Responding to fears of imminent attack, naval steamer Active reaches Seattle on December 25, 1855.

  • By Mike Vouri
  • Posted 5/29/2016
  • Essay 11236
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On Christmas Day 1855, the U.S. Coast Survey Ship Active drops anchor off Seattle after steaming from San Francisco Bay with munitions for the USS Decatur, lying crippled with a broken back at the village wharf. Indian attacks on the fledgling communities along Puget Sound are considered imminent, so the large, highly mobile, and dependable steamer has been dispatched to supplement sparse and scattered American military and naval forces. Since 1852 the Active has been a constant on Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, assigned by the navy to assist the Coast Survey's ongoing efforts to promote commercial growth and maritime safety in the Northwest by creating accurate charts of the region. Alongside its survey duties, the steamer assists in cases of maritime disaster or military hostilities. A month after reaching Seattle, the Active will aid the Decatur and her crew in fending off a January 26, 1856, attack on the city by Indian forces, and over the two months will serve as a dispatch ship and patrol Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

A Logical Choice

The Active's posting to Puget Sound by the U.S. Navy was a logical move. Officials of the Coast Survey, which was founded in 1807 as the first physical-science agency in the federal government and extended to the West Coast in 1849, almost from the start of the West Coast survey promoted steam over sail in negotiating the hazards of coastal and inland waters, particularly in Puget Sound. In fact, the Survey's first naval assistant in Northwest waters, Lieutenant Commanding William P. McArthur (1814-1850), was on his way east in December 1850 to take command of the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Jefferson, especially commissioned for that purpose. But McArthur died on his way east, and the Jefferson was wrecked off Uruguay a few months later en route to California. That's when Survey officials sent a new naval assistant, Lieutenant Commanding James Alden Jr. (1810-1877), and combed West Coast resources for a replacement vessel.

They found the 172-foot, 432-ton side-wheel steamer Gold Hunter (or Goldhunter) in Mexico, where the ship was engaged in the coastal trade under Portland-based owners hoping to compete with rival interests in Milwaukie, Oregon. Built in New York in 1849 originally for the Sacramento River, the double-engined sidewheeler was typical of the Panama-route steamers that, starting in 1848, successfully connected the U.S. coasts via the Isthmus before the advent of the continental railroads. Some of the vessels exceeded 400 feet in length and displaced more than 3,800 tons, their engines so huge that the pistons descended as much as 10 feet on the down stroke. While modest in comparison, Gold Hunter was a huge success, triggering a boom in Portland. But in early 1852 the U.S. Government made an offer the owners could not refuse, leaving her original operators in the lurch. Changing the ship's name to Active, the Survey gave her to Alden, who would incur the wrath of land-based surveyors by never hesitating to abandon the survey and employ the vessel as a British-style gunboat for rescue and police actions.

The British Royal Navy had long recognized the effectiveness of steam-powered vessels as gunboats on coastal and inland waterways throughout the empire, including the Pacific Northwest. The senior naval officer in the Pacific Station as early as 1836 urged the Admiralty to consider dispatching a steam warship to the Pacific Station because of capricious winds, currents, and calms, and coastlines that were "more precarious and uncertain" (Gough, 98). Among the first British steamers in the region were HMS Cormorant and HMS Virago, both 180-foot side-wheelers. While Cormorant was little more than a tow vessel, Virago, under the command of Captain James Prevost, proved her worth surveying and patrolling the coast and Haida Gwaii (then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) in 1852-1853 and then providing legion service in the Crimean War (1854-1855).

James Alden Jr.

Alden's pedigree as an explorer and chart maker was nearly as significant as his family tree (he was a direct descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Mayflower fame). He served (unhappily) as a junior officer under Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) on the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), including in pre-treaty Oregon Country, and then went on a world cruise aboard the USS Constitution under the command of Captain "Mad Jack" Percival. But as with his British counterpart Prevost, Alden was first and foremost a naval officer as he demonstrated by helping to place guns during the Siege of Veracruz in the Mexican-American War. With commands of naval ships at a premium in the antebellum period, the only quarterdeck experience to be found for ambitious younger officers was either with the Survey on vessels such as the Active or in command of one of the Panama-Pacific steamers, which were subsidized by the U.S. Government.

Starting with his first trip north with the Active in 1852, Alden undoubtedly was a careful observer of the Royal Navy's use of steam power, since the only reliable source of bituminous coal for steamers in the region was the Hudson's Bay Company mine at Nanaimo on the east coast of Vancouver Island. The company, even at height of the Pig War crisis in 1859, had no qualms about selling coal to a potential enemy, so ships of every flag waited in the roads for a turn at the docks.

The Active's Annual Timetable

The Active ritually called at the Columbia River and Puget Sound in July, conducted the hydrographic survey, installed and recorded data from tide gauges, and took other measurements as required until the weather turned in October. Going and coming the ship often came to the aid of distressed ships, such as the Panama steamer Samuel S. Lewis which went aground in the fog off the California coast in 1853. Among the passengers was William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), who would go on to fame as a Union general in the Civil War, safely transported along with 384 fellow travelers to the beach at night, no mean feat.

The following year, in May, Active came to the aid of Sea Bird -- a commercial steamer and frequent caller in Puget Sound -- when the vessel lost its rudder and was swept to sea. Following an eight-day search, Sea Bird was found and towed 200 miles back to San Francisco. Two weeks later the Active rescued the Peytona, which broke down on her way north to Oregon. As Franz Stenzel writes in James Madison Alden: Yankee Artist of the Pacific Coast, 1854-1860 (about the young artist, a nephew of James Alden Jr., who accompanied and made illustrations for the survey): "Voluntary rescue efforts were commonplace in Lieutenant Alden's record and added to his popularity" (Stenzel 14-15).

Challenges of Steam Technology

At the end of each survey season, the ship returned to San Francisco Bay for maintenance, initially at the Pacific Mail Steamship Company docks at Benicia, California, until the opening of Mare Island Naval Shipyard in 1854. The Active's engines, bolted to oak timbers amidships, were essentially two giant pistons, each with a furnace and boiler to generate steam and a condenser to recover the water and repeat the process. The remainder of hull space was allotted to coal that fueled the furnaces and also served as ballast.

A lot could go wrong and often did. Wooden-hull side-wheel steamers had no bulkheads or watertight compartments. As a result, condensation beading on engine machinery would drip into the bilges, and water would run like a river from bow to stern before it was pumped out of the ship. No watertight compartments meant the ship could not take on seawater ballast, so as coal was burned the vessel rose higher out of the water, rolling excessively and decreasing the bite of the paddle wheels. Despite a sophisticated feathering mechanism that extended the paddles farther below the surface, the ship would still crab through the water, stressing the entire system. One visit to the Benicia yard resulted in a bill of $12,000. Alden blamed these costs on poor working habits of company workers. He claimed to have spent each day supervising the work, trying to speed it along to no avail.

Naval Matters on Puget Sound

The Active had been anticipating inspection and repairs at Mare Island in November 1855, when Alden learned that the navy was scrambling for a response to Indian problems on Puget Sound, which he knew were brewing having recently left the region. Not long before, the Territorial legislature had called for the federal government to send steam warships to patrol Puget Sound from Budd Inlet to the Strait of Georgia. "If action is not promptly taken, settlers will be obliged to abandon that neighborhood," wrote legislator Arthur A. Denny" (Vouri, Columbia).

The navy had already awakened to the necessity of steam over sail by bringing the auxiliary steamers USS John Hancock and USS Massachusetts to the West Coast in 1855. But the Hancock was laid up with a bad boiler and the Massachusetts, on her second sortie west, was engaged off Peru. True to form, Alden believed his ship was the ideal substitute. While the Massachusetts (176 feet) and Hancock (113 feet) mounted four and six guns respectively, as propeller-driven vessels they were considerably slower and more reliant on sail. Alden immediately volunteered his ship's services to Captain William Mervine, commander of the navy's Pacific Squadron based in San Francisco Bay. They were heartily accepted:

"As you have promptly tendered the services of the United States Surveying Steamer Active under your command -- which you state can be spared during the winter without detriment to the service in which she is engaged -- you will therefore prepare her for sea with all possible dispatch, and so soon as she shall be ready proceed to Puget Sound" (Mervine to Alden, November 29, 1855).

The Active reached the sound less than a month later, dropping anchor off Seattle on Christmas Day to reinforce the Decatur. A month later, on January 26, 1856, Indians attacked Seattle but were repelled by the Decatur resulting in two killed and several wounded. The Active sent sailors and guns ashore to supplement the Decatur's forces, while her decks provided a safe haven for women and children. Over the next two months, the steamer served as a dispatch ship and patrolled Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Active returned to San Francisco by the end of March and resumed survey duties, but remained on alert for the next emergency.

Alden would again notably depart from the survey in August 1859 when he arrived in the Strait of Juan Fuca at the height of the Pig War crisis between Great Britain and the United States, which was precipitated when U.S. Army Captain George E. Pickett (1825-1875) landed troops on San Juan Island. Alden took it upon himself to first intercede with the British on Pickett's behalf, and when that did not succeed to again employ the steamer as a dispatch ship, devoting nearly a month to carrying messages between far-flung ports and offering the services of his vessel to transport cargo and important passengers, divine British intentions, and defuse the crisis. U.S. Army Department of Oregon commander Brigadier General William S. Harney (1800-1889) cited Alden in dispatches for his efforts, which was soon to become a dubious honor.

Alden and Active in Later Years

The Pig War year of 1859 was the Active's last season under James Alden, who left for the East Coast and a greater role in the U.S. Navy, which was soon gearing up for the Civil War. Alden served with distinction as a blockade officer throughout the war rising to the rank of rear admiral and command of the prestigious Mediterranean Fleet after the war.

But he also lost the frigate USS Merrimack to Confederate forces in Norfolk, Virginia, in April 1861 (the Confederates later used the frigate's hull as the basis for the famous ironclad that fought the Union Monitor). And Alden suffered the indignity of being the object of Admiral David G. Farragut's famous order "Damn the torpedoes" at Mobile Bay in 1864. Both incidents have been attributed to a caution uncharacteristic of his actions on the West Coast. Alden died in 1877 following a return to California and command at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard where he had regularly taken the Active for refitting two decades earlier.

The Active was finished as a survey ship in 1860 when the government sold her to a California-based steamship line. She continued to work the northern routes, including Alaska, and by 1865 she was carrying the mail between San Francisco and Victoria, British Columbia, receiving a "heavy subsidy" (Wright, 31) from the British government. It was while en route to Victoria in June 1870 that the ship struck a rock in heavy fog about 22 miles south of Cape Mendocino in Northern California. The water was soon knee-deep in the engine room, which spurred the captain to run the ship onto the beach. True to the ship's illustrious rescue history not one of the 177 passengers was lost. All were safely landed and taken to San Francisco. Even half the cargo was saved.

The passing of the Active marked the end of an era in West Coast shipping history. Today the ship's memory lives on through Active Pass in the Gulf Islands and Active Cove on Patos Island in the San Juans. Alden Point on Patos and Alden Bank in the Georgia Strait honor James Alden.


James Alden to Alexander Bache, December 3, 1855, Roll 125, p. 68, MF642, RG23, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; James Alden to Alexander Bache, January 22, 1855, Roll 149, p. 16, MF642, RG23, National Archives; Ship's Records, Vol. 1, E-102, RG23, National Archives; Letters Regarding San Juan Island, E-191, RG 76, National Archives; Lewis A. McArthur, "Pacific Coast Survey of 1849 and 1850" (Portland, Oregon: 1915), copy available at NOAA website accessed April 12, 2016 (; James P. Delgado, To California by Sea: A Maritime History of the California Gold Rush (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), 17, 47-48, 161; Barry M. Gough, The Royal Navy and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1810-1914 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1971), 98, 100, 128; John Haskell Kemble, The Panama Route, 1848-1869 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), 118-121, 138; Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 7, 9, 20, 31,33; Arnold S. Lott, A Long Line of Ships: Mare Island's Century of Naval Activity in California (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1954), 17-35; Lorraine McConaghy, Warship under Sail: The USS Decatur in the Pacific West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), 145-149; Franz Stenzel, James Madison Alden: Yankee Artist of the Pacific Coast, 1854-1860 (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1975), 4, 12, 14-15, 17-18, 20, 24, 27-30, 32, 39, 53; Daily Alta California [San Francisco], April 10, 1853; Mike Vouri, The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay (Seattle: Discover Your Northwest and University of Washington, [1999] 2013), 117-118; Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Review of the Growth and Development of the Maritime Industry, from the Advent of the Earliest Navigators to the Present Time, with Sketches and Portraits of a Number of Well Known Marine Men ed. by E. W. Wright (New York: Antiquarian Press, Ltd., 1961), 31; Michael Vouri, "Raiders from the North: The Northern Indians and Northwest Washington in the 1850s," Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Vol. 11, No. 3, (Fall 1997), 24-25.

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