Daily Event for September 5, 2010

The Melita was a 233' long screw steamer built by Alexander Denny & Brother in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1853, she was 1,254 gross tons and could make about 9 knots on her one shaft. She was first owned by Denny and his brother William, she was later chartered by Cunard for a year and used in the Mediterranean and was even used as a blockade runner by the Confederates in the war between the States. Some time after the war she ended up in the fleet of the Warren Line, still under the same name, and it was there she would finish her career.

Her final voyage was supposed to begin on Aug. 25, 1868 from Boston, Massachusetts, but due to a leak in her hull the departure was delayed until the following day. At about 2 p.m. she left Boston for Liverpool with a good cargo and somewhat over 50 passengers. There were no reported problems until September 5, 1868 when at 12:30 a.m. a fire was discovered by a boatswain.

An effort to extinguish the blaze at once got underway, but at that time it was not known to the crew exactly where the fire was, the hold of course, but where in the hold and what was burning was unknown. At that time the opinion of captain Sumner and his crew that the fire would be quickly put out, but it was not to be. Once the lines were laid down the captain had determined that the fire was on the starboard side in the lower hold, so he ordered the carpenter to cut a hole in the deck so that water could be brought to the fire directly, this was a tragic error. When the hole was cut more air was allowed into the ship and that fed the fire making the efforts of the crew that much more difficult.

The crew used a hand pump and buckets to fight the growing fire, but seemed to make little real progress. This could have spelled doom for all those on board, but at 8 a.m. the American ship Jacob A. Stamler came into sight and was soon standing by the beleaguered vessel. All of the passengers were transferred to the American vessel, but another misjudgment by captain Sumner caused some hardships insofar as their luggage was not transferred to the other ship.

It was brought up on deck, and there were even boats alongside the Melita for the better part of the day, but it was still felt that the fire would be put out and everyone would reboard the ship. Sadly for the passengers, and the crew as well, the fire could not be brought under control and around 10 a.m. on Sept. 6 the fire broke through the deck and the ship had to rapidly be abandoned, Sumner being the last man off her deck. With an additional 70 or 80 souls onboard, the Stamler was now a crowded ship and a ship without enough food or water to accommodate so many people. Another tragic mistake that Sumner made, not removing the provisions to the safety of the American ship caused much hardship to those in the Stamler until it arrived in port Sept. 25.

Three other ships came to the rescue of those on board the Stamler and took off a number of passengers and crew to land them in England, but it was still al long voyage to the U.S.A. for the sixty or so survivors who remained. One can criticize Sumner for not making the best decisions, and perhaps if not for the Stamler those decisions may have had a more disastrous outcome, but fortunately for all those in the Melita survived what could have been another story of a disaster at sea.
© 2010 Michael W. Pocock

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