Some shipwrecks are funnier than others...
I've been working on a story about the growing potential for oil spills from old shipwrecks off the U.S. coast, many sent to the bottom during 1942, when German U-boats lay off the coast attacking coastal shipping.
So, I was looking through the Dictionary of Disasters at Sea, a seemingly endless listing of grim, often horrific sinkings as far back as 1824. And I came across this one, which was so bizarre and tragic and hilarious, I had to share. It's the story of the Royal Tar, a 164-foot wooden paddle steamer (not the one below, which is the Italie, on Lake Geneva) out of St. John, New Brunswick in the Canadian maritimes. The skipper was Capt. T. Reed. The dictionary picks up the story:
"In October 1836, she was chartered to carry Dexter's Locomotive Museum and Burgess' Collection of Serpents and Birds from St. John, N.B. to Maine, as well as an elephant, two lions, a tiger, two camels, several horses, and a large number of smaller animals.
"For the accommodation of these unusual travellers a huge Noah's Ark-like tent had been erected to cover the whole afterpart of the steamer.
"In addition to the animals there were the circus personnel, which included a full brass band, as well as private passengers and crew, making 93 all told.
"On the morning of October 21st, 1836, the steamer left St. John harbor in fair weather, but towards the end of the day a strong west wind forced her to anchor in Eastport [Maine] Harbor, where she remained until Tuesday, 25th.
"Shortly after leaving this anchorage she was again forced by the high winds to seek shelter off Fox Island.
"The next day a fire was kindled under the boilers without previously ascertaining the depth of the water in them, which was very little. The small amount of water soon evaporated and the boilers became red hot, setting fire to nearby woodwork. The vessel was still at anchor.
"The wooden steamer blazed with fierce intensity, the two funnels falling overboard and causing much havoc. Soon there was terrible panic, in which human beings and animals struggled together to reach some place of safety. Meanwhile the captain had given orders to slip the cable to allow the vessel to drift landwards, as she was at the time anchored two miles offshore.
"Many persons were drowned in getting away the boats, and the elephant jumped from the deck onto a raft, sinking it and drowning all its occupants. Of the 93 persons on board 32 lost their lives, as did a large number of the unfortunate animals.
"Capt. Reed behaved with great presence of mind and it was due to his efforts that so many people were saved. In recognition of his devotion he was presented with a purse containing 700 dollars by the citizens of St. John, and some years later he became harbour-master of the port."
(PHOTOS: Top: AP 1998. Bottom: AP 1999)