Monday, January 2, 2012

Schooner Wesley M. Oler ~ 5 December 1902

Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1903:

Struck on the bar off Hatteras Inlet during the night, a heavy SW. gale with rough sea prevailing. The disaster was discovered at daylight by a surfman who had been left in charge of the station while the crew had gone to the assistance of a vessel several miles down the beach. He went on horseback after the crew, who at once returned but found that the vessel had gone to pieces. (For detailed account see caption “Loss of life.”)

Wreck of the schooner Wesley M. Oler

The four-masted schooner Wesley M. Oler was sunk and totally destroyed about 1 mile off Hatteras Inlet, NC, during the early morning of December 5, 1902, and her entire crew of 10 men perished.
     The vessel was of 1,061 tons gross burden, built in 1891, at Bath, ME, and was considered a fine example of her type. After discharging a cargo of coal at San Juan, Porto Rico, she sailed to Orchilla, a Venezuelan island in the Caribbean Sea, where she loaded with guano for New York. On her way north she encountered a heavy gale, and on the 7th of November, disabled and leaking, was compelled to put into Nassau for the purpose of making repairs. The United States consul reports that she anchored 25 miles from the city, where she was surveyed and certain repairs were recommended, but the owners or master refused to abide by the surveyor’s report. The tug Underwriter, of the Boston Towboat Company, appears to have been in southern waters, and Messrs. Crowell and Thurlow (the owners of the schooner) engaged her to tow the Oler from Nassau to New York.
     The Underwriter is a powerful seagoing vessel of over 300 tons, and the master states that during the fires three or four days she made excellent progress with the heavy schooner astern.
     On Sunday, November 30, he took the Oler in tow from Southwest Bay, New Providence, stood over toward the American coast at Jupiter, and then headed northward. Tuesday began with squally weather and a heavy roll from the southeast, which caused the captain of the schooner to furl all his sails, and they were never set again. During Wednesday and Thursday soundings were struck off Cape Lookout and lost again, whereupon the tug hauled in for soundings at Hatteras, which were made, and she then stood seaward. The storm on Thursday afternoon and night was blowing at the rate of 70 or 80 miles an hour, while rain and the tops of the seas lifted on the wind filled the air so that no object could be seen beyond a very short distance away. About 2.30 in the night (Friday morning, December 5), the towing hawser parted and the Oler disappeared. The tug “lay around under one bell till daylight and ran in toward Hatteras, but could see nothing of the schooner, and therefore proceeded to Hampton Roads.”
     The schooner without sail was of course unable to take care of herself, and the seas were sweeping her decks in such volume and fury that the crew could now make no movement to put her under canvas. Since none of those on board survived to give an account of the disaster, and the tug continued on her way as already stated, the circumstances of the interval following the parting of the towline and the discovery of the schooner from the shore are matters of conjecture. It is certain, however, that she drifted into the bight between Cape Lookout and Hatteras Shoals, and sometime after 2.30 a.m., before daylight, struck on the south side of Hatteras Inlet bar, where it is known that she went to pieces very soon afterwards.
     She was first seen from the shore just after daylight by Walter C. O’Neal, who happened to be on the beach. She was then sunk and the seas were dashing over her hull and high up the masts, which were still standing with sails furled. At first the young man thought he could perceive two objects in the rigging which might be men, but the wreck was a mile offshore and he expressed himself as by no means sure, while the general opinion was that no living person was on board at that time. He at once started down the beach on horseback to find and summon the keeper and crew of the life saving station, who had gone some 15 miles to the southward to the assistance of a vessel in distress at that point. About 8 o’clock, after having proceeded 7 or 8 miles, he met keeper Howard and his crew returning to the station.
     Upon receiving information of the disaster they quickened their pace as much as possible, and reached the station at 9.30 a.m. The masts of the wreck went by the board about half an hour earlier, and there was no vestige of her to be seen thereafter. She sank a mile off the beach, on the south side of the bar, and, assuming that her crew were on board when she was discovered, of which there is no probability whatever, Lieutenant J.E. Reinburg of the United States Revenue Cutter Service, who investigated the circumstances, is of the opinion that the life saving crew could have rendered no assistance “even had they been on the shore with unlimited help.” The sea was too heavy for a boat to live, and the wreck was many times too far away to permit the use of the beach apparatus.
     The crew of the Durants saw the Oler just after daylight, and immediately started for the vicinity with the beach apparatus cart, but after having proceeded a sufficient distance to locate the wreck with precision, returned to the station and launched the surfboat into the sound, with the purpose of going to the Hatteras Inlet Station to join forces with keeper Howard in any movement which might be found feasible. When nearly across the inlet keeper Burrus saw the masts of the schooner fall, and wisely reasoning that if any boats had escaped from her they would drift to the northward and eastward in the direction of his station, he quickly turned back. But no boats or wreckage bearing persons appeared, and careful patrolling developed none in the surf. Assistant inspector Daniels expresses the opinion that keeper Burrus and his crew deserve great credit for their trip across the inlet, which “was dangerous in the extreme and called for much skill and courage.”
     The investigating officer, in concluding his report, says:

“The schooner Wesley M. Oler struck and was lost on one of the most dangerous points on the whole Atlantic coast, and in one of the worst storms ever recorded in that locality. The fact that all her sails being furled, and many of the bodies found being naked or half clad, would seem to indicate that she went down very shortly after breaking away from the tug, and while a portion of her crew were in their berths suspecting no danger.”

Newspaper Article:
New York Times, December 9, 1902

 “…gon all to peeces nothing left but a few spars hanging around the wreck. The sea being so high it was imposable of getting eny wheare about her… no appearance of any body around the wreck.” ~James Howard

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