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The Wreck of the Luther A. Roby
Lewes, Delaware 1896
by George M. and Suzanne B. Hurley

Lewes, Delaware
The Lewes Life-Saving Station was commissioned in 1884.
This station responded to forty-seven major shipwrecks.
Photograph collection of Delaware Hall of Records.
From the ninth to the seventeenth of October 1896, a West Indian hurricane moved up the Atlantic coast of the United States and stalled over the Delmarva Peninsula, where it remained stationary for four days. It did not penetrate to any considerable distance inland, but swept the seaboard with devastating fury. The wind velocity varied from 90 miles an hour at Cape Charles, Virginia to 68 miles an hour at Block Island, Rhode Island, with gusts to 110 miles an hour in certain sections.

As many as eighteen maritime disasters were reported to have occurred at sea. However, disasters by stranding were few, with only seven occurring from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Fifty-six persons were removed from these inshore wrecks, and only three lives were lost near Cape Henlopen.

The patrols of both Cape Henlopen and Lewes came upon the wreck of the Luther A. Roby, at the same time. Blinding sand hindered the surfmen as they made their way back to their respective stations to inform the keepers of a ship ashore. Within the hour the crews of Cape Henlopen and Lewes were on their way to the wreck scene. Keeper William F. Tunnel of the Lewes Life-Saving Station went in advance of his crew, driving a horse-drawn road cart and pushing the animal to its limit on the storm-torn beach. His urgency was to reach the halfway house, open the doors, rig the beach apparatus to the horse, and be ready to move when the crew arrived.

The halfway house, located between the two stations, had been erected for precisely such emergencies and was equipped with the necessary lifesaving apparatus. Surf rescue equipment weighed several thousand pounds, and on many occasions this weight hindered the rescue work as it took precious hours to haul the equipment to the scene. Having a halfway house also eased the physical exhaustion the surfmen experienced after dragging the apparatus several miles over torn and flooded beaches.

Shortly after Keeper Tunnel reached the halfway house, the Cape Henlopen crew, which had the shorter distance to travel, joined him. They immediately set out for the wreck, arriving at the scene within the hour. The Lewes crew reached the wreck a short time later.

The Luther A. Roby was 500 yards offshore. Under the command of Captain W. H. Malony, the 639-ton vessel had been bound from Cheverie, Nova Scotia to Philadelphia with a cargo of plaster and a crew of eight men. It was surmised that the ship had been trying to enter the mouth of Delaware Bay when it had navigated too far to the leeward and become unmanageable in the high winds and strong tides, causing her to strand on the seaward side of the cape.

As each moment passed, the vessel became weaker beneath the shocks of the pounding sea. Unfortunately, the captain had dropped his anchor when he realized that he was sure to strand, and this now held her fast at an unnecessary distance from the shore. She lay among the heaviest breakers, broadside to the beach.

The ninety-mile-an-hour winds were from the east-northeast, and the surf was running so high that there was no safe way to launch the surfboat. It was decided that the Lyle gun should be used to fire a line to the ship. A shot was fired which landed on the mizzen crosstree. The whip line was at once bent to the shot line, and the men on the schooner pulled it on board as quickly as possible, making it fast in the port mizzen rigging. With great difficulty and much delay caused by the fouling of the lines in the high gale winds and the mass of floating wreckage, the life-saving crew hauled the hawser out to the wreck. The hawser had barely reached the wreck and been made fast above the whip line in the rigging when the mizzen topmast fell and broke into several pieces. Hopkins, the mate, who had been aloft in the shrouds, was knocked off and fell through one of the open hatches into the hold. He was not seriously hurt. As Hopkins was falling, one of the sailors, Thomas Sines, swung himself upon the hawser and began to make his way toward shore hand over hand. But the rolling vessel tightened the hawser with such force each time the vessel rocked that he was flung into the air falling headlong into the breakers along the shore. He was never seen again.

With a deafening crash, heard above the sounds of the high storm winds, the mizzenmast broke, carrying with it the lifesaving lines, which at once became hopelessly entangled in the spars and timbers pounding alongside, causing the mainmast to topple soon afterward. With the fall of the mast the seamen were thrown into the angry breakers. The vessel was now an utter wreck, with the hatch covers wrenched off and the deck breaking away. She was rising and falling with the motion of the sea. The top of the cabin was adrift. Five of the seamen in the water sought refuge on the cabin top and shouted to their companion, George Mulberry, the steward, to join them. He was clinging to a piece of timber nearby, and paid no heed to their cries. Seconds later the foremast fell and struck him. He was swept to the leeward, grasping first a spar and then other broken pieces of wreckage. The lifesaving crew fired a line for him to grab onto, but as it landed a large timber struck him on the head and he disappeared from sight. The lifesavers then turned their full attention back to the five men who were huddled on the detached top of the cabin. By luck, this portion of the wreck became entangled in the lines that had been originally shot out to the wreck, and the surfmen began to pull upon them, working the cabin closer and closer to the beach. When they had worked it close enough, the surfmen formed a human chain by joining hands in the surf and were able to reach the men and drag them ashore. It was considered a miracle that no one was badly hurt during this procedure, as the surf was full of debris, which was being grounded and thrown ashore.

Because the Cape Henlopen Life-Saving Station was the nearest, Keeper Salmons took the survivors to that location. They were provided with dry clothing and food and sheltered for two days while they recovered from the ordeal. It was learned that at the time of the stranding a young Norwegian was lost while making an attempt to swim to the shore. His body was not recovered. The body of George Murlberry was taken from the surf on the morning of the thirteenth. Following a coroner's inquest at Lewes, Murlberry was buried in Boston, Massachusetts.

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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