Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2015

Collecting Nautical Antiques

The Monomoy Disaster

By Jim Claflin


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Keeper Seth Ellis with the Monomoy Life-Saving ...

In last month’s Lighthouse Digest the editors included a photo of a Life-Saving Service crew posing in their surfboat. They asked the questions: “Where were they from?” “What were their names?” “Were they involved in any daring rescues?”

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As the Monomoy crew pulled toward the Wadena, ...

Yes indeed, they certainly were!

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Monomoy Life-Saving station and crew on Cape Cod

The gentleman standing is the station keeper. His name is Seth Linwood Ellis, Keeper at the Monomoy Life Saving Station when this photo was taken in about 1908. But in March of 1902, Ellis was No. 1 Surfman at the Monomoy Life-Saving station. There he would be involved in one of the most disastrous incidents in Cape Cod life-saving history.

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Keeper Seth L. Ellis in late 1902 following his ...

The Monomoy station was one of the original nine stations erected on Cape Cod in the 1870s. It was located two and one-half miles north of Monomoy Light – one of the most dangerous spots on the coast. Disaster followed disaster on the Cape Cod coast and the work of the life-savers involved the greatest of peril at all times.

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The church in Orleans where memorial services ...

Seth Ellis, age 44, had been in the Life-Saving Service about seven years, following a career at sea fishing but by March 17, 1902 he was No. 1 Surfman serving under Keeper Marshall W. Eldredge. Eldredge had been a surfman for twelve years before being promoted to Keeper, and there wasn’t a cowardly cell in his make-up.

In addition to Surfman Ellis, other members of the Monomoy boat crew that day included Surfmen Isaac T. Foy, Valentine D. Nickerson, Osborne Chase, Edgar C. Small and Arthur Rogers.

During a northeast gale on the night of March 11, the coal barges Wadena and John C. Fitzpatrick, bound from Newport News, VA to Boston, MA in tow of the tug, Sweepstakes, struck on Shovelful Shoal, off the southern end of Monomoy Island, Cape Cod while seeking an anchorage.

A few hours after stranding, the crew of the Monomoy Life-Saving Station boarded the barges and tried to float them. Finding the undertaking impracticable, due to the weather, they took both crews of five men each to the life-saving station.

Over the next few days, wreckers were engaged to lighten the cargoes and float the barges. As conditions permitted, the wreckers continued their labors off and on until the night of March 16. At this time the weather became so threatening that the tug Peter Smith, which had replaced the Sweepstakes, took all the men off the Wadena, except five

At about 8:00 on the 17th, the surfman on the south patrol reported the barges as being in no immediate danger as far as he could make out. The barge Wadena lay about half a mile south of the point. Although Keeper Eldridge saw no signs of especial danger, the crew had now hoisted an American flag, upside down – a signal of distress— in hopes that the men of the Monomoy Life Saving Station would come to their aid. Keeper Eldridge could not disregard it. He, therefore, ordered the crew to launch the surfboat. The men put on their storm clothes and after a hard pull reached a point on the beach some 2.5 miles from the station.

The reports of the Life-Saving Service tell it best: “The keeper steered his course around the point straight for the Wadena. In many places on the shoals, the sea was very heavy, a peculiarly difficult and treacherous sea in which to handle a boat and barrels of water were shipped over the sides. It was nearly noon when the boat rounded-to under the lee of the barge, to the only place where the waves permitted going alongside with any safety. A line was instantly thrown to the surfmen from the barge.

The keeper directed the five stranded wreckers to get into the boat. The main rail of the vessel was 12 or 13 feet above the water, and the men lowered themselves one by one over the side by means of a rope. Most unfortunately, Captain Olsen, a heavy man, lost his grasp on the way down and dropped with such force on the second thwart that he broke it. This put the surfmen, rowing on that seat, to great disadvantage.

The surf boat then shoved off. There was little safety room to maneuver and a swift attempt was made to clear the line of breakers. While the surfmen holding the port oars were backing hard and those on the starboard side were pulling, a sea struck the boat and poured a great deal of water into it. The men from the barge instantly flew into a panic that could not be quelled. They stood up, clung to the surfmen, crowded them out of their places on the thwarts, obstructed the use of the oars, and made any effective work impossible. The keeper and his crew were cool and resolute. They strained every muscle to turn the boat and did their utmost to restore reason and order.

But immediately, a heavier wave rose up, fell broadside upon them, and the boat went over. Everyone who could clung to it as it drifted fast into the heaviest of the breakers. Twice the lifesavers righted it, but each time the seas upset it again. There was no longer any opportunity for concerted action. The water was bitter cold and the foam of the breakers nearly suffocating. Only the strongest could survive. As the boat tumbled and rolled about, the waves completely submerged it every few moments. One by one the men lost their hold and disappeared. With seven of them all was soon over.

Keeper Eldridge and Surfmen Ellis, Kendrick, Foye, and Rogers still held on. Kendrick had sufficient strength to climb to the bottom of the boat, but the next sea swept him away and Foye soon followed. Keeper Eldridge was fast losing his vitality and now asked Ellis, who had succeeded in getting back onto the boat, to help him. Soon a strong wave washed off both of them and Eldridge, after regaining and losing his grasp several times, gave out and was seen no more. Only Rogers and Ellis remained. The former despairingly threw his arms around the latter’s neck. Unless Ellis could release himself, both would drown together. It was a terrible emergency. With the strength of desperation, Ellis broke away and hauled himself once more onto the boat while Rogers was still able to clutch the submerged rail. Ellis could scarcely breathe and was so worn out that all he could do was to keep his place and extend to his comrade a few feeble words of encouragement. Rogers was soon exhausted and after faintly moaning, “I have got to go,” he fell away out of sight.

The awful tragedy was almost complete and poor Ellis nearly hopeless, but the boat eventually drifted into less turbulent water. The centerboard slipped part way out of the trunk so that he could clutch it and hold his place far more securely. Nevertheless, he might soon have perished had not assistance soon reached him.

The barge Fitzpatrick, which had stranded at the same time as the Wadena, was still intact on the shoal. On board were Captain Andrew Welsh, master, Captain Benjamin Mallows, marine underwriter, and Captain Elmer F. Mayo of Chatham, in charge of wrecking operations.

They were busy battening down hatches and had just started their steam pump when Captain Mayo glanced over the port rail and saw a capsized boat with four men clinging to it. Mayo remembered, however, that he had observed a signal of distress flying on the Wadena and soon realized that the capsized boat belonged to the life-saving station.

Mayo now astonished his shipmates by declaring that he would go to the rescue with the barge’s dory, a vessel totally unfit for so perilous an enterprise. It lay on deck without thole pins or oars. Two pieces of pine, a serving stick, and an old rasp were quickly driven in for thole pins. Two old sawed-off oars were got together. In such crippled condition as this the little dory was thrust over the rail and fortunately took the water right side up. Mayo threw off his boots and oil jacket, strapped a life preserver about him and leapt into the dory, oars in hand. He then shoved away. Watching his chance with consummate skill and judgment, he swept across the heaviest line of breakers and then located the overturned surfboat ahead and pulled ahead with all his might. Ellis stated that he waved his hand toward the barge after Rogers drowned and saw a dory thrown over the side, but after that, he saw nothing “until all at once the dory hove in sight” near him. Captain Mayo ran close alongside the capsized boat, and as he did so Ellis reached out and dragged himself into the dory.

Mayo’s work was so far well and bravely done, but the most dangerous part of it was still to be accomplished. He could not pull back to the barge, nor to the shore on the inside of the point. Instead, he had to make his landing on the outside where the surf was most dangerous. He knew that the attempt would jeopardize his own life and he carefully picked out his way. He held back a few moments until a person whom he saw coming down the beach could reach the edge of the water and render aid in case of need. This man proved to be Francisco Bloomer, a skillful surfman who had remained at the station on watch. As soon as he was abreast of the boat, Mayo drove it forward with great power while Bloomer ran into the surf and assisted both men safely to land.

When Captain Mayo’s mission was done, news of it spread quickly and it was proclaimed a most noble and brilliant achievement. In recognition of his extraordinary merits, the Secretary of the Treasury bestowed upon him the Gold Lifesaving Medal, awarded only to those who display the most extreme and heroic daring in saving life from the perils of the sea. Surfman Ellis, for his devotion to duty, his faultless courage, and his self-sacrificing fidelity to his comrades, was likewise honored. The Massachusetts Humane Society likewise bestowed Gold Lifesaving Medals on each. Ellis would soon be promoted to Keeper of the Monomoy station.

The loss of the 7 life-saving men who perished created a sense of profound sorrow across the country. There was no more skillful or fearless crew on the whole coast. As the Wadena remained safe for days after the disaster, there was a general conviction that the men were a tragic and unnecessary sacrifice. On the one hand, they responded to the needless apprehensions and senseless panic of the men from the barge. On the other hand they fell victim to their own high sense of duty which would not permit them to turn their backs upon a signal of distress. Perhaps the keeper’s order best sums up their ironic legacy. He said, “We must go, there is a distress flag in the rigging.” “ Surfman Ellis would remark after the ordeal: “If the persons we took off the barge had kept quiet as we told them to, all hand would have been landed in safety.”

In 1903 a monument was erected next to the Chatham Lighthouse by the family of William Henry Mack, the owner of the barge Wadena, who was one of those drowned. On the monument is inscribed the names of the owner and crew of the barge Wadena who were lost, and the seven men of Monomoy Life-Saving Station who were drowned trying to rescue them, as well as the third and fourth stanzas of the poem “Crossing the Bar” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

In the 1908 surfboat photo, the lone survivor of the Monomoy Disaster Seth Ellis, now Keeper at the Monomoy Station, can be seen standing near the stern. The eight surfmen probably include Walter Bloomer, now No. 1 Surfman, who was on duty in the station during the rescue attempt. The remaining surfman probably include George Cahoon, Walter F. Wixon, Thomas H. Kane and Edwin A. Studley, who replaced the deceased life-savers.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2015 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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