Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Ambrose Ham – Survivor of the USS Maine

This post was written by SCHS Library Volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Stylized image of the USS Maine explosion. Only 94 of the ship's 355 crew members survived the explosion. Courtesy of the Nautical History Gallery and Museum
Schenectady resident Ambrose Ham was a 20 year old Apprentice First Class aboard the USS Maine when it exploded in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898.  An article in the Schenectady Evening Star dated February 17, 1898 questioned his survival.  According to the article, an Ambrose Hall was listed as a survivor and hope was that he was really Ambrose Ham.

Born January 10, 1878, in Indian Fields, New York, Ambrose moved to Schenectady as a boy with his mother and brothers where he lived on Catherine Street and attended school until the 6th grade.  Following the death of his mother in about 1894, he came under the guardianship of Mr. B.L. Conde of Schenectady who enlisted him in the US Navy on July 31, 1894 at the age of 16.  He was placed on a school ship in Newport RI where he apprenticed for approximately 18 months.  On his enlistment card he was described as being 5’4 ¼” tall with grey eyes, light brown hair and a light freckled complexion. At the time of the explosion, Ambrose had been part of the crew of the Maine for about a year and a half.

The USS Maine is best known for the explosion in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898
Image of Ambrose Ham from
the Feb. 6, 1906 edition
of the Binghamton Press
and Leader. Courtesy of
which killed 261 of its crew of 355. Sent to protect American citizens who were then in Cuba, the Maine exploded without warning and sank quickly. The cause of the explosion is still unclear but the incident was one of the factors leading to the Spanish-American War. The phrase, "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”, became a call for action. In 1898, an investigation of the explosion was carried out by a naval board appointed under the McKinley Administration. The consensus of the board was that Maine was destroyed by an external explosion from a mine. However, the validity of this investigation is still a subject of speculation.

Ambrose did indeed survive the sinking of the Maine.  In response to a letter sent to him from the Schenectady Sunday News, Ambrose gave this account of the incident sent from the US Army Hospital in Key West, Florida dated February 26th, 1898 (original letter in the Grems-Doolittle Library):

Dear Sir,

I received your letter with picture last night.  I thank you very much for taking such an interest in my escape from the Maine. 

On Tuesday, Feb 15th I went on watch at 8:00 o’clock, aft on the poop deck.  I was standing signal watch and my watch would be up that night at 12:00 o’clock.  Everything went well till twenty minutes of ten.

It was a beautiful night, the water in the harbor was as still as a lake.  The ship was swinging to flood tide.  As I was about to turn around to walk aft, I saw a volcano of fire which seem to envelope the whole ship then followed a terrible roar and another which lifted the big ship out of the water.  I was hit by a piece iron which was coming down like hail.  The whole forward part of the ship was torned to pieces, steele was twisted like wire. Men were thrown high in the air and what few escaped were burned so badly we could hardly tell who they were.

As soon as the explosion was over I ran to the Captain boat which was not injured and helped to lower it into the water.  Several men who were not hurt got into the boat with Cadet Holden in charge and picked up the men in the water.  By that time boats from shore and some from the Spanish man of war came up, picked up a lot of injured men and took them ashore to the Hospital.  Well our boat stayed around the wreck which was burning.  The after part of the ship was not injured and on the poop deck was the Captain, leut comd. Wainwright and a couple of junior officers.  Then the captain gave orders to see if everyone was off the ship.  Next order was to abandon ship.  The captain was the last man to leave the ship, he seem as cool as a piece of ice.  He was taken over to the City of Washington where some of the survivors were and such a night – men with broken limbs, burned faces.  The Maine surgeon, the Captain and Lieut. Blow were working hard dressing the mens wounds.

Two of the men were taken to Havana Hospital that night but they died afterwards.  Next day we were taken to the Steamer Olvette which runs between Key West and Havana and left that afternoon and arrived in Key West at night.  Went to the Hospital some to Marine some to Army Hospital.  Last week eight men came from Havana, four are expected today.  The men were treated kindly on the Steamers and in the Hospital.  On the City of Washington some of the passengers stayed up all night to watch the wounded. 

Whether it was an accident or not I will not say.  The court of inquiry will know tomorrow.  My injuries were slight and are all well now.  The men in this Hospital are improving quickly and will be able to get discharge from Hospital in two weeks with the exception of two men who have broken legs.  It was said last night that two men died in Havana Hospital.  I don’t know how true it is.

I am sorry I could not send this account before for I only received your letter last night.  Would you mind sending me one of the papers with my picture in it.  I would like to read the account of the disaster in your paper and oblidge.

Ambrose Ham

The USS Marblehead courtesy of Wikipedia.
Following his release from the hospital, Ambrose served aboard the USS Marblehead in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He was honorably discharged from the Navy on January 9, 1899, a day before his 21st birthday.  After returning to Schenectady, Ambrose lived on Paige Street and worked as a grocer. His guardian, Mr. Conde had pursued a lawsuit that his mother, Mrs. Hannah Wiltsie Ham had initiated before her death for an inheritance from an uncle of hers.  He was successful and when Ambrose returned, there was $1300 in the Schenectady Savings Bank waiting for him.   Shortly thereafter, on March 12, 1899, Ambrose was baptized in the 2nd Dutch Reformed Church .

By the early 1900’s, Ambrose (whose name in later years was sometimes spelled Hamm) and his wife, Edna, were living in Binghamton, NY where he was employed for many years as a Postal Clerk.  He died on November 23, 1961 at the age of 83.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Mayor and the Aurora Borealis

Image of Samuel W. Jones.
This blog entry was written by library volunteer Bob Emery.

The Schenectady County Historical Society owns the diary, 1821-1855, of Samuel W. Jones (1791-1855), mayor of Schenectady in 1837-1839.  Jones came from a prominent Long Island family, noted for its legal accomplishments (his uncle Samuel Jones, for instance, was Chancellor of the State of New York).  After graduation from Union College in 1810 and admission to the bar in 1813, Jones located in Schenectady.  He cemented his position in the community by his 1816 marriage to Maria Bowers Duane (1793-1858), granddaughter of James Duane, a member of the Continental Congress and mayor of New York City, locally best known as founder of Duanesburg and owner of a big chunk of the eastern Mohawk Valley.
Jones had a career of some minor distinction.  Prior to his service as mayor of Schenectady he overcame local “Dutch prejudice” to achieve election in 1833 as a city alderman, as well as appointment to the county Court of Common Pleas; after his mayoral term he was elected County Court judge and county Surrogate.  In addition, he was a longtime vestryman of St. George’s Church and a leader in such local civic projects as the Schenectady African School Society, founded in 1829 to educate Schenectady’s newly emancipated African-American residents.  Jones was, in short, a solid citizen of the superior sort.

Jones’s “diary” might better be described as a journal, containing random notes on things that interested him, including some information on the Jones and Duane families that might be of interest to genealogists.  These random notes ranged from criticisms, as an old alumnus, of the way Union undergraduates pronounced Greek to the derangement and dismissal of the Presbyterian Church’s minister, and everything in between.  One of Jones’s main interests, however, was transportation improvements.  In the 1820’s he was a devoted supporter of De Witt Clinton, particularly of Clinton’s efforts to promote the Erie Canal.  Throughout his diary, Jones was careful to note when the canal closed for the winter and opened in the spring, and any untoward events that affected its operation.  In his later years, he was involved in turnpike and railroad development.  Another of Jones’s major interests was politics.  After Clinton’s death, Jones moved into the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, becoming a strong follower of Martin van Buren and Andrew Jackson.  As early as the Compromise of 1820, he had expressed his suspicions concerning the expansionistic ambitions of the slave states; if he had lived long enough he may well have followed other van Buren Democrats (like B.F. Butler) into the Republican Party.

Weather for the week of December 21, 1840.
If there was any sign of the Aurora Borealis
in Schenectady, then Samuel Jones noticed it
and wrote about it in his journal.
Jones’s primary interest, though, seems to have been meteorology, and in particular the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.  The Aurora Borealis seems to have been much more visible in Jones’s time than it is now.  Like his contemporary Professor B. F. Joslin of Union College (whom Jones knew), Jones regarded the Northern Lights phenomenon more as a weather-based than as an astronomical event.  Hence, he carefully recorded meteorological data surrounding each appearance of the Aurora Borealis.  He devoted page after page of his diary to the Aurora, noting such things as extent and duration as well as careful descriptions to the shifting colors of each appearance.  If one is to judge by the attention Jones paid to the Aurora Borealis in his diary, it was his main interest, even surpassing politics.

"Last evening another more brilliant display of the Aurora Borealis. It concentrated in the zenith from all directions it was first seen in the South East and in the course of the evening presented every shade of colour from bright red to white-  sometimes it would hand from the zenith over the whole south part of the sky-  sometimes to the north and sometimes to every point-  it continued until late in the night as I heard-  it was brilliant at Eleven when I went to bed." - Entry from Samuel Jones Diary dated September 4th, 1839.

Jones’s diary is by no means a significant source for Schenectady history.  It is, however, a useful record of the interests of a prominent local citizen who might, not altogether unfairly, be described as an Aurora Borealis fanatic.