Shipwreck of the Albert Dailey
Smith Island Station, Virginia
*Minor editorial privileges were taken to clarify the text and writing style of the period.
The next wreck of the year which involved fatality within life-saving limits was that of the schooner Albert Dailey, of Augusta, Maine, and took place at Smith's Island, Virginia, on January 7, 1883, three miles northeast by east from the Smith's Island Station (Fifth District), G. D. Hitchens, keeper. . The schooner was proceeding with a load of coal and a crew of six men from Baltimore, Maryland, to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and at 8 o clock in the evening, owing to a dense fog and a strong current, ran aground upon the Smith's Island beach, about two hundred and fifty yards from the shore. At half past 1 o clock in the night there was a transient lifting of the fog, and a passing patrolman saw her appear for a moment in the murk, like a phantom. He immediately fired a red Coston light, and soon after another.
The second signal met with a response from the vessel, and he ran for the station and roused the crew. The men turned out with the surf-boat, and after a three-miles drag up the dark beach, launched at a point judged to be somewhere near abreast of the wreck, and rowed off on what proved a quest of the greatest obscurity. The fog had closed in heavily, deepening the darkness of the night, and the keeper standing it the steering oar on the stern, could see nothing but the toiling figures of the rowers and the little area of unquiet waters around the boat, vaguely lit by the lanterns and imbedded in close surrounding of gloom. The rowing continued long, and it was not until half past 4 in the morning that this groping search ended, and the vessel loomed upon the sight of the crew.
At the request of the captain, Keeper Hitchens and his men remained on board the schooner until an hour after noon, at which time the sea began to rise, and the entire crew were conveyed ashore in the surf-boat, and made comfortable at the station. The men's personal effects and the ship's papers were also brought to the station.
The next day (January 9), the captain and crew were reconveyed in the surf-boat to the vessel, on board which a bargain was made with Mr. Cobb, of the Cobb Wrecking Company, to get her off, and if possible save the cargo. The keeper then took back the captain to the station, leaving behind Mr. Cobb with three of his wreckers, together with the five men composing the schooner's crew. A blinding snow-storm had now set in, and the keeper seeing that the wind had gone to the northeast, and that there was every prospect of bad weather, earnestly entreated the wrecking party and the sailors to come ashore, but they absolutely refused, stating that the wrecking company~s surf boat was alongside, and would enable them to reach the land at any time should the situation became dangerous. It was finally arranged that until dark, in case they needed assistance, a signal should be set on board, and that afterwards, or at anytime if the weather should become thick, they should sound the fog-horn, which could readily be heard on shore. Still apprehensive of danger, Keeper Hitchens, immediately upon his return to land, had his boat hauled up on the beach opposite the vessel, ready for service.
At 4 o clock in the afternoon the weather was so thick that the patrols were set. The men were instructed to use the utmost vigilance, and to be particularly on the alert for a signal from the vessel. At 8 o clock in the evening, a patrolman coming in from the beach reported that the vessel could no longer be seen. Nothing, in fact, was now visible, the driving snow having wrought a general obliteration. A heavy gale was streaming from the northeast, and the surf ran high and broke over the sands in torrents.
At half past 11 another patrolman came into the station with the startling news that the schooner's hatches and part of her boat had come on shore, which seemed to indicate that she had sunk or was breaking up. The keeper instantly roused the crew, and he and his men, assisted by the captain of the schooner and by Lieutenant Failing, the inspector of the district, who was at the station, loaded up the mortar-cart with the wreck-gun and apparatus, and set out for the neighborhood of the disaster. The hauling was dreadful. As already said, the distance was three miles, and the whole way the snow and sleet drove directly in the men's faces, lashed also by the icy blasts, while their heavy burden had to be dragged through twelve inches of snow and slush, over a beach of mushy sand, thickly knobbed with stumps and wattled with tree-roots. It was 2 o clock in the morning before the terrible labor was achieved and the exhausted group paused to take breath abreast of the sunken schooner. The dim outlines of her masts could be vanishingly seen at intervals in the darkness, as the gusts rent the whirling snow, but her hull was invisible, proving that it was buried in the furious spread of overrunning surf which crashed without cessation at the feet of the party of rescuers. It was a matter of inference that the people on board had sought refuge in the rigging, which was afterwards known to be the case, they having been driven aloft by a rising of the sea so sudden and so inundating as to leave them no time to make the signal agreed upon with the keeper. With a view of discovering, if possible, the exact position of the vessel, as well as of encouraging the unfortunate sailors and wreckers, the keeper burned six Coston signals in succession, but their illumination failed to reveal the wreck, now muffled from sight by the snow-storm, and at 3 o clock it was determined to make an effort to reach her with the surf-boat, which, as previously stated, had been left on the beach, in anticipation of its use being required. The launch was accordingly made, but such was the stress of sea and current that it took nearly an hour, consumed in several atsitets, to even get away from the beach, clear of the breakers. Once beyond the outer line of broken water, some distance was accomplished, but the boat inevitably fell to leeward, there being no light upon the vessel to guide her, nor any sight nor sound in that direction, and the keeper, realizing how impossible it would be, in case the wreck was reached, to get the men down from the rigging in that swollen and tumultuous sea, and fearful that at any moment the boat might be smashed to pieces in the darkness by floating timbers, thus cutting off all hope of a rescue, determined that he must wait for daylight, and accordingly put back to the shore.
The day broke drearily upon a dismal and terrible spectacle. In the obscure light, two masts with their spars and cordage spired from an immense heaped sea, which ran and roared in universal foam and spray. Up aloft, lashed to the fore rigging, where they had been since the day before, were the sufferers of the wreck, whitened and shapeless with the frozen accumulations of the siteest. They lay back aslant upon the ratlines in attitudes and postures indicative of numbness and exhaustion. The spectators saw all this through the stormy veiling of the snow.
It was plain that a boat could not be launched upon that field of swollen and tumbling water, and no time was lost in training the Lyle gun upon the wreck for an effort to rescue the men by the breeches-buoy. The first shot threw the line across the jib-boom, but the men did not move from the fore-rigging to secure it, and after a short time the keeper hauled it in and fired again. This time the line fell in nearly the same place, but as no effort was made by the men on the wreck to get hold of it, it was evident that they were too weak from exposure to risk a descent toward the hull, over which the torrents were bursting every moment and might reach and sweep them away. The keeper now made a third effort to fire a line nearer to the rigging where the men were, but a sudden gust of wind violently yawed it aside, and it failed to fall on the vessel. The keeper hauled it in and again fired it, but this time it broke in its flight. It appeared subsequently that had it dropped into the hands of the shipwrecked men they were then too benumbed to haul the whip-line on board by its agency.
The keeper began to realize their helplessness, and felt that the desperate chances of a rescue were now narrowed down to a hard effort with the boat when the tide should fall. It was then about 5 o clock, and the condition of the surf made a launch impossible, but the wind had begun to backen, as old sailors say, into the westward, and the sea would abate somewhat on the ebb. The only course open was to wait. Finally, at about half-past 11 in the forenoon, although the sea was running terribly, the life-saving crew could bear no longer the dreadful sight, seen through the thick-falling snow, of that. cluster of human beings in the rigging near the cross-trees, with the surf bounding and crashing half-mast high beneath them, and the keeper gave the word to launch. He and his men had been drenched to the skin by the water breaking over them in their prolonged struggle to reach the wreck by the boat during the night, and their clothes, frozen upon them for many hours, literally clashed as they sprang to the oars. In a moment the boat was afloat and in conflict with .the breakers The men gave themselves to the contest with the sternest energy, but the current ran like a mill-race through a frightful sea, and despite their best endeavors they were swept to leeward of the wreck and had to put back to shore. After a few moments rest another start was made, and this time the crew got so near as to lay hold of a line which was attached to the wreck, but the sea tore it from the hands that held it, and the boat had to put back again. Immediately upon landing the keeper gave the word for another atsitet, and once more the indomitable crew headed the boat through the breakers. This time they succeeded in reaching the wreck, and held alongside until they got down four of the perishing men into the boat. With these they put back to the beach.
Two of the men were entirely unconscious, and as it was seen that no time must be lost in the endeavor to restore them, they were at once borne away to the station, Lieutenant Failing, a young man named Johnson, belonging to the revenue sloop, and Messrs. Goffigan and Coston, keeper and assistant keeper of the Smith's Island Light-louse, being on hand to render this assistance. The life-saving crew meanwhile, without pausing, addressed themselves to the task of rescuing the four men still on the wreck. They were much exhausted, having been on the beach in their wet and frozen clothes without food or fire since midnight, and being further spent, by several periods of severe physical toil, but they were also greatly encouraged by the success of their last endeavor, and rushed to the launch with renewed energies. It cost them a hard struggle to reach the vessel, but finally they got alongside and took off the remaining four men, with whom they safely returned to the shore.
The relief and exultation, which are the natural concomitants of a rescue, were alloyed in this case by a fatal incident. One of the wreckers, Richard Gordon, died from his long exposure about the time the boat landed. There was also another loss, Edward Hunter, the vessel's steward, having been washed overboard during the night. Of the seven men saved, two were brought to the station nearly dead, and it took five hours constant labor to restore them to consciousness. After coming to, hot coffee was given them, and the ministrations of the crew were continued until their complete recovery was effected. It is needless to observe that all of the rescued men had suffered severely, and required much attention. Five of them remained at the station under succor for five days and one for a day.
The foregoing statement can give but a faint account of the difficulty, hardship, and extreme peril encountered by the life-saving crew in the noble work of the rescue. The lives of seven men were saved, against all probability, by their efforts. The loss of the other two can only be referred to the sad and strange fatuity which made them stay upon the wreck in the face of entreaty and warning, when sea and sky alike threatened them with destruction.
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