Wells & Friedrich: Disaster Survivors

S. S. Central America

S. S. Central America

The Springfield Republican ran an article on August 15, 1897, in which it told the story of Francis A. Wells, born in Leyden, Massachusetts and then living in Brattleboro, Vermont.  Mr. Wells went to the California gold fields via Panama in 1852.  He set his hand to placer mining at Weaverville, near the Trinity River, but was discouraged by the severe winter that year.  He decided to fall back on his skills as a carpenter and removed to San Francisco for two years.  He returned to mining at Yreka in the northern part of the state where he met with considerably better fortune before deciding it was time to return home.

He boarded the steamer Sonora at San Francisco, with a satchel in which he carried his savings.  The waistcoat he wore contained chamois skin pockets filled with gold nuggets.  He debarked the Sonora at Panama City and crossed the isthmus in safety to Aspinwall, where he secured passage aboard the ill-fated S.S. Central America.  Wells was among those who were cast adrift when the ship went under.  The Republican reported the rest of the story:

“A short time previous to the sinking of the ship Mr. Wells secured one of the cabin doors and threw himself upon it, thinking that when the ship sank he would float about upon the water. Instead, however, he was caught by one of the chains which held the ship’s smokestack and was drawn under to a great depth. Pulling himself from under the chain he began to rise and managed to hold his breath until he reached the surface. The darkness of night had now settled down over the sea and with it came thunder and rain and a vivid and incessant flash of lightning. During the flashes Mr. Wells could see the bodies of men on all sides floating in the water. After about an hour he saw what seemed to be a raft and releasing his hold upon the door he swam to it with great exertion. He found it to be a portion of the wheel-house and upon it were five persons. Again and again they were swept off into the water until three of them became exhausted and went down.

Mr. Wells and his other companions continued to be swept from their peculiar raft until daylight appeared and the barque Ellen of Norway came to their relief. The raft floated to the vessel and they were taken on board. They were taken to Norfolk, VA, narrowly avoiding another shipwreck as they approached the city, and arrived in New York on September 19. Mr. Wells reached Brattleboro soon after, bringing with him only what gold he carried in the pockets of his waistcoat, his satchel having been lost in the wreck. He entered the Estey Organ factories in 1866 and was employed there until two years ago.

In 1868, a singular coincidence occurred at the organ works. A Pole whose name was Adolph Friedrich went to work there and in the course of a few weeks he stated that he was one of the survivors of the Central America catastrophe. He was thereupon introduced to Mr. Wells when, to their mutual astonishment, they recognized each other as having floated about on the same fragment of the wreck — the wheel-house of the Central America.”

Adolph Friedrich was one of the survivors rescued by the Ellen and shortly thereafter transferred to the Saxony which made port at Savannah, rather than at Norfolk and New York, like the others.

One week after that story appeared, the Republican ran a follow-up piece on Mr. Friedrich.  Admitting that it knew nothing of Friedrich’s birthplace or boyhood, the article referred to him as a Pole, although he was born in Prussia, and stated that he was a resident of Haydenville where he worked at the brass works for a number of years prior to journeying to California.  He, too, had met with some success out west and began his return voyage with “a large supply of treasure.”

While many of the stories surrounding the sinking of the Central America relate acts of heroism and generosity, those Mr. Friedrich told were much different.  He claimed the life preserver he found to keep him afloat on the dark sea was cut from his back by an acquaintance, leaving him to swim unaided.  When he spied the yard-arm of the ship with about 25 men already clinging to it, he swam to join them.  He was met by a chorus of voices yelling, “Push him off,” whereby he grabbed the nearest man by his clothes and made clear that their fates were linked.  He was allowed to climb up on the yard-arm with the others and rode that way for a time.

Eventually, Friedrich found himself burdened by the weight of his clothing and the gold that he still carried.  He jettisoned the clothes and the four leather bags of gold, each weighing twenty pounds.  Thus lightened, he swam until he came to the wheelhouse of the ship with three men on it.  They took him aboard and two others after him, one of whom was Francis Wells.  Over time, three of the men became fatigued and were washed off the wheelhouse, but Friedrich and Wells and a third man lasted long enough to be rescued by the Norwegian ship, Ellen.

Mr. Friedrich, upon his recovery, returned to Haydenville.  He married Christiana Schiller in 1860 in Northampton.  In 1868, he moved to Brattleboro for a job at the Estey Organ Factory where he was reunited with Francis Wells.  The Republican described the sad conclusion to the story:

One year later, in 1869, occurred a flood unprecedented in the history of Brattleboro. On the evening of Saturday, October 2, a terrific rain storm began and continued without intermission until Monday afternoon. Whetstone brook became fearfully swollen and carried away everything in its path. From the Connecticut river to Centerville the desolation was appalling. Buildings, dams and bridges joined in the downward rush and so swift was the current that they were carried entirely across the Connecticut river to the eastern abutment of the Connecticut river bridge. The abutment was demolished and as the river rose, the bridge fell with a mighty crash and passed on in the downward course. Mr. Friedrich was at the factory of J. Estey & Co. when the flood suddenly poured around the building. He got upon a raft of boards, thinking to escape by this means. The raft was borne down with the swift current and, in the view of hundreds of persons, it was carried over the dam and was dashed upon the rocks below. Mr. Friedrich threw up his arms as he went over the dam, and he sank quickly from view in the boiling rush of waters. He left a widow and five children. A long time afterward the late W. H. Alexander of Brattleboro happened to be upon the river bank and accidentally drew from the water with his cane a finger ring which proved to be that of Mr. Friedrich. This accident led to the recovery of Mr. Friedrich’s bones.

“A Shipwrecked Gold Hunter: Francis A. Wells of Brattleboro,” Springfield (MA) Republican, 15 August 1897.

“An Adventurous Career,” St. Albans (VT) Daily Messenger, 21 February 1907.

“Another Shipwrecked Miner: One of Brattleboro’s ’49ers,” Springfield (MA) Republican, 22 August 1897

Barre (MA) Gazette, 25 September 1857.

“The Late Calamity: The Loss of the Steamship Central America and Upwards of Five Hundred,” Saturday Evening Gazette, 26 September 1857.



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