Mr. Olney to Sir Julian Pauncefote.

No. 441.]

Excellency: With reference to previous correspondence concerning fires on cotton ships, and particularly to your note of the 19th of February last on the subject, and to the Department’s reply thereto of the 20th of May last, I now have the honor to inclose for your information a copy of a letter of the 13th instant, from the Acting Secretary of the Treasury, transmitting a supplementary report on the subject from the president of the New Orleans Cotton Exchange.

I have, etc.,

Richard Olney.
[Inclosure in No. 441.]

Mr. Curtis to Mr. Olney.

Sir: Further replying to your letter of May 1, inclosing copy of a note from the British ambassador, accompanied by a note from Mr. Isaac Knott, of the Prince Line of steamers, I have the honor to transmit herewith copy of a supplementary report from the president of the New Orleans Cotton Exchange, referred to in my letter of May 23, with transmitting letter from the collector of the port.

Attention is particularly invited to the following statement of the acting president of the Cotton Exchange:

If ship’s officers maintain sufficient watchfulness, danger from contents of the men’s ordinary clothing may easily he averted. In short, proper instructions to officers by owners would, if obeyed, obviate cause of complaint.

Respectfully, yours,

W. E. Curtis,
Acting Secretary.
[Subinclosure 1 in No. 441.]

Mr. Wilkinson to the Commissioner of Navigation.

Sir: In the matter of incendiary fires on cotton ships, referred to in your letter (14388–N) of May 5, 1896, a partial report in relation to which was forwarded May 20. I have now the honor to transmit a letter just received from the acting president of the New Orleans Cotton Exchange, inclosing a report from the principal of the harbor protection police. These communications, with the one previously forwarded will, I think, cover fully the information requested by the Department to enable it to make a reply to the State Department.

No violations of section 4472, Revised Statutes, and section 8 of the “passenger act of 1882,” have yet been reported to the United States attorney for prosecution. The two cases cited by the British ambassador at Washington were of vessels which carried freight exclusively, and which were therefore not amenable to the provisions of the passenger act.

Respectfully, yours,

Theo S. Wilkinson,
[Page 315]
[Subinclosure 2 in No. 441.]

Acting President New Orleans Cotton Exchange to Mr. Wilkinson.

Dear Sir: I beg to return correspondence, including your letter of May 15 and those of the United States Commissioner of Navigation, the Secretary of State, the British ambassador at Washington, and Mr. James Knott of the Prince Line of steamers, all relative to fires on cotton ships which have sailed from this port. The occurrences especially alluded to in the above letters are those which occurred on the Egyptian Prince and the Tuscan Prince of the Prince Line of steamers.

Inclosed report from Thomas N. Boylan, principal of the harbor protection police of this port, addressed to Secretary Hester of this exchange, gives result of investigation into the matters in question and disposes of the charge of “infamous practices” preferred in Mr. Knott’s letter to the Marquis of Salisbury. As stated by Principal Boylan, there was nothing in either occurrence to indicate incendiarism, the responsibility for the matches and cartridges being attributable to carelessness on the part of the workmen.

On the 5th of February, 1895, President Stewart of this exchange wrote you at length in relation to cotton fires on shipboard, showing what this exchange was doing toward protection of cotton controlled by its members and making certain statements and suggestions to which you are respectfully referred.

The present correspondence, however, refers to a different branch of the subject and one which could and should be under the control of the shipowners themselves.

The local authorities and this exchange can protect cotton on the landing, but after it is placed on board ship the control is vested in the ship’s officers only.

It is the custom of the workmen to change their clothes when they go on board, and I am informed that their working garb contains no pockets. Their ordinary apparel is wrapped up and laid aside, to be again assumed when they leave the vessel. Smoking is prohibited by law on the landing, and should be, if it is not, prevented on board by the ship’s officers.

There is, therefore, no need for the men to carry matches or to have any explosive material about their persons when at work.

If ship’s officers maintain sufficient watchfulness, danger from contents of the men’s ordinary clothing may easily be averted. In short, proper instructions to officers by owners would, if obeyed, obviate cause of complaint.

It would seem from the correspondence that the occurrences complained of are attributed to New Orleans only. If such is the intention, it is manifestly unjust, as I am informed that finding matches in cargoes is a common occurrence with vessels bringing cargo to this port, with this difference—that, if I am not mistaken, it is not usual to attribute criminal intent to the carelessness of European laborers who do the work of loading vessels bound for America.

Trusting that the foregoing may prove satisfactory, I am, etc.,

A. Brittin,
Acting President New Orleans Cotton Exchange.
[Subinclosure 3 in No. 441.]

Mr. Boylan to the New Orleans Cotton Exchange.

Dear Sir: In conformity with your request for data in relation to the fire on steamship Egyptian Prince and the finding of matches and pin-fire cartridges among cotton of the steamship Tuscan Prince on arrival at Genoa, I beg to say that when I became aware through the public prints of the above about the 5th ultimo, I caused inquiries to be made by my captain in charge of the harbor protection force, who reported as follows:

New Orleans, May 5, 1896.

T. N. Boylan, Principal Boylan’s Protection Police.

Sir: In to-day’s issue of New Orleans Picayune there is published a dispatch from Washington to the effect that the collector of the port of New Orleans has been instructed to make an investigation of the cause of fires on ships loaded with cotton, [Page 316] and that the attention of the United States Government had been called by the British Government to a complaint made by Mr. James Knott, the owner of the Prince line of steamers, to a fire that occurred in the cotton on board of steamship Egyptian Prince, and also to the fact that a box of matches and some pin-fire cartridges were found in cotton on board of steamship Tuscan Prince, and both vessels were loaded at New Orleans.

“The steamship Egyptian Prince arrived in New Orleans on November 13, 1895, and loaded cotton at Meletta & Stoddart’s wharf at head of Third street, and left port on November 24, 1895, and while at sea, about seven days from Gibraltar, fire was discovered in the cotton in fore part of the vessel, and when the vessel arrived at Gibraltar it was found that there were no conveniences there to unload the cargo. A survey was held and the vessel ordered to proceed to Genoa, and hatches were kept battened down to prevent ventilation and keep the fire from spreading; and it was kept under control until the vessel arrived at Genoa, and the cargo was then taken out of the ship.

“The steamship Tuscan Prince arrived in port on December 2, 1895, and sailed on December 17, 1895, and loaded at Meletta & Stoddart’s wharf at head of Third street, and left port on December 17, 1895. Mr. A. Rhody, levee clerk for Meletta & Stoddart, informs me that when the vessel was discharging cargo in Genoa there was found in lower hold of main hatch a box of matches and some pin-fire cartridges spread between two bales of cotton, and that they had evidently been placed there when the vessel was being loaded at New Orleans.

“The Egyptian Prince and Tuscan Prince were consigned to Messrs. Meletta & Stoddart, and were loaded by colored screwmen, and A. Besart (colored) was the stevedore for both vessels.

“Very respectfully,

Jas. P. McArdle, Captain.

I beg on this subject to call your attention to the following facts:

  • First. This force had no day watchmen on these particular cargoes, the watchmen being on duty from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on deck and on wharf after the laborers had knocked off for the day.
  • Second. The only time that watchmen of harbor protection force are on duty in the daytime is on Sundays, when there is no work going on, and then their service is confined to the cargo on wharf.
  • Third. The supervision of cotton on the wharves in the daytime is under the immediate control of the supervisors of the Cotton Exchange.
  • Fourth. When loading, the hold of a vessel is under complete control of the stevedore, who, with his assistants, direct the movements of the laborers. No strangers can, without detection, intrude among the workmen.
  • Fifth. Both of the vessels alluded to were loaded by negro labor. In view of the previous ill feeling existing between the white and colored screwmen, it is not improbable that many of the negroes are still carrying pistols and cartridges (and more than likely were at the time the Tuscan Prince was loaded) as a matter of self-protection, and the cartridges might have come from one of said colored laborers.
  • Sixth. While no workman smokes when at work in a ship’s hold or handling cotton on wharves, it is a known fact that more or less they smoke and carry loose matches about their persons; such is the case with almost all labor, and the finding of matches among cotton is no uncommon occurrence.
  • Seventh. There is nothing to indicate incendiarism. The responsibility for the matches and cartridges I attribute to carelessness on the part of the workmen. One of them may have laid his pistol, cartridges, and matches on a bale of cotton when changing clothes at knocking-off time, and taken his pistol, forgetting the cartridges and matches. They should, through their foreman and stevedore, be submitted to supervision, for as it is now, beyond your levee supervisors there is no one to oversee or enforce the ordinances among the cotton shipping in the daytime, though in years past, from December, 1880, to June, 1883, three officers of this force were detailed, by direction of committee on protection to shipping, for day duty along river front; and later, from November, 1887, to 1895, the National Board of Maritime Underwriters engaged during the season from October to April two officers of this force to see that all city ordinances were complied with during the day. No such service was per formed last winter. It is only at the locations where the officers of this force are on duty that the ordinances are enforced.
  • Eighth. As to fires on shipboard, I beg to say that my firm belief is that many of said fires are caused by the friction of steel bands while the vessel is at sea. It is to my knowledge that when bales hoisted in a sling have struck the iron combing of a ship’s hatch that sparks were generated and the cotton set on fire, and in some instances quite serious loss ensued, which can be verified by my reports to the committee on protection to shipping of the cotton exchange.

Respectfully submitted, etc,

Thos. N. Boylan, Principal.