Jess and Steve’s excellent adventure began on June 8, 1921, when they signed on as crewmembers aboard the S.S. Western Comet in Baltimore, Maryland.
Manifest of crew members of S.S. Western Comet, arriving in New York from St. Nazaire, France, 8 October, 1921. Column 4 shows that “J Casbon” and “SF Casbon” were engaged as crew members 8 June, in Baltimore. The form was apparently filled out incorrectly, as corrections were made to the ports of arrival and departure.
(Click on image to enlarge)
“J” Casbon on the ship’s manifest is Jesse John Casbon, and “SF” Casbon is his younger brother Steven. Jesse and Steven were close. They were born less than two years apart in Wisconsin, Jesse in December 1898 and Steven in August 1900, the offspring of John Newton (1875–1945) and Anna Mae (Casbon, 1876–1957) Kitchel.
Their early lives were tumultuous. By 1905 the parents were separated, their father remaining in Wisconsin, and Anna and the two boys living in Minnesota (see “1905, Red Lake County, Minnesota” [link]). By 1910, John and Anna were divorced. Anna and the two boys were staying with her father, Jesse Casbon, on his farm in Porter County, Indiana.
The boys acquired a step-father in 1911 when Anna married a Michigan farmer named James H Fleming. The available records are silent on their whereabouts during most of their teen years. Jesse enlisted in the Army in October, 1916 and served for the duration of the first World War, returning from Brest, France, in early 1919. Upon his return, he moved back in with his family, who were now living in Newport News, Virginia.
In the 1920 census, we find James Fleming, the stepfather, employed as a watchman at a shipyard. Jesse is working as a clerk and checker at a warehouse, and Steven is listed as a steam engineer at a shipyard.
It must have been during this time that they hatched the idea of the adventure. Maybe Steven’s work in the shipyard inspired them; or maybe Jesse wanted to return to France in peacetime with his little brother. At any rate, they joined the crew of Western Comet where they were listed as ordinary seamen (“OS” in column 2 of the ship’s manifest).
The Western Comet was built in 1918 by the Northwest Steel Company in Portland, Oregon. Originally built under contract to the French government, the ship was transferred to the U.S. Navy after the United States entered World War I. Following the war, the ship was transferred to the U.S. Shipping Board for use in commercial operations.
Source: Heave Together, Official Organ of the Northwest Steel Company, Portland Oregon,
vol. 2, p. 695; image copy, Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=8tVHAQAAMAAJ&dq=s.s.+western+comet&source=gbs_navlinks_s : accessed 26 June 2018).
Signing up as fledgling sailors on a cargo ship bound for France was an adventure in itself. However, the boys were in for more than they expected. Contemporary newspapers recount the various mishaps that befell the ship, even before departing the port at Baltimore.
On June 13, five days after joining the crew, the ship was “badly disabled” while still in port, the damage being attributed to striking marine workers. The nation was in the midst of a seamen’s strike involving 140,000 marine workers at all major ports. This raises another possible reason why the two brothers decided to become sailors that summer: they might have been filling vacancies left by striking sailors.
Apparently, the damage to the ship was repaired quickly, as The New York Herald reported on June 19th that Western Comet had departed Baltimore on Friday, June 17. However, on the same day the New York Tribune reported, “while outward bound Friday evening with coal for St Nazaire the str [steamer] Western Comet went aground off Hawkins Point and remained here today. Defective steerng [sic] gear is attributed as the cause of the accident.” Hawkins Point lies at the southern tip of Baltimore, where the outlet of the harbor begins to merge with the Chesapeake Bay. The ship was barely out of port and already in trouble!
Again, there did not appear to be any serious damage, but the cargo had to be unloaded in order to refloat the ship. Five days after its original departure, The New York Herald reported “Str Western Comet, hence for St. Nazaire, before reported aground at Hawkins Point, floated and is reloading cargo.” Two days later The Herald reported “Cape Henry, Va … Passed out … 23d, 9 AM, str Western Comet, … (from Baltimore) for St Nazaire,” meaning the ship had passed Cape Henry, Virginia, the outlet of the Chesapeake Bay and entrance to the Atlantic Ocean.
The voyage across the Atlantic was unremarkable. All was going well until …
A similar report appeared in the New York Tribune on June 10.
On Jun 25, more than two weeks after the mishap, The New York Herald reported that Western Comet was once again afloat, and “proceeded to St Nazaire, where she is expected to go into dry dock.” The Bulletin of the American Bureau of Shipping gave a more detailed report:
“BORDEAUX, August 1, 1921.— The S.S. Western Comet. after being hard aground off St Nazaire, has been salvaged and dry docked in the same port. It is estimated that repairs will cost about $200,000. All French repair films along the coast are to bid on the work, and the job may be done in La Palice.”
I haven’t been able to determine where the repair work was done. The next reports tell us that Western Comet departed St. Nazaire for New York on September 16, more than two months after foundering off the French coast. The ship finally arrived in New York on October 8. There are reports that Western Comet was being towed, at least part way across the Atlantic, by another ship. Apparently whatever repairs were done in France were not sufficient. Once in port in New York, the ship was immediately taken to dry dock for more work.
The adventure was over, and apparently so were Jesse and Steven’s careers as sailors. In 1922, we find the brothers living together in Baltimore (with their mother), now running their own confectionary business.
The story of the brothers’ voyage on the Western Comet as I’ve told it is based entirely on contemporary records. It leaves many questions unanswered. Why did they sign up? What did they do while the ship was awaiting repairs in St. Nazaire? Was this the vacation of a lifetime or were they stuck on board ship? It was a small but memorable episode in their lives. I wonder if any tales have been handed down to later generations? If so, I would love to hear more of the story.
 “List of Aliens Employed on the Vessel as Members of Crew,” S.S. Western Comet, arriving New York 21 Oct 1921 from St. Nazaire, France, nos. 12 & 13, Casbon J and Casbon S.F.; imaged as “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C95R-F771-9?i=202&cc=1368704 : accessed 25 June 2018), Roll 3034, vol 6913-6914, 7 Oct 1921-10 Oct 1921 > image 203 of 990; citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 3034.
 1905 Minnesota Census, Red Lake County, population schedule, Red Lake Falls, p. 344 (penned), no. 1079, Kitchen, Annie; imaged as “Minnesota State Census, 1905,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:9Q97-YSB7-M72?cc=1503056&wc=M8SL-WT1%3A67006601%2C67115001 : 21 May 2014), Red Lake > Red Lake Falls, Ward 02 > image 8 of 10; citing State Library and Records Service, St. Paul.
 1910 U.S. Census, Porter County, Indiana, population schedule, Center Township, enumeration district 137, sheet 10A, p. 26 (stamped), dwelling 155, family 158, Jesse Casbon; imaged as “United States Census, 1910,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GRJJ-CL9?i=18&cc=1727033 : accessed 4 July 2018), Indiana > Porter > Center > ED 137 > image 19 of 26; citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 374.
 Oceana County, Michigan, Marriage Register, 1911, p. 205 (penned), record 3515, James H Fleming & Anna Casbon Kitchel, 16 Jun 1911, imaged as “Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867-1952,” Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=9093 : accessed 25 June 2018), Registers, 1887 – 1925 >1911 – 1911 Manistee – Washtenaw >image 294 of 703; citing Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics.
 Passenger List, U.S.S. Virginia, sailing 12 Feb 1919 from Brest, France, Battery C 1st Battalion Trench Artillery, no. 79, Jesse Casbon;imaged as “US Army WWI Transport Service, Passenger Lists,” Fold3 (https://www.fold3.com/browse/250/hR09WBr_U : accessed 21 Jun 2018), Incoming >Virginian >1918 Nov 11-1919 Apr 20 >page 151; citing NARA, RG 92, roll 347, College Park, Maryland.
 1920 U.S. Census, Warwick County, Virginia, population schedule, Newport News, enumeration district 86, sheet 5A, p. 5 (stamped), family 74, James H Flemming; imaged as “United States Census, 1920,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GRN2-CNJ?cc=1488411 : accessed 25 July 2017), Virginia > Newport News (Independent City) > Newport News Ward 1 > ED 86 > image 18 of 21; citing NARA microfilm publication T625, roll 1899.
 “USS Western Comet (ID-3569),” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Western_Comet_(ID-3569) : accessed 26 Jun 2018), rev. 28 Dec 17, 12:14.
 “Blaze Holds up Buckeye State,” Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 13 Jun 1921, p. 8, col. 3; online image, “Chronicling America,” Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045211/1921-06-13/ed-1/seq-8/ : accessed 5 Jul 2018).
 Florence Peterson, “Review of Strikes in the United States,” Monthly Labor Review 46 (May 1938), no. 5, p. 1056; online image, JSTOR (https://www.jstor.org/stable/i40085540 : accessed 5 July 2018).
 “American Ports (By Telegraph),” The New York Herald, 19 Jun 1921, 2d news section, p. 9, col. 4; Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045774/1921-06-19/ed-1/seq-31/ : accessed 5 July 2018).
 “Maritime Miscellany (Baltimore July 9),” New York Tribune, 10 Jul 1921, p. 19, col. 4; Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1921-07-10/ed-1/seq-19/ : accessed 26 June 2018).
 “Maritime Miscellany,” The New York Herald, 25 Jul 1921, p. 15, col. 1; Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045774/1921-07-25/ed-1/seq-15/ : accessed 26 June 2018).
 R W Clark, “Repairs to S.S. Western Comet,” Bulletin of the American Bureau of Shipping, vol. 1, no. 5, September-October, 1921, p. 15; Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=FVT36EA2CUYC&dq=s.s.+western+comet&source=gbs_navlinks_s : accessed 26 June 2018).
 “Foreign Ports … Departures for New York,” New York Tribune, 21 Sep 1921, p. 20, col. 3; Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1921-09-21/ed-1/seq-20/ : accessed 26 June 2018).
“Wireless Reports: from United States Shipping Board Daily Shipping Bulletin,” The New York Herald, 6 Oct 1921, p. 10, col. 3; Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045774/1921-10-06/ed-1/seq-10/ : accessed 9 July 2018).
“Arrived,” The New York Herald, 2d news section, 9 Oct 1921, p. 10, col. 3; Library of Congress(https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045774/1921-10-09/ed-1/seq-34 : accessed 5 July 2018).
 Polk’s Baltimore City Directory 1922 (Baltimore: R.L. Polk & Co., 1922), p. 509, entries for Casbon Bros, Jesse and Stephen, imaged as “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995,” Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=2469 : accessed 28 June 2018), Maryland >Baltimore >1922 >Baltimore, Maryland, City Directory, 1922, image 263 of 1156.