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The Blizzard of March 1888
At Cape Henlopen, Delaware
by George M. and Suzanne B. Hurley

Cape Henlopen, Delaware
The Cape Henlopen Life-Saving Station as it appeared in 1890. This station was commissioned in 1876. It was the first station to be built on the Delaware coast. This station responded to twenty-eight major shipwrecks. In the photograph the surfmen are practicing the breeches buoy drill.
Photograph collection of Billy Burton Cropper.
The wind of March 11, 1888, was from the southeast and fresh. A large number of sailing ships, including steamships, barks, brigantines, and schooners, stood anchored behind the Delaware breakwater, en route to various destinations with cargoes consisting of molasses, lumber, sugar, ice, and other essential items needed by a growing America. The day had been crisp, and this night anchorage offered protection from an increasingly heavy sea.

A few miles away, Keeper Theodore Salmons tapped the glass at the Cape Henlopen Life-Saving Station and charged his surfmen to be particularly vigilant during the night beach patrols, as he expected a change in the weather. The keeper and the men aboard the anchored vessels did not know that a low pressure system had been gathering force as far west as the Rocky Mountains and was moving east with great speed. Near midnight, it met another major storm system moving up the coast from the Carolinas and burst in all its fury upon the mid-Atlantic region. The storm of hurricane-strength winds, sleet, and snow was without precedent, and caused more loss of life and suffering than any previous storm on record. An old sea captain of many years experience would later state: ?It was the worst storm I have seen in thirty-five years. You couldn't look to windward; it would cut your eyes out. We are lucky to have lived through it.?

During the early hours of the morning, the north foot patrol from the Cape Henlopen station was literally blown along by the high winds, back to the station house to report that wreckage was strewn along the beach. Keeper Salmons immediately mustered his men and they began to make their way ?with the greatest difficulty against the snow and driving sleet to the point of the cape.? The amount of snow that had fallen was unprecedented. They found several vessels in distress, but pushed on to see if the Lewes crew could lend them assistance in pulling the heavy and cumbersome rescue equipment through the mounding snow drifts and against the force of the cutting sand and sleet.

Keeper John A. Clampitt's crew from the Lewes station had first atsiteted to view the beach before dawn, to see how the fleet had fared. Ninety-mile-an-hour winds drove freezing rain mixed with snow and sand along the beach, and the entire crew was forced to return to the station house crawling on their hands and knees. During a lull, a short time later, they managed to reach the beach and witness the havoc that the storm had created. In the predawn light the roar of the wind and the intensity of the snow quickened the stoutest of hearts as the crew counted no fewer than twenty schooners and two steamers sunk, sinking, or aground in the breakwater. Chains had parted, masts were shattered and splintered, and the resulting collisions and wrecks were chaotic.

With the help of many local citizens now starting to assemble near the site, the lifesavers set forth over the storm-torn beach with their apparatus, which included a surfboat, a line-throwing gun, and a breeches buoy. They headed for the vessel that appeared to be in the most imminent danger. She was the three-masted schooner Allie H. Belden, fast aground several hundred yards from shore. The seas were cleanly breaking over her deck and the crew had tied themselves high in the rigging. Not withstanding the ferocity of the winds and snow, the firing of the Lyle gun sent the whip line directly over the ship within reach of the captain. His hands were so frozen from his exposed position that he could not hold onto the line, and it was blown adrift. The second shot sent the line across the jib boom, but the sailors in the rigging could not reach it, and the line was washed away. The snow began to block the vision of the lifesaving crew and the line that was being readied froze stiff. On being fired, the line parted. Two more atsitets failed.

Though the high surf was discouraging, Keeper Clampitt ordered his men to ready the surfboat while local volunteers took the wet and frozen line back to the station to dry next to the stove. Anticipating a dangerous launch through the monstrous surf, the keeper signaled the crew on the pilot boat E. W. Tunnel, which was stranded nearby, but not in immediate danger, to cast a line ashore. With the aid of the line from the Tunnel, and with the help of the pilot crew pulling, the lifesavers managed to make it through the break of the surf to the pilot boat. Casting off this line, the oarsmen pulled with all their strength, but the high wind blew them to the leeward of the intended schooner, and despite their heroic efforts, they were beaten back upon the beach, wet and cold. A second atsitet again failed. The lifesavers, now assisted by volunteers, next waded the boat well to the windward of the wreck, and finally succeeded in clearing the break. In doing so, they so exhausted themselves that they were forced to anchor to regain their strength. By alternately rowing and anchoring, while the blizzard continued all around them, they managed ?by the most desperate work? to reach the Belden. It was then two o'clock in the afternoon, a long nine hours since the rescue atsitet had begun. They took four men, who were very close to death, from the ice-encrusted rigging, and learned that two others had not survived the biting winds and cold siteerature and had fallen from the schooner during the night. On landing on the beach, the severely frostbitten men were taken to the station house and cared for by Dr. Hall, the community physician, who did everything in his power to alleviate their suffering.

The Cape Henlopen lifesaving crew arrived to find the Lewes crew involved in the Belden rescue. They borrowed the Lyle gun and, with the line that had been drying in the station house, returned toward the cape to assist the stranded crew of the William G. Bartlett. On the way they stopped and used this dry line to atsitet a rescue of the crew of the pilot boat Enock Turley. The first shot from the gun sent the ship line across the vessel, and a breeches-buoy rescue was completed within the hour, removing the Turley's crew of seven to the shore. All of these men were badly frostbitten and were immediately taken back to the Lewes station for care.

Having used the last of the shot lines, the lifesavers went to get a reserve surfboat, which was kept at the nearby Marine Hospital. Against the fury of the storm, they hurried along the beach as best they could, pulling and dragging the 3,000-pound boat mounted on its carriage. On the journey down the beach they found part of the Bartlett's crew, three young sailors, in the swash of the surf. The sailors were close to death and would never have survived had the surfmen not waded out in the frigid waters and pulled them in.

After caring for the sailors, the surfmen again turned their attention to the wreck at hand. Their uniforms were frozen stiff from their recent rescue, and the snow and sleet swirled around them, driven by the strong winds. Only by the most prodigious effort were they able to pull through the breakers and row alongside the schooner, which lay 800 yards from shore. Upon the Bartlett they found three men, two dying and the third dead from the long exposure of eighteen hours in the rigging. It was considered a miracle that any were still alive.

The March storm of 1888 was recorded as one of the most devastating in the young country's history. The center of the storm remained stationary in the mid-Atlantic region for three full days. The lifesaving crews of Lewes and Cape Henlopen played a major role in the annals of maritime history during this period. After the rescues of the sailors aboard the Belden, the Enock Turley, and the William G. Bartlett, they went on to rescue a total of 178 seamen from the ravished fleet.

?Copyright 1984 George M. and Suzanne B. Hurley, Shipwrecks and Rescues: Along The Barrier Islands of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. All Rights Reserved

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