The USS Wateree was a sidewheel steamship built in Philadelphia in 1863 to patrol the west coast of South America and discourage the Confederates from making an alliance with Chile. Chile? Yes. Because at the time, both Chile and Argentina were countries of consequence.
The small gunboat had a rough passage around the Horn and was so badly damaged that she went to the Mare Shipyard on San Francisco Bay. By the time repairs had been made, the Civil War was over. Still, the U.S. wanted stability in South America—a region of shifting sentiments—so patrol she did until August 13, 1868. On that day, the Wateree was at anchor in the harbor town of Arica (population around 3,000), at the time part of Peru and now the northernmost city in Chile, when an 8 to 9-point earthquake struck.
The American sailors could see the town dissolving into ruins before their eyes, but on the ship they felt nothing. Then, slowly, the water in the harbor began to drop…and drop… and finally the harbor was completely free of seawater. Stranded boats lay on their sides and fish leaped about in the mud. Survivors who had been on the beach took the opportunity to run into the harbor and start to gather up the flopping fish.
Meanwhile, aboard the Wateree the quick thinking captain knew exactly what was about to happen, as he had seen it once before. He ordered all hatches closed and the deck guns secured. Then with a roar, a tidal wave at least 30 feet high came rushing into the harbor—the fish picker-uppers trying in vain to outrun it.
The Wateree was inundated, but it managed to rise up through the maelstrom and bob to the surface. Her anchor chains burst and the ship was carried up what was left of the main street. After a half mile voyage she was left high and dry resting on her keel. The ship was banged up and her cannon balls were washed over, but other than that, she was in pretty good shape. Even her rigging survived.
One thing ships need is water under the hull. But alas, there was no water. She had lost none of her crew—who stood about, stunned, wondering what would happen next when another wave came up the street toward the ship. As the wave approached they half-hoped the ship would be refloated and she could sail back down main street, but no. The subsequent waves came less and less close, and the Wateree was to sail no more.
Suddenly, looters began to emerge from the rubble. Eyeing the American vessel, no doubt loaded valuables and no way to defend herself, they began to organize an assault. The quick thinking captain knew that they had laid in a store of hard round cheeses about the size of cannonballs. So he ordered the gunners to charge the guns and load in the cheese. They fired at close range at the unsuspecting locals. Two salvos of molten cheese discouraged any further attempt at a boarding, which was fortunate as they were out of cheese anyway.
The sailors abandoned ship later that day to assist in rescue efforts in the region, where between 20,000 and 30,000 died.
At this point, I know you think I’m going to say that the cheese hit a tortilla vendor’s cart and this is how the cheese nacho was invented, but I have found so many true tales that amaze me that I’ll stick to the facts.