One of the most poignant graves in the South Wellfleet Cemetery is that of the unknown sailors buried there. To me, this marker stands for all the suffering sailors, found and lost, who did not make it past Cape Cod’s “graveyard of ships.”
Stories of the shipwrecks off the Cape Cod coast usually begin with three that are well documented:
- The 1626 wreck of the English Sparrowhawk under Captain Johnson on the shoals near Orleans, recorded in Governor Bradford’s diary. In 1863, the ship’s bones were discovered in a mud bank — and hauled into Boston for display on the Boston Common
so all could see them.
2. The British frigate Somerset on Peaked Hill Bars in November 1778. Now at war with the British, the Revolutionary soldiers took the survivors prisoners and marched them up the Cape to Barnstable, and then over to Boston. Colonel Doane of Wellfleet participated. This wreck is exposed from time to time, once in 1885 and another time in 1973.
3. In 1718, the pirate ship Widdah (also Wydah) under the command of Captain Bellamy, off South Wellfleet. The discovery of the wreck and subsequent identification of the ship was one of the premier stories of South Wellfleet in the 1980s.
There are other miscellaneous accounts of shipwrecks off the Cape Coast, but detailed
recordkeeping began with the Life Saving Service’s establishment in 1872. The location of the Life Saving Stations and their operation was detailed in my last blog post.
If a surfman patrolling the beach noticed a ship in distress, he was to fire a red Coston signal which he carried, signaling to the crew (and the Life Saving Station) that they have been seen and assistance summoned. Now the whole crew and the equipment was rolled out to the beach, with the aid of a horse — which might not be cooperative in the sand-blowing bad weather.
The Life Saving Service drilled constantly — two of the most important were the life boat drill and the breeches buoy drill. For the latter, most stations set up a “wreck pole” – to represent the mast of a ship — and then would practice firing the Lyle gun to attach the
first line to the ship. That first line had instructions to the crew on how to attach other lines, and then the contraption called the “breeches buoy” would be sent over, with crew members able to fit into it, one by one, and thus be hauled to the shore. This contraption was only useful for wrecks located 600 yards or less offshore. The drills called for the surfmen to be able to set up in five minutes. Today, the National Park Service stages regular demonstrations at the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station in Provincetown.
Ninety-nine years ago, on February 17, 1914, the Castagna, a ship out of Sovona, Italy, went ashore in a storm, landing on South Wellfleet’s shore. The account of the wreck is
especially well-documented. Perhaps this was a reflection of the times, or because she was one of the last shipwrecks before the Cape Cod Canal opened later in 1914, or just because the writers wrote in a more vivid style.
The ship, whose name is now commemorated on a street name in South Wellfleet, was on a voyage from Uruguay to Weymouth, Massachusetts, south of Boston, carrying guano or fertilizer. She went ashore 3.5 miles south of Cahoon Hollow. Of her crew of thirteen, five perished during the rescue, and one later.
The surfmen from Cahoon Hollow and Nauset stations responded to the ship’s distress, beginning at 5:30 AM, when the patrol saw her and signaled with a Coston light. The ship attempted to move away from the shore, and then tried to put down the anchor — both typical moves in such a situation. The patrolling surfman went to the Halfway House in South Wellfleet and used the telephone to signal to Cahoon Hollow and Nauset.
Initially, the life-saving crew tried to use the breeches buoy, but the sailors on board the Castagna could not secure the line on board the ship. A number of them had climbed up onto the rigging to save themselves, and that’s where four perished. Their frozen bodies had to be cut down. The crew then brought the lifeboat through the heavy snow, and used it to save others, although one man died after they had brought him up onto the beach. Another sad aspect of this wreck was that the Italian sailors did not have suitable clothing for a winter voyage.
By the time the lifeboat rescue was underway, there were South Wellfleet residents
helping on the beach, although the reports do not indicate who was there. The survivors were taken to the Marconi Station, “a mile and a half away.” There, they were given “approved remedies for frostbite” and by the afternoon, they were all on the train bound for Boston, where they were hospitalized. Six lived, one more man died of infection, and one had to undergo an amputation.
When researching and writing about the Marconi operation in South Wellfleet, I found accounts of a cat named Castagna at the station, supposedly rescued from the ship – which is hard to imagine, given the ferociousness of the storm. But cats do have those nine lives.
Not all the shipping incidents were on the Atlantic side of Wellfleet. In 1886, The New York Times reported that residents of Wellfleet noticed distress signals flying from Billingsgate Light. After rowing across the harbor, they found the captain and crew of the George K. Hatch, a schooner that had run aground in a storm, striking Billingsgate Island, and abandoned by the Captain and crew when they put off for the lighthouse. This ship, loaded with sugar, molasses and coco, did not become a wreck, and was expected to float again when the tide turned.
Combing the shore and picking up articles from ships’ cargo was a regular activity of nineteenth century Wellfleet men, and there are many stories of their finds. There is a long-standing mythic story of the treasure of the Wydah buried in a South Wellfleet garden plot. Enoch Pratt, in his 1844 history of the Eastham, Wellfleet and Orleans, notes:
Wrecks and parts of wrecks of vessels and other property were often cast ashore on the back side of the town, and picked up by the inhabitants, who gave oath to it before the town clerk; and the property was taken care of, as the law directed, for whom it might concern. The law required that this be done in all cases, yet it cannot be denied that it was frequently evaded, and the property found appropriated to private use, which has often been the case since.
In his memory piece about his Wellfleet childhood, Charles F. Cole says, “Father often went to the Backside and found something worthwhile saving.” Noting that his memories are of the time before the Life Saving Station, he writes, “It was no uncommon thing to hear the cry of ‘ship ashore at the Back Side.’” He particularly remembers the wreck of the Aurora loaded with palm oil from Africa. Her casks of palm oil were scattered up and down the beach for one and a half miles. (He does not mention any loss of life.) He tells of ‘men in gangs’ saving the casks from the breakers. Some of the oil had burst from the casks and became hardened lumps on the beach. Cole and his brother got their neighbor, David Brown, to loan his cart, and they carried enough lumps home to their barn to fill eleven barrels. He felt proud because the insurance company paid him $30 for his find. The men in the gangs, he claims, made $100 each.
Today, shipwrecks still evoke great excitement. In late March 1984, when the Eldia went ashore on Nauset Beach, it became an instant attraction that we all just had to trudge along
the dune to see. In January 2008 a wreck of a 19th century schooner washed up on Newcomb Hollow Beach. These ship bones quickly became another must-see and must-photograph, a way of connecting to Cape Cod’s past.
Dalton, J.W. and Frank Ackerman, Life Savers of Cape Cod, The Barta Press, Boston, 1902 (available on Google Books)
Barnstable Patriot (various) online archive: www.sturgislibrary.org
U.S. Coastguard Station Cahoons Hollow, Massachusetts
“The Notes of Charles F. Cole” manuscript from the Wellfleet Public Library
The New York Times archive.