Before Mare Island Submarine Base was An Incredible Man of Submariner Mettle
During September and October of 1849 the ship this Lietenant commanded had surveyed San Francisco Bay. Based upon his recommendation, the U.S. Government secured Mare Island for a prominent naval base and shipyard in 1853. Less than half a century later, USNA graduates would become the nations submarine commanders.
He received the following eulogy: "The work which he accomplished will live forever. Surrounded by circumstances the most difficult, perhaps, which ever tried the constancy, the judgment, the resources of any hydrographer, he vanquished circumstances. His reconnaissance of the western coast, from Monterey to Columbia river, and his preliminary survey there, were made in spite of desertion and even mutiny--in despite of the inadequacy of means to meet the truly extraordinary circumstances of the country...."
Here is some of what he had done earlier:
He was a midshipman in the early United States Navy. For his first expedition he was assigned to the Florida Everglades, still involved in an Indian war. The expedition ended in disaster when he was shot in both legs and carried back to a ship's boat by a nameless black sailor. A rifle ball was recovered from one of his legs, but the other could not be removed and pained him for the remainder of life.
In 1840, he was assigned to a vessel conducting surveys on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico for the Navy Department. He took over observations on Narragansett Bay and by 1846, commanded a schooner conducting hydrographic surveys in the upper Chesapeake. Later, in 1848, he worked the southern reaches of Chesapeake Bay, the Dismal Swamp Canal, and Albemarle Sound, North Carolina. In July, 1848, the Coast Survey was directed to commence surveying the western coast.
He received orders to proceed to San Francisco to take command of the hydrographic party of a former revenue cutter that was transferred to the Survey. He was to proceed to Panama and thence take whatever transportation was available to California. Unfortunately, gold had just been discovered and the great migration of 49'ers had just begun.
He left the United States in early 1849, and made it to Chagres on the Caribbean side of Panama (the canal would not be built for another 65 years) . He found Chagres overcrowded with future '49ers and lawless. As an United States officer, he lead a vigilante committee to restore order within two days.
Boating up the Chagres as far as he could, he then went overland by mule to Panama. There was no transportation out and many wouldbe travelers were becoming sick with tropical fevers. A delegation of gold seekers approached a local merchant who was using the Ship HUMBOLDT as a coal store ship. They bought the ship with funds from 400 passengers putting up $200 apiece and selected him as commanding officer.
The HUMBOLDT left Panama on May 21, 1849, needing 46 days to reach Acapulco where supplies were needed as all on board were nearly famished. Cooking of the daily meal was done in a fifty-gallon pot with a coffee served in the morning and a tea at night. The ship arrived in San Francisco on August 31. On September 6 he was installed as captain of the Ewing.
He suffered an acute attack of dysentery, dying December 23 as the OREGON entered the port of Panama. Read the full story and see a portrait of of Lt. William Pope McArthur (1814 - 1850) here at the NOAA biography site.