Launched on September 5, 1843, the very first USS Princeton was a steam-driven propeller warship of the U.S. Navy, commanded by Captain Robert Stockton. It was the first screw-sloop in the fleet. During a cruise down the Potomac River with President John Tyler, federal officials, politicians, attorneys, a former First Lady and several hundred guests, there was a terrible long gun explosion, due, possibly to old forging technology.
President Tyler hosted a public reception for Stockton in the White House on February 27, 1844. On February 28, [the] USS Princeton departed Alexandria, Virginia, on a demonstration cruise down the Potomac with Tyler, members of his cabinet, former First Lady Dolley Madison, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and about 400 guests. Captain Stockton decided to fire the larger of her two long guns, Peacemaker, to impress his guests. Peacemaker was fired three times on the trip downriver and was loaded to fire a salute to George Washington as the ship passed Mount Vernon on the return trip. The guests aboard viewed the first set of firings, [then] retired below decks for lunch and refreshments.
Secretary [of the Navy] [Thomas Walker] Gilmer urged those aboard to view a final shot with the Peacemaker. When Captain Stockton pulled the firing lanyard, the gun burst. Its left side had failed, spraying hot metal across the deck and shrapnel into the crowd. Instantly killed were Gilmer, Secretary of State [Abel P.] Upshur, Captain Beverley Kennon, who was Chief of the Bureau of Construction [Equipment] and Repairs, Virgil Maxcy (a Maryland attorney with decades of experience as a state and federal officeholder), David Gardiner (a New York lawyer and politician) and the President’s valet, a black slave named Armistead. Another 16 to 20 people were injured, including several members of the ship’s crew, Senator Benton and Captain Stockton. The president was below decks and not injured.
The disaster on board the Princeton killed more top U.S. government officials in a single day than any other tragedy in American history.
Additional Reading & Sources
Fatal Cruise of the Princeton (Naval History/military.com/Wayback Machine)
USS Princeton (ibiblio.org)
Princeton I (Naval History and Heritage Command site)
Accident on a Steam Ship (Google Books)
Tyler Narrowly Escapes Death (The History Channel site)
How the USS Princeton explosion changed U.S. history.
While many folks are suffering from the damage brought about by Hurricane Dorian, including my own state, twenty-three years ago, today, another hurricane made landfall between 7:17 & 9:03pm EDT…Hurricane Fran. The eye passed over Bald Head Island and Southport.
Fran was the second hurricane to slam into the North Carolina coast in the same season. Bertha was a Category 2 hurricane when she hit just two months earlier. There wasn’t much time to recover from the first disaster before the second hit.
Due to a low pressure centered over Tennessee and the western extension of the subtropical ridge over the northwest Atlantic, Fran was steered onto a north-northwesterly track and gained speed. Moving around 17 mph, the center of Fran made landfall over the Cape Fear area on September 5th around 8:30 p.m., just southwest of Wilmington. At landfall, sustained winds were 115 mph […].
Fran caused major flooding from North Carolina to Maryland [to] West Virginia. The damage from Fran was so extensive that the name “Fran” was removed from the hurricane name list and replaced by Fay. North Carolina got the worst of the storm […]. The North Topsail Beach police station was washed away by a 12 foot storm surge. The police station was being temporarily housed in a double wide since Bertha wiped out the original building just a few months prior. Kure Beach Pier was destroyed along with the Emerald Isle fishing pier, while Bogue Inlet Pier lost 150 feet. Storm surge in North Topsail Beach created a 100-foot wide inlet. Topsail Island lost 40 feet of beach due to erosion. Swansboro and New Bern experienced 10 feet of storm surge […].
Hurricane force wind gusts were experienced as far inland as Raleigh. High winds damaged historical buildings. Classes at the University of North Carolina were canceled for a day and it was almost a week before the water was drinkable again. Strong winds and a saturated ground led to many trees being uprooted inland. This led to numerous houses being destroyed by trees falling on them. Over a million people were left without power. Almost two weeks after the storm, 150 secondary roads were still closed due to flooding and downed trees.
In the same way that residents of Columbia and Charlotte remember Hurricane Hugo‘s devastating inland winds, residents of Raleigh and most of the North Carolina inland coastal plain think back to Fran when discussing the strong wind a hurricane can bring well away from the coast. Fran was the worst storm to strike southeastern North Carolina since Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
My dad was nine years old when Hazel hit. He remembered being underneath his desk in elementary school. I was living in Durham when Fran hit. I thought the roof of the house was going to come off (I was living in an attic studio apartment on the west side of town, close to Duke Hospital and Duke University). That hurricane came straight up thru the middle of NC. Working in Law Enforcement, I was considered “necessary personnel” and when I got up to head in, Durham looked like a war zone. Interstate 85 was completely shut down and I wound my way thru town, west to east. Oh, the devastation. The Trooper Station I worked in had power but, my apartment went without for a week. I need to dig up the pictures of the damage and post them. They are in a box…somewhere. ~Vic