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Torrent (ship)

The Torrent was an American three-masted wooden sail ship that shipwrecked near the coast of Alaska in July 15, 1868.

The Ship

The Torrent was built in Bath, Maine in 1852. It was made of wood, weighed 576 tons and measured probably 50 meters in length. It consisted of two decks.

The Mission

In October, 1867, the United States and Russia signed the Alaska Treaty with the US acquiring the territories now belonging to the state of the same name. To protect the American interests, the Army decided to construct a fort near the mouth of the Kenai River on Cook Inlet. The fort would complement the existing ones at Sitka and Kodiak.

Battery F of the Army's Second Infantry Division was chosen to man the fort, under the command of Lt. John McGilvray. The Torrent was one of the two sailing ships destined to carry the men of the Division, ammunitions, supplies and building materials to the new fort at Cook Inlet. The transported goods were intended to last six months. A second ship, the Milan, commanded by Captain Joseph Snow, would follow carrying 267,000 feet of lumber and 300 tons of coal.

The Torrent would be commanded by Captain Richard Carlton. The ship carried a crew of 15 men, five Army officers, 125 enlisted men, four laundresses, two servants, and 11 children. It finally set sail for Alaska on June 11, 1868.

The Voyage

The Torrent sailed north for almost a month, reaching Kodiak Island on July 7. The following day they headed to Cook Inlet through the Chugachnik Gulf (now known as Kachemak Bay). It is unclear why they followed this route since the orders were to proceed to the Russian settlement of St. Nicholas near the mouth of the Kenai River.

As the ship approached, lookouts were able to see Kenai and what is now called as Homer Spit. The next morning, Lt. McGilvray dispatched a small reconnaissance party in one of the ship's boats. Upon inspecting the terrain, McGilvray was convinced that it would be impossible to establish even a temporary post at that place.

After conferring with the captain and others knowledgeable about the area, McGilvray decided to establish a temporary fort at Port Graham, about 20 miles south. The Torrent set sail on the morning of July 12, encountering a storm on the area. The storm was so strong that they decided to return to Kenai Harbor and wait until the next day. On July 13, they set sail again, entering Cook Inlet. However, the storm covered them again as the ship made its way along the coastline. On July 14, the men were able to see Port Graham at the distance and decided to wait until the next day to land.

The Shipwreck

On the morning of July 15, the mate sailed the Torrent to the harbor but couldn't avoid a long, rocky reef extending from the shore about a mile and a half. With a strong current estimated at seven knots, the ship struck the reef hard. The strong current spun the ship 180 degrees, carrying the ship onto the rocks. The hull timbers broke and the ship began taking water.

Quickly, the passengers and crew headed to the ship's six lifeboats and abandoned the ship, without having time to salvage provisions or personal belongings. Shortly after, the ship sunk into the sea. Luckily, every one of the passengers reached the shore safely. An army officer and some of the sailors attempted to reach Fort Kodiak in one of the lifeboats, but were forced to return.

The castaways were rescued two weeks later by Captain Snow, of the Milan, and by Captain Erskine, of the steamer Fidelater, who spotted the wreckage of the Torrent floating in the sea.

The Aftermath

The soldiers of Battery F spent the winter of 1868 to 1869 at Kodiak. They later arrived at the Russian settlement of St. Nicholas, aboard the steamer Constantine on April 17, 1869, finally establishing what would be Fort Kenai. The garrison would remain active for less than two years, when the Army headquarters ordered its abandonment in August, 1870.

The Discovery

On 2006, a team of four investigators started an expedition to find the possible remains of the Torrent shipwreck. The group is comprised of:

On October 9, 2007, it was announced that the team had found the remnants of the ship. Divers found the wreckage off the south-central Alaska coast. It is believed to be the oldest American shipwreck ever found in Alaskan waters.

Discovered on the wreck were guns, cannons, shoes and plates, as well as brass, copper and bronze objects. Divers also located a toilet, two anchors, sections of hull and heavy bronze rudder hinges weighing at least 100 lb. One anchor measured 10 feet tall with a stem 2½ feet in circumference.

The Torrent is now being considered for listing in the National Registry of Historic Places. State or federal archaeologists are expected to study the wreck if they can secure enough funding.

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