Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1891:
The most disastrous wreck of the year was that of the steamship Strathairly, of Newcastle, England, which occurred on March 24, 1891, a mile and a quarter south of the Chicamicomico Station (6th District), coast of North Carolina. Of her crew of 26 men, 19 were lost and but 7 were saved. The Strathairly, commanded by Captain William Wynne, of North Shields, was a schooner rigged screw steamer of 1236 tons register, bound from Santiago, Cuba, to Baltimore, MD, with a cargo of iron ore. She ran ashore at high water about 20 minutes before 5 o’clock in the morning, while it was yet dark. At that time a dense fog hung over land and sea, the wind was blowing fresh from the northward and eastward, and a heavy surf was breaking upon the shore. The deeply laden ship had grounded some four or five hundred yards from the beach. Distress signals were at once sounded with the steam whistle, and in 10 or 15 minutes they were answered by the red glare of a Coston light, burned by the patrolman of the Chicamicomico Station, who was on his south beat towards the Gull Shoal Station. This man at once hastened back to the station with the alarm, and in as short a time as it was possible for them to get there three crews were on the ground from Chicamicomico and the adjacent stations at Gull Shoal and New Inlet. It seems that keeper Wescott, immediately upon receiving the patrolman’s report, had telephoned to the Gull Shoal crew to come to his assistance. The keeper at New Inlet, on the other hand, some four or five miles northward, hearing the ominous tinkle of the telephone bell caused by the calling up of his distant neighbor, had sprung from his bed and rushed to the instrument just in time to catch the message that a steamer was ashore and the call for aid. This was enough for the veteran Midgett, and without waiting for a personal summons he awakened his crew and set out with them at once to the scene of the disaster. Lieutenant Failing, the district inspector, who was in the vicinity on his regular tour of inspection, was also early upon the ground, being summoned from his vessel, the Alert, lying in Pamlico Sound. This officer was an eyewitness of the unavailing efforts of the station crews to prevent so sad a loss of life, and when the tragedy was over took the statements of the survivors of the wreck. The following is from his report:
The Strathairly was built in 1876 in Middlesboro, United Kingdom by R. Dixon and Company.
She operated between 1876 and 1891 as a tramp steamer with no regular route, and
participated in English and Cuban iron trade and Chinese immigration.
As soon as the steamer struck she blew her whistle and it was quickly answered by the patrol, who then lost no time in reporting the wreck to keeper Wescott, of the Chicamicomico Station. The latter at once telephoned keeper Pugh, of the Goal Shoal Station, and then set out with his beach apparatus to the locality of the wreck and began operations. From the testimony of the survivors they heard a gun fired abreast of the wreck in less than half an hour afterwards. It also appears from this testimony that as soon as the vessel struck, orders were given to clear away the port of leeward lifeboat, and the crew had just got it ready to lower when the vessel gave a heavy lurch and the boat was smashed. At this time all the windward boats were also swept away, and all hope had to be given up of reaching the shore by the ship’s boats. The crew then took to the rigging, as he sea was breaking completely over the vessel, the captain, the first officer, and the chief engineer going aloft aft, and the rest forward. Very shortly after this the steamer commenced breaking in two. At about daybreak the mainmast fell over the side and took with it the captain, first officer, and chief engineer, who were lost. When keeper Wescott arrived at the wreck, which was at about 20 minutes to 6 o’clock, he sent one of his crew to notify me, as I was lying off the station in the sound, in the Government sloop.
I arrived near the wreck at about 7 a.m. and found keepers Wescott and Pugh with their crews, but could see nothing of the steamer through the fog, although the cries of the unfortunate men could be heard distinctly. Wescott informed me that he had made an attempt to throw a No. 7 line on board as soon as he reached the ground, although he had not seen the vessel and had nothing but the sounds of voices to guide him. The fog hung low and nothing could be seen of the steamer until 10 o’clock. Long before this, however, keeper L.B. Midgett and the crew of the New Inlet Station had arrived. In the mean time, in addition to the beach apparatus, the surfboat, several spare shot lines, projectiles, and an extra supply of powder had been brought to the scene. When at last the vessel could be made out through the slowly vanishing fog it became apparent that she had broken in two, and that all the people alive were at the bow. The first shot after this was with a six-ounce charge. Its shot fell short, the line attached being a No. 7.
The next shot also fell short. A No. 4, or the smallest-sized line, was then brought into use, and this was landed at the forecastle. As soon as it was seen that the sailors had it, a No. 9 or large line was bent to the smaller one, and it was drawn off in good shape until within a few yards of the vessel when the small line, unable to bear the strain exerted upon it by the longshore current, parted and the attempt had to be made over again. Being prepared for such a contingency no time was lost by the station men, the next shot carrying a No. 7 or medium-sized line. The powder charge was eight ounces. The shot struck the forward rail and the men on board got this line also. A No. 9 line was then bent to it by the surfmen, but the sailors hauled it off very slowly, the current carrying the bight so far to the leeward that gathering the line in was slow and laborious work. To this line the whip was attached and there seemed a good prospect of success at last crowning the joint efforts of the surfmen and the sailors, but before the whip block got more than half way to the ship the stout No. 7 line broke and the situation was as bad as before. In this way effort after effort was made to send the gear off until after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the gun being fired as fast as the lines could be faked down.
By this time it was plain to the men on the beach that something must be wrong on board the ship as no less than five shots had been successful in landing the lines and only two or three men could be seen at work supplementing the labors of the surfmen. This is explained by the statement of the second mate, the only surviving officer, that but tree were in condition to do anything, the rest having scarcely any clothing on and being too benumbed and helpless from exposure. Had the sailors succeeded in reaching the No. 9 line it was the final resolve of those on the beach to send off the whip by its single part and, if this in turn reached the ship, then send the block off and rig the gear any way that was possible. At about non one of the seamen, Albert Smith, jumped overboard with a lifebelt on, and after a desperate struggle in the surf was pulled out by the surfmen, unconscious and nearly dead. He was promptly removed to he dwelling of ex-keeper John Allen Midgett near by, where a detail of men put into practice the method for resuscitation of the apparently drowned, and he was finally brought to.
Shortly after 3 in the afternoon a No. 4 line was landed on the vessel, and to this was attached the next size larger, a No. 7. Three or four men were seen hauling it off, but the smaller line snapped in two when the bend of the No. 7 line was within a few feet of the steamer, and communication was thus again broken. By this time the flood tide was again sweeping in; every shot line had been used and was wet and heavy. The surf also was so high that no boat could live in it. Under these circumstances the surfmen were becoming disheartened. They had labored hard since early morning to effect communication with the ship and rig the gear for the purpose of saving the crew, and every effort had failed. The ship was an unusually great distance from the shore; it was impossible to use the boat, and the life-saving crews seemed to have reached the limit of their resources. The day also was fast waning, and the situation of the sailors was desperate. At 20 minutes before 5 o’clock, just 12 hours after the stranding of their vessel, the sailors were heard shouting to those on shore, and then one by one they jumped into the sea for a final effort to save themselves by swimming, each man being provided with a life belt. It appears in the testimony that at this time, in addition to the loss of the three officers previously mentioned, the second engineer and the cook were also dead. As fast as the poor fellows jumped overboard and began their struggle towards the shore they were swept by the current to the southward. The surfmen and the inhabitants of the neighboring settlements, many of whom had been present on the beach all day, at once followed them, and at great risk to themselves, in wading out into the surf, succeeded in dragging 16 men out of the water. Ten of this number were, however, dead by the time they were reached. Immediate efforts were made to resuscitate them, but without avail. The survivors testify that before they jumped from the ill-fated vessel they were fully satisfied that such a course was their only hope, that no boat could have reached them, and that even if a large line could have reached them then they had not strength enough and were in no condition to rig the gear. N from the moment they reached this conclusion would there have been opportunity to do anything, for in about 20 minutes from the time they abandoned the wreck by jumping into the surf, the foremast went by the board, and very soon thereafter all vestige of the steamer disappeared. In conclusion, I would respectfully say, from personal observation, that every man of these three crews did his duty and used every effort to rescue the shipwrecked sailors. In my judgement, it is plain from the statements of the survivors that the terrible loss of life is in no way attributable to neglect or inefficiency on the on the part of the life saving crews.
John Northcote, ordinary seaman, was so far gone when taken from the surf that he also had to be carried to Capt. John Allen Midgett’s house, where restoratives were applied, and by working on him until after midnight his life was saved. Both Smith and Northcote were moved to the station the following day. The other five men, also greatly prostrated by exposure and their struggles in the surf, where immediately taken to comfortable quarters in the station, where they were provided with dry clothing from the supply donated by the Women’s National Relief Association.
The 10 bodies taken out of the surf were carried to the station, placed in boxes made by the life saving men, a minister was sent for, and they were buried on the morning of the 26th near the station. The men saved are being well cared for by the Chicamicomic crew, and will be sent to Elizabeth City, NC, by the first vessel, and thence transportation will be given them to Norfolk, VA. The following is a list of the saved and lost:
Saved: R. Turner, second officer; George Simpson, boatswain; Albert Smith, seaman; John Wahler, seaman; C. Northcote, orginary seaman; John Campbell, fireman; William McArthur, fireman.
Drowned, bodies recovered and buried by the station crews: John Blakey, third engineer; John T. Kennedy, steward; John Grandy, lamp trimmer; William McGougill, seaman; M. Lisk, seaman; Peter Hansen, seaman; William Hayward, donkeyman; James Steward, fireman; Walter Angus, fireman; and George Angus, fireman. The two latter were brothers.
Drowned, bodies not recovered: William Wynne, master; James Watson, first officer; D. Frazier, chief engineer; Charles Witham, second engineer; Alexander Coull, carpenter; William Smith, fireman; John Barron, fireman; and two others, the cook, a colored man, and the mess room boy, whose names are unknown.
The following letter was received in connection with this sad affair:
CHICAMICOMICO STATION, March 26, 1891
DEAR SIR: We wish to express our heartfelt thanks to the keepers and crews of Chicamicomico, Gull Shoal, and New Inlet stations for the brave and noble service rendered to us by them on March 24, in rescuing us from the surf, as it was impossible for us to gain a footing in our exhausted condition, also for the kind attention we received at their quarters; and we also thank the Women’s National Relief Association for the clothing we received, as were utterly destitute of clothing. Expressions of thanks are but a feeble return for such services, but we hope they will be accepted and prove a source of encouragement to the noble workers in future times of peril. Most respectfully, we remain yours, R. TURNER, Second officer ; G. SIMPSON, Boatswain ; W. McARTHUR ; J. CAMPBELL ; ALBERT SMITH ; JOHN WALER ; C. NORTHCOTE