deal of property, and with the city’s expansion, became a wealthy and powerful man.

Though his mother was a staunch anti-catholic, George was sent to school at La Petit Seminaire in Montreal Canada, a Catholic school for boys which provided a top notch education.  English was banned at the school, and George was forced to speak only in French.  A cholera epidemic forced him to return home in 1832, where he spent the next four years preparing for college.

Fairbanks graduated from Union College (the first interdenominational institution for higher education in the United States) in 1839, and began to study law. In 1842, he became engaged to Sarah Wright, a judge’s daughter, and the two were married just weeks before George moved to Florida to take a job as Clerk of the Superior Court of East Florida.  Now living in Saint Augustine, George immersed himself in the city’s history and in the history of Florida in General.  He learned Spanish so that he could read first-hand accounts from Conquistadors and early explorers.  In 1858, Fairbanks’ first history book was published - The History and Antiquities of the City of St. Augustine, Florida.  In that same year, George’s wife Sarah died of tuberculosis, leaving him to care for their five children.  Two years later, Fairbanks married his brother-in-law’s widow Susan Beard Wright, combining their households; George and Susan had two daughters of their own.

Fairbanks made powerful friends while living in St. Augustine, which led to his becoming involved in politics.  The support of William Duval and David Yulee helped him win a state senate seat in 1846. When his term was over he returned to Saint Augustine and continued to be involved in the community. In 1856 he helped to found the Florida Historical Society, and served as its Vice President. A year later he became the city’s Mayor.

When war broke out between the states, Fairbanks endorsed secession from the Union.  He was commissioned an officer and served under General Braxton Bragg, with the rank of major.  He served in the commissary department and spent most of the war in Georgia overseeing Army hospitals.  After the war, Major Fairbanks returned to Sewanee to help rebuild the University of the South, which had been ravaged by four-years of conflict.  For the rest of his life Fairbanks would spend at least a portion of the year in the cabin he built near campus dubbed “Rebel’s Rest,” which still stands to this day.

Fairbanks spent a great deal of his time managing his various land holdings.  His private records (kept at Florida State University) indicate that at one time he held property in Nassau, Duval, Clay, Putnam, St. Johns, Volusia, Lake, Marion, Brevard, and Alachua counties. In 1871, George completed his second book, History of Florida, which was the first connected and complete work on the history of the state.

In 1880, David Yulee invited Major Fairbanks to move to Fernandina to become editor of the local paper, The Florida Mirror.  George’s active role in the Episcopal Church allowed him to quickly make connections with some of Fernandina’s most prominent citizens, many of whom were part of St. Peter’s congregation.  Around this same time, Fairbanks donated a tract of land near Gainesville, Florida to build a church for the citizens in a small town that was to be named after him.  He brought in New York architect Robert Schuyler to design the building - dubbed “All Saints” at the suggestion of Fairbanks’ wife Susan - and paid for its construction.

It was of the utmost importance to Susan Fairbanks to have her children and grandchildren near her at all times, and with a family as large as the Fairbanks’ this necessitated a home of substantial size.  In 1885 George turned once again to Robert Schuyler to design and build a home in Fernandina that could accommodate the entire family. The lavish Italianate home featured a 15-foot tower and a fireplace in every room (ten in all), two of which were decorated with English tiles depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s plays and Aesop’s fables. The Fairbanks house was the first home in Fernandina to have an elevator.  A long standing local myth is that upon seeing the house for the first time Susan Fairbanks was so displeased with it, she gave it the moniker it carries to this day, “the folly.”  However, the story passed down through the Fairbanks family is that it was the decoration and furnishings that Susan disapproved of, not the house itself.

Fairbanks managed much of his business out of Fernandina, but spent his summers in Sewanee helping to manage the University of the South and ensure the institution stayed true to the original intentions of its founders (of which he has was the last living). In 1898, George published the second edition of his History of Florida, followed by a third in 1904 which added chapters up to that date.  This edition was designed for, and used as a textbook in the Florida school system.  George continued with his devotion to the University of the South, as a trustee, and never lost his zeal for researching history.  He passed away in 1906 at the age of 86 in his home in Sewanee, Tennessee.

George Fairbanks’ legacy is still alive today in the city of Fernandina, and his impact on his adopted state is undeniable.  His home still stands on South Seventh Street, now operating as a bed and breakfast.  The coat he wore as a Major in the Confederate Army hangs in the Amelia Island Museum of history.  The Florida Historical Society he helped found exists to this day, and the books he wrote about the histories of Florida and Saint Augustine are still used as source material in text books read by students across the state of Florida.

                                                                                                      Gray Edenfield
                                                                                                   Education Director
                                                                                       Amelia Island Museum of History