Thursday, April 5, 2012

Schooner Thomas J. Lancaster ~ 5 October 1881

Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1882:

The schooner Thomas J. Lancaster, of Philadelphia, PA, six 653 tons, left Boston, MA, on Thursday, September 22, 1881, bound to Savannah, GA, with a cargo of a little over 1,000 tons of ice. Her crew consisted of the captain [George L. Hunter], two mates, steward, five seamen, the captain’s wife and their three children; thirteen all told.
     At midnight on the 4th of October the vessel was about 8 miles off Bodie’s Island light, coast of North Carolina. The wind was light from the northwest, and the sea smooth. The mate took charge of the watch at midnight, and was steering south by west, according to the testimony of the man at the wheel, when the vessel grounded. Between 3 and 4 in the morning a heavy squall stuck the vessel from the north-northeast, and while the crew were engaged in taking in sail she stranded, with her head to the westward, pointing inshore. The point of disaster was about three and a half miles north of Life Saving Station No. 18 (6th District), North Carolina, and just north of the Loggerhead Inlet, which is closed up.
     As the sea was making rapidly and breaking over the rail, and the vessel commenced to pound heavily, the large boat was launched over the side of the vessel to leeward, with the intention of taking to it at daylight and trying to land. It was not then known whether the schooner had stranded on the main beach or on some outlying shoal. The second mate and three men got into the boat to keep it from being smashed against the side of the vessel. The rest of the crew were engaged in collecting clothes and supplies to put in the boat. Soon after the boat was launched a red light was seen inshore, which afterward proved to be the Coston light of the patrolman from Station No. 18, who first discovered the wreck. The boat, which was hanging by a new three or three and a half inch line from the vessel, was shipping water constantly, and one man was at work bailing it out with a bucket to keep it free.
     About half an hour after the boat was launched a sea swept it away, parting the painter and drowning two of the men, while the second mate and other man succeeded in holding on to a rope fast to the vessel which led to the stern of the boat. The second mate’s leg was broken, it is supposed by getting a turn of the rope around it, and he was supported in the water alongside the vessel until two of the crew, who heard them calling for help, let a bow line down over the side and handed them on board, the second mate first, then the man. The second mate was put in the galley for safety.
     About this time the seas dashed in at the cabin windows and the vessel commenced to break up aft. The captain’s wife and three children were then taken to the forecastle, but the water coming in there, they were moved father forward to the windlass room. After this the vessel’s decks commenced to break up and the ice to come out. All hands then took refuge on the top gallant forecastle. The second mate was lashed in the fore rigging. The mate took one child out on the bowsprit, and Mrs. Hunter was lashed to the bitts with the youngest child, 18 months old, in her arms. The other child was put in charge of the steward.
     Pretty soon a sea washed over the forecastle and swept the child from the steward down to leeward under the jib sheets. The captain went after it and succeeded in getting hold of it, but another sea came and washed it away from him overboard. The same sea took the baby from its mother’s arms and washed it overboard, and both children were lost. In trying to save his child the captain was badly hurt, being dashed against the capstan and cat head by the seas. Soon after another sea was shipped, which washed the captain off the starboard bow overboard. As the current swept him around the bow, he caught hold of the bobstays and climbed up on them. After resting there awhile, he crawled over the port bow and seated himself alongside his wife, who was then lashed in the port fore-rigging with the steward and second mate. The captain and the rest of the survivors took refuge on the bowsprit and jib boom.
     By this time the life saving men from Station No. 18 had appeared upon the scene and commenced operations. The wreck had been discovered by Benjamin O’Neal, a substitute for the No. 1 surfman, who was home sick. He was on the northern patrol from 3 a.m. to sunrise. It was about 4 a.m.; the weather was misty and thick, and soon as he made out that a vessel was ashore he burned his red light and started for the station, which he reached about daybreak, and immediately called the keeper. The crew were aroused, and while two of them went after their horses, the rest, including Stanley Midgett, a volunteer who had been hauling wood to the station, started with the mortar cart, containing the beach apparatus. The south patrolman had not yet returned. They succeeded in getting the mortar cart some distance, when the force of the gale compelled them to stop. The two men with their horses then joined them, and they again started up the beach in the face of the gale. When about half a mile on their way they were joined by the south patrol, who hitched on his horse, making in all a force of 8 men and three horses hauling the mortar cart. They arrived at the scene of the wreck about two hours after they started, probably between 7 and 8 o’clock. At times they were up to their knees in water running across the beach from sea to sound, which, with the almost constantly shifting sand under the mortar cart wheels made the hauling extremely difficult and exhausting. The Signal Service operator, whose sworn statement was taken, testified that the gale commenced a Hatteras, about half past 3 in the morning. At 5 a.m. the velocity of the wind was 65 miles per hour. At Kittyhawk it was blowing at the rate of 67 miles. At noon the wind had moderated to 40 miles. From then until sundown the average velocity was about 35 miles per hour. As the wreck occurred about half way between Kittyhawk and Hatteras it is presumable that the force of the gale was about the same there. At times on the way up the beach the sea was washing pieces of the wreck stuff against the wheels of the mortar cart.
     As soon as possible after reaching the scene of the wreck the gun was placed in position and fired. The vessel was lying nearly head on to the beach at a distance estimated to be about 300 yards from high water mark. The first shot took the line through the mizzen rigging, and probably dropped over the stern into the sea. One of the men on the wreck attempted to reach the shot line, but before he could work his way aft the strong current setting to leeward, between the wreck and shore, acting on the bight of the line, hauled the shot back through the rigging into the sea. The line was hen hauled ashore, the men faking it down n the box and on the beach as it came in. A second shot was then fired with an eight-ounce charge of powder, which parted the line close to the shot. A third was then fired with a six-ounce charge with a like result. The shot line was then taken to the cart to keep it clear of the water on the beach, and faked down on the pins so as to leave the dry end up when ready for use. A fourth shot was then fired with a six-ounce charge, which threw the line across the head stays, the bight running down to the end of the jib book, where it was caught by one of the men on the wreck, who took a turn with it around the jib boom to hold it, but not before the current had swept the line down so that the shot had been drawn up to the top of the water under the jib boom. About this time the keeper and crew of Station No. 17 arrived. The wreck had been discovered from the window of that station at daylight by one of the surfmen. As soon as they could get ready they started with their boat wagon down the beach to New Inlet, where they crossed on the inside, landing at the fish houses on the sound side of the south point. They waded across the low beach through the water to the wreck, carrying with them the station medicine chest, 7 cork jackets, a Merriman suit, and two heaving lines and sticks. Upon their arrival they joined the crew of No. 18 in their efforts to establish communication with the wreck.
     The men on the wreck having succeeded in getting the shot line to the top gallant forecastle, the tail block and whip line were bent on at the shore line, and they attempted to haul it aboard. As soon as the two parts of the whip line reached the water, the current swept them to leeward and the men on the wreck were unable, through exhaustion, to haul the whip line off any further. The life saving men then walked the shore end of the shot line to windward and bent on a single part of the whip, but the men on the wreck were unable to haul that off. The hawser was bent on with the same result. Then the tail block and double whip were again bent on and walked to windward repeatedly, and slacked away to enable the men on the wreck to haul them off a little at a time; but after getting the whip off nearly half way the sailors, evidently tired out, stopped hauling, and made the shot line fast. The life saving men from No. 18, upon their arrival, were nearly worn out with their extraordinary exertions in hauling the mortar-cart under so many difficulties, which, added to the labor performed in their attempts to open communication with the wreck by means of the beach apparatus, and the fact that they had had nothing to eat since the day before, makes it almost incredible that they were able to do anything at all. There is no doubt that their failure, through no fault of their own, to work the apparatus successfully and take the survivors off the wreck promptly had a depressing effect upon them, as they had gone there in the belief that all hands would be rescued from the wreck in a short time. The keeper of No. 17 was suffering from the effects of a severe attack of fever; and this crew, also, had had nothing to eat since the day before. Notwithstanding all this, the two keepers, seeing that nothing more could be done with the beach apparatus, decided to send to No. 18 for the surf boat, hoping that the wind and sea might moderate so that the survivors could be rescued before dark. Under the circumstances, it is evident that this was the only course to pursue. Accordingly, three of the crew of No. 18, with two horses, were started down the beach to the station after the surf boat. On the way down they met one of the surfmen returning with a shot line that he had been sent after when the second shot had parted the line. They took him, with his horse, back to the station, and hitched on to the boat carriage, but were unable to haul it up the beach with their three horses. Soon after the men had left for the surf boat a seaman, John Lilley, jumped overboard and swam for the shore. He was met in the breakers by the keeper of No. 18 and some of his men and landed safely. The keeper of No. 18 testified that the current was running so strong that it would sweep him off his feet when waist deep in the water. After this another seaman jumped off the wreck and tried to swim ashore, but was drowned in the attempt. The keeper of No. 18, who had tried to reach him, upon coming out of the water staggered and fell on the beach completely exhausted and taken with a severe chill. He was put into his cart with the man who had been saved, and taken to the station. One the way down he met the keeper of Station No. 19 coming up on his horse, and requested him to do all he could to rescue the survivors. The mate of the vessel, after the seaman was drowned, tied a cork fender to himself, and with a piece of shot line around the line which was still fast between the vessel and the shore, attempted to make his way to the beach. Before any assistance could be rendered to him from the shore he disappeared under the water and was seen no more.
     When the keeper of No. 19 arrived at the wreck, being the senior in command, he started the entire crews of nos. 17 and 18 to bring the surf boat from the latter station. It was not probably nearly 3 in the afternoon. An extra shot line having been brought in the meantime, the keeper of No. 19 determined to make an attempt to send cork jackets off to the wreck, it being improbable that the survivors could be taken off before dark. He fired one shot, which fell short, and then, cutting the shot line off the shore end, fired another, which also fell short, although he testifies that one of the men on the beach said he saw a man on the wreck throw the bight of the line overboard from the end of the jib boom, where it had lodged. This was probably a mistake, as no one on the vessel knew of the circumstance. About sundown Captain Hunter fell off the bowsprit, apparently unable to maintain his position any longer, and drifted to leeward with one arm through a life preserver. He never reached the land. Just before dark the keeper of No. 17 and the men who had gone for the boat returned without it, having been unable to haul it up the beach. They decided to return across the inlet to their station in order to get something to eat and to resume their patrol of the beach for the night. This they accomplished after a sever struggle, the men having to wade with their boat across the shoals whenever they could obtain a foothold. The keeper of No. 19 also returned to his station, leaving two or three men from No. 18 on the beach to keep watch. About 7 p.m., the wind having moderated a little, the keeper of No. 18 having rested and partly recovered from his sickness, started with four of his men and four horses to haul the surf boat up to the wreck. They succeeded in getting her up there in about three hours from the time of starting. They remained on the beach all night, keeping up a fire and making several futile attempts to launch the boat. It was not until the next morning that they were enabled to get the boat clear of the beach. They succeeded in getting under the bow of the wreck, but could not hold on and were obliged t come ashore again. The sea was still very rough and the boat was constantly shipping water. They then waited until about 8 a.m., when, the tide having fallen and the sea moderated a little, they made another attempt to launch, which was successful. They made fast to the vessel under the bow, and, sending two men on board, lowered the survivors into the boat, and watching their chance, all hands were landed safely on the beach.
     The survivors, 6 in all, were Mrs. Hunter, her child, the second mate, two seamen, and the steward. The child died that night at the station from exposure in spite of all efforts made to save it. Harry Brien, one of the seamen, testified that after the captain had fallen overboard he came in off the jib boom that evening about half past 9 and found that the child had slipped from its lashings and was hanging head down by its toes alongside the bowsprit, He picked it up and covering it with canvas laid it on top of the bowsprit. After they had landed, the keeper of No. 16, with three of his men and three from No. 17, arrived at the wreck, also the keeper and crew of No. 19. The keeper of No. 17 was sick and had sent for the keeper of No. 16 to take his place. The survivors were taken to No. 18 and made as comfortable as possible, the keeper and men placing their clothes and possessions generally at their disposal. Keeper Midgett’s wife or some other woman from the neighborhood was with Mrs. Hunter constantly while she remained at the station, attending to her wants. The box of clothing shipped to Station No. 17 by the Women’s National Relief Association was subsequently sent for and the contents placed at the disposal of the survivors. The supply of women’s underwear, and men’s clothes and shoes, and tea, sugar, and beef extract were needed especially, ad proved to be of great benefit to the survivors, who were completely destitute. The broken leg of the second mate received all the attention possible until the arrival of the Marine Hospital surgeon from New Berne, NC, who attended to it. Mrs. Hunter, under the care of her friend, Mr. Vanderherchen, of Philadelphia, who had been sent for, and the two seamen and steward, were taken to Elizabeth City in the revenue sloop Saville on their way North, and free passes were procured for the two seamen t Boston and for the steward to New York.
     It was reported that the captain’s body was robbed of $75 after it was found on the beach. This story is entirely without foundation, and s unjust and cruel to the life saving men, who made coffins for the dead at their own expense and buried them decently, besides helping the survivors in many practical ways, without thought of or desire for recompense.
     It should have been mentioned before that while keeper Midgett and the crew of No. 18 were trying to open communications with the wreck on the first morning with the beach apparatus, a citizen came up the beach and reported that a dead body had washed ashore down below. It was reported the next morning that the body was warm when first discovered. Had it been known at the time, an attempt might have been made to resuscitate it.
    Mrs. Hunter was suffering so much from exposure and bodily injuries received during the time that she was on the wreck, in addition to the loss of her husband and three children, that it would have been impossible to elicit any information from her in regard to the cause of the disaster. As Hatteras light bears due south from Bodie’s Island light, and the vessel was steered south by west after passing the last-named light, it would seem that a mistake was made n the course either by the captain or mate, neither of whom appear to have been familiar with the coast. The vessel had been altered from a centerboard to a keep schooner, which may account partly for her breaking up so soon. She was a total wreck, nothing being saved from her but part of her sails and running and standing rigging. The captain and three children, mate, and two seamen had been picked up and buried on the beach at last accounts, leaving only one seaman to be accounted for.
     In view of the foregoing facts, I respectfully submit the opinion that no blame attaches to the men of the Life Saving Service for failure to rescue the crew of the Lancaster sooner than they did. The failure to work the beach apparatus was caused by want of proper action on the part of the crew of the wreck in hauling the whip line off. From the position of the wreck after the disaster, I am confident that if they had taken the shot line to the capstan on the top-gallant forecastle there would have been little difficulty in getting the whip line off, when all would have been saved in a short time. Also, if all hands had taken to the rigging at first they would probably have been taken off safely in the end.


October 8—The keeper of Station No. 22 (6th District), Creed’s Hill, North Carolina, had a good box made and buried the dead body of a man which one of the patrol had found three fourths of a mile north of the extreme point of Cape Hatteras—probably one of the sailors of the Thomas J. Lancaster, wrecked October 5.

Newspaper Articles:
New York Times, October 11, 1881
New York Times, October 16, 1881

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