This is an essay written by my Grandfather, Norman Tengstrom, about the sinking of the Pilot Boat Jacob A. Westervelt (No. 19) and death of my great great great grandfather Captain John O’Keefe off the New York Harbor. I also included a gallery of the Captain’s log at the end (amazing script).
“The New York Pilot boat Jacob A. Westervelt was run down and sunk by the New Hamburg screw-steamer Saxonia on Tuesday morning, April 20, 1858, her Captain, John O’Keefe, drowned. Captain O’Keefe was one of the most intrepid and capable of our pilots, and was a brother of Maurice O’Keefe, deputy U.S. Marshal.”
This was the newspaper notification to the citizens of New York of yet another tragedy involving the Sandy Hook pilot-boat fleet. A subsequent article provided more details:
“The pilot boat Jacob A. Westervelt (No. 19) whose loss was mentioned yesterday, was built four years ago last March, by Aaron Westervely; she was 110 tons burthen,and one of the best and fastest boats in the fleet, and was valued at $8000. Her owners were John O’Keefe, John E. Johnson, C.L. McCummisky, Peter McEnany, Eugene Sullivan, Daniel Baker and William Smith, all of whom, except the last three names, were on board at the time of the accident, besides John Hines and John Wright. They were cruising about 20 miles east by south of the Highlands. Mr. O’Keefe’s watch was up at 11 1/2 pm, when he called Mr. Johnson, who was in charge at the time; but all hands were on deck excepting McCumminsky and Hines. There was a good wholesail breeze and smooth sea, wind E.N.E., and the boat was on the starboard tack, standing to the northward. They first saw the lights of the steamer Saxonia when she was about 8 miles due east from them. They had a good signal lantern forward, and as is usual, when they intend to board the vessel, they displayed torchlights from the deck every three minutes to attract the notice of the approaching steamer. This was about 2 1/2 am, Tuesday. It was very dark, and the pilots could not tell precisely the course the steamer was steering. The Highland Light was in sight. The Captain of the steamer said he saw the lights of the Pilot-boat half an hour before they struck, and he could distinctly make out the number (19) on her mainmast. Two minutes before the steamer struck, the pilots hailed them to put their helm hard a-port, their own helm being at the same time hard a-starboard; but it was not observed that the steamer altered her course or slackened her speed. She struck the Westervelt abaft the fore-rigging on the starboard side a glancing blow, cutting into her side about four feet, and throwing, and throwing her over upon her beam ends. The pilots were thrown down by the concussion, and the two who were below had a narrow escape from the cabin; one of them, being half asleep at the time, was nearly drowned before he could get out. O’Keefe was seen in the scramble to reach the deck of the steamer, but was probably thrown leeward and covered by the sail. They sang out to the only two persons visible on the steamer to throw them ropes, but it seemed a long time before they got hold of any. Two boys who were hanging by one rope were twice let fall before they got on board; the others by great exertion clambered up the steamer’s side, when the boat sank from under them. The pilots speak in high praise of an English passenger, who threw them ropes and exerted himself to the utmost to save them. His name is not known. The same person offered to subscribe $10 for the relief of the family of the lost pilot, and wished the passengers to make a subscription.
Mr. O’Keefe, who was lost , leaves his wife and three helpless children; Mrs. O’Keefe is near the period of her confinemnt.
The pilots saved nothing, and have lost all they possessed in the loss of their boat, which was not insured.
Within two years eight Sandy Hook pilot-boats have been lost, viz.: The Thomas H. Smith, (No. 2;) Hulda B. Hall, (No. 4;) Sylph, (No. 1;) with 4 pilots and 7 in the crew, 11 in all; E.K. Collins, (No. 11,) and 4 men; Washington, (No. 2) with pilot and 6 men; Phantom, (No. 17,) and Jacob A. Westervelt, (No. 19,) valued at $7,000 each. The aggregate loss in boats, for two years, has been $56,000.”
The arrival of the Saxonia was duly reported by the following notice in the press:
“Steamship Saxonia (Ham), Ehlers, Hamburg, via Southampton April 6, at 8am, with mdse. and 460 passengers, to Kundhart & Co. Experienced very strong westerly winds, with a rough sea on the passage. 12th inst at 2 pm, lat 45’16, lon. 36’20, exchanged signals with ship Empire State, Briggs hence for Liverpool. Took a pilot on the 19th at 5 1/2 am, 270 miles E by S of Sandy Hook. At 2 1/2 o’clock on the following morning when 22 miles off Sandy Hook, the pilot-boat Jacob A. Westervelt, No. 19 hove in sight, beating up for the steamer, steering N, and in attempting to cross the steamers bow, ran foul of her port bow, and sank in a few minutes. The pilots and crew were saved, with the exception of one pilot named John O’Keefe, who probably fell overboard when the boat was struck, as he not be found by a boat sent to search for him. All possible efforts to keep clear of the pilot boat was made by the pilot having charge of the steamer. The Saxonia arrived this morning at 6 am, and made the passage in 13 days and 22 hours.”
A subsequent interview with one of the Westervelt pilots was reported as follows:
“The following particulars of the sinking of the pilot-boat Westervelt, on Tuesday morning last, by collision with the steamship Saxonia, were furnished by Mr. Charles Cumminsky, one of the pilots who was on board the boat at the time:
‘The Jacob A. Westervelt left New York on Monday afternoon at 2 o’clock on a cruise, having on board Pilots John E. Johnson, John Wright, John Hines, Charles Cumminsky, John O’Keefe and Peter McEnaney. About 1 o’clock next morning, we made the lights of the screw steamer Saxonia, from Hamburg and Southampton heading westward, the wind being E.N.E. We set off a flash and signal light, and headed north to get up with her, to inquire if she wanted a pilot. All of the pilots and the crew, with the exception of myself and Hines, were on deck. On nearing the steamer, Mr. Johnson, who had the tiller of the pilot-boat, put his helm a-starboard, and shouted to the people on the steamer to port their helm.’
Mr. Griffiths, the pilot in charge of the steamer, says that he gave orders to port her helm and stop her engine, and his orders were obeyed. The stem of the steamer, however, struck the pilot-boat between the fore and main rigging, breaking her boat, plowing into her side, and throwing her on beams ends. She began to fill immediately, and the men on board had barely time to seize ropes which were thrown over the steamer’s bow, when she went down. Two of the boys fell twice from the ropes into the water, but were eventually saved. The people from the wrecked boat mustered on deck, and found that Mr. John O’Keefe, one of the pilots, was missing. A boat was immediately lowered and rowed around the steamer several times, the men in her repeatedly shouting the name of the missing man, but no sound came back through the night save the sullen moan of the sea. They were therefore reluctantly compelled to give up the search and return to the ship.
It is thought that Mr. O’Keefe was knocked down by the main boom, when the boat was struck, and fell under the mainsail, as the shock from the collision was so great that everyone on board were thrown off their feet. As Cumminsky was coming up the companion-way, someone caught at him and knocked him down. That person he thinks was O’Keefe, trying to save himself as he was falling overboard. Mr. Johnson, who had the tiller of the Westervelt, was thrown into the cockpit by the shock. It was not over ten minutes from the time when the steamer struck till Mr. O’Keefe was missing. Some of the pilots say that they saw the pilot-boat Virginia near by at the time of the disaster, and they hope that the missing man was picked up by her. Their hopes are encouraged by the fact that the life-buoy which was fastened to the top of the companion-way hatch, was found to be missing when the boat went down. We fear that their hopes are not likely to be realized.”
Shortly after the accident, the following Public Notice was published:
$100 REWARD – TO MASTERS OF PILOT BOATS, FISHING SMACKS & C-
Lost from on board the pilot boat Jacob A. Westervelt on Tuesday the 20th inst., about 2 o’clock A.M., by said vessel coming in collision with the steamer Saxonia from Hamburg. John O’Keefe pilot and captain of the Jacob A. Westervelt. The accident occured about 20 or 22 miles outside of Sandy Hook. He had the initials of his name J O’K marked on the back of one of his hands and wore when last seen a double breasted red Havre shirt and black pantaloons. The above reward will be paid to any person recovering the body and giving information thereof to John W. Avery, Pilots Office, 309 Water Street, or to Maurice O’Keefe, United States Marshal’s Office, 9 and 10 College Place.
New York, April 21, 1858 MAURICE O’KEEFE
Exchange papers please copy
Within a week, the widow of Captain O’Keefe received the following communication:
To Mrs. John O’Keefe respectfully,
Extract from the minutes of a meeting of the New York and Sandy Hook Pilots, held this day, Mr. Chas. H. Woolsey in the Chair, and Jas. J. Wilkie, Secty.
Whereas, in the dispensation of Divine Providence we are called upon to mourn the loss of our associate and friend John O’Keefe, who, while in the faithful discharge of his perilous duty, was lost on the 20th inst. leaving a widow and three helpless children to lament his irreparable loss; therefore be it
Resolved, That cherishing the recollections of his kindly and manly virtues as a private citizen, and his intelligence and energy as a pilot, we deeply lament this sudden bereavement.
Resolved, That we sincerely condole with his Widow and helpless children in this hour of their bitter affliction, and trust that a beneficient Providence will watch over and protect them in the storms of life.
Resolved, That the proceedings of this meeting be published in the daily papers.
Resolved, That a copy of the forgoing resolutions be transmitted to the family of the deceased.
James J. Wilkie, Sec. Chas. H. Woolsey, Chn.
New York, April 23rd 1858
The Pilots Association also awarded Mrs. O’Keefe a pension of $8 per month for each child until 13 years of age. Thomas, the only son died just a year later of diptheria at the age of 8. Daughters, Alice and Margaret both died of tuberculosis at the age of 21 and 13 respectively. Angeline, who was not born until August 23, 1858, four months after her fathers death, lived to the age of 86. Mrs. O’Keefe was the former Mary Ann Kennedey, daughter of Thomas Kennedey and Alice Farley, both of London, England.
John O’Keefe was born in Patterson, New Jersey, probably at 20 Ellison Street, since that is where his brother Michael was born on August 18, 1829. Michael served in the Mexican and Civil Wars and retired as a Sergeant from the Patterson Police Dept. on June 1, 1907. He died at the age of 83 in Berlin, N.Y. Sometime during th late 1800′s, the family dropped the “O” from the name since later records use the name Keefe. As noted earlier in his chronicle, John had another brother, Maurice, who served as Deputy U.S. Marshal in New York City.
John O’Keefe was a Sandy Hook pilot during the hey-day of American shipping. His personal Log of Vessels Piloted has an initial entry dated April 1, 1848 indicating that on that morning, he boarded the Brigatine Grandturk with a draft of 11 feet and piloted her into New York Harbor. The pilotage fee as established by an act of the Legislature of the State of New York for this service was $26.84. On April 5th he brought in the brig, Ann, also with an 11 foot draft, but since he had boarded this vessel “offshore”, the fee was $33.55.