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Through the Straits of Magellan on the Patterson

(As told by a former seaman, Thomas Ellingson)

R. R. Lukens, Hydrographic and Geodetic Engineer
Inspector, San Francisco Field Station
U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

One day this summer an old gentleman came into the San Francisco Field Station and asked if we had a picture or drawing of the PATTERSON. He had the alert eyes and the unmistakable deep-sea roll of the sailor, and I asked him if he had ever been on the PATTERSON. "Yes" , he said, "I came around on her through the Straits of Magellan in 1884 and 1885. That was fifty-five years ago." Mr. Ellingson stated that he was eighty-one years old and spent most of his time panning gold on the Feather River. When asked if he made much money at it, he replied, "No, but it's better than doing nothing."

C&GS Patterson
Coast and Geodetic Survey Steamer PATTERSON. In service 1884-1919.

I was, of course, delighted to hear a first-hand report of that voyage made by the PATTERSON so many years ago and started asking Mr. Ellingson questions. He had been a seaman on the GEDNEY down on the Gulf Coast but got tired of the mud and the mosquitoes, and when the GEDNEY returned to Brooklyn, N.Y., he applied for a transfer to the PATTERSON, which was then fitting out for the long voyage to the West Coast through the Straits of Magellan. The PATTERSON was, of course, especially built for work in southeastern Alaska, and Mr. Ellingson was anxious to see both the West Coast and the Territory of Alaska, which at that time was almost unknown country. His request was granted and he joined the PATTERSON as an A.B. in Washington, D.C. "Before sailing," he said, "the PATTERSON's masts were shortened seven or eight feet."

Under command of Lieutenant Richardson Clover, U.S.N., but assigned to duty in the Coast and Geodetic Survey at the time, the ship sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on July 30, 1884. Being in the good old days, she went direct to the Madeira Islands* where she remained for a considerable period. Mr. Ellingson said the crew had a grand time there. "Plenty of good wine to drink," was the way he put it. While in port the boys on the PATTERSON raised a contribution of seventy-five dollars for the Stranger's Rest, which was apparently a sort of seaman's institute of that day.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was the next port of call. Here occurred one of the highlights of the trip. The harbor was filled with vessels of all nationalities, and the word spread that the PATTERSON was equipped with the new Sigsbee sounding machine, carrying five miles of wire. It was in the days of the empire, and Emperor Dom Pedro paid a call to the ship. He came out in a great gondola-like barge with twenty oarsmen on each side. "Quite a sight," said Mr. Ellingson. As he came over the side in civilian clothes and a high hat, Captain Clover, no doubt feeling overcome in the presence of royalty, uncovered. The Emperor shook hands and, in good English, said, "Keep your hat on." About a half-hour was spent looking over the ship and examining the new sounding machine, which was looked upon as something quite remarkable.*

While in Rio de Janeiro the whaleboat crew of the PATTERSON was entered in a race against crews of English, German, French, and Italian vessels. Needless to say, the PATTERSON's crew, used to hours of whaleboat hydrography, won the race. When I inquired if much money had been put up, he replied, "plenty. I won fifteen dollars on the race." I imagine that the word "plenty" meant all the cash that could be raised on board.

Other South American ports were made without incident. On leaving Montevideo on November 6, 1884, the PATTERSON, with thirty tons of coal on deck, ran into a heavy gale. Though deeply laden, she rode the heavy seas without taking anything but a little spray on deck. Those of us who were on the Patterson in later years can testify to her fine seagoing qualities.

At Sandy Point, which is the southernmost city in the world, they saw the huge seven-foot Patagonians, riding horses without saddles. While here Captain Mendez of the Argentine Navy and Military Governor of Staten Island, visited the ship. In true Coast Survey style he was questioned, and Captain Clover received much valuable information concerning the straits he was about to navigate.

In the Straits of Magellan terrific winds were encountered and Captain Clover ordered the yards and topmasts struck. On one stretch the ship steamed six hours to make only five miles. At another time the vessel got the wind on the bow, and in order to keep her from running straight into the shore, her commander was compelled to back and wear short around and came near losing both steam launches in doing so.

Beyond Sandy Point they ran into a fleet of one hundred and fifty canoes manned by Tierra del Fuegians all dolled up in war paint. The commander ordered up their six Gatling guns and passed out Springfield rifles and Colt pistols to the crew. In order to avoid running down the frail craft, the engines were slowed down to half speed. All the Tierra del Fuegians were equipped with small hooks on heaving lines, which they threw aboard and caught along the railing. In no time at all the whole fleet of canoes was fast to the ship.

It turned out that they had no bellicose intentions but only wanted to trade, mostly for tobacco, fire water, and lastly grub. Mr. Ellingson said that quite a brisk barter went on for a considerable period. He himself traded a plug of tobacco for a goat and also made a dicker with a squaw for a beaverskin for which he gave her two plugs of chewing tobacco. After the period of trade was over the PATTERSON proceeded on her way, none the worse for the encounter.

They gradually worked their way through the Straits of Magellan and made the last anchorage before the open Pacific on a Saturday night. On Sunday morning all hands were called on deck and ordered to get up topmasts and yards and "den ve had trouble". The whole crew refused duty. Mr. Ellingson said that Captain Clover was a tough skipper and he lost no time in putting down the uprising. He called all hands to muster and read the Articles of War in which, of course, were written the dire consequences of refusal of duty. He then asked how many men were willing to turn to. Mr. Ellingson said that he and all the rest of the crew, with the exception of one man, immediately went to work. The one stubborn fellow, who continued to refuse duty, was kept in the shaft alley in double irons on bread and water for a week. "As a matter of fact, however," said Mr. Ellingson, that man had about the best food on the ship, for everybody smuggled titbits down to him during the night watches."*

About this time Ellingson's time was up and he wanted to be paid off and remain in South America, but the captain refused to let him go and he had to ship over. At one of their stops he hired a horse and, with a large tigerskin for a saddle, rode up the mountain to Concepcion. Here he was given some pieces of quartz with gold. This gold apparently imbued him with the mining fever which never left him, for after his days on the PATTERSON he spent many years prospecting and mining in Alaska.

They arrived in Valparaiso, Chili, after the close of the war between Chile and Peru. Here, sailor-like, he again took a horseback ride, during which he was thrown and broke his jaw. "It was about this time", Mr. Ellingson said, "that 'fighting' Bob Evans, in command of the HARTFORD, threatened to bombard the town unless certain of his sailors who had been arrested on shore were released." The townspeople, according to Mr. Ellingson, hated Americans and once when a group of the seamen from the PATTERSON were returning to their ship, the city fireman turned the hose on them.

The next stop was at Callao, Peru. Here he got some leave and took a side trip to Lima to visit his aunt. The next stop was at Panama which was at that time a fever-infested place, but, nevertheless, the crew had two days' liberty. While off Panama they captured sixteen live turtles basking on the surface of the water, and Ellingson said they were fine eating. I well remember when the PATTERSON made another voyage to Panama in 1912, the crew did the same thing. The writer, however, after witnessing a turtle butchered on deck, was unable to eat a single bit of meat.

After stops at Acapulco, Mexico, San Diego and Santa Barbara, the PATTERSON arrived at San Francisco on February 13, 1885, and preparations were immediately started for taking up the first season of work in southeastern Alaska.

"They wanted me to stay on the ship," Ellingson said, "but I did not like Captain Clover. So in accordance with his promise made at Valparaiso, he paid me off. One day, about a year later, I met Ensign Niblack on Market Street in San Francisco, who told me Captain Clover had been relieved by Lieutenant Commander Snow, who, according to Ensign Niblack, was a fine skipper." At Niblack's insistence Ellingson went down and signed up on the PATTERSON. Finding no vacancy for a seaman, he signed on as a fireman in which rating he got five dollars additional pay per month. He remained on the ship for three cruises to Alaska. During those days the PATTERSON returned to Mare Island for the winter season. At that time he said the marshes around Mare Island were fairly alive with ducks and geese and during the winter the crew lived the life of Reilly with ducks and geese. The mess funds accumulated to such an extent that the crew purchased an organ for the ship. The wardroom steward was a very musical individual Ellingson said, and bought himself a horn to play. The sailors amused themselves by stowing their woolen socks in the horn, much to the annoyance of the steward.

At this time, he stated, the PATTERSON carried two very fine launches, the VIXEN and the PIRATE. I don't know what became of the PIRATE, but the VIXEN was aboard the ship for many years and I think, was finally lost while being hoisted during rough weather in Puget Sound about 1909.

Returning to the matter of the pictures or drawings of the PATTERSON, Mr. Ellingson wants to make a model of the ship. As I had no suitable photograph in the files of the field station, I procured one from the Washington office and sent it to him. I hope some day to see a fine model of the PATTERSON as the result of his call at the San Francisco Field Station.

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