The Sinking (and Explosive Dismantling) of the SS Fort Victoria

While doing work for a story I stumbled upon an article that appeared in the New York Herald-Tribune on October 26, 1930 with the headline “Sunken Fort Victoria, Menace to Navigation, is Blasted Downward Into Floor of Bay”.  It’s not what I was looking for, but with a headline like that how could I resist?

SS_Willochra
SS Willochra

The “Fort Victoria” in question was a ship (which makes the headline only marginally less amusing), a passenger steamer that began life in 1912 as the SS Willochra owned by the Adelaide Steamship Co., of New Zealand. By 1929, after changing hands, it was known as the SS Fort Victoria and was being used to carry tourists between New York City and Hamilton, Bermuda.[1]

The ship left port from Manhattan on Wednesday, December 18 with 255 passengers bound for Bermuda but the going was slow due to what mariners were describing as one of the worst fogs the New York Bay had ever seen.[2]  That afternoon the ship’s captain, A.R. Francis, brought the ship to a stop about four miles east of Sandy Hook, New Jersey to drop the pilot before moving on.  It was here that the ship was rammed by the Algonquin, another passenger ship carrying 185 souls bound for Miami, Florida and Galveston, Texas.  The collision occurred around 4 o’clock in the afternoon.  The SOS went out at 4:30 and was promptly responded to by the Coast Guard.  All 255 passengers, as well as all the crew, were rescued with only one minor injury reported.  The Algonquin was able to make port under her own power.  Later the passengers, despite mourning the loss of their possessions (and in the case of the ship’s band $15,000 worth of instruments), were reported to be in good spirits, grateful to be alive, and crediting Captain Francis and the ship’s crew with a job very well done.[3]  The ship finally disappeared beneath the waves around 7:30 that evening.

The sinking of the Fort Victoria, while fascinating, is not the end of this ship’s tale.  As it was going down the idea was floated (pun only slightly not intended) to tow the ship to port, or at least out of the Ambrose Channel, “the narrow and meandering path to the harbor” where she sank.[4]  While arrangements were being made the ship listed severely, making it clear to rescuers she had no future above the water.  Once she settled on the bottom she was no longer visible above the waves, but was now extremely hazardous to ships passing through the Channel.  For a few weeks the ship’s owners contemplated how to salvage the 14-ton vessel but in the end she was abandoned, lying on her side in fifty-seven feet of water, four and a half miles off the coast off New Jersey.[4]  The United States War Department advertised for bids to remove the ship from its dangerous position but with no success, the lowest offering coming in at $300,000.  Just when the War Department was about to give up, in came the engineers of Charles W. Johnson, Inc. out of Lewes, Delaware.  For less than $150,000 they would dispose of the Fort Victoria in such a way that it would no longer present a hazard to navigation.

Most would assume that removing such a hazard would entail somehow moving the ship, raising it to the surface or dragging it out of the Channel. Not the Johnson boys though.  They would stick to their strengths and use what they knew best.  Charles W. Johnson, Inc. were experts in the use of explosives.

Their plan was as elegant as it was simple.  Using carefully placed charges on the sea floor beneath the wreck they would create “an enormous hole in the floor of the bay into which the vessel should slide and eventually be covered over by silt and debris.”[4]  Strange as it sounds, the idea was not without precedent.  The cargo steamer Louisiana, which had collided with the Madison in the Gulf of Mexico in 1926, had been disposed of in a similar manner.

Beginning on October 14, 1930 twenty-five tons of dynamite were sunk in a “carefully calculated area” in four parallel lines beneath the hull of the Fort Victoria.  At approximately 1:30 in the afternoon on October 16, the Coast Guard began moving incoming ships to the northeast to ensure a safe distance from the explosion was maintained.  A red flag went up, and a detonator plunger went down.  “With a violent wrenching of the earth a mighty sheet of water rose with thunder into the air.  It poised a few moments and fell back, tinting itself with prismatic colors from the westerly sun.”[4]

The explosion did its job, lowering the sunken hull to a depth of forty-six feet below the surface.  A subsequent, more minor explosion (only two-and-a-half tons) was set off Friday, October 24 to further buckle the hull, essentially destroying the wreck and removing it from its hazardous place in the Channel.

 

 

Sources:

[1] “Bermuda Lures Many Tourists For Holidays.” New York Herald-Tribune 15 December 1929: E10. Print.

[2] “Many Escape in Lifeboats.” New York Herald-Tribune 19 December 1929: 1. Print.

[3] “255 Saved as Liner Ft. Victoria Is Rammed and Sunk by Algonquin During Dense Fog Outside Harbor.” New York Herald-Tribune 19 December 1929: 1. Print.

[4] Logan U. Reavis. “Sunken Fort Victoria, Menace to Navigation, Is Blasted Downward Into Floor of Bay.” New York Herald-Tribune 26 October 1930. C1. Print.

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