Another title of this story might be "The Remarkable Catherine Malone," who astounded me recently with this account of her first trip to the Isthmus. In 1908, when she was 12, the ship she sailed on, the PRR ship Finance, 24 hours out at sea in a heavy fog, sank ignominiously with 75 passengers and crew on board. It was one of those days you remember.
At 12 years of age, she was then Catherine Haligan, travelling with four sisters and a brother, her mother Mrs. Haligan, and Aunt Minnie Mahoney. After a separation of four years, they were going to join Mr. Tom Haligan, father and husband, who worked for the Isthmian Canal Commission, digging the Panama Canal for the handsome sum of $125 a month. In 1908, life in Panama was all mud, mange, and mosquitoes and sometimes the hardest part of all was just getting there.
Sailing day was miserable, one of those cold November days with rain and intermittent snow flurries. Catherine hurried along the New York dock, sister by the hand; lugging her trusty Gladstone filled with going-away presents, new cambric, candles of citronella, and very expensive chocolates. You remember the scene in the off-season: The pushed-aside piles of grayish snow, the box cars parked on the wharf; into the tunnel that was the dockhouse, the dollies scooting about, the army of longshoremen in wet slickers, the bales of cargo stacked almost to the ceiling, dazed by the clamour, the peculiar smells, the marvelous, heavy salt sea air. All the way from Toledo in new shoes and bonnet, Catherine felt famous and happy and the dreary NY day didn't bother her at all. Soon she would see her father. Shipside at last, she gazed in awe at the biggest ship she had ever seen. Oh, it was a wonderful, wonderful world!
The Finance was a tub, built in 1883; 1649 tons, 300 feet long, 38 feet beam, and drew 23 feet.
A few thin, white wisps of fog hung in the air and dripped from the jetties as the Finance sailed out into a choppy Atlantic, making her way slowly through a thickening fog. By evening the wind picked up and the ship was soon pitching and rolling in a hilly black sea; twisting sharply, her fittings making low ominous groans. All night long the ship felt the shock of waves and wind and the sound of the ship's horn blew a moan every 45 seconds. The continuous volley of foghorns and blasts of whistles tried the nerves of passengers and crew. Other ships out there but nothing could be seen beyond the bowsprit. Sometime during the early hours of the following morning, she stopped. Locked in the fog, helpless, she tossed aimlessly in a choppy sea.
At 8:30 a.m. disaster struck. A few passengers on deck saw the giant bow of the freighter Georgie loom from out of a dull gray wall. There was an exchange of sharp whistle blasts from both ships and a passenger heard the Captain shout, "Put your helm over. You are going to strike us." He actually shouted! The Georgie came on. Towering high above the Panama liner, she caught her fairly amidship on the port side, cutting into the Finance like a knife into cheese, and driving her up for a few seconds to lie on her beam. When the freighter fell away there was only a dent in her steel cutwater but the Finance was mortally wounded with a great hole in her side. As she righted herself and began to take on water rapidly, Captain Mowbray and those on the bridge knew from the first she was doomed. Both ships immediately began the rescue work and the Georgie was the first to lower lifeboats to the water. In 15 minutes she would be on the bottom of the ocean.
Everyone felt it. With the crash of the collision and the rending of plates and timbers, there came a panic on the Finance. A few of her passengers were on deck at the time, some in the dining saloon, but many were in their rooms, sleeping or dressing. In the dining room Catherine and her sisters watched with dismay as the room stood on end and flipped the cereal out of everyone's bowls. A man fell down. Passengers came running from every part of the vessel, many in their nightclothes, some with children in their arms. Catherine saw the deck begin to fill with water, sloshing across the floor and down the passageways. People were fastening on life preservers and a man offered to take her on his back. She said no, she had to mind the children and find her mother. There had been no lifeboat drill and no one was sure quite what to do. A Mr. Whitman put a life jacket on her.
Below in the cabin, the water was rising when Mrs. Haligan saw a small boat through the porthole. She held the baby up and a man shouted to her to throw the baby to him. This she succeeded in doing; she actually threw the baby out the porthole, not believing that she would be able to reach the deck herself. In the companionway she found Aunt Minnie with the rest of the children and together they made their way topside.
Also on board was the Cody family with Annie Cody, 8 years old. That would be Anna Cody Carey, mother of Jack, Bob, and Mary Jane. In her cabin, Mrs. Cody was dressing Annie when she heard the whistles, then the crash, and felt the boat listing. "I saw a small boat come alongside and I pushed Annie through the porthole. My brother-in-law helped me rescue the other children, putting life jackets on them before they jumped."
Catherine finally arrived at the outside deck and froze, terrified. The once-imposing Captain was standing there, looking deranged, his hair blowing sideways, with a pistol in his hand. He pointed it at a lifeboat and yelled, "Get out of there. Women and children first." The coal passers got out. The Finance had listed so that walking her decks was difficult and launching the lifeboats dangerous. Because of rusty chains the first boat would not work at all. Many jumped overboard. They finally got 3 boats and 2 rafts into the water and rowed about picking up passengers from the waves; passengers who wore but few clothes and so were able to stay afloat.
To add to the confusion there came from within the hull a dull boom as the ammonia tank exploded in the forward hold. Up from the hold came oilers and firemen, climbing pell mell up every ladder, and with them came Todd, the third engineer. Overcome by the ammonia fumes, he staggered to the rail, steadied himself for a moment, and then jumped overboard. He was not seen again.
Everyone saw what happened to Irene Campbell, a 14-year-old black girl from Cristobal. She came on deck in the first rush from below and grabbing the rail refused to leave. When it was evident that the steamer was about to sink, the wireless operator and two other men tried to break her hold on the rail. But she was locked on with the strength of hysteria and when the water came up to the deck they were forced to leave her while they saved others. Irene, poor thing, went down with the ship.
The Finance sank lower, taking a heavy list to port, her decks awash. Catherine climbed along the slanting upper deck, clinging to some rigging, hoping to see a lifeboat come near. A wave broke against the side of the deckhouse. Another wave, then the backwash, then another. Until that last giant wave cracked over her; she let go and was swept away. It turned her under and knocked her over, ripped off her shoes, and carried her overboard. Judge S.E. Blackburn said later, "In that wash of water along the deck I saw children knocked down and two were washed across my feet. I cannot understand how they were saved." She soon surfaced, choking and sputtering, and was spotted treading water, trying to stay afloat.
A lifeboat from the Georgie hauled her aboard, stunned, shocked; she had been holding her breath for so long that her eyes stung. A taste of salt filled her mouth, nose, ears; dripping wet and numbing cold to the skin, she crouched, clinging to the small boat that continued to toss on the ocean. Her new shoes were gone -- everything that had been comfortable and warm was gone. She whispered, Our Father, who art in heaven ...please make it right again ...help someone in need ...then she was hungry ... her breakfast?...her chocolates?...unable to hold back a warm tide of tears that flowed down her cheeks. In the ice-fringed lifeboat they all pressed closer and saw the Finance go down.
Taken aboard the larger "Georgie," Catherine paled with digest and the nightmare continued. A nasty smell permeated the whole ship. The seamen wore the blackest and greasiest clothes and in the matter of profanity they were expert. But from the hold came those putrid fumes, like garbage? like hogs? like something rotten? What was it? The freighter was carrying performing elephants consigned to the Hippodrome in New York! Nervous, they did perform. Aware that something was wrong, they trumpeted loudly, straining at their bonds and causing anxiety to the mahouts, the crew, and the frightened passengers.
By early afternoon the rescue was completed. The Finance was gone and the wounded Georgie continued on her way, carrying the forlorn cargo of survivors back to Manhattan. Four were drowned: Irene Campbell,14 year old colored girl living near Cristobal; Henry Muller, a railroad conductor living at Bas Obispo; Charles Schweinler, policeman from the Canal Zone; William Todd, third engineer from New York.
Now it was quiet. Storm abated, elephants calmed, the rescued huddled in a mass, swilling that universal panacea, hot cups of tea. They were numbed, lulled by the consistent, monotonous hum of the ship's engine carrying them right back to where they started from! In the distance they could see a long column of ocean liners sailing out, freed as the fog lifted. Bringing up the rear was the majestic Cunarder Lusitania, in search of icebergs no doubt. It was Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1908.
When they arrived back at the Panama pier in the dusk of the evening, the trying experience they had been through was evident. Many wore strange clothing; shoes that were not mates, caps that belonged to stokers, all sorts, sizes, and shapes of wrap-arounds. John Schanzenbecker, mail clerk on the Finance, brought ashore three sacks of mail, all that were saved of the 650 sacks on board. This clerk took the last boat away from the Finance and saved the sacks at great personal risk. Most of the Finance's passengers were then transferred to the PRR ship Alliance to spend the night. Some went home, others went off to find a better way.
The following day the Haligans and the Codys were put on board Her Majesty's ship the Orinoco to try again. They sailed south, through Cape Hatteras, heading now for Jamaica. Everyone on board was ingenious in devising garments for the refugees to wear. When someone on board won the ship's pool and gave the winnings to the Cody family, they went ashore in Jamaica to buy Catherine a pair of shoes. But nowhere could they find any big enough. It didn't matter; it was warm now and barefoot was better.
At last they arrived in Cristobal where the sea was flat and green, sans luggage, sans household goods, sans everything. Catherine wore a jacket that engulfed her, long pants amputated at the knee, her mother's house slippers, and a cap a sailor had given her. Her Irish father was waiting on the pier, at first so happy, then dismayed to see in large letters across his daughter's forehead "HMS Orinoco." This was the Irish father that years before fled Ireland, the British troops, and great hunger; now his daughter delivered to him courtesy of her Majesty. Everything else was gone, somehow fitting, ready to begin the new life. The only thing ever returned to them, months later, was one small box, dried, stained, and caked with salt. In it were jars of homemade preserves and tucked in the bottom a St. Anthony medal,