On a cold, clear April evening in 1884, some twelve-hundred miles off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, two ships collided. The smaller bark “Ponema” struck the steamer “State of Florida” with such force that the “Ponema” sank headfirst almost immediately. Only three of her fifteen crew members survived the evacuation. The “Florida” had slightly more time to react, but was taking on water so quickly that in the end, just forty-four of her crew and passengers were able to escape the frigid waters. In total, the final Board of Trade Wreck Report noted 130 lives lost that awful night. Among them were at least four people from Wellington, Ohio.
We today think of ourselves as living in a globally interconnected society. And perhaps we might otherwise conceive of nineteenth-century Wellington as a provincial backwater, a rural and isolated little village. But in previous posts, we have already discussed just how cosmopolitan the “city” was compared to the present day, if for no other reason than that some 15% of the population–one in six people living in town–was actually foreign-born for most of the second half of the century. The tragic sinking of the “State of Florida” and “Ponema” offers unexpected evidence of that.
Among the drowned was the Wood family. Henry and Annie E. Wood lived in adjacent Brighton township, but attended Disciples Church in Wellington and were well-known in the community. Henry Wood was born in England and had lived in Lorain County for twelve years. He was taking Annie (his second wife), their two-year-old daughter Margaret, and a fifteen-year-old daughter from his first marriage, Lillian, home to see his birthplace. Two married daughters, one in Brighton and one in Wellington, were left behind.
When the New York Times reported the tragedy on May 4th, they did not yet know that the “Ponema” was even involved in the accident. The “State of Florida” was a British vessel launched from Glasgow, Scotland and the sinking occurred during the so-called “Fenian dynamite campaign” of 1881 to 1885, when Irish nationalists targeted British interests to advance the cause of Irish independence. The Times reporter speculated that “dynamiters” may have been onboard, and questioned known American sympathizers to determine “whether any member of any of the Irish societies had taken passage by the State of Florida.” That claim was flatly denied.
The collision and subsequent loss of life was a national story. Articles appeared in newspapers as varied as the Times, the Cleveland Leader, the Atchison (Kansas) Daily Globe, the (Kentucky) Courier-Journal, and the Daily Alta California. An illustration of the moment of impact filled the cover of the well-known nineteenth-century periodical, Harper’s Weekly. Wellington officially got the news a few days after New York. On May 7, 1884, the Enterprise reported, “A LOST STEAMER. A Wellington Family among its Passengers.” The article noted that all hope of survivors was not yet lost, that there was “a chance that those aboard may yet return to their friends” (pg. 5).
Sadly, hope did not last. By May 21, the Enterprise was describing memorial services held for the Woods at Disciples Church. “Here was where they regularly worshiped [sic], Mr. Wood being one of the leading members, and the family were greatly beloved and respected. The two surviving daughters were present…” (pg. 5). Another person supposedly from Wellington, a Mrs. Mary Shackleston, was listed on the cabin passengers manifest published in the New York Times, but I have found no mention of her, either alone or in connection with the Woods. I don’t know if she was traveling with the family, perhaps as a caregiver for the youngest child. She may also have been a relative with a different last name, but in either case it is strange that she would not be mentioned in connection with the loss of the Woods. Perhaps the manifest, or the Times article, were mistaken about her place of origin.
I am finding this project so rich and rewarding. I could never have predicted, when I began researching an Italianate house in Ohio, that it would lead me to study topics including nautical terminology, trans-Atlantic travel patterns, and the Fenian liberation movement. You never know where the tides of history will lead you. Drift along and savor the ride.