"W" is for Wrecks

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Visitor's ABC's

By John Hirtle, Beach News Staff

Beach News, Thursday, August 25, 2005

[The following article is courtesy of Beach News]
Each year, the Beach News is proud to feature an unique ongoing series of articles concerning interesting facts about the region's places and history. This year, we will be doing a virtual visitor's ABCs of the Seacoast region.

A section of the Lizzie Carr, a schooner wrecked along the southern end of Wallis Sands survived buried under the sand for over a hundred years, and is now on display at the Seacoast Science Center.
[Beach News File/Courtesy Photos]

The sea can sometimes be a dangerous place. Weather, fate, even a simple mistake can lead to disaster.

Once, the waters off the Seacoast were teeming with ships of every sort, from small fishing vessels to large merchantmen. In the days before GPS, radio and modern navigation, it was easy to see these vessels just off the coast, keeping track of their location by landmarks along the way.

Sometimes it didn’t work the way the ship’s captain planned. The once uncharted shores of New England's rocky coast could often spell disaster in the early days of sailing ships.

Far off the coast of York Maine lays Boon Island, a rocky spit of land just peeking above the waves. In the summer of 1682, the Increase, a coastal trading vessel, ran around, stranding her crew of four men for the better part of a month. They survived on fish and gull eggs before they were rescued by Native Americans. Departing, they dubbed the wave swept island "Boon Island", as they saw their survival as a boon from God. It is an ironic name, when one considers the fate of the Nottingham Galley, which was dashed ashore on the island in December 1710. The survivors clung to life for three frigid storm-tossed weeks, resorting to cannibalism to survive before they were rescued by fishermen. After that, fishermen began putting caches of food called "boons" on isolated islands to aid any hapless soul washed ashore survive until they could be rescued. As for Boon Island, it is now home to the Boon Island Lighthouse, the tallest in New England.

But most wrecks, such as the schooner Mary A. Brown which ran agound at Hampton Beach in 1900 with the loss of all men, have vanished as weather and souvenir seekers slowly dismantled the wreck.
[Beach News File/Courtesy Photos]

As the region was settled, the coast was carefully mapped, and major landmarks were noted. Where there were no landmarks on the featureless portions of the coast, fishermen would erect cairns of stones to help them determine where they were located. In 1770, the first lighthouse north of Boston was built in New Castle, New Hampshire. Called Portsmouth Harbor Light, it was the first of many beacons to help guide ships away from danger and into a safe harbor. Some beacons came too late though.

On the night of January 13, 1813, a Spanish ship was driven onto the rocks of Smuttynose Island at the Isles of Shoals, leaving behind a ghastly sight. For while the Haley family slept, with a lone candle alit as a beacon in an upper floor window, the surviving members of the crew struggled to survive. The next day, the Haley family found their bodies, in the freshly fallen snow, trying to make their way to the Haley house. Not a one survived, and even the true name of the ship -- often called the Sagunto -- is unknown. The wreck helped lead to the construction of the White Island Lighthouse six years later, replacing the good hearted efforts of the Haleys and other islanders with a potent beacon to guide ships.

A total of nine lighthouses were built and operated between York Maine and Newburyport, Massachusetts. The four in Newburyport were unique to the area as they were navigational lighthouses, used in pairs of two to guide ships past the shifting sand bars at the mouth of the Merrimack River. Two of them stand near the center of Newburyport, while only one survives on Plum Island. Despite their use, the sandbars around Plum Island claimed dozens of vessels over the years. One of these lost vessels was the Pocahontas, a 200-ton brig that sank off Plum Island in 1839, and was later immortalized by Celia Thaxter in one of her poems. While lighthouses could guide ships, there was a need for rescuers.

Over time, Lifesaving stations were established at strategic points on Plum Island, Salisbury Beach, Hampton Beach, Rye, New Castle, Kittery and York. Before the advent of telephones and radio, these stations were within walking distance of each other, so the surfmen -- as their seasonal crews were called -- could easily patrol the shorelines, keeping a keen eye out for any vessel in distress. While it was often impossible to save the ship, these brave men worked hard to save the lives of the ship’s passengers and crew before they were claimed by the sea.

Among those rescued was the crew of the Lizzie Carr. She was a lumber schooner which ran aground off Concord Point in Rye during a storm on January 15, 1905. Lifesavers managed to rescue five of the six crewmen aboard the doomed ship, which was too badly damaged to be refloated.

What could be salvaged from her was, and the remains of her shattered hulk were buried in the sands near Stinky Creek until they resurfaced nearly a century later. With age, came a renewed interest in the forgotten wreck, and a 12 foot section of her hull was recovered from its sandy tomb. It is now on display at the Seacoast Science Center at Odiorne Point State Park in Rye.

Even the United States Navy has seen wrecks in these waters. Who can forget the saga of the Squalus, which sank off the Isles of Shoals? Or the Thresher, which was lost at sea during test dives? But few remember the near tragedy of the ill-starred submarine S-48.

On the night of January 29, 1924, the submarine S-48 was en route to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, when a blinding snowstorm enveloped the hapless vessel. Tossed off course, she first ran aground on rocks off Jeffery’s Point in New Castle. She managed to get off those rocks before blundering into the shallow waters of Little Harbor, where the S-48 ran aground for good. The storm worsened, rocking the lost sub back and forth like a toy as the trapped sailors radioed for help. And help arrived at five in the morning as a crew of Coastguardsmen finally located the sub and took the battered exhausted sailors off the listing, leaking vessel. The S-48 would be refloated, and taken to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where she was repaired, extended and put back into service.

Today, wrecks along the Seacoast are few and far between. Huge cargo ship stay far out to sea unlike the small sailing vessels which once hugged the coast despite the many dangers. Thanks to radio and cell phones, a call for help to the ever-vigilant U.S. Coast Guard or fellow boaters is a simple matter. Lifesaving and safety equipment has advanced dramatically as well. All of this has made the likelihood of wrecks in the future a remote one - provided that those who sail on the Atlantic maintain a wary watch for danger.

"W" is also for:
Warren’s Lobster House, where you can watch the lobsters get unloaded while you dine.
Widow Fletcher’s, a great restaurant in the heart of Hampton.
Wok Express, a great place to get Chinese to go.
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