SOS STORIES, Part Three: Premonition of Disaster—the Doomed Voyage of the S.S. Kentucky
When we think of a ship in distress sending out an SOS to save passengers and crew, a story like the Titanic disaster generally comes to mind—where a vessel is sinking and there’s a real possibility that most (if not all) of its passengers and crew will be killed. However, as we’ve seen from my previous blog posts on the history of the SOS call, the first several uses of the famed international distress signal were somewhat tamer—with ships either grounded on land, or else disabled and adrift at sea, but not actively sinking.
The first American steamship to make use of the SOS call in a Titanic-style disaster was the S.S. Kentucky, which, in January of 1910, set out from New York with a crew of a 46 who’d signed up for a 14,000 mile, “trip of a lifetime”—but who ended up facing death instead. (And just like with the Titanic sinking two years later, a mother with "a premonition of disaster" predicted the whole thing.)
Embarking on a Perilous Journey
The Kentucky was an older-style steamship constructed from wood. It was 203 feet long. For most of its 13-year career, it served as what we might call a ferry, shuttling passengers on relatively short ocean trips between Boston and Maine, Boston and New York, or else Miami, Nassau and Key West. In late 1909, the ship was sold to the Alaska Pacific Steamship Company based out of Seattle, who planned to use her to transport passengers to and from Alaska during the lucrative summer tourist season.
However, once the purchase had been made, the ship’s new owners had a big challenge. They needed to transport the Kentucky from New York City to the Pacific Northwest—a distance of roughly 14,000 miles by sea. (This was before the opening of the Panama Canal, which would have greatly reduced the duration of the trip.)
The Kentucky would have to steam as far south as the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and then, after passing into the Pacific Ocean, sail north again along the western coasts of both South and North America. The journey was scheduled to take five months—with the hopes that the steamer would arrive in Seattle by June.
In preparation for the long journey, the ship’s hold was completely filled with coal (for use in the vessel’s steam furnaces), and, in case of trouble en route, the owners had the ship outfitted with a modern wireless room.
The “Lucky” Radio Operator
18-year-old Thomas McLarney was hired to man the wireless. It was a big promotion for McLarney, whose previous jobs had always been land based. At the time of his hiring, Thomas was working as night operator at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. (Back in 1910, many hotels and businesses in Manhattan had their own wireless rooms, which were a cheaper form of communication than the wire-based telegrams controlled by the Western Union Company.) However, it can be assumed that McLarney was thrilled about his new posting, and he looked forward to the adventure promised by the long trip.
An Inauspicious Start
On January 23, the Kentucky steamed from New York harbor, but got into trouble practically right away. 150 miles off of Sandy Hook, New Jersey (a place later made infamous when a deadly hurricane took aim there in 2012), the ship sprang a leak. The captain immediately ordered the crew to fire up the pumps and drain the water, but given the condition of the vessel, it became an ongoing struggle.
As the crew toiled to stem the flow, wireless operator McLarney, under the captain’s direction, was able to use his radio to coordinate with a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, where the captain planned to put in for repairs.
From all accounts, the journey to the shipyard was a white-knuckle one, as the ship nearly capsized en route. But in the end, the pumps held, and the Kentucky was able to dock safely—albeit with 16 inches of seawater in its hold.
Over the next several days, repairs were made, until the official U.S. port inspector pronounced the ship “safe and sound.” A representative from Lloyds of London concurred, issuing the vessel a new insurance certificate valued at $70,000. Things seemed to be back on track for the captain, who was naturally eager to resume his voyage. But then, another problem developed, this time involving wireless operator McLarney.
“A Mother’s Intuition”
Although the historical record makes no mention of the fact, it can be presumed that, as soon as the Kentucky arrived in port, wireless operator McLarney had sent a telegram to his parents (Edward and Isabella) in New York, informing them of the situation. However, what is known is that, the whole time the ship was being repaired, the elder McLarneys sent their son several messages ordering him—in no uncertain terms—to leave the ship at once. (Press reports at the time referred to the volley of messages as a “bombardment.”)
Apparently, McLarney’s Scottish-born mother had had a “prophetic dream” involving the sinking of the ship at sea, and she and her husband were insistent that their son quit his job in order to remain safe. (Interestingly, just a few years later, several other people would report a premonition of disaster involving the sinking of the Titanic as well.) The younger McLarney tried convincing his parents that the vessel was in the care of professionals and would be made seaworthy, but they were not dissuaded. In fact, they actually took a train from their home in Monticello, New York to Virginia to confront McLarney in person, with the intention of forcibly removing him from the ship if necessary.
In the end, it didn’t come to that. McLarney heeded his parent’s warning. He notified his employers of the situation, and they ended up sending a replacement officer named W. D. McGinnis to take over for him on the Kentucky. (Interestingly, McLarney didn’t lose his job over the incident. His employers at the United Telegraph Company merely transferred him to a different vessel.)
They Were Forewarned
On February 2, 1910, the newly repaired Kentucky—with its newly hired radioman, McGinnis—left Newport News to continue its circumnavigation of North and South America.
However, by this point, given the fuss and delay over the replacement of their wireless operator, most of the ship’s remaining crew had at least heard of (or perhaps even, scoffed at) Isabella McLarney’s premonition of disaster.
But those who did were in for a rude awakening. Mrs. McLarney’s nightmare was about to come true.
And they all were in terrible danger.
Coming up in SOS STORIES...
Paul Amirault is a Hollywood TV producer and author. His first book, The Man Who Sent the SOS: A Memoir of Reincarnation and the Titanic, is now on sale.