On July 8, 1868, the 141 foot Civil War era vessel named the “Torrent” under contract with the U.S. Army slammed into a rocky reef and sank in lower Cook Inlet near the Chugach villages of Port Graham and Nanwalek. The ship was built in Maine in 1851 and its homeport was San Francisco.
This three mast, white oak, civilian sailing ship was commanded by Captain Richard Carleton. The army expedition leader was Lt. John McGilvary who led the one hundred and twenty-five soldiers of the Battery “F” unit of the Army’s Second Infantry Division. Their mission was to establish an army fort on the Kenai Peninsula near the location of a former Russian fortress. In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States of America.
Prior to the disaster, this 576 ton ship was under command of the first mate who got worried when the ship got to close to a rocky reef. He summoned Captain Carleton who was sleeping off a hangover in the morning when the ship hit the rocks. The captain was still drunk when he arrived on deck and ordered the ship to tack away from the reef, but the seven knot tide and the strong hurricane force wind sealed the fate of the Torrent and sent it down to the watery grave of Davy Jones’s locker.
The ship’s stern hit the rocks first and then swung around and punctured a large hole in its bottom, ten minutes later it sank. There was chaos when people were attempting to abandoned the ship in lifeboats leaving the women and children behind. Lt. McGilvary assumed leadership and threatened to shoot anyone who did not follow his orders.
Of the 150 survivors, four were women, two were servants and eleven were children. In lifeboats they rode the heavy surf to a nearby shelter in Coal Cove where they found old log cabins of a former Russian settlement. Three mules also swam ashore through the heavy surf.
They sent a small leaking boat to Kodiak for help but it returned without reaching the island. Then they hired local Chugach men with their seaworthy kayaks to travel to Fort Kodiak. Some two weeks later they were finally rescued.
Lt. McGilvary later came back and established fort Kenai along the Kenai River where the Russians formerly had a fortress. The American fort was abandoned four years later and the soldiers went back to the Pacific North West to fight in the Indian wars.
Some of the more interesting artifacts that were recently salvaged included a 200 pound brass howitzer (cannon) that probably was a civil war surplus weapon. There is reported to be less than two hundred surviving cannons of this type in the world.
These mountain howitzers were designed to throw shells at a higher trajectory. Most of these canons were made in Boston and cost about $165 at the start of the civil war.
The scuba divers also salvaged cannonballs that were filled with grapeshot. The cannon balls had an iron shell filled with musket balls, sulfur and gunpowder. The shell designed to explode above enemy positions by a fuse. These weapons were called the “guns that shot twice."
The ship has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. The recovery effort in 2007 was coordinated by the State of Alaska, the U.S. Department of the Army and the General Services Administration. The artifacts were recovered by members of a privately funded team organized by Steve Lloyd who worked with State archaeologist Dave McMahan and others to help recover and record these important historical remains.
Special thanks to the following:
• Portions of this story were published October 9, 2008 in the newspaper called the Anchorage Press, “Pulling history from the sea” by Scott Christiansen.
• Dave McMahan, an archaeologist with Alaska State Historic Preservation Office also provided photos of the artifacts and information concerning the shipwreck.
• NOAA’s office of National Marine Sanctuaries also provided information on the history of the shipwreck.
• The Journal “The Overland Monthly, January 1872 was also used as a resource.