Morro Castle, Mohawk and the end of the Ward Line : Part 4

Taking Water Fast

Clyde Mallory’s Mohawk commenced her Ward Line maiden voyage on Thursday, January 24, 1935 from Pier 13, East River, at the foot of Wall Street. The tail end of the worst winter storm of the year, a blizzard that dumped 17 inches of snow on Manhattan, was dispersing and the weather remained dismal ‘though clearing through the day. Passengers who traveled in to Manhattan by private car or cab later spoke of interminable delays, particularly on the bridges, as the city struggled to dig out from under the atypically heavy snowfall.

All in all it was not a particularly festive sailing day, but it is likely that the passengers and crew were buoyed by the thought that they would soon be in sunny Havana or Mexico, or points beyond. Among those who probably watched the financial district skyline glide by from inside the ship, grateful to be warm and indoors as she made her late afternoon departure, were a prominent NYC architect and his socialite wife; a member of the British diplomatic corps traveling to his new assignment in Mexico with his wife, mother and two sons; a pair of sisters who were heiresses to one of America’s great industrial fortunes, and a party of students from Williams College en route to Mexico with their professor-mentor. There was a party of women from Mansfield Ohio beginning a 24 day vacation; a wife returning to her husband in Havana, and-although not brought to the attention of the passengers- there were the several Morro Castle survivors on the crew list.

The Mohawk, part of a quartet of liners bearing the names of American Indian nations, was a single funnel vessel, measuring 402′ X 55′ and weighing 5896 tons. Her passenger accommodations and public rooms were spread out over three decks, with her lounge and dining saloon far forward on B and C decks respectively; her smoking room, deck verandah, barber shop and sun parlor at the rear of A deck, and a social hall amidships on B Deck. Her accommodations ranged from two room suites with private bath and toilet facilities, to minimum fare inside “upper and lower” cabins. Externally, the Mohawk could be described as sturdy rather than streamlined, and internally she was comfortable and, in places, quite elegant but by no stretch of the imagination could she be referred to as palatial. Photos show her furnishings to have been typical of what would have been found in upper middle class residences of the 1920s, and with her single deck public rooms scaled to her relatively narrow beam the overused adjective “homelike” was- for once- appropriate. Since her maiden trip in February 1926 she had earned a reputation for being a friendly and efficient ship, and those who embarked on her final voyage had no reason for trepidation.

An Earlier Mohawk Disaster
On January 2, 1925, Clyde Line’s original Mohawk was destroyed by fire at the height of a once-in-a-decade storm off the New Jersey coast . The crew battled overwhelming odds to contain the fire long enough for the ship to enter sheltered waters, and succeeded: she was scuttled in 40 feet of water inside of the Delaware Breakwater after her passengers and crew were safely evacuated. More…

If the Ward Line ships of the late 1920s and early 1930s can be said to have been noticeable for the sheer volume of innuendo that swirled around them, then the Mohawk – class of Clyde Mallory Line vessels were outstanding for the sheer number of collisions – small and large- in which they were involved during their first decade of service (e.g. Cherokee). The two most notorious incidents took place in lower New York Harbor, and each involved one of the Clyde Mallory vessels to figure in the Mohawk disaster. The better remembered also involved one of the future heroes of the Morro Castle rescue fleet. Captain A.R. Francis, under the command of whom the crew of the Monarch of Bermuda played a pivotal role in the rescue of the Morro Castle survivors, and the Clyde-Mallory liner Algonquin, which played a pivotal role in the rescue of the Mohawk‘s survivors, crossed paths in a well-publicized and embarrassing incident in December 1929:


Fort Victoria’s Captain and Pilot Stick Until Water Reaches Knees

How Captain A.R. Francis of the rammed steamship Fort Victoria and her pilot walked down the ship’s side as the vessel sank was told today by J.C.B. Eustice, senior radio operator.

Eustice was one of the 12 members of a skeleton crew who with the captain and deck officers remained aboard the ship in hope of beaching her.

The ship, however, turned on her starboard side and sank, the crew having just enough time to get away in a lifeboat. The deck officers tarried a while longer and then plunged overboard. With water swirling over the deck to their knees the captain and the pilot, said Eustice, walked down the side into the water. They and the deck officers were picked up by the tug Columbine.

Much of the United States was battling the Blizzard of the Decade on December 20, 1929, with 25 deaths across the American West, 60 MPH winds bringing Great Lakes traffic to halt and rendering air traffic impossible, as the Furness-Bermuda Line’s Fort Victoria and Clyde-Mallory’s Algonquin departed their respective piers for Bermuda and Miami/Galveston. Thick fog blanketed New York Harbor, and although the blizzard had not yet arrived, heavy sleet was falling. The Fort Victoria, after sailing at reduced speed to Sandy Hook, was halted near the lightship to drop pilot when the Algonquin, not legally required to depart under pilot, loomed out of the fog and rammed her on her port side just forward of amidships. Fort Victoria’s passengers were safely evacuated by tugs, and taken to Staten Island or back to the Furness-Bermuda pier, and an unsuccessful effort was made to lash the listing ship to the Algonquin. An equally unsuccessful effort was made to tow her into shallow waters, but she slowly capsized and sank. Fortunately, there were no lives lost.


A year and a half earlier, the Mohawk endured her first bout of unwelcome publicity when she became the most seriously damaged of six liners to collide in Lower New York Harbor while moving through a thick fog. The incident was treated with borderline amusement by the newspapers, for there were no deaths or serious injuries. Holland-America’s Veendam and the Bull Line’s Porto Rico collided near Gravesend Bay, Brooklyn and although early radio messages from the Veendam seemed dire, with water entering her engine room, her crew managed to stem the flow and the following day she sat anchored in Gravesend Bay, damaged but in no danger of sinking, while the Porto Rico was beached in the shallows nearby. The Pennland was struck by the smaller Anniston City, near Sandy Hook, with both ships seriously damaged and taking on water but surviving. The excursion vessel Smithfield, off course in the fog, ran aground with little damage. And, as for the Mohawk:

The Clyde liner Mohawk, which collided with the Old Dominion liner Jefferson, made for a New Jersey Beach in the lower bay, her distress whistles screeching above the incessant hooting of fog horns. She went aground near Atlantic Beach, her captain asking the Coast Guard to come to her aid. She carried 85 passengers and was bound for Jacksonville.


Owing to light wind and seas none of the vessels were believed to be in immediate danger. The Jefferson, inbound from Norfolk, Va. reported her stem severely wrenched and her forepeak flooded. The only vessel sending out an SOS was the Mohawk.

The Mohawk, grounded parallel to the beach, and less than her length offshore, was evacuated the following day. Photos show the passengers smiling as they were disembarked by lifeboat. Because of the proximity to a public beach near New York, the stranded ship became the subject of hundreds-if not thousands- of press and private photographs before she was towed away for repair work. The event was well publicized but certainly not earth shattering and it is doubtful that any passengers aboard the Mohawk in 1935 gave it any thought as the liner passed the site of the collision near Sandy Hook.

Small fragments of what went on aboard the Mohawk during her final six or so hours of life can be gleaned from survivor accounts. The liner lost several hours of voyage time when she paused to adjust and test her compass once beyond Sandy Hook. A “pleasant,” but delayed dinner was served. The passenger compliment was described as “congenial.” The door connecting the lounge to the enclosed promenade deck did not fit snugly and there was a noticeable cold draft along one side of the room. Little was later said with regards to the liner’s décor or physical layout: the passengers were not aboard her long enough to retain detailed memories of her public rooms and, in truth, the Mohawk simply was not the sort of liner to cause passengers to wax rhapsodic, although a handful later did describe their accommodations as being “comfortable.” Only two incidents from the Mohawk’s final night were widely reported: after sunset, and a short time before the accident, word was spread among the passengers in the lounge that Asbury Park was drawing abreast along the starboard side and a group of interested passengers left the heated comfort of the lounge to see if the hulk of the Morro Castle was visible across the five miles of water that separated the two ships. And at the moment of the collision the ship’s orchestra was playing “I Saw Stars.”

Shortly after 8:30 PM the lights of the Norwegian freighter Talisman became visible ahead, and to port, of the Mohawk. There was never any question that the two ships saw one another, and there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary or dangerous in the situation: they were traveling in the same direction and on parallel courses. However, as the Mohawk drew abreast of the Talisman at 9:25, something went catastrophically wrong, and the liner veered suddenly, and at full speed, across the Talisman’s bow. The Mohawk listed severely to port, recovered, and listed severely again before she sank about 70 minutes after the collision. The evacuation was calm but not particularly well organized, the Talisman lowered no lifeboats to render aid, and the Mohawk’s passengers and crew lost valuable time freeing frozen lifeboats from their davits. The Algonquin, northbound on a freight voyage with no passengers aboard, and the freighter Limon arrived on the scene in time to sweep the sinking liner with their search lights giving those in the lifeboats, and those trapped aboard the Mohawk, a clear view of the final moments.


Mohawk Lifeboat
Jim Kalafus Collection

The best official account of the Mohawk’s collision and foundering was given at the United States Steamboat Service inquiry by her only surviving officer.

Chief Officer Cort Peterson began his time on the stand by explaining how it happened that the faster Mohawk was in a position to overtake the Talisman, which in addition to being slower had also departed from Brooklyn an hour after the Ward Line vessel sailed from East River Pier 13 in Manhatttan. The Mohawk, as it turned out, had been delayed in the lower harbor for over three hours while her compass was adjusted, during which time the Talisman had passed her. Peterson then moved on to the accident. He was in the Number 1 hold at the time of the collision, and ran on deck in time to see the bow of the Talisman pull out of and away from the Mohawk’s side.

As I reached the bridge, Captain Wood shouted “the steering gear is jammed; telephone the engine room. I want the ship stopped”

The line of questioning then shifted to the adjustment of the compass, and if the sharp changes of direction might have damaged the steering gear. Peterson spoke instead of going below to inspect the steering gear after the collision and of returning to the bridge where Captain Wood ordered him to prepare the lifeboats for lowering, and to warn the passengers.

Q: Was there any difficulty in lowering the boats?
A: Well, a bit, on account of the ice.

Q: Did you get all the lifeboats off?
A: That I don’t know. There was no trouble on my side.

Q: When the Mohawk was hit, did she begin to list immediately?
A: The list to port was very heavy. About 30 degrees.

Q: That’s an awfully big list.
A: Well, you couldn’t stand on the deck. You had to slide. But, she righted herself slowly. Then there was a gradual list to starboard about twenty minutes later.

Q: Did the Talisman carry away the wing of the bridge?
A: Yes, it was squashed in.

Q: The telegraph was situated in the middle of the bridge?
A: Yes.

Q: Did the damage to the bridge extend far enough toward the center to damage the telegraph?
A: I really think so.

Q: Did the telegraph system fail before or after the collision?
A: (long pause) I don’t know. The collision happened when I went to the bridge.

Peterson then described the lowering of the boats. #4 on the port side got away first, followed by starboard boats #5 and #3. Peterson escaped in #2, which contained only twelve to fourteen crewmen.

Q: Were all the passengers gone?
A: As far as I could ascertain. We sent men aft to look for them.

Q: Was there a search of the passengers’ quarters to make sure?
A: So far as I know.

With Captain Wood and all but one of the Mohawk’s officers dead, the highest ranking person to give testimony was Captain Edmund Wang of the Talisman:

The night was clear. The Talisman was headed to pass off Barnegat Light on her starboard, some fifteen miles ahead.

The Mohawk was observed a mile or two distant on the Talisman’s starboard quarter. She was overtaking the Talisman on the Talisman’s starboard side. The Mohawk was going much faster than the Talisman and drew abreast of her and then ahead.

As the Mohawk was drawing ahead, she suddenly sheered sharply to port and ran directly across the Talisman’s bow at nearly right angles. The Talisman at once reversed her engines and starboarded her helm, but the Mohawk came directly in front of her bows at high speed.

The Talisman’s stem came into contact with the Mohawk’s port bow forty or fifty feet from the Mohawk’s stem. The Mohawk’s speed swung the Talisman around to the east and the vessels parted.

The Talisman sent out wireless calls for help and messages were exchanged between the Mohawk and the Talisman. The steamers Algonquin and Limon came up and picked up those who were in the Mohawk’s lifeboats. A Coast Guard cutter also assisted. The Talisman stood by to give help, and remained all night cruising about and looking for survivors.

Questions immediately arose regarding the Talisman’s actions after the collision. Despite her close proximity to the foundering Mohawk, three ship’s lengths at the beginning of the liner’s foundering and less than a mile away at the end, she carried not a single survivor back to New York. Captain Wang was questioned at the United States Steamboat Service inquiry and his answers prove a disheartening contrast to his self- assured final paragraph above:

The captain of the Mohawk informed us over the radio that he did not want our boats lowered. We had our boats ready to lower and they could have been in the water in a couple of minutes.

The transcript of the radio record of the Mohawk’s final hour was then read into the record and there was no refusal of aid by Captain Wood contained in it. When the first exchange of radio messages between the two ships took place the Talisman was about three ship lengths way from the fatally injured Mohawk.

Q: Then you used your own judgment about lowering the lifeboats? I see nothing in these radio reports about any request by the Mohawk that you should not lower lifeboats
A: (Witness nodded assent.)

The board then commented on how ‘queer’ it was that none of the 116 survivors were brought aboard the Talisman. Captain Wang explained that the arrival of the Algonquin, with her powerful search light gave the lifeboats something obvious to row towards.

Because of the light the survivors rowed towards that boat. They apparently did not see us.

Captain Wang also claimed that he heard no warning whistle signals from the Mohawk at any point before the collision. Testimony from quartermaster Edwin Johnsen who was at the helm at the time of the collision, and lookout Bjarne Johansen, was then read into the record contradicting the statement of Captain Wang. Both men swore that they had heard several short blasts of the Mohawk’s whistle immediately before the collision, and Johansen admitted to abandoning his post so that he “wouldn’t get hurt.” At which point Wang admitted that he knew that there was going to be a collision but did not specify how long before the crash he knew. “I was staying my course” he said, and then gave the additional detail that one of his officers made the comment “I bet his steering gear is gone!”

A portion of Mohawk look-out Frank Novak‘s account survives:

I shared the look-out with George Clancy. We were on the 8 to 12 watch, and we took half hour turns relieving each other. At 8:30 Clancy told me he reported lights off the port bow. I watched them and reported to the bridge that the lights were coming closer when I went off at 9.

At 9:25 I left my bunk in the fo’c’sle to ‘spell’ Clancy and got top-side just as the freighter hit us. I ran to the bridge for instructions and the skipper said to help at the life boats.

I dashed past my bunk on the way down and two of my buddies were stretched out in a passageway badly mangled. They were dead and I ran to the deck. We had a heck of a time with the davits because of the ice. We got three boats away and there were no more passengers around when the Old Man ordered us away in boat No. 4.

George Clancy testified:

Both vessels were headed south, the Talisman clearly visible in the distance off our port quarter. The night was clear, the visibility was excellent, the sea was calm and the cold was intense. We were proceeding at about fifteen knots and eventually we overtook and drew abreast of the Talisman.

Then suddenly, without warning, the steering gear went bad and we swerved across the Talisman’s course. The captain, seeing an accident was unavoidable, blew several warning signals telling the freighter to keep sharp to port. I guess the Talisman must have taken the signal wrong because it kept on coming for us and a minute later she crashed into our port side. The stem bashed into our fo’c’sle where the sailors were sleeping in their bunks. Some of them must have been killed in the crash.

The Mohawk began to take on water fast. Captain Wood ordered all boats lowered. Two boats on the port side went over and broke away from the davits when they hit the water and went adrift. The boats on the starboard side were lowered and the passengers and members of the crew were ordered into them.

There was quite a bit of excitement, and when the ship listed a number of people jumped overboard. I think all of them were picked up.

I remained on the bow of the boat until it began to sink. By this time the lifeboats were over the side. I had to jump overboard and was picked up in the water by boat #9. Captain Wood was still on the bridge as I went in.

The Mohawk sank within forty minutes after she was hit. We pulled away from her and drifted for about an hour before our boat was picked up by the Limon which had received a wireless message of the accident. The Limon then set our boat adrift as they had several others.


NEW YORK. Jan. 29th

The man who handled the ‘trick’ of emergency steering gear of the liner Mohawk the night it collided with the freighter Talisman testified today that, given a specific order of “15 degrees starboard” he would not know which way the ships’ rudder would turn.

The only way in which he knew in which to carry out such an order, Stephen John Snyder, 31, of Blind Brook Lodge, Rye, Deck Engineer of the Mohawk tesified today at a Federal hearing, would be to move the bottom of the wheel “in the same direction as I moved the handle of the telegraph.”

Just before the Mohawk careened suddenly from her course off the coast of New Jersey last Thursday night and into the path of the Talisman, her automatic telemotor steering apparatus failed, witnesses have told the inquisitors, and the ‘trick’ device was employed to guide the vessel.

The change from telemotor to ‘trick’ steering was not made before the collision which sank the Ward liner so far as he knew, the witness tesified, adding, however, that it might have been done while he was engaged in tracing a glycerine line of the automatic steering system.

Mary Pillsbury Lord, (1904-1978) future U.S. Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly (1958 and 1960) and U.S. Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (1953-1961) and her sister Katherine Pillsbury McKee (died 1978) were aboard the Mohawk’s fatal voyage. Both survived, and a few days later Mary’s husband Oswald Lord wrote a narrative account of the sisters’ experiences which was meant to answer as many questions as possible to reduce the number asked of them during the weeks to come as they tried to forget the disaster.

After dinner Katherine and Mary went to the smoking room where the cruise director was holding a ‘get together’ meeting. When he had finished, Dr. Smith told a few funny stories and the girls were just thinking of beginning the books they had brought to the smoking room with them, entitled, ironically- “Heaven is my Destination” and “Heaven and Hell” when the engines stopped. Sirens blew and there was a jar sufficient to upset some of the glasses in the smoking room but not all.

The cruise director and the bar steward said there was nothing to worry about and then an officer came in and said they had been grazed by another vessel but that it was not serious. Many passengers left to see the other vessel but the girls, the Peabodys and Williams’ boys and a few others delayed a few minutes before going on deck. They could see the Talisman close by, and hear the men on its decks shouting to the Mohawk.

They returned to their state room and put their money inside their corsets, took their extra coats and furs, all the blankets they could find and a quart of whisky left behind from the bon voyage party.

They left their cabin and sat down at the head of the stairs leading to B Deck, just outside the smoking room. Other passengers were seated near them including the Peabodys.Mrs. Peabody (whom they knew by sight but had not spoken to) suggested “You two girls are alone. Won’t you come in our lifeboat with us?” They thanked her, but said they thought they should go to their own boats to avoid confusion. The Peabodys were lost.

When they returned to the head of the stairway the other passengers had left, having been herded down to B Deck to their boat stations. They could see them pouring through the doors to the deck below. They asked a member of the crew if they should go down to B Deck but he told them there were too many down there and to get out on the deck where they were A Deck- the boat deck.

The crew were working on the lifeboat just outside the door and cursing because they were hampered by the ice. It seemed that there was no one working on the next boat forward.

About this time, the boat gave a sudden lurch and listed violently to starboard. Thinking the boat was turning over a few passengers jumped overboard and the girls said goodbye to one another. The boat stopped at an angle of about 45 degrees and the crew continued to work at the lifeboats. The lights went out and a minute later the emergency lights- which were brighter- came on.

The Mohawk slowly settled back on an even keel. A crew member remarked that was a good sign. In reality he meant that the boat was settling, but it reassured the passengers.

Mrs. Lord and Mrs. McKee were placed into a lifeboat on A Deck. It was then lowered to its boarding station of B Deck and filled.

.it was announced that there was room for one more woman. She was put in, and then an Englishman- Mr. Telfer- handed the girls his five year old son to take care of.

There were three sailors, the Cruise Director, Dr. Smith, bath steward Ricca and twenty to twenty-five women in the boat. The tiller had been damaged, and soon all but one oar was lost overboard..something jammed at the bow tackle and that end remained a few feet out of the water. Someone produced an axe and a sailor hacked at the ropes. Meanwhile, the water was pouring through the port holes on C Deck and they were being buffeted against the ship..the axe fell from his frozen hands and was lost was impossible to get away from the Mohawk as they were on the windward side.their boat was slowly blown forward along the side of the Mohawk and over its bow which by this time was under water. As they were blown in among the masts and cranes something fouled. They were caught fast to the Mohawk as she began to go under. There were cries for a pen knife and the girls stood up waving desperately in the direction of the Limon which was nearby and whose searchlight was on them. They are not quite clear what happened next. They remember seeing the smoke stack falling towards them and they think there was an explosion. Whether the smoke stack made a large wave or the explosion blew them clear they do not know, but they were washed out of the suction of the Mohawk.

A couple of minutes later the Mohawk went down with about ten people holding on to the rail at the stern, one of them they think was a woman.

Once they were finally free of the Mohawk the sailor at the tiller seemed to go crazy, took off most of his clothes and lay down in the bottom of the lifeboat saying he couldn’t help any more because he didn’t have clothes and begging Katherine to remove his life belt. Mary then took the tiller. Mary, Katherine, a Miss Weiss and one other woman helped taking turns at the one oar and the broken tiller.

They heard a cry for help and the two girls and Ricca pulled a man into the boat. Katherine sat on him to keep him warm and tried to rub back his circulation. They heard two other men crying for help but were unable to reach them.

After a while the searchlight of the Algonquin picked them up and they drifted to it and were taken in through a cargo port.

Mary, Katherine, the Williams boy and other survivors in the best condition then worked over the less four o’clock everyone was attended to. The two girls lay down in the cabin with the Telfer children. At six o’clock the baby awoke crying. After fixing him up as best they could Katherine went out to see where they were. When Mary returned from the washroom she found the five year old boy crying and praying for his parents. He apologized for his tears and said it wouldn’t happen again. This was the only time they saw him cry and they said he was very brave throughout the whole time. Both parents were lost.

Mary Pillsbury Lord was in the early stages of pregnancy when she survived the disaster. Her son, Richard Lord, was born on July 30th, 1935 and died on October 23rd of the same year. She had two other sons, Charles Pillsbury Lord and Winston Lord. Winston served as U.S. Ambassdor to China 1985-1989, Assisstant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs beginning in 1993, and as the co-chairman of the International Rescue Committee.




Mohawk Class Deckplans


I Saw Stars



Mohawk interiors mohawk interiors 5 mohawk interiors 4 mohawk interiors 3 Mohawk interiors 2

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