Shipwrecks and Coast Watching
from "Little Stories of Old New England"
By William Everett Cram
Hampton Union and Rockingham County Gazette, Thursday, December 30, 1937
In these winter days when thoughts of snow trains to the mountains cause forgetfulness of the seashore which so allures in the heated days of summer, it is less easy to picture our nearby coast as it was on a day late in December almost a hundred years ago. Only a few scattered fish houses were to be found along the beaches and though coastwise traffic was heavy and sails were to be seen at almost all hours, no Coast Guard Stations, or as they were first called, Life Saving Stations were located in this section, where wrecks were altogether of too frequent occurrence. Almost every day of the long stretch from September to May is the anniversary of the loss of some vessel somewhere between the northern end of Hampton Bach and the southern end of Plum Island. While the sea moaned and pounded and the heavy fog blotted out every possible marker, or in a smother and howling gale with the snow making observations impossible, some craft driven from her course and now vainly trying to clear the breakers, her decks slippery, the ropes stiff and glazey, just barely clearing the outer reefs and uncertain of what is ahead, a vessel hits on an outlaying bar and is carried over but not until tons of water have come over her rail with the driving wave and battered at hatches and her deckhouse shrieks and useless calls for help which none can hear as she at last reaches the point where the water becomes too shallow for further progress and she becomes the sport and prey of the waves. Such was a common tragedy of these twenty miles, more or less, of pleasant beaches.
On December 15, of 1839 there had been an unusual high tide. It had flooded the Hampton, Seabrook and Salisbury marshes and covered the river end of Plum Island so that the keeper for some hours was unable to get to his light because of the water between his dwelling house and the light house. The hotel by the bridge which spanned the Plum Island river was likewise surrounded with water, and along the shore, sand dunes twenty feet high were washed away in one place to be built up in another and the front of the beach was eaten in many feet for a long distance.
On the 24th, came another great tide, this time driven in by a greater storm and during the night, the brig Pocahontus of some 200 tons struck, and when the morning came she was seen, but in such a situation that nothing could be done to rescue the crew who still clung to the wreck. Those who had gathered on the beach gazed impotently at to forms on the boat, undoubtedly still alive but with a surf so terrible that no boat could possibly live in it. The boat too was so far from shore that no rope could be thrown to it even if the wind had been favorable, and with the gale blowing in from the sea, it was still more out of the question.
From before nine in the morning envious eyes watched a man making a hard fight to keep his hold on the bowsprit and rigging as the waves swept across and hammered on him to make him give up his grip. Hour after hour passed and at last just before noon a great wave struck him and as it passed he was carried off in full sight of the watchers who had much increased in number as word of the wreck had spread. And very shortly after, as if satisfied with this exhibition of its successful attack, more high waves followed and the brig was thrown so far ashore that it was easily gained by those who had so long waited to be of helpfulness. They found one man lashed to the vessel still breathing feebly when they first reached him but so far gone that he soon ceased to breathe and was unable to even make an understandable sign or sound. So fierce and steady had been the beating of the waves upon him that almost every shred of clothing had been stripped from him.
At some distance from the brig, a small boat came ashore, indicating that some time during the progress to the shore when it was realized that nothing could avert the final catastrophe, some had attempted to reach shore by this means, but the boat had been overturned and all had been lost, if indeed they had been able to safely launch it and get aboard. They had probably left the brig before day light as the watchers had seen nothing of them leaving the boat after she had struck. Seven bodies were recovered and buried in the Old Hill Burying Ground in Newburyport.
From time to time, though not for many years after the government established the Coast Guard of Life Saving Stations along this section of the coast, their seeming nearness due to the fact that by the nature of the country and the sandy shores of the beach it was difficult for the crew of any station to quickly give relief to any vessel in distress at any great distance. This is still true of Plum Island, but from Rye Beach to the Merrimack river a modern boulevard and motor trucks have made this ten miles or more easier to cover than was formerly the several miles of each station which had to be patrolled by men on foot through the shifting sand which gave unsubstantial footing.
In line with the government's always notable economy three Coast Guard stations, those of Rye Beach, Wallis Sands and Salisbury Beach have been discontinued and with Hampton Beach station still operating, the patrol is now made by automobile. Telephone lines with several stations for quick communication with the Coast Guard station make it possible for immediate notice of any boat in trouble to be received and a trailer with a life boat thereon can be attached to the motor truck and speedily drawn to the place where it is needed.
As the character of shipping has also changed and few vessels depending on sails now frequent this section, wrecks of the nature of the Pocahontus are few. Small launches with motor trouble, trouble with steering gear, lacking fuel or other troubles are now the principal causes for calls for the services of Coast Guard here.
When one thinks of the patrol which the Coast Guardsman still has to make along the sands of Plum Island, hard enough in the best of weather over the sand, but in intense cold or in driving storms made a terrible ordeal, he can hardly fail to imagine the Plum Island Coast Guardsman on a tough night having a feeling of envy of his fellow service man to the north.