Ocean City Life Saving Station Museum
The Wreck of the Sallie W. Kaye
by George and Suzanne Hurley
1984

Searching for wrecks
At Ocean City, Maryland, 1883

On January 10, 1883, during the height of a great snowstorm, a tragic wreck took place on the coast near Ocean City, Maryland. This storm was of such severity and of such a long duration that it had no parallel in the annals of this region.

The three-masted, two-decked schooner Sallie W. Kaye, of Somers Point, New Jersey, was bound from Baltimore to Boston with a cargo of coal and a crew of seven men. Before dawn, a about six o'clock, the schooner was sailing in the heart of the chaos of snow, with the lookout on deck unable to see more than one ship's length ahead. Suddenly, without warning, the KAYE brought up hard and fast aground. The moment she struck, the watch below rushed up on deck and ordered all hands to make haste to lower the yawl. The crew moved it from the stern section and secured it under the bow, ready for use in case it became necessary to abandon the vessel. But the sea broke over the schooner in such torrents that the yawl was broken from its tackles and swept out to sea. Within moments, the crew had to scurry aloft into the rigging. Sea after sea came charging over the stern, scattering, rending, and staving in all directions. It was not long before the top of the cabin was torn off, the hatches were burst open, and the water was pouring in to fill the schooner.

The danger on deck was so immediate that the sailors leaped up into the rigging without having time to lower the sails, which remained set throughout the entire period of the disaster. The KAYE lifted and fell, pounding the bottom so violently with her hull that with every impact the crew feared that the mast upon which they had taken refuge would snap. Between seas, they descended from the rigging and clambered out beyond the bowsprit onto the jib boom. Here they clustered, all in a row, straddling the spar, and were offered some shelter from the gale and snow by loosening the flying jib and wrapping themselves as a group in its folds.

The sailors upon the jib boom maintained their weary and desolate watch for three hours, with no signs of any relief coming. A German crewman named Anton, his patience becoming exhausted, declared that he was going to swim ashore and seek assistance. He was a young man, very muscular, and a powerful swimmer. The captain, realizing the terrible condition of the sea and knowing the danger of such an atsitet, begged Anton not to enter the water. Anton was determined and paid no heed to the pleas of his comrades. He stripped off his boots and part of his clothing, slid down the martingale, dropped into the icy water, and struck out boldly for the shore. Anton struggled powerfully with the sea. For a long time his shipmates anxiously watched him and saw him again and again nearly effect a landing, only to be thrown back at each approach by the powerful undertow. At last he was swept away to the south by the swift current and gradually receded from view, battling with the swirling waters to the last.

After this catastrophe, the dejected sailors were doubly resigned to wait until help arrived.

A surfman from the Ocean City Life-Saving Station started out on his foot patrol to the north of the station at four o'clock in the morning. He was unable to make more than a mile and a half of his four-mile patrol because he became extremely exhausted after several hours. Forced by the ever-increasing danger of the storm to retreat to the station, he arrived back to the building four hours later. His way had been through a storm of blinding snow and spray which rendered vision beyond a few yards impossible. The beach was trenched with gullies, through which, with every rush of the sea, the water drove as if forced from an engine. In low places, the beach was entirely flooded, and the surfman had to wade through hip-deep water. Where the water did not reach was the snow, and this lay twenty inches deep on the level and up to the waist and over the head in drifts. Under such conditions, patrolling was judged to be impracticable. Even with the greatest diligence the surfman could not accomplish any distance or see anything in his path. The best that could be done was to keep a vigilant watch from the exposed lookout platform on top of the station.

The Sallie W. Kaye had struck upon a bar about 250 yards from shore ad some five and one-half miles north of the Ocean City Life-Saving Station. The captain and crew surmised they were on the Maryland coast, on which they were aware there were life-saving stations, but they had no idea as to their exact location or surroundings. It was fully an hour before the universal cloud of snow which whirled around them was rent asunder for a moment by a gust and gave them a brief glimpse of the beach and of a single dwelling, perhaps a mile to the northwest. This transitory view, in addition to their knowledge of the existence of life-saving stations on the coast, immediately made them confident that help would soon reach them.

The house they saw beyond the dunes was the dwelling of a fisherman named Howard. Howard's young son happened to sight the wreck during a lull in the storm and at once called his father. The high storm tide was then bursting upon the beach and in some places running entirely over it into the bay beyond. The surf was cutting deep gullies across the sand, through which the sea jetted with torrential force. To notify the surfmen at the Ocean City Life-Saving Station, six miles to the south, as Howard wanted to do, was for the moment impossible. Under the circumstances Howard decided to wait until the tide abated. He could see the men on the wreck, and considered them in no immediate danger. At a little after nine o'clock the tide began to fall, clearing the beach of some of the flood waters, and the small boy was dispatched for the station.

As the morning wore on there was another lull in the snowstorm and the horizons opened, so that by eleven o'clock the surfman on the lookout tower caught sight of the distant schooner. The station crew was at once aroused to activity, and Keeper William T. West ordered out the rescue apparatus. Realizing, however the impossibility of hauling it by hand over such a beach, he dispatched a man for a pair of oxen. To obtain the use of the oxen, a surfman had to make his way through heavily drifted snow across the railroad bridge, which joined the island to the mainland, and then walk for some distance to the nearest farm. When he returned with the animals, the beach apparatus cart was loaded with the rescue equipment.

The journey north was terrible. Against the onset of a gale, the men buckled to with the oxen, tugging to loaded mortar-cart, with its thousand pounds of apparatus, over the snow-clogged, torn and flooded beach. Midway between the station and the wreck they met the little Howard boy toiling toward them, and their anxiety to get to the scene of the disaster rose to a fevered pitch. Every muscle and sinew was strained with renewed strength as they bent to the task ahead. They arrived in front of the vessel a little after two o'clock.

The surfmen were totally exhausted from the long haul and had to pause for a short time to recover their strength. The spectacle of the wretched sailors perched upon the jib boom of the wreck, with the waters coiling and leaping below them, made their pause a short one. It was but a few moments before the mortar-cart was unloaded and the gun trained upon the vessel. At the first shot the line flew over the foretop maststay and the bight slipped down within reach of the sailors, who a once began to haul it in. They were numb and cramped with their long confinement upon the spar, beaten with the cold gale and snow, with only the shelter of a drenched and frozen sail. With great difficulty they gather in the whipline, which the current bellied far southward as it was paid out from the beach. It was not long before the lines were set up, however, and the breeches buoy rigged onto them. One by one the six sailors were brought ashore. It was a slow and laborious undertaking, but with the help of ten Ocean City residents who had followed the life-saving crew to the scene of the wreck, the sailors were removed in record time.


to the rescue
The rescued men were almost dead of exposure, and no time was lost in setting out with them on the journey back to the station. The keeper and the citizens took them in charge, while the crew loaded up the apparatus in the mortar-cart and followed them. The rescued seamen walked with great difficulty because they were so cold and exhausted. Fortunately James Crawford, the Signal Service operator of Ocean City, had come to the scene in his wagon upon which three sailors at a time were conveyed alternately. Those who walked in their turn were supported and helped by the keeper and the concerned citizens. Despite the aid of the villagers, long before the station was reached the seamen wanted to sit down, because they were so fatigued, and left to themselves they undoubtedly would have given up and died upon the beach. Under the circumstances, the march with these cripples through the slush of sand and the snowdrifts was painful and slow, but a steady pace was maintained, and by six o'clock in the evening they had arrived at the station. The frozen clothing of the sailors was stripped and exchanged for such dry clothes as the scanty stores of the surfmen afforded, and with the aid of plentiful hot coffee and food, the men were restored and put to bed. Several days afterward, the sailors recovered and were ready to leave the island. Two days after the sailors departed for their homes, the body of Anton was found tossing in the surf, sixteen miles below the scene of the wreck.







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