Wednesday, March 30, 2011


So sudden and unexpected was this hurricane’s appearance that most ships in the vicinity had no warning of its presence until the terrific winds actually struck.
     The 335-ton schooner Roger Moore had passed by Oak Island shortly before, en route from Wilmington to Ponce, Puerto Rico, with a cargo of lumber. She was caught on the fringe of the storm, and before it was over lost part of her sails and deck cargo, and one of her 8 crewmen was washed overboard.
     At midnight on August 27 the three-masted, 286-ton schooner Three Sisters, of Philadelphia, fully loaded with pine lumber she had picked up in Savannah, was off Frying Pan Shoals Lightship. By 1 a.m. on August 28 the wind had reached hurricane force, and within an hour the sails and mizzenmast had been lost, and both master and mate washed overboard and drowned. This left the cook in charge of the five-man crew.
     Throughout the following day she drifted, wallowing in the rough sea, shipping large quantities of water, and slowly being driven toward the coast. She was spotted at two o’clock that afternoon from the watchtower of Cape Fear Station by keeper J.L. Watts and shortly afterwards by Dunbar Davis at Oak Island. When it was clear that the ship’s intention was to run toward ashore, they realized it would be fatal to both vessel and crew given the tremendous seas breaking northeast of the cape and signaled the vessel to anchor where she was and await assistance. Before dawn on August 29, 11 surfmen shoved off, rounded the cape without accident, and reached the schooner soon after sunrise. Despite heavy seas, it was a comparatively simple matter to take off the 5 crewmen and return with them to Southport where medical attention could be given. As for the Three Sisters, she was left at anchor, to be towed into the harbor for repairs when the storm subsided.
     No sooner had the Oak Island crew returned to their station when they learned a signal had been hoisted for the German brig Wustrow, stranded about 9 miles west, near Lockwoods Folly, and gone to pieces. Subsequently, word had been brought to the station that the crew of the brig had reached the beach with the aid of some fishermen in the vicinity. Keeper Davis was on the verge of dismissing his volunteer crew, but before doing so he climbed to his watchtower on the chance that he might be able to see the vessel. Almost immediately he spotted it, closer to the station than had been reported and still in tact. As he focused more clearly on the vessel, he realized he was not looking at the Wustrow, but a three-masted schooner. Two ships were aground west of his station!
     The schooner seemed to be anchored and was beyond the line of breakers, so Davis and his volunteers once again put off in the surfboat. They got only as far as Cape Fear Bar; the wind and tide and breakers combined to hold them in an almost stationery position no matter how hard they rowed. They eventually gave up and started back inside again. A pilot boat and tug appeared on the scene upon hearing of the vessel in distress, but both refused Davis’ request to tow his surfboat across the bar and into the open water beyond. His only course of action was to return to his station and proceed down the beach, on foot, with his lifesaving apparatus. It was mid-afternoon when his crew of 10 men began the long trek along the coast, pulling the apparatus behind them.
     “The beach was so cut through in many places,” Davis reported, “that we made very slow time, and I saw that we could not reach the wreck (the schooner, which later proved to be the 419-ton Kate E. Gifford, of Somers Point, NJ) before night; and further saw that she was not aground. I unloaded a part of the gear and pushed on, thinking to be some service to the crew of the brig. On coming within about two miles of the schooner I met a man with a mule and cart who stated that the crew of the brig had gone to a farmhouse and a party of fishermen was taking everything as it came ashore.”
     Davis immediately hired the man to take him to the spot where the Wustrow had stranded. “In the meantime,” Davis continued, “the schooner had tried to get underway and had grounded. It was now sunset, so I signaled to the schooner that I would assist her as soon as possible. I left a man to keep a fire opposite the schooner, and engaged the man with the mule to return for the balance of the gear. Even with the mule’s help we could make but little headway, for the sand was boggy and every half mile or so we would come to deep gullies. On one of our stops a man came up with a yoke of oxen, I engaged them, and while hitching them up Keeper Watts came up with F.W. Fulcher, D.W. Fulcher, H.E. Mints, L.A. Galloway and Ramon Williams. This was about 10 p.m., and still a hard job was before us, but I made no other stops and reached the vessel at 2 a.m.”
Dunbar Davis, 1892
     With waning winds of the hurricane striking them from across the open sea; with spray and spindrift rolling across the flat beach; with debris from one wreck washing ashore at their feet; David and his crewmen set up their Lyle gun, sank a sand anchor, hooked on the line and ball, loaded the gun with powder, and sent the shot straight and true toward the stricken Gifford. They knew the line had landed on the schooner, but the 7 men aboard the Gifford—which already was going to pieces—did not see the line in the darkness, so it just dangled there, the ball swinging back and forth in the wind.
     Forced to wait until daylight to resume their rescue attempt, the lifesavers built a great fire on the beach, affording some assurance to the shipwrecked sailors that they had not been left on their own. When dawn came, the line was at last spotted by the sailors and secured at a point high on the mast so that heavier lines and the breeches buoy could be hauled aboard. All 7 crewmen reached the beach safely. Davis and the first mate of the Gifford, remained at the scene to watch over the gear that had come ashore.
     By then it was the afternoon of August 30. The record to that time contained three vessels: schooner Three Sisters, grounded, captain and mate washed overboard, crew of 5 saves; brig Wustrow, beaten to pieces in the breakers, crew of 9 safely ashore and cared for by near-by farmers; and schooner Kate E. Gifford, grounded and breaking up, crew of 7 rescued in breeches buoy.
     Davis and the first mate built up a fire and had decided to take turns sleeping when they spotted a small boat coming in from the sea. The boat, a ship’s yawl, came up opposite them and then headed into the surf, landing safely with their assistance. There were 7 men in the yawl—cold, wet, hungry and exhausted. The boat was from the three-masted schooner Jennie E. Thomas, which had become waterlogged about 35 miles S.W. of Cape Fear. The mate and three men left her and boarded a near-by vessel in hopes of getting supplies. But the other vessel, the 371-ton schooner Enchantress carrying a cargo of railroad ties from Port Royal, SC, to New York, was in as bad a condition as theirs—waterlogged and unmanageable with one member of their crew washed overboard and the captain injured. So the captain and two of her crew had joined those in the yawl from the Thomas and the 7 had headed for the beach, eventually spotting the fire Davis had built. (Later, the Enchantress stranded near Lockwoods Folly and became a total loss. The Thomas was towed into Southport and repaired. The remaining crew members of both vessels were all saved.)
     When Davis finally returned to Oak Island Station at 9 o’clock that night he found it crowded with shipwrecked sailors: There were 6 from the Gifford, plus the mate; 7 from the Thomas and Enchantress and four from the Wustrow. All of the food in the station had long since been used up, and the clothing too. But the keeper of the lighthouse and his wife had come over to assist Mrs. Davis in tending to wounds and cooking, and provided a considerable additional food from their own supply.

None of following ships was ever seen again:
  • The Mary J. Cook, 436 tons, was bound from Port Royal, SC, to Boston with a cargo of lumber. In addition to her crew of 7, she carried one passenger.
  • The schooner L.A. Burnham, 389 tons, bound from Savannah to Portland, ME, carried lumber and a crew of 7.
  • The schooner A.R. Weeks, 445 tons, from Satilla Bluffs, GA, to Elizabethport, NJ, carried lumber and a crew of 8.
  • The schooner George W. Fenimore, 673 tons, from Brunswick, GA, to Philadelphia had lumber and a crew of 8.
  • The schooner Oliver H. Booth, 2476 tons, from Brunswick to Washington, DC, had lumber and a crew of 6.
  • The schooner Gertie M. Rickerson, 219 tons, from New York to Caibarien, Cuba, had a general cargo and a crew of 7.
  • The schooner John S. Case, 198 tons, from Jonesport, ME, to Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo, had lumber and a crew of 6.
  • The schooner Lizzie May, 201 tons, was en route from New York to Fernandina, FL, in ballast with a crew of 6.

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