The Great Storm of 1889
At Rehoboth, Delaware
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
The Rehoboth Beach Life-Saving Station
was commissioned in 1878. This station
responded to four major shipwrecks and
assisted its sister stations Lewes and
Cape Henlopen in many rescues.
Photograph collection of Lewes Historical Society.
At Hugheyville, Delaware: Two hundred people flee for their lives as the village is submerged. The Marine Hospital is badly damaged. Brown and Company and the Leuce Brothers Piers have been swept to sea.
At Rehoboth Beach, Delaware: An unknown schooner is ashore and the coast for miles is reported strewn with wrecks and wreckage. The surf is breaking over the Bright Hotel porch and the Douglas House is surrounded by water. Surf Avenue has washed away.
At Lewes, Delaware: A Norwegian bark is sunk on Five Fathom Bank. The wind has been blowing a gale all day and at 9:00 p.m. is unabated. The tide is the highest since 1867. All communication lines are down. The schooners, Allena Covert, Henry M. Clarke, J. S. Becker, Byron M. Maude Seward, Norena, Gertrude Summers, and four unknown schooners are ashore. Both wooden piers have been destroyed. The Italian bark II Salvatore is ashore near the iron pier and full of water. The lifesaving station, normally forty feet above high water, is flooded and the foundation is undermined.
At the Delaware Breakwater: Three coal-laden schooners, the J. & L. Bryan, the Walter F. Parker, and the Kate E. Morse, have sunk at Fourteen Foot Bank and of twenty-three persons on board only two are known to be saved. It is reported that two other schooners have gone down at the Buoy of the Brown with all hands aboard. Should this prove true, thirty-five lives have been lost. Two survivors of the wreck J. & L. Bryan, Hunter and Jacobson, were tossed upon the angry waters all night long and drifted ashore this morning (12th) on a hatch, seventeen miles from the scene of the wreck. Jacobson tells this story.
The Bryan labored heavily when the storm broke over us, as she was deeply laden. The waves were as high as any I have ever seen out at sea, and it soon became evident that our schooner could not long stand the strain. We worked desperately to keep her afloat, but in the afternoon she foundered. The crew took to the rigging, Captain Risely and four seamen climbing the main mast and one seaman going up the mizzenmast with Hunter and myself. Just before dark our mast went by the board, but we all succeeded in getting on a match and picking up some pieces of rope. One end we tied about our waists and the other we made fast to the hatch. We drifted but a short distance from the wreck when we saw the mainmast fall, and the men clinging to it were washed into the bay and drowned. God save me from ever passing through another such night. It was a fight for life every minute of the time. The waves were mountain high and washed us off the hatch as fast as we could crawl back on. The rope around my waist cut my flesh and several times I came near drowning from the exhaustion. About midnight, the poor sailor with us gave out. He did not have strength enough to pull himself back on the hatch when he was washed off and was drowned. We cut the rope then, and the fellow sank. When day dawned we were in sight of the breakwater and were drifting inshore. About nine o'clock we were thrown on the beach about two miles from Lewes.
The men were able to walk the two miles to the town of Lewes. They were badly bruised and their hands were swollen and torn from pulling on the rope.
It is a matter of misfortune that so many lives were lost in the Delaware Bay, for the Bryan, Parker, and Morse disasters did not occur within the limits of assistance of the U. S. Life-Saving Service. On the beaches and in the nearby waters of Lewes, Cape Henlopen, and Rehoboth Beach, where lifesaving stations existed, one hundred and ninety-four people were saved, not one life being lost.
On the morning of September 10, the weather was thick and the rain fell in torrents. For several days, the wind had been blowing from the northeast and had now reached hurricane strength. The storm was causing an extremely high run of tides and had raised a sea of almost indescribable fury. The lifesavers at Lewes had been expecting, with every hour, to be called upon, and so were not surprised when at four o'clock the patrol reported a brig ashore near the iron pier, a mile to the east of the station. This vessel was the Italian brig II Salvatore, which had sailed from Philadelphia with a cargo of oil for Cagliari, Italy. The surfboat was quickly run out, but the force of the wind was so great that the surfmen found it impossible to drag the heavy boat, mounted on its wagon, to the scene. Keeper John A. Clampitt sent for a team of oxen, and instructed his surfmen to lose no time once the animals arrived in getting the boat to the wreck. He then pushed ahead to learn more of the condition of the imperiled mariners.
Daybreak had now come. Arriving on the scene, Clampitt found that the brig had driven against the pier and was quickly going to pieces. With the help of citizens he had gathered along the way, Clampitt gave orders to the brig's crew to abandon the vessel and jump for their lives onto the pier. With only minor injuries all of the crew escaped the sinking ship.
The Cape Henlopen lifesaving crew, having been notified of the situation, joined their fellow lifesavers at the wrecked brig, reaching the spot just after the crew had been landed. They helped accompany the crew to the Lewes station, and had hardly arrived there when a two-masted schooner, the Charles P. Stickney, was seen to snap her chains and drive ashore less than a mile to the west. The lifesavers hurried to get the beach apparatus from the station, but the boat run had been destroyed by the sea that was breaking against the station house. It was found that the only way to get the gear out was through a back window. To accomplish this, the beach cart had to be taken apart, but the crews made quick work of it and were shortly on their way to the stranded craft. Fortunately, she lay only seventy-five yards from the beach and the first shot from the Lyle gun was successful. With the breeches buoy, the crew of six were safely and quickly taken off and sent to the station. The rescue was effected in the nick of time, for the schooner broke up rapidly and soon became a total wreck.
After this rescue, the apparatus was in need of some replenishing. The men returned to the station, quickly put the gear in working order, and then hurried to the assistance of the crew of the fishing schooner Gertrude Summers. Her chains had just parted, and the gale drove her onshore a quarter of a mile west of the station. The tide was high over the beach, and an old wreck lay between the stranded vessel and the shore, which made it impossible to set up the rescue gear in the normal manner. The lifesavers nevertheless proved equal to the occasion. They took the heavy Lyle gun into the second story of a nearby boathouse, fired the shot line from the window, and quickly established a connection with the schooner. The sea constantly broke not only over the schooner, but also against the boathouse, threatening its destruction. Water flooded in through the windows and seriously impeded the work, but, making the least of every obstacle and the most of every advantage, the surfmen soon got the breeches buoy off to the schooner. Fourteen men, the entire crew, were taken one by one from their dangerous positions and drawn into the boathouse.
Another trip to the station was now imperative, as the shot lines were badly damaged and needed repair. Once this was accomplished, Keeper Clampitt, accompanied by part of his crew and a number of volunteers, went as quickly as possible to the relief of the fishing schooner J. F. Becker. The Becker had dragged her anchors and stranded a little over a quarter of a mile to the west of the station. The fishermen aboard the schooner fastened a line to a piece of timber, which was then thrown overboard and driven by the current to within reach of the lifesavers on the beach. The nine men were then brought safely to the shore, one at a time, by means of a whip line and boatswain's chair ? a simple form of a breeches buoy ? hauled back and forth by the keeper and his men.
The next vessel to demand the attention of the station crews was the coal-laden schooner Norena, which had anchored at the breakwater to wait for good weather. About noon her chains parted and she pitched up on the outer bar, not far from the Becker, but nearly 200 yards from shore. The rain and wind were unabated, and the tide still covered the beach. Fortunately, a small sand hill gave vantage ground from which to operate, and from there the crew set to work to make contact with the wreck. The Lyle gun was made ready, and on the first atsitet the shot line fell across the schooner and the hawser was soon set up. Because of the heavy sea, Keeper Clampitt thought it best to send out the life-car, which was considered safer than the breeches buoy. Three trips were made without loss of time, safely landing the crew of eight men.
After overhauling the gear, splicing the broken lines, and putting everything once more in working order, the men set out to further labors among the numerous vessels endangered by the gale. Two schooners had now stranded half a mile to the west of the station ? the Byron M. and the Alena Covert. The lifesaving crews were accordingly divided into two parties, one proceeding to each of the vessels. A line had been drifted to the beach from each schooner by means of ladders thrown overboard and swept ashore by the waves. These lines had been secured by curiosity-seekers on the beach, for the great storm had drawn many bystanders to the scene of danger and disaster, and one man from the Covert was already landing in a boatswain's chair when the lifesavers arrived. The surfmen quickly sent off the breaches buoy and brought ashore the six men who were still on board, while their companion crews were in the same manner landing the crew of eight from the Byron M. Both of these crews were cared for at the station until the following day.
The schooner Eunity R. Dyer lay with the fleet behind the breakwater. With two anchors down she managed to hold on until the middle of the afternoon, when both cables broke and the craft went ashore about one-third of a mile to the west of the station. The lifesavers were fortunately close by with their beach apparatus, and as soon as they could leave the work they had in hand they hastened to her aid. The Lyle gun was placed and the line was fired across her on the first shot. The gear was then quickly rigged and five men ? the entire crew ? were landed in the breeches buoy.
The rescues already recorded had pretty much used up the gear, and there was still plenty of work to do. A team of oxen had been sent to Rehoboth Beach station, about eight miles distant, to pull a new outfit of gear to the station. The schooner Mima A. Read had stranded a little after noon, at which time the storm reached its height. Both the schooner's chains had parted and she lay about a quarter of a mile northeast of the station. The seas were breaking over her, nightfall was near at hand, and the sailors, who were in the rigging, were in great danger. The only shot line available was one, which had already been spliced several times. It was very doubtful whether it could be used, but the lifesavers had no thought of giving up within the bounds of the possible. Some set to work splicing the frayed and broken lines, while others planted the sand anchor, made the Lyle gun ready, and atsiteted to fire the line over the wreck. The effort failed, the line parted, and the shot was lost. The surfmen were then atsiteting to devise some other method of reaching the wreck when the keeper of the Rehoboth Beach station, Thomas J. Truxton, and his crew arrived at the scene. With fresh line, another shot was fired which landed over the vessel, and the whip line and hawser were sent out. Unfortunately, the whip line became fouled in the wreck debris and no amount of maneuvering could untangle it.
Night came. The darkness and the fury of the storm prevented those on board from clearing the lines, so that they were soon driven back into the rigging, with only the slightest hope that the schooner would hold together until morning. It was utterly impossible to use the surfboat, and every effort had been exhausted. The lifesavers, after many fruitless atsitets, gave up for the night and ate their first meal of the day. They were completely exhausted, but their labors were far from an end. Denying themselves the full rest they needed, the lifesavers maintained a patrol on the beach throughout the siteestuous night, and at the first break of day renewed the rescue operations. The sea moderated a little, so that it was thought that the lifeboat might be pressed into service. Efforts were therefore made to launch the boat, but the launching ways had been wrecked by the storm and at every atsitet the seas hurled the boat back onto the beach. The crew aboard the stranded vessel could then be seen clearing the whip line, and as soon as this was accomplished the surfmen sent out the life-car. The seamen had been in the rigging for eighteen hours. The wife of the schooner's steward was the first to be brought ashore; then the crew of seven men were landed in three subsequent trips. They were taken to the station house where they remained for three days. The rescue was not effected an hour too soon, as the vessel had already broken into three sections and the schooner soon became a total loss
The schooners Major William H. Tantum and Addie B. Bacon, both of Philadelphia, were the next to demand the attention of the station crews. One was ashore 300 yards to the east and the other about the same distance to the west of the Lewes station. Keepers Theodore Salmons of Cape Henlopen and Thomas Truxton from Rehoboth, with their surfmen dragging the heavy and cumbersome beach apparatus, hurried to the Tantum. She had stranded during the previous afternoon and lay two hundred yards from shore. The Lyle gun was quickly made ready and fired. The wind carried the first shot wide of its mark. At the second firing the line parted, but the third shot, crossing the headstays, landed across the schooner. The life-car was sent out as soon as the whip and hawser line were made fast, and the four men on board were landed safely in a single trip,. They had been in the rigging all night and were extremely grateful to be rescued.
While the rescue of this crew was in progress, Keeper John Clampitt, assisted by a number of volunteers, took his lifeboat to a point abreast of the Bacon. By means of a line drifted ashore from her they managed to haul the surfboat off and with a great deal of difficulty succeeded in reaching the vessel. The schooner's crew of seven were quickly rescued and taken to shore. They were sheltered at the Lewes Life-Saving Station for the next two days.
The three-lifesaving crews next combined to save the people on board the coal-laden schooner, J. D. Robinson, which had lost her anchors and stranded during the preceding evening. She lay broadside-to on the bar just west of the station. A line was passed from her to another nearby wreck and then to shore, so that the lifesavers could haul their surfboat off to the schooner. This was accomplished with a great deal of difficulty. Eight men were rescued and then taken to the station.
A report had been received at Lewes that there was a dismasted and stranded vessel whose people were in danger near Cape Henlopen. Keeper Salmons, with one surfman, set out toward the cape to verify the report. Arriving near the iron pier, they saw seven men making their way toward the shore in a hastily constructed raft. The men were in great danger of drowning. The keeper summoned four volunteers to his aid and launched the Lewes station surfboat, which had been left at the pier the day before. They pulled out to the raft, took the seven men aboard, and safely landed them.
Keeper Salmons then continued on toward Cape Henlopen. He soon discovered the wreck on the point of the cape, with her masts gone and the seas rolling over her. She was the William R. Grace from LeHavre, Frances bound to Philadelphia with a cargo of empty barrels. Her crewmen were frightened and anxious to be rescued. In her exposed position, no boat could be pulled to her. The keeper sent word to Lewes for extra men and then proceeded to his own station, about a mile down the coast, to get the necessary rescue apparatus. Keeper Truxton of Rehoboth Beach station and the Cape Henlopen crew, who had come from Lewes in response to the summons, met him and helped to push and pull the beach cart. They strained to make way over the badly flooded beach against the strength of the terrible northeasterly winds. Just before they arrived at a position abreast of the wreck, the shipwrecked crew lowered a dinghy in an atsitet to land. Their boat filled with water and sank, which was fortunate, for disaster almost certainly would have followed any atsitet to bring a dinghy through such a surf.
The vessel lay two hundred yards offshore. The fact that she had no spars and the violence of the gale made the lifesavers wonder at the success of firing a shot at such a great distance; yet, at the first firing the gun carried the line over the hull. There was a large crew aboard, and the whip line and hawser were quickly hauled off. Out of necessity, the lines were made fast low down and the distance from shore made it impossible to set up the gear taut enough to keep the breeches buoy out of the water as it was hauled back and forth. This, however, did not retard the success of the rescue, and twenty-five persons were landed in an equal number of trips. The mate; the carpenter; the steward; and a passenger, who was an old sea captain, remained on board. They were said to have been influenced by the hope that the vessel would float a t high tide, thus giving them claim to salvage.
The captain of the vessel was sick, and, with his wife, he was taken in the cart to the Cape Henlopen station. The others made their way to the station on foot. All hands were thoroughly exhausted by the long labors, scant food, and exposure to the terrific gale. Clothing sent by the Women's National Relief Association was given to the unfortunate crew while their own garments were drying, but there was not enough for everyone. The surfmen, too, supplied as many articles as possible from their own wardrobes, but still some of the men were not provided for. Hot fires were quickly kindled, and all were made as comfortable as possible. The four persons who had remained aboard the vessel were subsequently landed by wreckers.
While the preceding rescue was in progress, the other lifesavers went with the remaining surfboat to the brigantine Richard T. Green, which, breaking her chains, had driven from her moorings at daybreak and stranded a few hundred yards west of the Lewes station. The vessel had been on her way to Boston with a cargo of logwood from Jeremie, Haiti, at the time of her sinking. Nine men, including a local pilot, were rescued. Seven of them were sheltered at the station throughout the next two days.
About midday of the eleventh, a tug arrived off Lewes and signaled for the lifesaving crew, evidently wishing to take them to the aid of some vessel at a distance, but so large was the number of vessels in imminent danger in the immediate vicinity and so urgent the work in sight, that the keeper had to refuse to leave his post, however, great the needs of vessels in other places. The schooner Nettie Champion was already ashore outside the schooner J. D. Robinson, whose crew had been rescued during the forenoon. It was impossible to fire a line to the Champion or to pull the boat to her. The Robinson made something of a lee, and it was decided to board her with the surfboat and to conduct operations from her deck. The heavy Lyle gun was put into the boat, and after a hard pull the lifesavers managed to reach the schooner and get their gear on board. A line was thrown to them from the jib boom of the Champion by the eager sailors, who then hauled off the hawser and made it fast. The breeches buoy was quickly rigged and sent off, and seven men ? the entire company ? were transferred to the Robinson. This was done with great difficulty, for with every blast of the hurricane winds the towering seas threatened to sweep the men overboard, but, when it was finally accomplished, all hands jumped into the surfboat, and keeping a line to the schooner by which to manage their boat, landed safely. Because the station house was full, the rescued men were directed to a house in the neighborhood where they could find accommodations. The lifesavers were drenched to the skin and thoroughly worn out. They had been again without food or rest for the second day. There was nothing further they could do at the time, so they returned to their station at about six o'clock to rest.
Among other generally helpful services of the lifesaving crews at this time were the feeding and sheltering of the crews of the Kate F. Morse, the Casilda, and the S. A. Rudolph. Their work during the storm was recognized by the following letter of commendation from S. I. Kimball, general superintendent of the U. S. Life-Saving Service.
Gentlemen: The gallant conduct shown by yourselves and by the crews under your command during the great storm of September 10 to 12 last has been noted by this office. Upon that occasion, notwithstanding an unusually high tide that flooded the beach so as to seriously embarrass your efforts, you combined your crews and gave efficient aid to no less than twenty-two vessels, taking off by boat thirty-nine persons, and by line apparatus one hundred and fifty-five, a total of one hundred and ninety-four persons, not a life being lost from any vessel that came within the scope of your actions.
In this successful work you showed a zeal, discretion and ingenuity in availing yourselves of the resources at your command worthy of the highest praise. Undaunted by the perils you encountered, you and your crews manfully worked throughout each day and well into the night without food, enduring extreme fatigue. Such service as this does honor to all engaged in it, to the Life-Saving Service, and to the country. It is the desire of the Secretary of the Treasury to recognize as far as lies in his power the worth of your achievements and he has accordingly directed that the pay of each of you be increased to the maximum amount that can be allowed by existing law to officers of your grade, namely, eight hundred dollars per annum, to take effect from the date of the official oath of each. The official notices of this increase are enclosed herewith.
It is a matter of deep regret that no means exist for compensating in a similar manner the brave surfmen who constituted your crews on that occasion. As they already receive the maximum salary allowed by the law, this cannot be done, although the successful results are in equal measure due to their resolute bravery and faithful endurance.
S. I. Kimball,
? 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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