A Letter of Albert Parker Niblack

Carolyn Thomas Foreman


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 51, Issue 4, pp 347-358

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Documents: A Letter of Albert Parker Niblack

Carolyn Thomas Foreman*

Albert Parker Niblack, son of William E.1 and Eliza Sherman Niblack, was born in Vincennes, Indiana, July 25, 1859. Appointed to the United States Naval Academy, he was graduated in 1880.

Niblack had a long career of valuable service in the Navy.2 He served on the Pacific Station from 1880 to 1882 and on the survey and exploration of Alaska from 1884 to 1888. From 1893 to 1896 he was a member of the staff of the Naval War College, and in 1890 and 1896 was prize essayist at the Naval Institute. Then, until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he was naval attaché at Berlin, Rome, and Vienna. He served aboard the flagship "Olympia" at Manila in 1898 and participated in the suppression of the Filipino insurrection, 1899-1901; he was also in China during the Boxer campaign in 1900.

From 1904 to 1906 he commanded the U.S.S. "Iroquois," from 1907 to 1909 ships at the Naval Academy, and from 1909 to 1910 the U.S.S. "Tacoma." Then followed service at the American legation at Buenos Aires from 1910 to 1911 and at the American embassy in Berlin from 1911 to 1913. For the next three years he commanded the U.S.S. "Michigan," and was present at the occupation of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in April, 1914.

During the First World War Niblack commanded Division I and later Squadron 1 of the Atlantic Fleet; then Squadron 2, patrol force and United States naval forces based on

  • * Carolyn Thomas Foreman (Mrs. Grant Foreman) is the daughter of Judge John R. Thomas, who at the time the letter was written was a member of the House of Representatives and of the Committee on Naval Affairs.
  • 1 William E. Niblack was born in Dubois County, Indiana, May 19, 1822. He received a classical education, studied and practiced law before he was elected to the state legislature, where he served several terms in both branches, He was circuit judge from 1854 to 1859. Elected as a Democrat to the 35th Congress to succeed Representative James Lockart, he was reelected to the 36th, 39th, 40th, 41st, 42nd, and 43rd congresses. He was a delegate to the Democratic national convention at Chicago in 1864, at New York in 1868, and St. Louis in 1876. Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1949 (Washington, 1950), 1615.
  • 2 The following account is based on the biographical sketch in Who Was Who in America, 1897-1942 (Chicago, 1942), 895-896.
Gibraltar; and finally forces in the Western Mediterranean. Following the war he commanded forces in the Adriatic. After serving from 1919 to 1920 as director of naval intelligence in the Navy Department and as naval attaché in London from 1920 to 1921, he became vice admiral in command of naval forces in European waters. He retired in 1923.

After his retirement he became a director of the International Hydrographic Bureau of Monaco and was elected president in 1927 for a term of five years; he was vice-president of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers for twelve years. He died August 20, 1919, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Niblack received the Distinguished Service Medal for services in World War I and thirteen foreign decorations. Probably none of those great honors pleased him more than the commendation he received from his own government for his rescue of the crew of the "Ocean King" when he was only an ensign.

U.S.C.S. Str "C.P. Patterson"
Portage Bay S. E. Alaska
Aug 2nd 1887

My dear Mr. Thomas:3

At last I have something that looks like a chance to write to you. We arrived on the working ground May 24th and since then I have been head over ears in work, good hard glorious work, but against the odds of the vilest weather I have ever seen. I have so much to write about the future that I hate to dip into the past but it may interest you to have an outline of it.

Last winter at the Navy Yard Mare Island [California] the Coast Survey Office built a steam launch to take the

  • 3 John R. Thomas, a native of Illinois, studied at Hunter Collegiate Institute, Princeton, Indiana, and during the Civil War served in the 120th Regiment, Indiana Volunteer Infantry, rising from private to captain. After studying law, he became state's attorney from 1871 to 1874. He was elected as a Republican to the 46th Congress and succeeded himself through the 50th Congress. During that period he served on various committees, including that on naval affairs, and because of his deep interest in building up the defense of his country he was called "father of the modern American Navy." He was appointed federal judge in the Indian Territory, serving from 1897 to 1901. He died January 19, 1914. Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1910. Who Was Who in America, 1897-1942, p. 1230.
place of the "Lively"—a worn out craft that has been up here for years. The new launch is 52 feet long, 12¢ feet beam, 4¢ feet draught & 23 tons displacement. She steams 9 knots and is fitted with cabins, deck house etc, like a small tug boat—which she looks just like. For all that she is very light and built for smooth inland waters—like most launches. The problem was how to get her up to Ft. Wrangell4 1500 miles distant. From Washington Territory (Puget Sound) the trip is mostly inland through the Alaska Excursion route. From San Francisco to Puget Sound is a rock bound coast 700 miles—all the harbors having bars across their entrances which make them dangerous to enter in bad weather. The coal steamers wanted $2,000 to carry the launch to Puget Sound. The C[oast] S[urvey] Office had not the money. After some talk around the subject with nothing satisfactory I volunteered to take her up. To tell the real truth I had an idea that I would be ordered with some one senior to me. That would mean (that as I was familiar with the route) that I would take the risk without the credit. Then too I go on the principle—"any thing for a command".

Capt. Thomas5 joined us in April and he gave me charge of the preparations. I will say by the way that I never knew or sailed with a fairer better, more gentlemanly officer. Heleft every detail to me. I named her the "Cosmos" in honor of the Club in San Francisco of which I am a member. In only one thing was I over-ruled, viz. I wanted to make my own way up buying coal, etc independently of the ship. The Office insisted on towing (as much to save coal as anything.) Now I wish to say right here that this letter is in strict confidence. The cool proposition was that the lives of two officers and five men should be risked (and an $8,500 launch) on the niggardly policy of trying to run a survey without half enough money. This policy is due of course to those

  • 4 Fort Wrangell was at Etolin Harbor on Wrangell Island, about 145 miles E.S.E. of Sitka.
  • 5 Charles M. Thomas, born in Philadelphia October 1, 1846, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1865. He advanced through various grades until he assumed command of the Coast Survey Steamer "Patterson" from 1887 to 1889. In 1907 he commanded the Second Atlantic Squadron; he died in 1908. Who Was Who in America, 1897-1942, p. 1228.
illustrious Democrats, Holman6 & Randall.7—Every thing was done by Thomas that could be done. I had a picked crew—two machinists and two seamen & a boy. Ensign Beecher,8 four years my junior was ordered with me, as were all the men.

I made every preparation I could. We had charts, a chronometer, extra coal, three weeks provisions, extra water, a sea anchor, and a turtle back built forward, etc, etc. We left San Francisco May 4th at noon, the "Cosmos" in tow with a 7 inch hawser and a chain span—From the start we struck lumpy weather, but the "Cosmos" developed splendid sea qualities. The first night out it being rough, we swamped our only boat. The "Patterson" stopped to hoist the boat on board and Ensign Shipley9 was thrown in a sea way and broke his leg. The weather set in thick. I kept steam up in the "Cosmos" in case of accidents to use the steam pumps, etc. There were only two of us not sea sick from the lively motion. I was of course up a great deal of the time as the sea sick ones could do little. By Sat. morning May 7th it was blowing a gale from the southward right after us. The "Patterson" had had to steam slowly on account of danger of towing us under, but with the gale after her the strain on the hawser became terrific, especially as the sea was running very high. At 10 A.M. the hawser parted. I was prepared for it, and immediately steamed around head

  • 6 William S. Holman was born at a pioneer homestead called Veraestau in Dearborn County, Indiana, September 6, 1822. After two years' study at Franklin College, he became a lawyer and served as probate judge from 1843 to 1846. For the following two years he was prosecuting attorney, then a member of the constitutional convention of Indiana in 1850, and a member of the state legislature in 1851 and 1852. He was elected as a Democrat to the 36th, 37th, 38th, 40th, and the four succeeding congresses; he was re-elected to the 47th and six succeeding congresses. Holman returned to Washington as a member of the 55th Congress; he died there in 1897. Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1324. Because of his constant fight for economy in Congress, Holman became known as the "watchdog of the Treasury.
  • 7 Samuel J. Randall, a native of Philadelphia, became state senator from Pennsylvania in 1858 and 1859 after a career including mercantile pursuits and service on the Philadelphia city council. He was elected as a Democrat to the 38th and the thirteen succeeding congresses, serving as speaker of the House for the last session of the 44th Congress and also during the 45th and 46th congresses. He died in Washington in 1890, celebrated for his oratory and keen wit.
  • 8 Albert M. Beecher, a native of Iowa, was appointed to the Naval Academy from that state; he entered the service June 11, 1880. Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the Navy of the United States, 1885, pp. 44-45.
  • 9 John H. Shipley, a native of Iowa, was appointed to the Naval Academy from Missouri; he entered the service in 1874; ibid., 38-39.
s to sea. The "Patterson" rounded to but we lost sight of her in less than five minutes as it was very thick. Suddenly our engines stopped. I jumped aft and found that one of the machinists had his arm jammed in the machinery. The blood was spurting and his groans were not very refreshing at this juncture for we fell off into the trough of the sea. We finally got him out and got him into the cabin into my bunk. I steamed up again and then got over the "drag" or "sea anchor"—we rode to it for a few moments, and then the cable parted.

The situation was critical. Here we were 350 miles from San Francisco, about 30 miles from land, and 200 miles from the Columbia river. If I used coal (and water) in "bucking" the sea to ride up to it, I might find myself short and adrift. I concluded that every risk must be taken to save coal and water. I there fore treated her as a wreck and let her drift. I found after a little while that she would lay to stern to the sea as her pilot house & turtle back acted as sail, so I got up a tarpaulin abaft the pilot house, and laid her to stern foremost. This is considered the most perilous position for a vessel and Beecher & the two seamen respectfully demurred. We had to take the chances, and she did remarkably well (We had no sails)

Then it did begin to blow. The seas were terrific. What saved us was that it rained so hard at times that the white "curlers" were beaten down now and then. What we had to fear was having the deck house swept off by a sea. It was really wonderful the way the great seas broke just ahead and just astern of us. One broke over us but it went clear over. I laid her to in such a position that we were set in towards the shore and on our course. You can believe that it was somewhat of a blow when the "Patterson" had her boats smashed, & rolled her rails under, and when a four masted American ship, the "Ocean King", foundered not 20 miles from us, loaded with coal.

About 5 o'clock it suddenly lighted up for about 20 minutes and we got a glimpse of the sun. From our observations we shaped our course and ran for land. At 8:30 we picked up Cape Gregory10 light and by 9 P.M. were merrily

  • 10 Cape Gregory is the former name of Cape Arago, in Coos County, Oregon. The light is on an island joined to the cape by abridge.
humming along for the Columbia river 180 miles distant. In shore it was not blowing much. The "Patterson" had it rough all night outside. Sunday night we arrived off the Columbia river at midnight and lay to till daylight. At 6 A.M. three pilot boats came out. I spoke one and the skipper told me that they had had bad weather for a week. No vessel had crossed the bar for two days; there were three ocean steamers inside waiting to get out; the Coast Survey Str. "McArthur" was at Astoria; it would not do for me to think of crossing the bar before afternoon tide and even then it was risky. I stood for the entrance and about 10 A.M. one of the pilot boats stood in. I spoke her and asked permission to follow him in. I told him our condition. We were short of coal, out of fresh water through leakage in the tanks, and had an injured man who must have medical attendance. I knew that the bar was dangerous. It has the worst reputation of any of our harbors. Our condition was critical; I had been up for four days and nights, Beecher had had to stand a watch in the fire room as machinist with a seaman to shovel coal—Every one was about worn out, and I was not well balanced in my judgement about the bar. In fact I simply did not care. I had pulled through so much that I was reckless. No man in his right mind, knowing the bar (which I did not) would have dreamed of it. We stood in. The pilot boats have bulkheads on their deck houses of timbers 12 inches thick and are handled by the most expert, surfmen in the world. Over 180 lives were lost last year on the bar in small craft.

We went through the breakers for three miles heading obliquely across the bar from one side of the river clear to the other. As soon as we got in I saw we had no business there but I hung on. It was marvelous to see the way the pilot handled the tug (a vessel about 450 tons.) He had given me some pointers on it, and we did well for awhile. About half way across we caught one that knocked us down, went clear through the deck house, and left about 2 tons of water on board. Our young machinist (an American to be proud of) stayed right by his post and by a miracle got the engines to going again, and we moved ahead. Then came the prettiest piece of skillful seamanship I have ever seen. The pilot tug hovered us to windward, took the breaking of the seas for us, and nursed us the rest of the way over the bar.

At Astoria I found the "McArthur" about 1 P.M. Her doctor took charge of the man, her carpenter gang repaired the "Cosmos", and she gave us a fresh load of coal. I went ashore immediately and telegraphed up and down the coast to the "Patterson" and home. About 5 P.M. the "Manzanita" came down from Portland and I saw Lieut. & Mrs. Sebree11 In the evening I attended a dinner given by the "McArthur" officers on board to Lieut & Mrs. Sebree, but I was so nervous and the reaction was so strong that I had to retire immediately after dinner. I had smashed my thumb besides and that began to get in on me. Next day it was stormy. I went up to the tug office to pay pilotage and the owners laughed and said it was all right. I never felt so cheap in my life. All I could say to the tug Capt was "Thank you, you simply saved our lives, and I can only thank you for it." The Astoria papers gave us a little send off, and every one seemed to look on it that it was a great piece of cheek to tackle the bar in that weather. The "McArthur" left next morning and we followed her out over the bar as she had a pilot. It was smooth outside and we parted at the entrance. We had 213 miles to go, further north, 130 of it along the most dangerous stretch of all. We were fortunate in having good weather. Off Destruction island,12 50 miles below Cape Flattery,13 we fell in with a fishing schooner displaying signals of distress. We ran off to her and found that she had on board the shipwrecked crew of the "Ocean King" of which I spoke the first part of the letter. I offered to take them on board and they were glad to come. We gave up our cabin to the capt and mate, who had had little rest. There were 25 in all and we were very crowded. I never saw men behave

  • 11 Uriel Sebree of Missouri graduated from the Naval Academy in 1867. He served in various stations until 1873, when he went on the Arctic expedition aboard the S. S. "Tigress"; under Commander Winfield Scott Schley on the Greely relief ex edition in 1884; and aboard the U. S. S. "Baltimore" under Captain Shley, 1889-1892. From 1885 to 1889 he was lighthouse inspector at Portland, Oregon. Later he was stationed in Behring Sea and the Samoan Islands. He commanded the battleship "Wisconsin" from 1903 to 1904 and the second division of the Pacific Fleet from 1907 to 1909. He retired in 1910 and died in 1922. Who Was Who in America, 1897-1942, p. 1101.
  • 12 Destruction Island, with a lighthouse, is off Jefferson County, Washington.
  • 13 Cape Flattery, a high promontory on the northwest extremity of Clallam County, Washington, is bounded by the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the northeast and the Pacific Ocean on the southwest.
better than these poor devils did. I had to stow them as ballast and feed them by turns. The skipper had been a volunteer in our Navy and was quite an entertaining man. I felt very sorry for him, having lost such a fine ship—a four master—although through no fault of his own.

Meanwhile the "Patterson" had arrived at Cape Flattery. Not finding us at Neah Bay14 where we were to meet in case of being separated, she gave us up. She left coal for us in case we should arrive & went to Port Townsend W.T.—No one on board had the faintest idea we were alive. I had tried to telegraph to Neeah Bay but the government line out to Flattery light (a necessary and valuable line) had been abandoned 30 days before. Reason "Appropriation cut off by Congress". At Port Townsend 80 miles from Neah Bay, Capt Thomas went ashore to telegraph news of our loss to Navy Dept & C[oast] S[urvey] Office. On the dock he met the operator with my telegram. Meanwhile we were reported lost at San Francisco, and the girls all felt sorry for us.

We arrived at Port Townsend at 10 P.M. May 12th. When the "Patterson" made us out, she sent up a shower of fireworks and cheered us to the echo. We answered much to their surprise with 32 voices. I first asked permission to land the crew of the "Ocean King" and then we ran alongside. We were fairly dragged on board and passed around. Champagne flew, and we talked it over till quite late.

The day following I ran over to Victoria B.C. to get stores for the ship. The "Cosmos" was towed to Port Simpson B.C. and we had a nasty trip of it. From Port Simpson I brought the launch up to about 60 miles north of Fort Wrangell. Beecher and I measured the base line for this season's work and three days later the ship came up. I gave up the "Cosmos" about June 1st. From May 25th to now I have been at it day in and day out

We have had a most wretched season, and I have all of this work I want.

The Capt of the "Ocean King" sent to the Sec. of Navy through Capt Thomas a letter on the "Cosmos" business. It is the only way he had of thanking us so due allowance must be made. I enclose a copy of the letter furnished me. … I have also letters from Capt. Thomas, Lieut Comdr Brownson,15

  • 14 Neah Bay, an Indian village of Clallam County, Washington, is on the Strait of Juan de Fuca about five miles from the ocean.
and Supt of Coast Survey, etc. The whole point of it is that it all goes on record at the Navy Department with my record. I made a strike by the "Cosmos" experience and while I have gotten lots of taffy I feel inclined to hope that it may give me the professional lift I want.

My ideas are just these. We get back to San Francisco about Oct 15th. By Nov 1st my office work will be such that I can leave. I have been home five days in five years. I must get home. There will be no trouble about that, however.

I want to go to the "Chicago".16 Clover17 is to be navigator I believe. He wants me to apply. I don't mind piling up sea service now and nothing would be better for me than the "Chicago". She probably goes into commission about Sept 1st, does she not? At the same time I want to go to her I must have a month at least at home. I am not willing to go before Dec 15 or Jan 1st.

My idea is now to go direct from S. F. to New York when detached, see the "Chicago", do some shopping, etc

  • 15 Willard H. Brownson, a native of New York, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1865; he served as inspector of hydrography from 1885 to 1889 and was superintendent of the Naval Academy from 1902 to 1906. Who Was Who in America, 1897-1942, p. 154.
  • 16 Four ships constructed under an act of Congress in 1883 were the "Dolphin," "Atlanta," "Chicago," and "Boston." John D. Long, The New American Navy (2 vols., New York, 1903), I, 24, 31. Because of his interest in the subject and the aid he gave in the advancement of the matter, Thomas was given the privilege of naming one of the vessels, and, since he was a native of Illinois, he named her the "Chicago."

    In the Register of the Commissioned and Warrant officers of the Naval Militia of the United States, 1914, pp. 36-39, the "Chicago" is listed as a "protected cruiser," 4,500 tons displacement, 9,000 horsepower, 18 knots speed.

    On several occasions Thomas was a member of the Board of Visitors appointed by Congress to attend the graduation ceremonies at Annapolis. Because of his deep interest in naval affairs he became the friend of a number of young officers and was able to advance their careers. He had two junior officers whose health was poor sent to the mild climate of the west coast, where they improved greatly. It is possible that Niblack was also indebted to Thomas on that account—hence his statement regarding his health.

  • 17 Richardson Clover, native of Maryland, was graduated from the Naval Academy in 1867. He served in various stations until 1885-1886, when he was put in charge of the survey of southeastern Alaska. Later he was chief of naval intelligence, member of the board on construction of vessels, and member of the war and strategy board. Who Was Who in America, 1897-1942, pp. 232-233. Clover was commander of the Coast Survey Steamer "Patterson," according to the Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the Navy of the United States, 1885, p. 22.
then go to Washington and see Walker.18 I am not willing to embarass him by bringing pressure on him of any kind, and I want to simply pull it on official and personal grounds. I have no doubt in the world that if you wanted me to go to the "Chicago" I could go, but I don't want to use "influence".

Clover writes me that Walker talks as if I can get anything I want. I eventually want command of a torpedo boat when we get any, meanwhile I want service on a modern man-of-war. The "Chicago" suits me to a dot. What do you think of it?

I am afraid if I wait till I get to Washington there will be no vacancy for me on her. It seems to me the best thing I can do is write to him personally now. I remember your asking me once why I did not wait for the "Chicago". I know that you would like for me to strike her so I will tell Walker so. He does not like to have pressure to bear on him for orders, and I think the mere fact that he knows you will be very much pleased will be all that is required in the way of influence.

Aug 3rd.

I had flattered myself I had a day off. The weather was bad and I wanted to board the mail steamer to see some friends. The steamer passed at 7 A.M. and at noon the captain started me off on a week's camping out expedition, so here I am in camp in a wildly picturesque bay with two large glaciers debouching in it, with snow clad peaks rising steeply 3000 feet from the water, and with roaring mountain torrents and ideal trout streams emptying into the water with echoing splash and roar. My work always requires me to pioneer out ahead of the ship building signals, selecting stations, and carrying on the main triangulation. It is nice work (the triangulation) but a rough life. It has built me up however and I am now in better health than I have ever dreamed of as possible for me. I am very contented with my lot in life, am fond of my profession and am in good health. Altogether I am in luck. I have been in the survey three

  • 18 John G. Walker, native of New Hampshire, was graduated from the Naval Academy in 1856. He served with distinction throughout the Civil War in blockading service with the Mississippi squadron. He became captain in 1877, commodore in 1889, rear admiral in 1894, and retired in 1897. At the time Niblack's letter was written Walker was chief of the Bureau of Navigation. Who Was Who in America, 1897-1942, p. 1290. Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the Navy of the United States, 1885, p. 7.
years now and although I could stay another I would not think of it.

I got a glimpse of Lieut & Mrs Sebree the other day as they passed on the "Manzanita" bound to Sitka. …

I am anxious to see you. When will you be in Washington. I am going to visit in Chicago and New York on my way to Washington so I may bring up there about Nov 15th or 20th. I will then go home and await orders If I should be lucky enough to pull the "Chicago", I will be in Washingtonen route, so I will be sure to see you sometime.

I see by the papers that you have been taking active and personal interest in the new cruisers this summer—(the "Boston" "Atlanta" & particularly the "Chicago")

I will write to Walker by this mail. I hope to get a definite reply. If he says no, I shall let it rest there. I am sure he will treat me fairly, and I will not regret what I do get.

"The sweet little cherub that sits up aloft" is looking out for me I know—or I would have been dead long ago.

. … I hope you will not think it indelicate in me in having written so of my own adventures. I would have thought very little of the matter had not the press and my friends taken the matter up. So many wild statements have been made, that thinking you might have heard some rumors and wonder why I have not written, I had best let you know how I got out of a very bad scrape.

Very sincerely yours

Albert P Niblack


Port Townsend Washn Terry.
May 16th 1887


I have the honor to respectfully request that you will kindly express to Ensign Albert P Niblack USN in charge of U S Steam Launch Cosmos, under your command, the thanks of myself, my officers and crew for receiving us on board the "Cosmos" on the 11th of May instant, off Destruction Island W.T. from the overcrowded little schooner Angel Dolly which had rescued us from the wreck of my late ship Ocean King, which foundered at sea off Cape Blanco Oregon,19 on Sunday May 8th, 1887, in Latitude N 43° 35', Lon W. 124° 58', and conveying us in safety to Port Townsend [Washington], where we arrived at 11 PM, on Wednesday May 12th.

The kind courtesy and attention we all received from Ensign Niblack Ensign Beecher and crew of the Cosmos, will long be remembered by us all. I trust I may be permitted to add my testimony of the gallant and meritorious action of Ensign Niblack and his skilful seamanship, in bringing the Cosmos out of that fearful gale of May 8th—(during which my ship, a vessel of 2,500 tons foundered—) and taking her in over the bar of the Columbia River at a time when four ocean steamers feared to pass out on account of the terrific sea breaking clear across the mouth of the river.

It is of such stock as this that the future Farraguts and Porters of the Navy will be formed, and I congratulate you, sir, in having so meritorious an officer in your command.

I have the honor to be your Obedient Servant

(Signed). C H Sawyer, Late Master Ship Ocean King,
Foundered at Sea, and Late Volunteer
Lieut U. S. N.

Capt C.M. Thomas U.S.N. Commanding U.S.C.S. Steamer C P Patterson Fort Wrangel, Alaska

  • 19 Cape Blanco is near the northern line of Curry County, Oregon.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.