Shipwreck of the Schooner, Frances
Big Kinnakeet Station, North Carolina
*Minor editorial privileges were taken to clarify the text and writing style of the period.
In the latter part of January, 1910, the schooner Frances, a wooden vessel of 677 tons, left New York for Jacksonville, Florida, with a cargo of cement. She carried a crew of eight men, all told. She went to pieces near the Big Kinnakeet Life-Saving Station, a few miles north of Cape Hatteras, on the morning of February 1, and, but for the discovery of a piece of wreckage bearing her name, her fate might never have been definitely known, as all hands on board perished.
The night preceding the day of the disaster was so stormy as to make the coast guard of the service stationed on the outlying sands of the coast mentioned more than ordinarily vigilant. A strong gale had sprung up from the northwest in the early evening, accompanied by snow flurries. As the wind swept over the beach it kicked up the dry sand from among the hummocks and drove it out over the surf, snow, sand, and flying spray forming a curtain that shut out the view seaward as effectually as a fog. Moreover, the temperature had fallen to the freezing point and the sea was exceptionally high. notwithstanding the weather conditions, the night was an uneventful one for the life-saving crews near Cape Hatteras, yet somewhere at sea the gale was driving a ship to destruction on their beach.
When day broke on February 1, it was still snowing, but the temperature had risen several degrees, and the wind, while still fresh, had moderated to 35 miles an hour. The snow and sand flurries, however, still obscured the view along the beach, and the surf was still very high. Ordinarily the patrol is maintained only in the nighttime, but on this morning the weather was so bad off the cape that the performance of that duty at the Big Kinnakeet station was not discontinued with the return of day. At 8 a. m. Surfman C. R. Hooper, temporarily in charge of the Big Kinnakeet crew, sent Surfman E. F. Miller on patrol southward toward Cape Hatteras. Half an hour later Miller presented himself at the station in a state of great exhaustion from running, and announced that he had discovered a vessel coming on the beach. What he had seen is set forth here in his own words:
She bore to the southward and eastward of my position, which was about a mile from the station, and appeared to have a piece of her mainsail set and the fore staysail on. I had a glimpse of her only for a moment. After a little I saw her a second time, and it appeared to me that she had hauled more to the southward. I had three views of her, all very brief and obscured by the squalls of snow driving from the beach. I did not proceed farther toward her or tarry to try to make out her hull and appearance, knowing that if she held on her course she must surely become a wreck.
Another member of the Big Kinnakeet crew also got a view of the vessel. He testifies that on hearing Miller make his report to the acting keeper he caught up. a marine glass and looked down the beach from an open window. Owing to the driving snow and the spray from the breakers, he could not distinguish her hull plainly, but made out two masts, one of them upright, the other hanging over as if broken. The vessel seemed to him to be stationary. It does not appear from the evidence that any other member of this crew saw the vessel again before she broke up.
The acting keeper sent a telephone message to the Little Kinnakeet and Cape Hatteras Life-Saving Stations, several miles to the northward and southward, respectively, requesting the assistance of the crews at those places, he being of the opinion that the vessel would strike within the limits of his patrol. The crew under his temporary command had in the meanwhile made the beach-apparatus cart ready, and in a short time all hands were on their way down the beach.
The crew of the Cape Hatteras station reached the vicinity of the disaster first, having set out unencumbered by any apparatus. One of their number went on ahead of the rest with instructions to meet the Big Kinnakeet crew and help them along with their life-saving equipment. This surfman passed the vessel shortly after 9 o'clock. Relating what he saw offshore, he says:
When the breakers ran back I could see the shape of the hull of a vessel her entire length. As far as I could tell, she was heading nearly northeast. No masts were standing, but they were washing about on top of the wreck. I saw no signs of life, although I remained watching a couple of minutes. I judged the vessel to be between 550 and 600 yards from the beach.
The three life-saving crews met about 9.30 a. m. There was no wreck work to be performed, however, for the ship had already been destroyed. There were no masts to be seen, nor any parts of a broken hull; "only confused wreckage in the boiling surf." The wreck stuff, which consisted of some spars and other debris, did not drift away in the tremendous southerly current then running, from which it would seem that it was held fast by rigging to submerged parts of the vessel.
The surfmen were disposed up and down the beach in readiness to take from the surf any survivors or bodies that might be cast up. Nothing more could be done in the circumstances. Those in command on the beach having satisfied themselves after a period of watching that there was no hope of saving any of the ship's company, the service crews separated and returned to their stations.
The officer who investigated this disaster was on the beach the day following its occurrence. His report contains the following with respect to the state of the sea and what he observed in the locality of the wreck:
The surf was still so high and powerful as far out as the outer bar as to preclude any attempt to launch a boat, even under the guidance of the most able crew. The tremendous combers crashed on the beach with irresistible force, presenting, as they broke, not the curling, concave front so familiar, but simply dropping down in vertical walls. All that remained of the vessel were two spars on the outer bar, about 600 yards offshore, one, apparently a mast, lying horizontally with some top hamper at one end, and the other, a smaller timber like a broken lower boom, standing vertically. Both timbers were moving, but were evidently attached to some object under water, since they remained practically in one position. Continuing our progress southward we found one of the quarter-boards of the vessel with her name upon it. A little farther along a large portion of her half-breadth hull had been washed up, and at a distance of probably a mile from the wreck the entire breadth of her stern, with some 20 feet of the forward frame attached to it, had come ashore. On this was painted "Frances of New York." An examination of these several groups of timbers showed that they were rotten at the ends and near the fastenings.
As there were no survivors, what took place aboard the vessel before she came ashore, or what circumstance, or combination of circumstances, brought misfortune upon her can only be conjectured. The investigating officer ventures the following hypotheses as within the range of possibility: First, that the vessel may have become waterlogged and in danger of sinking from previous stress of weather, and as a last desperate hazard her master tried to beach her to save the crew; second, that he might have thought he had passed the Diamond Shoals, and consequently hauled more to the wind to come under the lee of the land and lay his course to his destination, thus unknowingly getting too close inshore; or, third, he may have been in entire ignorance of his whereabouts during the prevalence of the gale that drove him ashore and unable to control the movements of his ship. The opinion was also advanced that the vessel was a derelict when she struck, and that her crew may have been taken off by some passing vessel. As no survivors were ever reported, this theory seems no more susceptible of proof than the others.