Ruth Chapel Grieder: A Demand for Minutiae and Respect for History
By Michelle Cartwright Soverino
Ruth "Ruthie" Chapel Grieder was honored by Egan Maritime Institute on August 9, 2007. She received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for her dedication to Nantucket and its history, and her work with the Daughters of the American Revolution. She was presented with an ivory carving of a historic whirly-girl to commemorate the occasion.
Ruthie was nominated for the honor by fellow Nantucketers and people who visited the Egan Maritime exhibition at the Coffin School during the 2007 season, Gutsy Gals: From Hearth to Heavens, Maria Mitchell and her sister Nantucketers. "People who came in to see the exhibition got the opportunity to nominate their own gutsy gal," 2007 Egan Maritime Vice President, Phil Read, shared not long after the ceremony. "I looked 'gutsy' up in the dictionary and found 'courageous, determined,' and that certainly fits Ruth. As she said in her acceptance speech, 'I'm sure I bothered so many people with my demand for minutiae and respect for history.'"
Ruthie was deeply connected to the island's lifesaving history and was the descendant of two Nantucket surfmen, Erastus Chapel and James C. Dunham. Chapel was Ruthie's Grandfather, and served for twenty-nine years in the lifesaving service. Dunham, Ruthie's Great Grandfather, was a celebrated lifesaver.
On Christmas Day in 1859 one of the most courageous rescue feats in local history took place. The schooner Sarah Woodbridge of Salem was on route to Boston from Alexandria with a load of coal when she struck Long Shoal during a severe gale. A crew of Tuckernuckers in a Humane Society lifeboat under the charge of Ruthie's Great Grandfather, James C. Dunham, made their way out to the wrecked ship. With the high seas and roaring gale it was impossible to get all to shore safely. Dunham instructed the Tuckernuck crew to head back to the island and wait for his signal until attempting a second rescue. That night, the Sarah Woodbridge filled with water and all hands were forced to the quarterdeck, which was a mass of ice. Though they implored Dunham to send signal back to the beach for another rescue attempt, he knew it would not be successful with the current conditions. In attempt to stay alive, Dunham used the main sail as a covering for shelter and hunkered down for the rest of the night. At dawn, the steamer Island Home was approaching the desperate crew, but she was unable to get close enough to render assistance. Dunham soon sent his signal to Tuckernuck, and the lifesaving crew responded quickly and skillfully. All hands were safely brought to Muskeget. The schooner, however, was a total loss. Dunham was a local hero after his night aboard the wrecked Sarah Woodbridge, though he never received any official recognition for his remarkable rescue.
Ruthie, who regularly attended Museum functions, was a great champion of the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum. Additionally, she contributed to many exhibitions and oral history projects, including 2015's feature short film on lighthouses and 2011's Storm Stories exhibition. The following was her feature in which she shared her account of the infamous No-Name Storm:
Nantucket Native, 8th Generation from Tuckernuck
Ruthie, as she is affectionately called by most on Nantucket who know her well, remembers the No-Name Storm as if it were yesterday. Living in Madaket near the Walter S. Barrett pier, she and her family closely watched the tide in the creek as it continued to rise higher and higher with each approaching hour.
As the water swelled over the creek banks and started to reach the deck of her father's boathouse, which was, at the time, used as a summer rental, it was time to take action.
Piling all the furniture inside the cottage onto beds and counters and shelves, Ruthie and her family then placed towels along the edge of the glass sliders in the hope of staving off any further damage the encroaching waters might have created.
Their efforts, according to Ruthie, were deemed worthwhile, as the water only made it to just a foot inside the doors and, with everything up high, ensured that all their furniture and belongings were well protected.
Other Egan Maritime Lifetime Achievement Award honorees include Dr. Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic; Revell Carr, former Executive Director of Mystic Seaport and former Deputy Director of Egan Maritime; the late Elizabeth "Libby" Oldham, Nantucket's "seat of all wisdom;" and the late Robert F. Mooney, Nantucket's noted historian and attorney.