This Month in Maritime History

Egan Maritime Lynx


This Month in Maritime History is a new monthly series on Nantucket's Maritime heritage, which draws inspiration from the island’s rich and varied history of its relationship with the sea. We may explore fishing, whaling, commerce, and shipwrecks. Still, we are mindful that Egan Maritime Institute was founded on the idea that the contributions of ordinary men and women and their values of community, hard work, and self-sacrifice make this island unique. We love to tell stories at the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, so join us each month on a voyage of exploration.

This Month is Maritime History is edited by Charles J. Allard, Museum Director.

Monthly Stories

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Ahoy to May

The end of April and the arrival of Daffodil Weekend is a sign that summer is almost here in Nantucket. We have less than a month to prepare for the influx of seasonal visitors. At the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, we have been working hard for many months to make exciting changes to our exhibits and public spaces.

As our readers know, we have always emphasized the incredible bravery of volunteer and professional lifesavers. We are proud to be the first museum in America dedicated to their honor. This year, we are reinterpreting the beloved Boathouse to showcase tales and historical artifacts highlighting the endurance, persistence, competence, and gallantry of these brave souls who risked everything to save mariners from the treacherous sea. Surfmen saved lives because they were always ready.

May is also a reminder that while we praise the lifesavers, we often fail to acknowledge the uncertainty and complexity of life for the men who worked for the U.S. Lifesaving Service. Most of them knew hardship as experienced mariners, former whalemen, fishermen, or had been in trades related to the sea.

As surfmen, they worked for the U.S. government but were only hired for the season from September through April. They had to reapply annually. During the winter months, they lived at the lifesaving stations, but come May, they had to move out - a situation that is still familiar to many Nantucketers today. The Keeper and his family lived year-round at the station.

From 1886, the service required uniforms, but surfmen had to purchase them through payroll deductions. If a service member died in the line of duty, his survivors received the equivalent of two years' salary. Disability payments only lasted two years. All of this was in an era that taught us much about fishing nets but little about safety nets. Nonetheless, in periods of prosperity and economic difficulty, the Lifesaving Service on Nantucket had many willing recruits. Even a glance at photographs of uniformed surfmen lined up outside their stations reveals their strong sense of pride in who they were.

Semper Paratus.

Egan Maritime

Women in Maritime History

This month's post is a little different than previous months. Instead of just one story, we thought we would bring a story from each staff member. For Women's History Month, we asked each staff member to share their favorite female in Maritime history. It was fun to learn about different historical figures. We hope you enjoy reading along>>>

Thomas F Sandsbury

It used to be said about March weather, “In like a lion, out like a lamb.”

The expression did not hold in 1879. In the loss of lives and property, the Great Gale of 1879 was the Nantucket’s most costly weather event. During the storm, at least 68 ships ran aground on the shoals surrounding the island, and countless sailors lost their lives in the stubborn freezing storms that began on a Monday morning, the last day of March.

Many heroes, both volunteers and professional lifesavers, risked their lives in a flurry of gallantry and self-sacrifice. And none were more honored than Captain Thomas F. Sandsbury (1838-1903) and his Massachusetts Humane Society volunteer crew.

At the break of day, Sandsbury’s crew hauled a dory six miles to Eel Point to row out towards the floundering Emma G Edwards, where only two mariners survived the night. The others had either frozen or drowned in the raging sea.

After rowing the eleven miles back to Nantucket with bodies and the survivors, they wasted no time. They set out again, spending 32 hours recovering stranded sailors or the remains of many who had succumbed to the harsh conditions. At the capsized J. W. Hall, only a single young German sailor tied to the rigging was left alive, but crew member George Coffin dived into the water, cut him loose, and got him safely into the surfboat.

All received the Mass Humane Society’s highest award, silver medals and $25, but additionally, Sandsbury received a gold medal from the U.S. Congress for extraordinary courage and leadership. In 1891, he was appointed the Keeper of the new US Lifesaving Service Station at Great Neck (Madaket).

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Endurance, Heroics, & Recognition: A Nantucket Story in Two Parts Part Two: Heroics and Recognition

At the end of Part One, we saw the crew of the Mary Anna barely clinging to life, and in the case of the steward, he said his goodbyes to his shipmates. But let us continue the story....

The ship was up on the Inner Bar and on its beam ends. All day Sunday, the gale-force winds continued. Nantucketers watched helplessly as the steamer Island Home became lodged in the ice, where she lay until Tuesday, and volunteers gallantly tried in vain to get to the crew's assistance but found it impossible. The level of anxiety for the crew's fate was island-wide, and it was the only topic of conversation all day.

Around ten at night, the volunteers became convinced that the condition of the ice and calmer seas enabled them to affect a successful rescue using dories when possible and planks when necessary to cross the ice while hauling their boats behind them. Eight volunteers in two underwriters' boats left from Cliff Shore to row and crawl the two miles to the stranded ship. They understood the condition of the crew and had with them dry clothing, blankets, and enough whiskey to warm the hoped-for survivors.

The night was clear and cold, and two and a half hours later, the rescuers were alongside the vessel. They found all five men still alive, including the steward, who revived at the prospect of being saved. They returned via the same passage as the way out, arriving at three in the morning. All were lodged at Adams House (7 Fair Street), and medical care was provided for the three crewmen whose feet had severe frostbite). The rescuing party and their families endured five hours of suffering and worry, but their bravery and willingness to risk all for the sake of others was done without thought of reward.

The volunteers may not have thought of a reward, but the Nantucket townspeople raised $180 for their sacrifice. However, the story of their incredible rescue became known far beyond our shores. The Massachusetts Humane Society gave each volunteer silver medals and $10; the Suffolk Club of Boston presented $120 to the group; and Rowland. H. Macy, a Nantucketer who had tried whaling and finally turned a struggling dry goods business into a profitable New York City enterprise, sent what was described as "a liberal sum of money, to be divided among the party of young men."

And what of the Mary Anna? The wrecked ship's hull was auctioned "as she lies" to A. M. Myrick for $23. Before the sale, about 150 tons of coal were saved, and the remnant of almost 50 tons was sold "where it lies, in the vessel" for $12. The landed coal sold at auction at an average of about seven dollars a ton.

And who were these willing volunteers? You may find an ancestor or relative among them. Or you may have stories of their lives to share with the Museum and others. They were heroes:

William E. BATES


Alexander FANNING




Stephen W. KEYES

George A. VEEDER

Image Caption: Mass Humane Society Silver medal awarded to James A. Holmes for his part in the Mary Anna rescue, February 5, 1871.

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Endurance, Heroics, & Recognition: A Nantucket Story in Two Parts

Endurance, Heroics, & Recognition: A Nantucket Story in Two Parts

Part One: Endurance

At 3 AM on Thursday, February 2, 1871, the Schooner Mary Anna sailed out of Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven). The weather was clear with wind at S. W. By eight that night, she was off the Highlands of Cape Cod still loaded with coal, but a falling barometer told Captain Lennan that a Nor'Wester was closing in.

A gale was in the offing and Capt. Lennan and his crew of 4 experienced sailors were called upon to use all their skill and stamina to save the vessel and their lives. At 11 PM, battling N. W. winds and heavy seas, they anchored under Chatham at 4 AM on Friday and remained there for 24 hours. A heavy storm from N. W. dragged them about 100 yards when the captain let go the second anchor. Still, by 11 AM on Saturday, when the big chain parted and they hove up the small anchor, the ship was about a mile from land. The crew struggled to two-reef the mainsail, foresail, and jib to hold up in smooth water between Monomoy and Chatham. Still, the ship was "icing up very badly." The strains on the frozen rigging were such that at 3 PM, the foresail burst at the cringle. The winds then moderated, and they ran for Holmes Hole, the nearest harbor, but as they passed Shovelful Light Ship, the winds increased to a fierce gale. The ship became unmanageable, its sails useless, and burdened by the accumulating ice; the captain cut the halyards. There was no way to make a harbor, and Captain Lennan decided to strand her as a last chance to save his crew.

Exhausted by the cold and their labors, the absence of a boat, and everything else either washed overboard or frozen in place with ice 2 to 3 feet thick, encouraged the captain to head towards Brant Point as the place most likely to be near help. All evening, the sea breached over the vessel, forcing the crew to seek safety in the rigging, a choice that caused even more pain and suffering.

The crew could climb down to the deck on Sunday morning, but they were without food or drink, and only at night did they find a small cylindrical stove that gave more hope than warmth. It is hard to imagine the suffering that fell upon these men with frozen feet and hands.

All day Sunday, from the ship, they could see the Island Home's fruitless attempts to come to their rescue and the thwarted efforts of the men on shore to get across the ice. Captain Lennan said, "At dark on Sunday night, I had made up my mind that our friends on shore would give up any further trials until morning, giving the ice time to strengthen. I knew that all of us could not live until daylight." At 9 PM, the steward with badly frozen feet was ready to give up and said his goodbyes to his shipmates.

Part Two will be released next week.

1863 Steamer New York Steamboat Aikens Landing Virginia 1

Nantucket Hospitality? - January

She left Glasgow for New York with cargo and 20 passengers on December 31st. Still, at noon on Wednesday, January 21st, 1857, the steamer City of New York was off course, low on coal, and anchored half a mile from Nantucket's 'Sconset shore. Captain Robert Craig and his crew had no way of knowing they were stranded off Nantucket during its worst winter on record and in the middle of a 31-day harbor freeze-up. There was no communication with America or the world. Hence, Captain Craig hurried to town to try to procure coal. With the aid of Captain Thomas A. Gardner, ship agent, and coal dealer, arrangements were made to transport the coal to the 'Sconset beach and, by small boat, load it on the steamer.

The harbor had been frozen solid for two weeks, and for the next few days, the island was hit with rain, snow, temperatures as low as -10 °, and damaging gale-force winds. It was not until January 28th that some 200 men began shoveling snow, which stood in drifts up to thirty feet high along the 8-mile route to 'Sconset. The coal was loaded on carts and had to be bagged before loading onto small boats for transport to the ship. Some 115 tons of coal were moved over seven cold, difficult days and nights. The steamer New York left ‘Sconset waters on the afternoon of February 3rd and arrived in New York City 22 hours later.

Since Nantucketers think of such service and accommodation (hospitality) as routine, on the morning of departure, Captain Gardner presented his $7,000 bill for 115 tons of coal, road clearing, and transport to Captain Craig, only to be met with exclaims of incredulity, salty language, and a firm refusal to pay such an outrageous sum. Now, Nantucketers are also used to this response.

Gardner had to disembark empty-handed. His pleas to the New York-based ship's agent brought no response, and several months later, Gardner traveled to New York City, where he successfully sued the ship's owners for full recovery. Good service deserves a reward.

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December - The Wreck of the Schooner Lucy Jones

Schooner Lucy Jones first wrecked on Nantucket Shoals on December 22, 1887.

Hoping to see the long overdue Lucy Jones on a cold December morning in 1887, C. C. Crosby walked out of his Whale Street coal, grain, and feed warehouse into the growing storm. Heavily laden with a shipment of badly needed coal, he knew the schooner had stopped overnight at Vineyard Haven to take on a pilot to get the ship safely through the treacherous Nantucket shoals.

That afternoon, word came from the watchtower that a ship in severe distress was seen hard up on the bar near the entrance to the harbor. Nantucketers quickly gathered on Straight Wharf while onboard the Lucy Jones; the 5-man crew risked freezing as they climbed into the rigging to avoid the waves washing over the stranded ship's decks. The men were in desperate circumstances. Despite the increasing gale force winds, there were more volunteers anxious to help than needed, and 16 men who knew rescue was the first task were soon in the insurance underwriters' boat, pulling oars on the way to try and save the crew.

Over the next few days, wreckers offloaded enough coal to enable Captain Duncan and his crew to kedge the ship off the bar and bring her alongside the Wharf. This action was a welcome outcome, as the crew, cargo, and the uninsured vessel were all saved.

To read the whole story and learn more about the rescuers : Click Here.

Plus! Don't hesitate to contact us if you find a family member on the list and have photos or stories you'd like to share.