Shipwreck of the Spanish Steamship, San Albano
Hog Island Station, Virginia
*Minor editorial privileges were taken to clarify the text and writing style of the period.
Among the most notable rescues of the year, yet darkened by one fatality, was that effected by the crew of the Hog Island Station, (Fifth District), Virginia, in landing on February 24, 1892, twenty-six persons from the Spanish steamship San Albano, of Bilboa, Spain, which had gone ashore on the outer shoals of Hog Island on the evening of the 22nd, and subsequently became a total wreck. At about half past 4 o'clock on the morning of February 23, the patrol having the morning watch along the beach discovered a steamer's light apparently too near the shore for safety, and he thereupon burned a Coston signal, concluding when the light disappeared shortly afterwards that the warning had been effective. Upon reporting this action to the keeper at sunrise, the latter ascended to the lookout, and sweeping the horizon with the glass discerned to the northward the masts and smokestack of a vessel, which appeared to be close to the land. The weather was misty and a northeast gale prevailed, which carried the tide over the marshes of the island, and the surf, beating heavily upon the shore, was swept in swift currents to the southward along the beach. Against this storm the life-saving crew, who set out at once with the beach apparatus, worked their way up the coast a distance of five miles, arriving abreast the stranded ship at 9 o'clock, after two hours of exertion. It appears that the steamer, a vessel of twelve hundred and ninety-one tons register, carrying a valuable cargo, was bound from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Hamburg, Germany, via Norfolk, Virginia, where it was intended to obtain coal. In the thick weather prevailing during the siteestuous voyage to the northward the reckoning had been overrun and the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay passed. In retracing the distance along the coast the master steered too far to the westward, and on the evening of the 22nd the vessel, which drew twenty-one feet of water, grounded on the outer shoals of Hog Island but later worked over the bar and floated in one of the numerous channels or gullies. Here the master came to an anchor, but the increasing force of adverse elements proved irresistible, and the vessel drifted before the wind and sea, striking upon the shoals at intervals, until, aleak and full of water, she finally grounded five hundred yards from the beach a hopeless wreck.
When the life-savers arrived the ship lay broadside to the sea, which broke over her decks and worked her a little toward the shore. The ship's company could be seen gathered in and near the houses on deck, while the Spanish flag floated from halfway up the main rigging. It appeared impossible to reach the wreck, as she then lay, with the gun, and the confused surf, impelled by a forty mile gale, fell in such tumult on the beach that it was evident the life car would be needed should communication be established by means of the beach apparatus. That nothing might be omitted, it was deemed advisable, also, to bring the surfboat to the scene. It was, therefore, necessary to return to the station for these equipments, the round trip requiring ten miles' travel over the flooded country. The station horse was taken back to bring up the surfboat, and a team of horses was kindly loaned by Mr. J. L. Ferrell to haul the life-car, a spare shot-line, and shot. This task consumed the time until 2 o'clock in the afternoon, when the life-saving crew were again on the beach opposite the wreck.
The gun was placed in position and fired in the effort to reach the vessel. The second shot, with a No. 4 line, passed over the ship, the line falling on deck, but in their eagerness to haul it aboard the steamer's crew carelessly permitted it to chafe against the main rigging, where the great strain and the friction created by the action of the sea soon caused it to part. The rising tide drove the life-savers farther back upon the beach, increasing the distance to the wreck, and the gale raged with greater fury, causing the five succeeding shots, with the remaining lines, to fall short of their object. By this time the day was waning, and the keeper decided to resort to the surfboat, despite the gloomy assertions of experienced men in the crowd on the beach that no boat could live in such a surf. The boat was dragged well up to the windward and launched, but the wind, the sea, and the current, which rushed swiftly along the shore to the southward, were too powerful for the crew, and they were carried below the wreck, where they reached the shore with difficulty, the boat full of water. Nothing daunted, they made a second launch from a point much farther to the northward, but the heroic struggle to reach the wreck proved futile. Although they approached somewhat nearer the stranded steamer, it was quite impossible to reach her, and the boat was swept beyond the vessel, being again filled and nearly overturned. A safe landing was affected, after a desperate struggle, about a mile below the wreck. Both ineffectual atsitets with the boat had jeopardized the lives of the entire life-saving crew, but had at the same time demonstrated their dauntless courage, and, what was still more to the purpose, the utter futility of boat service--a piece of evidence that, no matter what might be the result of other operations, would prove beyond all cavil that no expedients had been neglected. Meanwhile a part of the ship's company, in defiance of the captain's authority, hastily lowered the only remaining boat of the steamer, and seven of them getting into her made a successful trip to the shore before the wind and sea--a circumstance so exceptional under such conditions that it may be noted as little less than miraculous. Sunset had now come and darkness closed in upon the scene.
Exhausted by long continued efforts, without food all day, and prevented from further operations by the night, the keeper, having learned from the men who came ashore that the ship was yet solid and dry in her deck houses, decided to return to the station for needed food and brief repose. A company composed of the Rev. J. R. Sturgis, his son, and Mr. Albert Barrett, with others whose names are unfortunately unknown, volunteered to maintain a watch and keep a fire on the beach during the night, and to notify Keeper Johnson should anything serious occur. The crew reached the station at 9 o'clock, and after a few hours' rest set out again for the wreck at 4 in the morning, taking with them the last dry shot line. The wind was due northeast and the surf had not diminished.
The ship did not appear to have worked any nearer the shore, and although it was low water the keeper saw that she was still probably beyond the range of the gun. Here an ingenious expedient was resorted to, which proved to be the turning point upon which hinged the success of the entire operations. The gun was lashed upon the apparatus cart, while the shot-line box was secured on the forward axle of the boat carriage. The cart was pushed into the water as far as possible, the men wading waist deep into the surf, and at the right moment the gun, heavily loaded for this final trail, was discharged. There was a moment of breathless suspense, but the result justified the most hopeful anticipations of the life-savers, for the shot landed just over the rail, fairly falling on the ship's deck. Warned by the accident of the previous day, the crew of the steamer kept the line clear and handed it off with care. Aided by the islanders on the beach connection with the wreck was finally made and the life car sent aboard.
Eight trips sufficed to bring ashore the officers and crew, numbering nineteen men, who landed almost destitute of clothing, but with grateful expressions for their safe deliverance. It was at this juncture that the keeper learned that one man had been lost. The chief engineer, the only member of the steamer's crew speaking English intelligently, stated that a Spanish seaman, named Donato Sanico, had undertaken during the previous night, against the remonstrance of his shipmates, to reach the shore by swimming with the aid of a plank. This rash act cost him his life. The plank was afterward pointed out by one of the survivors, but so far as known the body of the lost sailor was never recovered. The Rev. J. R. Sturgis, who kept the night watch on the beach, had heard an outcry at about 2 o'clock in the morning, and at the time made a careful search along the edge of the surf, but no one was seen. Probably the sounds were cheers given the swimmer by his comrades as he plunged overboard to make what proved to be his last contest with the sea. The entire crew of twenty-six persons was properly cared for at the station, and their destitution was relieved by supplying them with clothing from the articles furnished by the Women's National Relief Association. The district inspector, who investigated all the circumstances connected with this remarkable case, closes his report in the following words: "Great credit is due the keeper and crew of the Hog Island Station for their brave and persistent efforts, and every man did his whole duty. The people of the island were prompt and ready to assist the life-saving crew in every way possible, and especial praise should be given the rev. J. R. Sturgis for his hearty cooperation and valuable services. This is the first time in the history of this station that the beach apparatus has been used, and demonstrates the great value of the life car as a means of landing men when the distance is great and the surf heavy."
It is proper in this connection to say that the superintendent of the district, Capt. B. S. Rich, a man of great experience and with an enviable record as a life-saver, was early on the ground and rendered valuable aid by his sound judgment and excellent advice. The crew remained at the station seven days, when they were transferred to the mainland. Before their departure the captain addressed a letter to the district superintendent, of which the following is a translation:
Hog Island Station, February 25, 1892
Captain B. S. Rich
Superintendent Fifth Life-Saving District.
Sir: I am much obliged to Keeper J. E. Johnson and his crew for the promptness with which they came to the aid of the steamer San Albano and for saving twenty-six men and the cat. One sailor was drowned. He jumped overboard in spite of the warning of all hands. I would, therefore, express great praise to Keeper Johnson and his crew for saving our lives under the most trying circumstances, since there was a heavy surf breaking on the beach, accompanied by a high wind and strong current. The superintendent also proved himself very efficient in giving directions on shore and in pushing forward the task of rescue. I do not know how to express our gratitude for the good which resulted.
Jose A. De Sagarraga, Captain.
Jose Espinosa, First Engineer.
The district inspector also received a note from the Spanish Vice-Consul, at Norfolk, to the following effect:
Norfolk, March 5, 1892,
Lieutenant F. G. F. Wadsworth,
Assistant Inspector, Fifth Life-Saving District
Sir: Please accept my thanks on behalf of the Spanish Government for the rescuing of the crew of the steamer San Albano. I would be glad, if convenient, for you to so advise the officers and crew of the station referred to.
Arthur C. Humphrey, Vice-Consul.
The generalship displayed by Keeper Johnson, supplemented by the gallant work of his brave crew, was of a high order of merit. Their extraordinary exertions to reach the stranded ship with the surfboat are especially laudable, in view of the hazard of the undertaking and the freely expressed opinions of the bystanders that the risks and dangers exceeded the just measure of their duties. In recognition of their heroism, in the face of such discouragements, the Department awarded to the keeper the gold medal and raised his pay to the maximum amount allowed by law, and gave a silver medal to each of the eight members of the crew who served in the boat on both occasions. At a later date the Spanish Government transmitted to the Department, through her consul at Baltimore, a medal of honor and a diploma for each of the nine members of the life-saving crew in acknowledgment of their valor.
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