Shipwreck of the Red Wing
at Indian River Inlet, Delaware 1891
Six seamen were buried side by side in the little cemetery of the Presbyterian Church at Ocean View, Delaware, on October 27, 1891. There were no family or friends to mourn their passing, just a small group of local authorities and surfmen from the Indian River Life-Saving Station. The names of two of the deceased men, John Johnson and Francis Mullen, had been discovered. The other four men would always remain unknown.
Five nights before, they had been the master and crew of the illfated RED WING, a fishing schooner of twenty eight tons, which stranded during a northwest gale and went to pieces in the surf, three and one half miles south of the Indian River Inlet, during the night of October 22. The night was a wild one. The wind, which had suddenly come out of the northeast in the afternoon, backed to the northwest, with the weather turning cold and quite thick. There was a heavy sea running.
It was almost eight in the evening when the south foot patrolman of the Indian River Life-Saving Station struck his patrol clock at the keypost on the north side of the inlet and turned to begin the return trip toward the warmth of the station house. He was then walking directly into the wind, and the fierce gale blew rain and sand so hard against his face that he was momentarily blinded and was forced to walk backwards. While slowly making his way up the beach in this manner and always looking toward the sea, he saw the flareup of a torch far to the south. As he stood watching, the feeble light was seen again and he judged from its direction that it was a vessel in distress.
He ran to a high dune and fired his Coston flare to let the seamen know they had been seen and also to alarm the lifesavers at the station. Taking a bearing by the run of the coast, he determined that the light was near Cotton Path Hill, a notable landmark three miles south of Indian River Inlet.
Upon his arrival back at the station, he found that his flare and the light of the vessel had been seen and that the men were hurriedly making ready to start rescue operations. Rockets were shot up in the air to recall the north patrolman, who would make the sixth man needed in the rescue crew. Indian River had to be crossed to reach the vessel.
The inlet, with its numerous sandbars and deep gullies, was now swollen to several times its usual width. The problem of how to best reach the scene was solved by Surfman John H. Long, who was in charge in the keepers absence. (Keeper Washington A. Vickers was in town on official business.) Long decided to put the beach apparatus into the surfboat and row down inside and behind the beach to a cove which makes into an island just north of Cotton Patch Hill. There the beach was only a few hundred yards wide. There also, a team of oxen could be borrowed from a nearby farm to assist in hauling the needed equipment to the wreck scene.
To do this in the face of the gale, flying sand, and rain was an awesome task, as the storm tide was up over the marsh meadows and covered the little drains that abound in the meadows which fringe the shores of the bay. First the 3,000 pound surfboat, mounted on its carriage, was pulled a half mile through mud and water. Then the beach apparatus cart, weighed with more than a thousand pounds of equipment, was pulled the same distance. The Lyle gun and the rope line needed to make contact with the sinking ship were placed in the boat first, and then the beach cart was disassembled and loaded.
The crew rowed their vessel into the teeth of the gale for a half mile before they could keep before it and run for the desired landing place three miles to the leeward. In spite of their strenuous efforts, they could not make headway through the wind and the strong tide which pours out through Little Ditch (the channel leading to the Indian River). The boat was filling with water which was flying over the sides, and two men were having to constantly bail.
Much precious time was being lost battling the turbulent water. Surfman Long then decided to have the lifesavers pull straight across the inlet, land wherever they could, cross the marsh, and walk the long distance to the men in distress. Upon reaching the opposite side of the inlet, some of the crew were left behind to unload the beach cart and apparatus from the boat and to put all equipment in a ready state, while the acting keeper and the others ran across the marsh to the beach to ascertain whether the light on the stranded vessel was still in sight. No light could be seen, nor was there any sign of the vessel.
Long and his companions continued on down the beach, keeping a sharp watch for the vessel or any signs of wreckage. Two miles to the south a dark object was found on the edge of the surf. A closer examination, between seas, revealed a shapeless mass of spars, rigging, sails, and timbers. Nearby was the vessel, bottom up, with all of her belongings being pounded onto the shore. With the aid of patrol lanterns, an immediate search was begun for the crewman, but there was no trace of them near the wreckage, which strew the shore far to the south of the wreck. Throughout the night, the search continued, both along the surfbreak and back among the sand dunes.
As the sun rose that morning, the first body was found rolling in the swash of the surf. The broken neck of the sailor and the broken legs of the next body found bore silent testimony to the terrible destruction of the vessel. A siteorary morgue was set up in an old barn near the Joshua Burton property located off Cedar Neck Road near the wreck site.
By noon the bodies of six men had been recovered at distances varying from one to six miles from the wreck. The coroners inquest showed that all of the men had died of injuries received when the RED WING went to pieces in the surf. There was no evidence of drowning among the victims.
The RED WING had been owned by William Baulch of Fort Monroe, Virginia. The crew was from the Jersey shore. She had been employed in bluefishing and was first noticed leaving Delaware Breakwater on October 21 for the fishing banks off Cape Henlopen.
She was seen by the Delaware pilot boat William W. Ker at noon on the day of the wreck and four hours later by the pilot boat Henry Cope, just after the gale came on. At sunset she was seen crossing the Hen and Chicken Shoal, and when abreast of the Cape Henlopen Life-Saving Station was running south while reefing her mainsail. She went out of sight down the beach in good shape. At 6:30 p.m. the north patrol of the Rehoboth Beach Life-Saving Station warned her by Coston flare that she was too close to the beach. She was similarly warned by the north patrol of the Indian River Station at 7:00.
The surfman of the Indian River Inlet Station surmised that the RED WING started to reach the shelter of the breakwater while the wind was southeasterly. After it struck out northeast and then backed to north northwest and increased to a furious gale, the sailors found they could not beat past the capes. They then found they could not beat in past the capes. They then lowered the mainsail and kept off to run down the beach for shelter under Fenwick Island, where the coast trends to the west and affords some shelter from northerly winds. Their actions in skimming the beach and paying no heed to the warning signals indicated that they felt well acquainted with the Delaware coast.
After passing Indian River there are shoals offshore. The RED WING probably struck one of them and before the crew knew it the vessel began to fill with water. The discovery of this was probably when they burned the torch seen by the patrolman. As a last resort they ran the schooner on the beach and climbed into the rigging to await help. The RED WING was unable to withstand the pounding surf and quickly began to break up, rolling over and over in the surf, which accounted for the killing of the crew.
The investigating officer of the U.S. Life-Saving Service declared, I am convinced that every member of the crew of the Indian River Inlet Station did his full duty. The general consensus of the investigators, keepers Salmons and Truxaton of the adjacent stations, was that the only course offering a chance of success was taken by the surfmen. Had the schooner held together, the plan would have resulted in a rescue, but before the station men could cross the inlet, I think it was all over for the vessel and her crew.
The cemetery plat records of the Ocean View Presbyterian Church were made available by Jeannette H. Betts, long time resident of the area. The plat records show that in the extreme rear of the graveyard, behind the last row of stone marked sites, are the unmarked graves of seven unidentified seamen of the RED WING
It is interesting to note that all official records of the U.S. Life-Saving Service list the number of deaths as six. Further research did not explain the extra seaman buried there.
Related StoriesRead more about the life-saving station in Indian River, Delaware
Click here to read about Washington A. Vickers
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