Searching for an uncharted Pacific island
The search for an uncharted island
Last month we explained how three Nevada County men arranged to present President Theodore Roosevelt with a collection of gold specimens when his train stopped at the Colfax depot on May 19, 1903. It was a brief stop, less than 15 minutes, but those who were present never forgot seeing and hearing the president — especially Vere Burrows.
A 1900 graduate of Grass Valley High School, Vere managed to nudge her way through the crowd and stood below the train’s rear platform as Roosevelt spoke. When he finished to loud cheers, Miss Burrows called out, asking to shake his hand, so the president reached down and obliged.
Roosevelt then began motioning to James Hague, president of the North Star Mine and one of the Nevada County men who arranged for the Colfax ceremony. Hague and Roosevelt knew each other as members of the elite Century Association, a private club in New York City, and the president wanted his friend to join him as the train proceeded to Sacramento.
While Vere Burrows and other Nevada County residents headed home with life-long memories, Hague sat with Roosevelt in his private car, explaining why a search of the Pacific Ocean south of Honolulu, in an area where Navy sloop-of-war Levant apparently met with tragedy in 1860, was needed. The Navy had long ago concluded that Levant foundered in a storm, but Hague believed it wrecked, not foundered, and some survivors might still be alive on an uncharted island. He needed Roosevelt’s help to undertake a search.
Hague’s theory was based in large part on a mast that washed up south of Hilo in May 1861. It was consistent with a Levant mast and had spikes driven into it in a manner suggesting it came from a jerry-rigged raft. The August 4, 1861, New York Times reported that if the mast was from Levant, “it would go far to sustain the belief that the ship had been wrecked on some shoal, reef, rock or island, and not foundered.”
James Hague was 24, living in Hilo, when Levant set sail for Panama, and prior to its departure had become friends with the ship’s commanding officer, William Hunt, and several sailors. Forty-three years later, with TR’s assistance, the 67-year-old Nevada County mine owner hoped to solve the mystery of the vessel’s disappearance.
Asking Roosevelt to make a ship available to hunt for an uncharted island more than four decades after Levant disappeared may have been stretching their friendship, but in 1904, as part of a May shakedown voyage for the freshly christened Navy cruiser USS Tacoma, Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy William Moody authorized the ship’s commanding officer to work with a special passenger, James Hague, to search for a possible Pacific island and any evidence of it having been a safe haven for survivors of Levant.
Nearly 8,000 square miles were covered during a zigzag search hundreds of miles south of Honolulu, but no uncharted land was spotted. Although Hague’s charts encompassed about 30,000 square miles, Tacoma, running low on coal, was forced to return to San Francisco after only four days of searching. On June 3, 1904, the Associated Press reported that in addition to needing more coal, “(Tacoma) carried no appliances for deep-sea sounding, so her exploration was wholly superficial.”
Three months later, Hague spoke at a session of the International Geographical Congress in New York City, introduced by Arctic explorer Robert Peary. His topic, naturally, was Levant’s 1860 disappearance and the search for an uncharted Pacific island.
“I had the honor to bring the matter to the attention of President Roosevelt,” Hague told the IGC delegates, “and thereafter…Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Moody, determined to send an expedition as soon as one or more suitable vessels could be spared for the service.”
Although the ill-prepared search was unsuccessful, Hague remained optimistic, suggesting to his audience that the ship’s company “might have landed without the loss of a single life, in which event there might still be some survivors.”
During his lecture Hague talked about a possible second search, but it never materialized. And on August 3, 1908, the 72-year-old owner of the North Star Mine died at his summer home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
As for Vere Burrows, 45 days after shaking TR’s hand she married miner John Hansen, a native of Norway and veteran of the Spanish American War. Vere, a founder of the Grass Valley PTA and charter member of the Nevada County Historical Society, died in Grass Valley in 1974.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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