Little could anyone have realized when, in October of 1901, an electric lighting plant and Marconi wireless equipment were installed onboard the Relief Lightship LV 58, that the vessel would be the first United States ship of any kind to send a distress call by wireless radio. And, with a strange twist of fate, the distress call was not to ask for help for another vessel, but it was to ask for help for them.
During its short 10 plus year existence, the Relief Lightship LV 58, which was first put into duty September 15, 1894, served primarily in the waters off the coast of Massachusetts; however she did serve at the Fire Island lightship post in New York from 1896-1897. From 1898 to 1905, the LV 58 was used more as a lighthouse tender than a lightship. Although the LV 58 was built and designed as a lightship, and she did serve as the Relief Lightship for the lightships that were assigned to the Great Round, Nantucket, Pollock Rip Shoals, Vineyard Sound, Boston, and Portland lightship stations, she was used mostly during that time as a tender, delivering coal, mail, and supplies to lightships and lighthouses.
On December 10, 1905 as the Relief Lightship LV 58 was making its way in a fierce winter gale to relieve the Nantucket Lightship LV 66, she began taking on water from a leak in the fire room. In addition to that, the water that was the seeping caused some type of electrical short, and several fires broke out that the small contingent of crewmen had to extinguish, and this had to be done while bailing out the vessel by hand through the only way possible - with the use of an old fashion bucket brigade.
Captain James Jorgensen, who had been the ship’s master since 1903, was no stranger to the vessel or the beating that lightships often take. A veteran employee of the United States Lighthouse Service, he had also previously served as the captain of LV 58 from 1894 to 1896. But this was different than anything he had previously experienced. As water began to fill the hold, he knew that the crew could be in serious trouble. On board the Relief Lightship were three naval electricians who were assigned to operate the new Marconi wireless telegraph. Capt. Jorgensen ordered them to send out a distress call. It was the first distress call to ever be sent by a Marconi wireless telegraph from an American vessel. The ship’s crew, who were assigned the duty to save lives, now needed themselves to be saved.
The distress message was picked up at the Navy Torpedo Station in Rhode Island. Although the message was incomplete, they were able to decipher the following words: “Nantucket Shoals Lightship in distress. Send help from anywhere.” Realizing that the high seas from the gale would prevent certain vessels from being able to reach the Relief Lightship, the base commander ordered the Gunboat Hist to make way to rescue the crew of the lightship. However, just as the Hist was about to get underway, its steering gears broke down and needed to be repaired. A few hours later, another distress call came in, but it ended abruptly and was also incomplete. The base commander knew time was running out and the situation was desperate. After some difficulty, the Navy Torpedo Base was finally able to contact the Lighthouse Tender Azalea, which was tied up at port in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The crew of the Azalea went into emergency mode and was soon underway.
By the time the Azalea, under the command of Charles Gibbs, reached the Relief Lightship LV 58, the crew of the lightship had been working without any break for 21 straight hours in the bitter cold environment. However, about the only thing the Azalea was able to do was to position itself near the lightship; it was too dangerous to transfer any crew members to help the crew of the lightship. Finally, when the high seas had moderated enough, it was believed that the lighthouse tender could tow the lightship back to port. Once a tow chain was established, the effort got underway. Then, for the next four hours while the Azalea struggled with the tow line, the crew on the lightship still had to continue their bailing to prevent the ship from sinking. But they were fighting a losing battle; the water was coming in faster than they could bail and the men were in a near state of collapse from exhaustion.
After they had been under tow for about 14 miles, the crew of the Azalea watched in horror as the Relief LV 58 raised its distress flag. As the Azalea turned around, they saw the life boat from the Relief drop into the water and some of the crewmen were hastily sliding down the ropes to the lifeboat. Captain Jorgenson had given the order to abandon ship.
When the Azalea got up alongside the life boat, the crew of the Azalea immediately realized that the first contingent of men from the lightship were too weak to climb onboard the Azalea without the assistance of the crew of the Azalea. During the slow but hurried process of getting the men onboard, the crew of the Azalea watched in fright as the lightship was slowly sinking with its remaining crewmen still onboard. Once the lifeboat was emptied, it turned around and made its seemingly slow way back to the lightship to get the rest of the crew. Captain Jorgenson was the last man to slide down a rope from the lightship to the lifeboat.
The lifeboat then rowed around the leeward side of the Azalea and the exhausted and wet men, some suffering from hypothermia, were literally dragged onboard the ship. Many were too exhausted to stand and were carried below where they were warmed, fed, and put to bed. They had made it just in time. As they looked back, they were able to get one last glimpse of the lightship LV 58 as it listed heavily to starboard and then sank in 25 fathoms to the bottom of the ocean.
The Azalea, with its passenger survivors, reached the Reading and Philadelphia wharf in New Bedford, Massachusetts about 2 o’clock in the morning to an awaiting array of medical personnel and newspaper reporters. The following day’s newspaper headlines credited Capt. Charles Gibbs and the Azalea’s crew with deeds of heroism, while relating the heroic stories of the lightship crew whose efforts to save the lightship had been in vain.
When the lightship crew was forced to abandon ship, there was no time to gather any of their personal possessions, and everything they owned went down with the ship. The eleven crewmen and officers of the Relief Lightship LV 58 all suffered various types of injuries in the incident; some of them took longer to heal than others. It was then that they found out that the government didn’t really care about their injuries, which in many cases resulted in a lengthy time off work for recovery. The fact that they suffered those injuries while trying to save a government lightship also didn’t matter to the government. The government stated that since the men operated under Navy rules, they were denied pay while they were recovering from their injuries. They would not be paid again until such time as they were deemed physically fit and assigned to a new vessel or position with the Lighthouse Service. It seems the government rules stated that men assigned to a ship that sank would not be paid. When the newspapers found out about this, it created a public uproar. The men appealed directly to the U. S. Light-House Board in Washington D.C.
The newspapers of time wrote numerous stories siding with the men, such as this excerpt from the Washington Post:
“For many months each year they are stationed far out to sea anchored in the stormiest and most perilous waters of the Western Hemisphere practically extricated from every joy and comfort man holds dear, exposed to incredible hardship, devoted to saving life and property.
“And now we are told that when the ship goes down with all their personal belongings the government takes no further interest therein – acknowledges no responsibilities- pays out not another penny and doesn’t make good on their private loses.
“This seems a dreadful thing; our great wealthy government which pays out annually in thousands of salaries ranging from $2000 to dizzy heights and to men who do nothing, serve no useful purpose - mere barnacles, grafters and deadbeats and now this government cuts off the pay of the heroic lifesavers simply because the vessel upon which they have habitually risked their lives for others has succumbed to an elementary fury! Surely this abhorrent picture must be the child of some tortured dream.”
However, the United States Light-House Board did not bow to the public outcry or the newspaper editorials, and they upheld the government’s denial, primarily at the Navy’s insistence, of giving any pay to the crewmen. The crew of the sunken lightship was notified of the decision in writing by a letter from Captain Uriel Sebree, who was Secretary of the U.S. Light-House Board from 1904 to 1907. However, the men were told that they would be given special preference in future appointments. It is unknown how many of the men, if any, actually received special preference in future jobs. But they were given special commendations by the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, Victor H. Metcalf, which may have been nice to hang on the wall, or store away in a foot locker or family Bible, but it did not pay the rent or put food on their table.
Then, in what many called a slap in the face to the crew of the lightship, Charles Gibbs, captain of the Azalea, was given a pay raise because of his leadership in the rescue of the lightship crew. He also received a commendation.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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