Interview with Dennis Powers on
Tales of the Seven Seas: The Escapades of
Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien
1. Given your previous maritime books, why did you write this one?
As I poured through the multitudes of files in writing my last book, Taking the Seas, I became curious about the seaman who single-handedly saved a three-thousand-ton steamship, and then his background: Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien. While tracking down what was written about him, I became enamored with the tales of crude and refined men, their endurance, and abilities to survive very difficult times on the dangerous ocean—some of their making, all of their choosing.
Reading about sailing on nineteenth-century, full-sail ships and early twentieth century steamers engendered feelings of nostalgia and romance. The stories also had an underside, however, of cruelty, toughness, combativeness, and raw courage. I found myself traveling with Captain O’Brien from the South Seas to Alaska on his sea ventures, and this book—Tales of the Seven Seas—was born when I came across Pierre Berton’s masterful book The Klondike Fever, which contained this passage:
“O’Brien, perhaps the most colorful sea captain on the Pacific Coast, had a history so garish that it tended
to read like one of the more florid sea novels popular at the time. He had narrowly missed being eaten by
cannibals; had fought off Chinese pirates with cannon fire; had supped with the Royal Family of Hawaii; had
made love to a Tahitian princess; had been offered a partnership by King O’Keefe, the famous white emperor
of the island of Yap; and had shipped with the hairy and villainous Robert O’Malley, prototype for Jack
London’s Sea Wolf.”
I wrote this book to also show that O’Brien’s adventures reflected a world once lived by our forefathers: sometimes violent, always risky, at times lawless, when ships and shipping was one of rugged individualism—before the judgmental filter that today’s world applies. O’Brien’s time was one that was raw and real in its underbelly—and he lived his way in an age when one could.
2. What did you find most fascinating about this book?
What was most amazing was that someone actually lived such a life—and was so true to himself. Among his more notable accomplishments was saving a ship named the Umatilla—as long as a football field—after it struck a reef near British Columbia. With the vessel crushed from “stem to collision bulkhead,” the captain and crew quickly abandoned the ship. Although the captain ordered him to leave and join the rest, O’Brien stayed by it, but alone on a bobbing raft. When two seamen were sent over to take him, Johnny grabbed them instead. With its bow crushed, water noisily pounding inside, and the ship floundering, only Chief Mate O’Brien felt the ship was still seaworthy. When the vessel finally drifted off the imprisoning rocks, he and the two sailors managed to get the sails up, the huge ship under control, and sailed it toward a still faraway port, Esquimalt, in British Columbia. With dangerous events reading like a Hollywood script, he succeeded in safely bringing the vessel there. The ship sank in shallow water, however, but its proximity to shore allowed the vessel to be raised. O’Brien was lauded from coast to coast for this feat—and maritime historians still marvel at it.
His shipmates and friends called him the “Nestor of the Pacific,” one who feared God but defied everything and everyone else with hard fists and spirit. O’Brien later commanded a ship in 1924 on its gala excursion to the South Seas and Tahiti, where the island princess—the granddaughter of the “slim beauty” that O’Brien had met nearly fifty years ago—came on board to welcome him. Back in San Francisco, a motion-picture studio chartered it for the filming of Buster Keaton’s, The Navigator, and Dynamite Johnny regaled the actor and others with his experiences. When O’Brien died in August 1931, at the age of eighty, he was mourned throughout the West coast and nationally.
He lived the most fascinating life that I have come across, whether on the seas or on land.
3. What was the research like?
My research made extensive use of old maritime journals, historical society records, interviews with sea historians, and plowing through worn newspaper clippings in detailing the sagas in this book. When I tracked down O’Brien’s original letters and journals and reviewed them at length, I finally had what I needed for this book and its fascinating stories.
Experienced librarians are always a key to successful research, and I worked with library staff from Alaska and Washington to California and the East Coast. Numerous maritime museums and historical societies helped me track down information about different vessels, their captains, and maritime life during these times. The San Francisco Maritime Museum, especially Bill Kooiman of its Porter Shaw Library, again provided help with their files and old pictures on these times.
In historical research, pictures are always important in supporting any personal accounts. Reviewing the old pictures of vessels on the high seas, ports, and the important cities provided the needed accuracy to this story—and the numerous maritime museums from Alaska and British Columbia to those on both coasts gave needed assistance.
4. What was most importance to be able to write this book?
The key was to find, of course, the long-lost memoirs of Dynamite Johnny O’Brien. This process took time and effort in working through various libraries and museums in trying to track down where they might be. At times, I thought that they didn’t even exist, although an old book written decades ago about the good captain seemed to assume there was one.
When I was finally able to track down the journals of Captain O'Brien in a previously unknown Alaskan library, then I knew I had this book. After the hundreds of pages in microfiched films were sent to me though a library exchange, I read and reread the complete memoirs of Dynamite Johnny with keen excitement. Handwritten by O'Brien at the end of his career, these extensive works were arranged into three long volumes: Journal I (1851-1889), Journal II (1889-1909), and Journal III (1909-1930).
These were wonderful to read, note, and then write about as history became life again.
5. How did he come about to be nicknamed “Dynamite Johnny”?
The nickname came from his actions when he first sailed on the large steamer Umatilla in a storm off the Pacific Northwest. The ship ran into a bad squall and the huge waves and whipping winds slammed the vessel about. If this wasn’t bad enough, highly explosive cases of dynamite were being shipped—and a large safe was nearby. The ship’s rolling snapped the safe from its ropes, and it became a large battering ram against the cases of explosives. Learning this, O’Brien climbed down into the hold, lassoed the safe, and tied it down to save the ship from the volatile dynamite—and hence his nickname. For the rest of his life, he was called Dynamite Johnny O’Brien.
6. Jack London met Captain O’Brien early in his career on his Alaskan Gold Rush adventure and soon thereafter wrote his famous books “Call of the Wild” and “The Sea-Wolf.” What is the link between O’Brien and London on those books?
O’Brien took over the command of different steamers to join the first ships taking the frenzied masses of prospectors to Alaska and the Artic Circle during the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1896 and on. Dynamite Johnny told about his bringing excited men to the gold fields and embittered, sick ones back. He made numbers of friendships with not only adventurers and prospectors, but also those who built the cities and railroads, and the book goes into these details.
On one of these trips, he invited a young, budding writer to his stateroom. Jack London then listened to Dynamite Johnny tell the sea stories about his O’Malley, the hard-case mate of the Edwin James, a four-sail ship that O’Brien had commanded in the South Seas, and made “copious notes” with his stub pencil. Although scholars still debate just what entered into London’s character, Wolf Larsen, in The Sea-Wolf, he met with O’Brien at the right time—and Tales of the Seven Seas describes this in detail.
London continued on with his arduous trip to the gold fields through dangerous mountain passes, and the climb over the Chilkoot Pass was steep and hazardous, rising a thousand feet in the last half mile. The then would-be author journeyed overland into the Klondike and subsequently returned the following spring. Working as a coaler on a steamer to British Columbia to work his way home, London was severely burned while half-drunk. He finally found another steamship bound for home. London’s Klondike experiences then brought about his novels The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and his memorable short story “To Build a Fire,” among other stories and novels.
After his first successes, Jack London voyaged in an American square-rigger around Cape Horn to Seattle in 1906 and called at O’Brien’s home. He was disappointed to learn that Dynamite Johnny was then at sea. The writings of Jack London and Dynamite Johnny’s stories of the cunning, brutish mate in The Sea-Wolf bear a striking resemblance, and the book in detail delves into the relationships between the two.
7. Is the book just about Dynamite Johnny O’Brien?
It is more. Captain O’Brien sailed the seven seas for over sixty years, starting in the late 1860s in India and ending in the early 1930s on the U.S. West Coast. He sailed every type of ship imaginable, but this book is intended and was written to be more than the story of this incredible captain.
Tales of the Seven Seas is about what sailing over the oceans was really like from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, when danger and adventure coexisted on a daily basis. With this book, the reader will smell the salt in the air and hear the ocean’s rush as ships bound over the seas with hardened men, leaking seams, and shrieking winds. Sailing the seas then was not for the faint of heart, whether as a passenger or crewmember, and this was the time before legalities and lawyers tried to rule the maritime world, a world that could only be understood and controlled by a few.
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