Built in 1864 by William C. Miller, Toxteth, Liverpool for William G. Crenshaw & Co. (supply agents for the Confederacy)
Paddlewheel steamer, Gt:207, L:68.58m. B:6.70m Draft:3m. steam engine:140 hp. built by Fawcett, Preston & Co., Liverpool.
The 'Mary Celestia' is recorded as having made eight successful ‘runs’ though the exact count is uncertain. To confuse Federal agents on both sides of the Atlantic, she often used aliases including the Bijou, Marie Celeste and Mary Celeste. (Not to be confused with the mystery ship ‘Mary Celeste’, the abandoned brigantine later popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)
During her active career, the 'Mary Celestia' initially ran under the command of the “Boy Captain” Michael P. Usina, who would mak some twenty eight successful blockade runs but only four as Captain of the 'Mary Celestia'. Mary Celestia’s first run was out of St. Georges, via Nassau to Wilmington, the last open port of the Confederacy. On the return voyage she was spotted shortly after evading the blockade. Poor visibility and a driving rain prevented the crew seeing their pursuer until it was bearing down upon them. The seas were rough and the 'Mary Celestia' was heavily laden with cotton but as the larger ship came within easy gun distance. Captain Usina urged Engineer Sassard to take extreme measures to get more revolutions out of the engines and ordered forty five bales thrown overboard to enable his vessel ride the heavy waves more easily. While their adversary sought to avoid the loose floating cotton, below deck, Engineer Sassard locked both safety valves shut and continued to increase steam until the ship was making 17 knots against a head-on swell. Fortunately, the solid English boilers did not let them down and the ship made good her escape. After three more Bermuda-Wilmington runs, Captain Usina and his engineer Sassard moved on to other ships.
On a further occasion, as a yellow fever epidemic ravaged the entire crew, the ship’s North Carolina pilot, a man who knew the landmarks by which to safely navigate the hazardous approaches to Wilmington, also struck by the fever, stayed at his post as the runner raced past the blockaders. Evading no less than seven blockading vessels he finally brought 'Mary Celestia' safely into North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, where he collapsed and died.
The 'Mary Celestia' was one six, almost identical paddle-steamers, out of the hundreds of steam ships built to run the blockade. William and James Crenshaw, two brothers from Richmond, Virginia, commissioned the ship to serve their business interests in Great Britain and its colonies, including Bermuda. They depended on regular maritime trade, running the blockade with a variety of goods and returning to Bermuda with cotton. Mary Celestia’s brief career was dramatic from beginning to end..On her final voyage, the 'Mary Celestia' steamed out of Hamilton, Bermuda, with owner William Crenshaw and Bermuda pilot John Virgin onboard. Loaded with a Confederate government contracted shipment of canned meat, ammunition, side-arms and Enfield rifles bound for Wilmington, she navigated along the southern shore of the island to drop off the owner and pilot near the Gibb’s Point Lighthouse. On September 6th 1864 as the ship closed into shore, the chief mate warned he could see rocks ahead. The pilot who was at this time in control, replied that he knew the reefs and rocks as well as he knew his own home. No sooner had he finished speaking than the 'Mary Celestia' struck a reef. Several minutes later, as all on board scrambled into lifeboats, the steamer sank taking with it the only victim, the ship’s cook, who ran below to save something of value and become trapped. When she sank, the 'Mary Celestia' had been in service for only four months.
Today, all that remains is a ghostly upright paddlewheel frame standing sentinel over wreckage that includes a huge iron boiler and fire box, the remains of the ship’s engine, the anchor and bits and pieces of the hull and stern.
(Bermuda 1986 60 c. StG.517A)
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