• Dr. Caleb Ormsby & the SS Central America

My distant cousin, Dr. Caleb Noble Ormsby, was born on August 19, 1801 in Paris, NY. We are both descendants of Richard and Sarah (Upham) Ormsby, who came to America from England in probably the late 1630’s. Not much can be found about his early life. He graduated from Fairfield Medical College in Herkimer, NY.

Dr. Ormsby came to Michigan in about 1824 and settled in Lenawee County, being the only physician in Tecumseh until 1927. In the spring of that year he, in his role as justice of the peace, performed what was supposedly the first wedding ceremony among the white settlers in Lenewee County. There were no settled clergyman in the territory closer than Monroe or Detroit. Soon after, Dr. Ormsby moved to Adrian, becoming the town’s first physician and built the first frame house in the village, at the southwest corner of Winter and Maumee streets. It was there that his first wife, Amelia Ann (Wilcox), died on October 7, 1834. She was only 27 years old.

Southwest corner of Winter and Maumee streets today

Dr. Ormsby moved to Ann Arbor, where where he became largely interested in milling and manufacturing. and was an active leader of the Free Soil Party. In 1836, he married Desire Brown, whose first husband had died. Ormsby became involved in a real estate venture called Ormsby and Fuller, with his new wife and her brother, Edward Fuller. They sold house lots to settlers streaming into Michigan, in the Lower Town area of Ann Arbor. Lower Town was one of the first-settled neighborhoods of Ann Arbor. In June of 1837, they sold lots 10 and 11 on Wall Street to Nathan Burnham for $600. Much more about the history of the Nathan Burnham House can be read here:  http://bit.ly/d0W4yw

But, misfortunes crushed him financially, and in 1849, on the rise of the gold excitement out west, he started overland for California. He was delayed all winter at Salt Lake, and in the summer of 1850, he finally reached California by way of Los Angeles. Dr. Ormsby was in San Francisco in the time of the cholera epidemic and the first vigilance committee, a group of private citizens who organized themselves for self-protection. He soon went to the mines near Hangtown, in Eldorado county, where for several years, he worked in the mines. He was never successful as a miner though.

In 1857, Dr. Ormsby decided to leave California and start the return journey home to Michigan. He boarded a ship and headed to Panama City, took a four-hour train trip on the Panama Railway across Panama, and then readied to board another ship for the remainder of the journey. His friend, Judge William Cross stated, “When in Panama, he wrote me that he had a pleasant time on the Pacific Ocean, and hoped to soon be in Michigan.” But, he would never make it back home to Michigan.

The SS Central America, sometimes called the Ship of Gold, was a 280-foot side-wheel steamship that operated between Central America and the eastern coast of the United States during the 1850s. She was operated by the United States Mail Steamship Company. From 1852 to 1857, it is estimated that the ship transported one-third of the entire California Gold Rush output.

On September 3, 1857, Dr. Ormsby was on board the SS Central America as it left Aspinwall, Panama. (For a number of years early in its history, the sizable United States emigrant community called the town Aspinwell after Panama Railroad promoter William Henry Aspinwall, while the city’s Hispanic community called it Colón, in honor of Christopher Columbus.) The ship was carrying 476 passengers, 102 crew members, and over 3 tons of gold.

SS Central America

After a stop in Havana, the ship continued north on the morning of September 8th, with clear weather and every indication of a pleasant passage. But, the weather began to change on the 9th, with increased winds.

On the morning of September 11th, during the second day of a hurricane, the steamer had begun to take on water. The ship was tossing violently, making it virtually impossible to feed coal into the boilers. At 11 a.m., the captain told passengers that the ship was in danger and enlisted the aid of all men to bail water with a bucket brigade. By 1:00 in the afternoon, the rising water in the hold had quenched the boiler fires, and the ship’s immense paddle wheels came to a halt.

On Saturday the 12th, the weather showed signs of calming, but too much damage had been done to the ship. The SS Central America sank at about 8 p.m. that evening, about 160 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, drowning a total of 426 passengers and crew, including Dr. Caleb Noble Ormsby. The gold loss further shook public confidence in the economy and contributed to the Panic of 1857. Much more about that fateful voyage can be read here.

Caleb’s wife, Desire, passed away on July 25, 1903 in Brooklyn, NY.

*Some of Caleb Ormsby’s biological information came from a sketch prepared for and intended to be read at the pioneer reunion at Tecumseh, Wednesday, June 12th, 1878, by Judge William H. Cross, of Centreville, St. Joseph County.


4 thoughts on “• Dr. Caleb Ormsby & the SS Central America

  1. Pingback: Dr. Caleb Ormsby and the SS Central America – New Page « Tree Rings

  2. Hi ….. I was just googling for info on the SS Central American because I just read a book entitled “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea” by Gary Kinder. Thought I’d leave this post in case anyone reading this might be interested in reading more on the subject of the 1857 disaster.

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