- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

On the U.S. gunboat Wateree, steaming off the coast of Chile in 1868, few if any of its crew had any concept of what a tsunami was or the damage one could inflict. The coastal waters were calm, and the only concern for the Wateree’s skipper, 37-year-old James Gillis, was his ship’s appetite for coal.

Wateree — named after a river in South Carolina — had been commissioned during the Civil War for blockade duty. The 1,000-ton gunboat was a paddle wheeler capable of making about 10 knots under steam. The ship’s mission was to look after American interests in Chile and Peru, but this entailed little more than showing the flag.

In mid-August 1868, Wateree stopped for fuel at Arica, a port in southern Peru that later would become part of Chile. Several other ships were in port, including a U.S. Navy supply ship, Fredonia. On Aug. 13, while his ship took on coal, Gillis made the courtesy calls on local officials that were part of the Navy’s peacetime routine.

Back on the Wateree, Gillis felt a trembling and then heard a rumbling sound from the shore. As he looked toward the town, he saw buildings collapsing and realized that Arica was experiencing a severe earthquake. He ordered that his ship be secured and a second anchor cast. He then called for his gig and, accompanied by the ship’s doctor, set out to render assistance.

By the time the two Americans reached shore, the water in the harbor was receding rapidly, leaving various small craft bobbing in the flow. Then came the first wave of a tsunami. As Gillis watched in wonder, his ship rose on the crest, paying out more than 500 feet on one anchor as it did so. Smaller craft smashed against the shore.

Most of Arica lay in ruins. The harbor filled with debris, including cattle, lumber, shrubbery and even railroad cars. Cries from the injured could be heard occasionally over the sound of the wave.

The water receded, but then came a second wave. Wateree paid out nearly 600 feet on each of its anchor chains, but again the anchors held. It was dusk, and although Gillis was concerned for his ship, he noted that the larger ships in the harbor, including Wateree and Fredonia, appeared to be holding their own.

At about 6:30, however, the sky darkened. From their anchorage, the crew of the Wateree watched a wall of green water move inexorably toward the harbor. This was much the largest wave thus far, one whose crest later would be estimated at more than 40 feet. As Wateree swung violently on its anchors, the great wave crashed onto its deck.

Gillis would report, “The ship now commenced to drift rapidly seaward … when the sea very suddenly commenced to rush in again. The vessel swung violently around. … A severe strain came upon the chains, and the starboard one parted close to the hawse pipes, and the ship drifted rapidly towards shore.”

The Wateree was thrown on its side among the breakers and continued to be buffeted by the surging sea. When Gillis was able to find a skiff and make his way across the harbor, he found his ship resting on a point nearly 500 yards from the high-water mark, some 12 feet above sea level. To his relief, there was only one serious injury among his crew.

About 500 persons had died in Arica. The Americans set to assisting the survivors as best they could. Gillis distributed supplies, holding back only essential rations. One of the midshipmen, Edward Taussig, wrote home, “I have been hard at work every day, standing watch, kidnapping mules, getting water and burying the dead.”

However incongruous the Wateree’s resting place, the fates had been far kinder to it than to Fredonia, which had been wrecked and had suffered 27 fatalities. The supply ship had been destroyed so completely that its surgeon had difficulty finding identifiable portions of wreckage.

Telegraph communications between North and South America were uncertain, and nearly a month passed before word of the disaster at Arica reached Washington.

A naval court of inquiry duly inquired into the loss of two U.S. vessels, but it acquitted Gillis and Capt. Doty of the Fredonia. Their acquittal annoyed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who complained that both skippers had been on shore when they should have been on their ships.

Others took a more charitable view. Gillis received formal thanks from the British government for his aid to the disaster victims, including the crew of a British ship. Gillis stayed on in the Navy, eventually achieving flag rank.

While the Navy debated what to do with a gunboat deposited a quarter-mile inland, the men of the Wateree continued to live on board. The crew employed mules much as they had the ship’s boats. According to Taussig, “The sailors became expert in running out on the booms, down to the lanyards, and on to the mules’ backs without a foot touching the ground.”

In November 1868, the Navy concluded that the cost of digging a canal to refloat the Wateree would exceed the value of the ship. The hulk was sold to a local businessman for $2,775, and it served for several years as a non-floating hotel.

Historian John M. Taylor writes from McLean.

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