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Volume 41 Issue 11 • July 21-27, 2011
now in our 41th season

A Day of Heartbreak

Early in the morning of January 10, 1886, one of the most frightful shipwrecks ever recorded took place off Surfside, Nantucket.  It wasn't simply the number of people killed that made this an especially memorable occurrence—the stormy sea had claimed more victims from other hapless ships.  It was the agonizingly drawn-out nature of the tragedy, plus the fact that the whole harrowing event was watched, hour upon icy hour, by virtually helpless witnesses on the shore.
Sometime in 1885, the three-masted schooner T.B. Witherspoon departed Surinam loaded with molasses, sugar, cocoa, pickled limes, and spices, and headed for Boston.  Its captain, Alfred H. Anderson, knew he was nearing his destination, but was undoubtedly alarmed when a roaring, blinding snowstorm and fierce winds began to batter the ship.  For days, snow squalls had obscured any observation of the coastline.  It was, he knew, an extremely perilous situation.

Then, at about 5 a.m. on the 10th, the great welcome beam of a lighthouse succeeded in piercing the storm for some short moments.  The captain was sure it the Montauk light, and set his course accordingly.  Little did he know that the light was from Sankaty Head, and that it warned of the dangerous breakers and shoals off the south side of the small island of Nantucket.  Onward the ship plunged, all the crew struggling valiantly to bring the vessel safely through the storm.

Anxiously, the wife and small son of the mate waited in his cabin, trying to stay calm and warm despite the howling wind and rough seas battering the ship, frightened by the severity of the storm, by the violent tossing about, but most of all, perhaps, by the fact that they had to sit alone, helplessly wondering what was happening to husband and father out on the freezing, slippery deck above.

It was 16 degrees above zero.  The ship struck the shoals with what one can only imagine as the most awful sound any souls on board had ever heard, a sound whose terrible voice rivaled for a moment in time that of the screaming gale.  A ghastly and hellish duet of doom. . . .

Hundreds of Nantucketers made their way to the shoreline, where the Witherspoon foundered helplessly so very close that the crewmen could be plainly seen as they moved desperately about the decks and in the rigging.  As the horrified townspeople watched, and even as some were trying to devise some manner of reaching the crippled ship, one after another of the crew perished, tumbling into the frigid waves or becoming gradually motionless as they froze in the rigging.
The Surfside lifesaving team shot line after line over the vessel, but now there were too few crewmen able to move, to haul off the hawser attached to the heavy ropes.  In an act of unparalleled heroism, nine men climbed onto a liferaft and headed for the Witherspoon.  Stricken, those on shore watched a huge wave swamp the raft.  The line snapped, and the raft was pulled back to land by a rope played out from the shore.

In Wrecks Around Nantucket, by Arthur H. Gardner, what followed is described in these words:  ``In the afternoon a sixth and successful attempt with the mortar gun planted a line squarely across the vessel's bow and it was secured to the fore-rigging.  To this line was attached a running block with a line rove through, the ends of which were retained on shore, and by this means a large hawser was hauled off to the vessel by those on the beach.''

By now there were only two men on board the ship who could be seen to move.  Those freezing people on the shore prayed and wept. And prayed some more.

It had been a relatively small crew—seven in all—and all but two perished.  One of the two survivors was the mate, who had seen the sea crush the door to his cabin, had seen his wife and son perish.
Almost all the bodies eventually washed ashore.  One, completely encased in ice, was taken from the rigging the next day.  In Gardner's words, ``Of the many cases of shipwreck which have occurred on our island this is the most harrowing ever known.  Others there have been where the loss of life has been greater, but in those cases the disaster was as sudden as overwhelming; but here the hapless victims lingered many weary hours perishing by inches within speaking distance of hundred on shore eager, powerless, to render them assistance.''

The Witherspoon was bashed to pieces by the surf.  What remained of the cargo and the usable parts of the shipwere sold at auction for a total of $255.

It was an unforgettable tragedy, a truly black day in the year 1886.

— from the Mary Miles archive

The Nantucket Shipwreck & Life Saving Museum tells the dramatic story of the many wrecks and rescues in Nantucket waters and preserves the memory of those islanders who risked their lives so others might live.  The museum, located at 158 Polpis Road, is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm and can be reached by car, by NRTA shuttle, or by the Polpis Bike Path.  Admission is $5.

 

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