The Alaska Mission Begins
The Torrent sailed north for nearly a month, reaching Kodiak Island
on the evening of July 7th and setting sail the next day for Cook Inlet
to the northeast. The ship’s immediate destination was a body
of water then called Chugachnik Gulf, which today we know as Kachemak
Bay. By climbing the Torrent’s mast, lookouts were able to see
the protected waters beyond what is now the Homer spit; to a place they
called Kenay. One of the men aboard later wrote, “About sunset,
we were in sight of Kenay Harbor. Directly ahead was a low sand-bank,
projecting into the gulf for about five miles and forming the western
boundary of Kenay Bay.
“The north shore, with its dense forest and grass-covered hills,
had an inviting appearance, after our long sea-voyage. To some of us,
the green seemed too deep a hue and the vegetation too rank, to be the
natural growth of the soil.”
The next morning, Lt. McGilvray dispatched a small reconnaissance party
in one of the ship’s boats. Historians today are unclear today
why the Torrent was in Kachemak Bay at all since their orders were to
proceed to the tiny Russian settlement of St. Nicholas, near the mouth
of the Kenai River, to construct the new army fort there. Whatever the
reason, it is clear that McGilvray’s focus was not merely general
exploration; he and his officers were looking for a place to build a
“There was no place where the land was solid enough to support
the weight of the smallest house,” one of the officers explained.
“Our stores could not be landed without great difficulty, and,
when landed, we had no place to take them. We might have camped on the
sand-bank; but this was evidently subject to overflow, and swept by
the breaking up of the ice in the spring… From the deck of the
ship, Kenay appeared, indeed, like a paradise; but, as a soldier remarked,
while dripping wet, as he stumbled through the swamp, holding his musket
in one hand, while he fought mosquitoes with the other, ‘I tell
you, boys, this is hell!’”
Despite orders that seem to have instructed the army battery to construct
Fort Kenay near what is now the city of Homer, it was not to be. “These
facts convinced me that it would be impossible to establish a post at
this point even temporarily,” Lt. McGilvray reported.
After conferring with the Torrent’s captain and others who were
knowledgeable about the area, Lt. McGilvray decided to establish a temporary
fort at Port Graham, a large natural harbor about 20 miles south. The
Torrent sailed from the protection of Kenay Harbor at 7 a.m. on the
12th of July, and almost immediately encountered a storm blowing into
“In the evening,” an officer writes, “the gale became
so severe that several of our sails were blown away, and finding we
could not weather Anchor Point, the Mate—now in command—put
back to Kenay Harbor where we lay at anchor all night.”
The next day, the weather had cleared enough that the Torrent was able
to leave the relative shelter of Kachemak Bay and enter Cook Inlet.
The storm from the previous day blew up again as the bark turned south,
and all night the Torrent made its way along the coastline in a drizzling
rain. The gale subsided at daybreak on the 14th, the fog lifted in the
afternoon, and by sunset the men could see the large natural harbor
of Port Graham. The mate, still in command, made the decision to hold
An Unfortunate Shipwreck
Early the next morning, July 15th, the mate sailed the Torrent for
the harbor. A long, rocky reef extended out from shore about a mile
and a half. Some of the rocks showed black above the water, and others
lay just underwater, marked only by the surf pounding in from the Gulf
of Alaska. A strong current, estimated at seven knots, was setting across
the end of the reef.
“The yards were hauled, but the ship did not answer to the helm,
and we saw that she was doomed.” Two minutes later, the Torrent
struck the reef. Her bow grounded hard against the ragged obstruction.
The strong current spun the ship 180 degrees, and a breaker carried
the bark well onto the rocks. The hull timbers shuddered, and the Torrent
immediately listed and began taking on water.
“It was soon evident that the ship was sinking, and the waves
began to break over her, amidships,” one of the men wrote later.
“The soldiers made a rush for the lifeboat, which was hanging
at the davits, and in a moment it was full of men. Captain McGilvray
and his officers threatened to shoot into the crowd if they did not
come out. They obeyed very quickly, and with this exception behaved
With no time to salvage any provisions or personal belongings from
the sinking ship, everyone aboard managed to board the Torrent’s
six small boats, casting off into the crashing surf and rowing frantically
for the beach. Minutes later, the bark sunk on top of the reef. Her
mainmast protruded from the water at low tide, marking the spot where
the US Army’s mission to establish Fort Kenay had—at least
for the time being—tragically failed.
More than 150 men, women and children were aboard the Torrent that
morning; incredibly, everyone reached shore safely. An attempt by some
of the sailors and an army officer to reach Fort Kodiak in one of the
ship’s lifeboats failed, and the leaking boat turned back. The
castaways were rescued two weeks later by Capt. Snow of the bark Milan,
which finally arrived from Washington carrying lumber and coal, and
by Capt. Erskine of the steamer Fidelater, who had spotted wreckage
from the Torrent floating at sea and came to investigate.
The men of Battery F spent the winter of 1868-69 at Kodiak. They arrived
at the tiny Russian settlement of St. Nicholas aboard the steamer Constantine
at last on April 17, 1869 to establish what would finally become Fort
Kenay. The garrison would be active for less than two years; Army headquarters
ordered the abandonment of Fort Kenay in August 1870.
The Torrent’s Story Lives Again
Nearly 140 years after the Torrent sunk early that July morning in
1868, the wooden remains of the ill-fated bark have long since disintegrated
or been washed away by storms. Because the ship is reported to have
grounded on a reef surrounded by deep water, there is a chance that
portions of the ship or its contents may have survived the ravages of
the sea, and perhaps remain even today.
Through a combination of exhaustive historical research and sophisticated
shipwreck-searching equipment and techniques, we hope to locate the
site of the Torrent’s watery grave. If we find it, our goal for
the initial phase of the project is to document the site using video
and still photography, laying the foundation for a follow-up archaeological
investigation of the Torrent’s resting place.
Although the Torrent was a civilian vessel, it was operating under
contract to the US Army on an official government mission, an expedition
commanded by US Army officers. The shipwreck probably represents the
earliest loss of an American vessel in Alaska occurring after the 1867
purchase of Alaska from Russia. Historically, it may be one of Alaska’s
most important undiscovered shipwrecks.
The loss of the ship—and the supplies and provisions the Torrent
carried—unquestionably delayed the founding of Fort Kenay by nearly
a year. If the bark had not wrecked, there is a good chance that the
Army’s fort at Cook Inlet would have been built at Port Graham,
and the course of Alaskan history in the region would have been significantly
The expedition to search for and find the remains of the Torrent is
a tribute to the brave men—and women—of the United States
Army, Second Artillery Regiment, Battery F of 1868, and to the hardships
and dangers they endured while pioneering the remote and dangerous coastline
of Cook Inlet, Alaska.
Watch a short Flash movie
about the Torrent discovery.