There was a time when the chatter of the Hell Gate pilots could be heard throughout City Island and most especially at Belden Point where they had their headquarters. Other than the very popular Captain Ed Sadler, you don’t see too many Hell Gate pilots around the island these days. There are, however, the permanent residents now interred in Pelham Cemetery on King Street. The graves of quite a few Hell Gate pilots can be found there.
I met John Ulmer, the superintendent of the cemetery, there a few days ago and he showed me the headstone of “Dynamite Johnny.” It was paid for by the Cuban rebels who never forgot the help he gave them when all others refused to come to their assistance. Dynamite Johnny was once the most celebrated sea captains in the civilized world. His daring feats were chronicled in the newspapers and magazines of the era and everyone knew that when other ship captains refused to accept a dangerous assignment, Captain John O’Brien would save the day.
His tombstone simply reads Capt. John O’Brien, born April 20, 1837, died June 20, 1917. Actually, according to the New York Times, he really died on June 21st. That’s a minor point when you consider the simplicity in the design and limited verbiage on the monument. No one could tell what a courageous man and “bigger than life” hero actually lies interred in that simple grave. He was, though, a simple man and would certainly be pleased that his grave overlooks the sea that he loved so much.
His first job was only a block from his home in sight of Hell Gate outfitting a schooner and then his brother, Peter, hired him to help out on the ferry he ran from Manhattan to Greenpoint. It was there that he learned to navigate safely through Hell Gate. Later he would go off to the Civil War as the third officer of the “Illinois.” His next gig was as a mate aboard the schooner “The Deer” plying the waters to Mexico. He then became master of a schooner after which he joined the Hell Gate pilots. He was commissioned on July 25, 1871 and was assigned flag number 21. It was as a pilot that he gained a reputation as a daredevil navigator.
It wasn’t until the mid-1880’s that he began running arms to revolutionists in Colombia. Although he was known as a daredevil, he didn’t earn his moniker “Dynamite Johnny” until 1888. Explosives were not yet denatured in that era and carrying them was a real danger as any sudden movement of the ship could cause an explosion. Most sea captains and ship owners simply refused to transport such cargo. The revolutionary Cubans purchased sixty tons of dynamite but then found that no shippers were willing to carry such dangerous cargo. The Cubans then decided to purchase a large ship and negotiated for the “Rambler.” Now they had transportation but no captain was willing to sign on with such a volatile cargo. Finally they approached Daredevil Johnny who undertook the task. He kept the cargo secret from the crew he hired knowing that all would refuse to ship with him. When caught in a storm, he went below and began lashing down his cargo all by himself knowing the danger he faced. He delivered the cargo safely and on time and thenceforth became known as “Dynamite Johnny.”
He undertook numerous other dangerous adventures and his life story of shipwrecks, mutinies and the like could fill more than one volume. Suffice it to say that “Dynamite Johnny” is now at peace on lovely City Island in the beautiful Bronx where the waves can be seen and heard and sea sagas recalled.