The maritime history of the port of Boston can be read in the remnants of its shipping heyday. For every lighthouse, there is a channel or hazard that had to be marked for safe passage, and coastal waters are littered with the bones of ships that never made it to their final destination. These vessels wrecked along the South Shore, off Nantasket Beach, the treacherous Cohasset coastline, the cliffs of Scituate, and all the way down to the sunken rocks off Plymouth’s Manomet Point. Tales of lives saved, and lives lost, are remembered to this day at local Coast Guard stations, monuments and museums whose collections contain fragments and faded photos of these historic South Shore shipwrecks.By John Galluzzo
The five-masted schooner Nancy had staying power. The ship rolled and rocked its way out of Boston on a snowy and blustery February 19, 1927. By the next morning, she (all ships were known as “she” in those days, whether they carried feminine names or not) was aground on Nantasket Beach. There she stayed, mostly intact, for the next decade.
The Nancy, in a grand way, heralded the end of volunteer lifesaving of mariners in distress in Massachusetts. The town of Hull, from the 1840s through the beginning of the twentieth century, was synonymous with lifesaving. Captain Joshua James was the patriarch of the art, until his poetic death stepping out of a lifeboat after an early morning drill in 1902. Even today, the United States Coast Guard honors his legacy. This June, the service will dedicate a National Security Cutter carrying his name, reminding one and all of the approximately 1,000 lives he saved in more than 60 years of patrolling the Hull coastline.
But in 1927, it was not Joshua, but his son Osceola, who led the volunteer lifesaving effort in a Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lifeboat. The rescue was more or less routine, with all hands saved, but the amazing confluence of a wooden ship, a wooden lifeboat and a man named James from Hull constituted a dramatic scene that had played out in Hull for 87 consecutive years.
The Nancy became a beachside billboard and a haven for pyromaniacs, who set numerous fires inside her massive hull, before the ship was eventually burned to the keel as a Depression-era make-work project. Rumors about the whereabouts of the rest of its pieces still abound in Hull. The masts? They went to the Quincy granite yards. The lumber? A guy named Grossman started a lumber company with them. The anchors? On a front yard in Mashpee. The keel? Walk the beach across from Whitehead Avenue after a particularly strong nor’easter, and you’ll find it.
ST. JOHN, COHASET
Henry David Thoreau was already planning on walking the beaches of the South Shore when he heard news of the disaster in Cohasset. The Canadian-built ship St. John was full of hopeful Irishmen and women when it struck the ledges off the American coast in 1849. In concept, it was a scene playing out all over the Northeast, as the sons and daughters of Eire fled the potato famine, hoping to start life anew in New York, Boston, in Portland and beyond. The passengers of the St. John were well within sight of land, having made it all the way across the Atlantic, when tragedy struck. On October 7, the captain realized the raging storm his ship was in would push him off track of his Boston approach and put him ashore at Nantasket, and instead tried to head for Scituate. Near Minot’s ledges, which were two years away from having their first lighthouse, he tried to drop his anchors, but the chains snapped. The ship was at the mercy of the sea and struck the Grampuses—underwater ledges just west of Minot’s.
One hundred and forty-three people were aboard. Nine of the 16 crewmen survived, as compared to 11 of the 127 passengers. Only about 45 bodies washed ashore for burial in a mass grave. Henry David Thoreau walked through the terrible scene, his observances posthumously published as part of his book “Cape Cod.” Decades later, the Ancient Order of Hibernians dedicated a Celtic cross in the Cohasset Central Cemetery in memory of the lives lost during the wreck.
If any shipwreck had a happy ending, it was Etrusco. Riding high out of the water in a condition known as “in ballast” (carrying only ballast and no cargo, and therefore the lightest it could be) the Italian freighter rode ashore at Cedar Point in Scituate on March 17, 1956, almost parallel parking along the coast. The Coast Guard responded quickly and all of the sailors came ashore by use of the breeches buoy system, a connected series of ropes and pulleys from which was hung a pair of pants (breeches) sewn around a life ring and suspended from a traveling block.
Problem: none of the sailors spoke English. Solution: the owner of the first house next to the wreck–in the heart of the South Shore’s Irish Riviera, no less–not only came from Italy and spoke the language, but she spoke the sailors’ dialect. The people of Scituate gathered together, raised funds and resources and sent the sailors on their way. The community so loved the collective feeling of accomplishment that they formed the Etrusco Associates, a medical lending library still in existence 60 years later.
The ship, which later became known as “the holiday steamer,” was floated on Thanksgiving Day, 1956, having been a sideshow attraction for eight months, and then wrecked again, on Christmas Day, 1964.
ROBERT E. LEE, PLYMOUTH
The opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914 forever changed shipping traffic patterns in Cape Cod Bay. Where once all ships sailed around the arm of the Outer Cape, now some chose the inner passage. Cape Cod Bay, once populated only by packet ships heading into Plymouth and Sandwich, coastwise schooners, fishermen, lobstermen and Irish mossers, now attracted longer distance freight carriers and “night boats” carrying passengers on excursions among the major cities of the Northeast.
Such was the story of the Robert E. Lee, traveling from New York to Boston. On the night of March 9, 1928, the ship ran somewhat gently onto the Mary Ann Rocks off Manomet Point. The event was so mild, in fact, that a passenger awoke the next morning and headed to the barber shop for a shave, having no notion whatsoever that the ship was technically wrecked.
The Coast Guard responded via cutter and motorized lifeboat, but from Manomet they came the old-fashioned way: by wooden lifeboat. Once all was seen to be in control, the eight lifesavers from the Manomet Point crew turned for home, rowing back toward the coast. As they neared their destination, a rogue wave pitchpoled their lifeboat, killing three of them. A small marker stands at Manomet, mostly overlooked, but grimly reminding one and all of the sacrifices early Coast Guardsmen made on a regular basis, so that others might live.
AND THE REST
The stories are endless, it seems, from the City of Salisbury, the “zoo ship” that dropped snakes, monkeys and more into Boston Harbor in 1936, to the Ulrica, the plaster-carrying schooner that ran ashore on Nantasket Beach in 1896. The Forest Queen wrecked on Peggotty Beach in Scituate in 1853, directly on top of another, older shipwreck. On January 31, 1909, a storm threw the schooner Helena ashore in Humarock, where Keeper Frederick Stanley and the crew of the Fourth Cliff Life-Saving Station responded, but the ship, which was carrying lumber, was a complete loss. That same year, in June, the bark Chattanooga became a rare summertime casualty of the sea, washing onto a shoal near Hewitt’s Point in Marshfield. The vessel was carrying a load of salt from “Porto Rico,” as it was then known. The schooner H.C. Higginson wrecked off Hull during a tumultuous storm on November 25, 1888. Lifesaver Joshua James and his volunteer crew rowed to the ship during the height of the storm and rescued five men. The Agnes R. Bacon came ashore in Marshfield in 1888, the USS Swan on Duxbury Beach in 1921. And on one fateful night in November 1898, the lifesavers of the South Shore were kept busy retrieving victims from shipwrecks all up and down the coast. The storm would become known as the Portland Gale for its biggest tragic loss, the steamer Portland, but in all, more than
350 ships were wrecked, damaged or destroyed.
Stories of these wrecks live on at the Hull Lifesaving Museum, the Scituate Maritime & Irish Mossing Museum, at the many historical society halls in the region and on roadside markers that silently tell the tales of many hellish moments that once enraptured the residents of the South Shore.