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Memoirs of Robert Dollar
Vol. 1 - Chapter Eight. The Steamship "M.S. Dollar" as a Blockade Runner

During the Russo-Japanese War, in 1904, we chartered the cargo steamer "M. S. Dollar" to carry a cargo for the Russian Government from San Francisco to Vladivostok.

She attempted to go through La l'errouse Straits but found it blocked with ice so there was nothing left to do but attempt to go through the Straits of Tsugam. It turned out that the look-out on the north end of Hokkaido had seen the steamer try to go through La Perrouse and turn back, and notified the gunboats guarding Tsugaru Straits to be on the lookout for her.

She stayed far enough out so that her smoke could not be seen, and during a dark, stormy night she started to run through although the Japanese had stationed two gunboats at each end of the Strait. Remarkable as it might seem, with all lights out, she passed through without being seen. The Straits are twelve miles long and three miles wide.

The captain was to get a substantial bonus from the Russian Government if he should arrive safely in Vladivostok, so he was pacing the bridge trying to figure out what he would do with all this money. His castles in the air came to a sudden termination by the appearance of a search light sweeping the ocean: After passing backward and forward it rested at last on the ship, so that she was discovered. The light was kept steadily on the ship until in half an hour's time a cannon boomed out of the darkness, as a polite invitation to stop, which was promptly done. After waiting some time a boat came alongside and a demand was made to lower a ladder, when an officer, of what turned out to be a Japanese man-of-war, that was going up the Sea of Japan and not looking for them, came on board followed by officers and armed marines. He asked the captain the name of the ship and when told, passed the word down the line, "M. S. Dollar," and each officer repeated it as they had heard she was bound for Vladivostok,

They took charge and took her into Hakodate where an examination of the ship's officers was held, but the captain was the only man on board who knew her destination and he would not tell. All they found was that the ship's papers showed that her destination was Moji. All is fair in war, so on general principles they decreed us guilty, and ordered her to proceed to Yokosukfc, near Yokohama, to be tried by the prize court. To show how complete and efficient their secret service was, my son Stanley arrived in Kobe that night and knew nothing of the capture until an officer placed him under arrest, stating that the next day he would be taken to the prize court at Yokosuka.

When taken before the court, the judge said: "You got a letter at the Kobe post office from San Francisco: I want to see it." Stanley handed it to him. and, after reading it, the judge had a hearty laugh and said: This letter is from your father and he tells you this vessel is going to the Orient; the Orient is a very big place. Your father must be a very astute old gentleman; I would li;ke very much to meet him."

The captain stuck to it and would not tell where he was going and the judge said he would imprison him until the end of the war, so Stanley advised him to make a clean breast of it, which he did. The captain was then released, and the ship and cargo condemned.

Stanley asked the commandant of the Navy Yard if lie could take a souvenir off the ship as she was named after his mother. He replied, "Yes, with pleasure; what would you like?" In a joke Stanley said, "The ship's anchors and chains." The commandant did not see the joke, but said quite seriously, "Oh, I could not allow you to take them," Stanley then said, "Well, would you allow me to take a silver sugar bowl which has my mother's name on it?" His reply was, "Oh, yes, you can take it with pleasure "

So, for the time being, that ended our connection with this fine vessel. We had her insured against loss from war risk for $180,000,000, which the insurance companies paid.

The year 1906 was the memorable year for all San Francisco people, as in April we had the earthquake and fire that destroyed the city. I arrived in Kobe April 18 and found two of the hotels had been burned, so it seemed impossible to get a place to sleep. About 10 o'clock p. m. I managed to get to a friend's house. He got up and prepared some supper for me, and during the course of the conversation he said a cable had come in stating that San Francisco had been destroyed by an earthquake and fire, and, as all communication had been cut off, no further information could be obtained.

The next day I went to Yokohama and still could obtain no information. However, three days later. I received a cable stating that our office and contents had been destroyed and that we had opened an office in Oakland. This information I posted so that Americans could know that Oakland was intact, as a wild rumor had been circulated that it had been overwhelmed by a tidal wave. All this did not relieve my mind much as I was on my way to Tokio, where the steamer "M. S. Dollar" was to be sold by the Japanese Government, and since every bank in San Francisco had been destroyed I was perplexed to know where I was to get the money to pay for the ship if I bought her, However, I arranged to get the money in London if I could not get it in San Francisco.

The Japanese had used her as a troop ship during the war, after which she was put up at public auction and I bid her in for $55.000,000. She was turned over to me at the Naval Station at Sasebo. I got a few men and stores enough for one day to take her to Moji where I intended to load her and fit her out. After leaving Sasebo it got very foggy and we could not see the length of the ship. I remained on the bridge until after 11 o'clock. It was a wet, miserable night and the captain advised me to go and lie down. I told him I had some kind of a hunch that something was going to happen; however, I went and laid down with clothes, boots and all on. I had only been turned in an hour when the captain wakened me and said there was something strange and he wanted me to come on the bridge. It did not take me long to get there as the thought flashed through my mind that this something was going to happen. When we got back on the bridge he said he had seen a reflection on the sky which looked like a rocket and it was dead ahead. We immediately took soundings but could not get bottom. Just then another flash appeared, which we both decided was a rocket. We checked up on our course and found it would clear an island by ten miles, so that this must be a vessel in distress out on the open China Sea. We had no rockets to answer, but made a flare-up of oakum and oil. This brought a reply as we immediately heard a steamer's whistle, indistinctly, in the distance. We soon came up near to where she was, but it was so foggy and dark we could not make her out. When daylight came we found her to be the German mail steamer "Roon." She had gone ashore on the island, which we both thought our courses would clear by ten miles. The current had set both ships off their courses. Fortunately for us, she went on for if she had not we certainly would have landed in her place. We lowered a boat and went cautiously to her, as there was a considerable sea, but the captain told me he had two hundred passengers and his No.1i hold was full of water, so I arranged with him that I would take them all on board and we would try and pull bun off. I also told him we only had one day's provisions for our own crew of twenty men and that we had no bedding, so he supplied us with the necessities. We had a hard job transferring all the passengers on account of the heavy sea and the blinding rain storm. They were a woe begone lot, all cold, wet and miserable.

We pulled on the "Roon" for half a day, and could not move her as she had settled down forward on a pinnacle rock. I advised the captain to flood his after hold and tip her up off the rock but he said it was a very valuable cargo and he did not like to destroy it.


We arranged to take the passengers to Moji and telegraph for a German man-of-war that was at Kobe to come and help him. We got to Rockuron quarantine station just at dark and the officers would not come on board. So we lowered a boat and I went ashore, which was such a breach of etiquette that I was arrested by soldiers as soon as I put my foot on shore. They started to march me off to the guard house, and while I could not talk to them I made signs vigorously that I wanted to go to the commandant's house. So they took me there and although he talked English I certainly had a cold reception, but I explained to him about the condition of the two hundred people on board, many of them women and children.

I made no headway until I told him Count Hyashi, Minister to Spain, was on board. That caused him to come on board, but he reminded me that I was still under arrest. I told him I did not care what he did with me so long as he allowed the people to proceed to Moji. I got the ear of the Count first, then he interviewed the Commandant, with the result that after five minutes talking in Japanese the passengers and myself were allowed to proceed to Moji. We arrived there about midnight, but the quarantine officer had telegraphed ahead and the chief of police was waiting with boats and took care of every one in a very satisfactory manner. I wired for the man-of-war to go to the "Roon." He got there the following day, but failed to pull her off and a storm coming up he was compelled to pull out. The captain of the "Roon" later took my advice and flooded his after hold, and she backed of herself and proceeded on her own steam to Nagasaki where she was repaired.

The year 1907 was an eventful one. The early part of the year business was fair, but the latter part was about as poor as it could possibly have beer., as we had a genuine financial panic. The banks stopped payment and resorted to the use of Clearing House certificates in the place of gold and currency.

Affairs got to the point in the coastwise trade where it was impossible to get a new dollar for an old one. As a result a great fleet of vessels was laid up in San Francisco Bay, amongst others being many of our coastwise steamers.

In the early part of the year we remodeled our China business. While it had been, in a measure satisfactory, and we had been making money out of it, still it was not in such shape that we could extend and enlarge it as we had hoped to do. Therefore, in the reconstruction, all this was planned. At that time we had a small office in Sezchuen Road, Shanghai. We afterwards moved to more commodious offices on the corner of Sezchuen and Nanking Roads, and at present are located in large new offices on Canton Road fronting the Bund.

As stated, this was a year of financial panics, but fortunately we had been prepared beforehand, so it did not affect our business to any great extent.

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