It had snowed earlier in the day, cleared somewhat by nightfall, then began
snowing again. Late on that Monday night of December 11, 1876, surfman
Samuel H. Howell of the United States Life Saving Service was out on patrol
along the Bridgehampton beach. On this stormy night, gale winds blew snow
mixed with sleet and a turbulent surf pounded the cold shore. A moment
before the Circassian struck, surfman Howell believed he had seen the
ominous outline of a large ship against the snowy horizon, a ship much too
near shore not to be in trouble.|
Immediately following the ship's signal of distress, Howell set off the answering red flare of his Coston patrol light. Then, lighting a blue flare to alert the ship that help was on the way he ran back to the Mecox barracks to inform Captain Baldwin Cook of the emergency on their shore. By 10:55 P~ the keeper of Mecox Station knew a large ship had grounded nearby out on the outer bar only a few hundred feet west of the station itself.
Two crewmen were immediately dispatched on horseback to summon help from neighboring life saving stations, Georgica to the east and Southampton to the west. The remainder of those at the Mecox Station, four crewmen and the station keeper, began getting the gear in readiness for the impending rescue.
The surfboat and all equipment would be hauled by horsedrawn beach cart along the shore to the scene of the grounding. The equipment consisted of: a small cannon-like mortar, mortar balls, powder, a shot-line and carrying box, hauling lines and a pulley block, a bracing crotch and sand anchor, a breeches buoy, and a life car. The procedure would be rescue either by surfboat or by breeches buoy.
A surfboat, launched by the crew through the breakers and then rowed out to the ship, would have to make several trips before all seamen from the grounded vessel could be brought ashore. Rescue by breeches buoy was more complicated. A ball with a light shot-line attached would be fired by the mortar out to the ship. A pulley block could be tied to this line, with a long length of hauling line threaded through, which those aboard ship could pull across the water to themselves. The pulley block and hauling line were then fastened high on a mast with that pulley and line usually replaced by a heavier pulley block and hawser for extra strength. By this means, a breeches buoy, a canvas seat designed to hold one man, could be drawn out to the ship and then hauled back to shore carrying a rescued person. In brief, the system worked like a common pulley clothesline. Once the lines were established, life preservers, heavier hawsers, or anything at all could be hauled either shore to ship or ship to shore.
Now on the Bridgehampton beach the apparatus was assembled; additional help had been summoned. In the darkness the gale still raged, the surf still beat against the shore, and Captain Cook of the Life Savers knew he could do little more until dawn. The seas were too rough to launch a lifeboat for rescue. The darkness of the night, the force of the gale, and the high tide ruled out any attempt to fire a lifeline to the ship. No shotline could have reached the vessel, and even if it could, those on the ship would have difficulty locating and using the line. Cook decided to wait for daylight, decreased winds, and a lower tide.
The ship, though taking a beating in the surf, appeared to be whole and staunch enough to withstand the stress of the storm. The ship's crew, in distress but not in peril, were safest staying with the ship. The Life Saving men kept a careful watch, ready to take whatever emergency action was possible if conditions worsened. They continued signaling the ship that help was nearby. They would wait until the first light.
The Circassian was, in fact, taking much abuse from the storm as she lay stranded on the bar. Every wave lifted her, inched her across the bar, and then dropped her. Swirling white water washed her decks; her hold was filling with water. The seamen, panicking, wanted to lower the ship's lifeboats, but officers on board persuaded them to remain patient. Rescue from shore would arrive. Meanwhile, the ship was being carried completely over the shallow water on the bar by the force of the storm tide. Just over the bar in the slightly deeper inshore water, she was spun around broadside to the beach by the intensity of the gale. In this precarious position, stranded parallel to and so near shore, the ship was target for the full destructive force of wind and wave. A less solid ship might have disintegrated under such strain.
The Life Saving crew had been anxious all night, eager to start rescue. By dawn the weather had improved and the storm tide was falling, though the surf was still heavy with a powerful set, a swift shore current, running to the westward. The crew wanted to try the lifeboat; Captain Cook insisted they wait for better conditions. The ocean, still quite rough at dawn, would grow more calm as the tide ebbed. The ship, carried much nearer shore by the storm, was taking less of a beating now that the tide was falling.
As the morning progressed, the Mecox crew, using their cumbersome metallic lifeboat, several times attempted to clear the breakers to reach the ship. Each attempt was unsuccessful, however, as the surf which poured into their boat, almost swamping them, always forced them back to shore.
Meanwhile, on board the Circassian, the alarm of the seamen grew. They had seen the Life Saving crew attempt to use their lifeboat and fail. Now they once again wanted to lower their own boats, a very dangerous undertaking for seamen unfamiliar with the hazards of this shore. On the beach, along with warning gestures and shouts, a sign with the urgent message "Wait for the tide" was rapidly chalked out for all to see.
The better visibility of daylight, the clear weather, and the diminishing tide and winds increased the possibility rescue by breeches buoy might prove successful. The mortar was positioned for firing. The surfmen worked as a well rehearsed team each attending to his specific duty. As a crowd on shore watched, the mortar was shotted with ball and powder; the shot-line was checked to make sure each loop would uncoil and fly out towards the ship tangle free; hauling lines, hawsers, pulley blocks, and breeches buoy were placed in readiness. Two shots were fired, each falling short. A third shot reached the vessel. the ball landing directly on the ship's deck. At last, a rescue line was aboard; the ship was linked to shore.
The Life Saving crew then resolved to make another attempt with the lifeboat. The surf was calmer now. If it were at all possible for the crew to reach the ship, rescue by lifeboat would be more expedient than use of the breeches buoy. The idea of using the lifeboat seemed worth one more try.
Meanwhile, news of the grounding had spread rapidly through the quiet village and surrounding farm areas: a ship aground was a major event in this rural community. Local residents gathered on the beach, some to help and some just to watch. Those on shore lent a hand whenever it was needed. It was expected they would respond to an emergency such as this and help the Life Saving crew, all of whom they knew. Shops closed as storekeepers and customers headed for the beach. Schools closed as students and schoolmasters came to watch the suspense and excitement of rescue. As the intense drama of the Circassian unfolded, comparisons to other wrecks were unavoidable.
By 10:30 AM., Captain Baldwin Cook and his crew were again ready to launch the lifeboats. Once again the sea nearly swamped the surfmen, and only by good fortune, much experience, and great labor did they clear the breakers and approach the ship. The Mecox crew reached the side of the Circassian about 11:00 A.M. Watching for debris and falling wreckage, and also avoiding collision with the ship's huge hull, the lifeboat held position. By means of a line let down from the ship, the first six seamen descended to the awaiting boat. The trip back to shore, requiring caution with so many aboard, was safely executed. The competent crew had maneuvered the lifeboat well.
By 11:30 the first group of six seamen touched shore. The group included the Circassian crew and Captain James Sullivan, the pilot who had been taken on board at sea two days before. Those on the beach immediately besieged the seamen with questions. They wanted to know about the ship, the cargo, and "most importantly" why she had run aground. One of the Circassian's men set off for town at once, telegraphing the ship's agents in New York to inform them of the situation.
Later lifeboat trips brought the remaining men from the Circassian. Captain Williams and the mates and petty officers were the last to leave the ship. Seven trips out and seven trips back were made by the Mecox Life Saving crew, each trip bringing to shore six to eight men. The seas were still so rough the crew broke five oars in the seven trips. A total of forty-nine men, thirty-six seamen from the Circassian, the pilot, and twelve seamen from the Heath Park, reached shore safely. No lives were lost.
The rescued men, many badly frostbitten from their all night ordeal, were taken to the Mecox station house for shelter. In the crowded barracks amidst hot coffee, a warm fire, and administrations of first aid, many of the questions the local people asked were answered.
Captain Williams stated that the ship had run aground in the heavy blow because of an error of the ship's compass. The compass had probably been affected by the intense storms the ship had encountered on the crossing. That was his official statement.
Other experts and concerned parties, both locally and in New York, wondered if the grounding had been due to a miscalculation by the captain or negligence or error on the part of the pilot. The ship's great size and amount of draft, the depth of the vessel below the waterline, was certainly a contributing factor.
As was customary, a routine investigation about the ship's grounding would ensue. On January 2, 1877, at the annual meeting of the Board of Pilot Commissioners, James Sullivan would be required to submit a report in response to charges made against him by the ship's owners. At the hearing, the question of his being professionally at fault in the accident would be reviewed. Since he had not yet taken charge of the vessel, all investigations were inconclusive.
The Life Saving Service had saved the men. The insurance companies in New York were now concerned about saving the ship and cargo. On December 12, one day after the grounding, the insurance companies engaged the Coast Wrecking Company of New York to save the cargo and get the Stranded Circassian off the bar. That same day, a schooner with a salvage crew and the Coast Wrecking Company's largest tug left New York for the scene.
Many rescued seamen, having been cared for at the Mecox station. were offered further care and rest in homes of the Bridgehampton villagers. Captain Sullivan, the pilot, soon left for New York: Captain Smith and his men did likewise, seeking assistance in returning to their country from the British Consul in New York. Until the wreckers arrived, the captain and mates of the Circassian remained at the life saving station itself, within sight of the ship.
The possibility of getting the ship free looked good, and Williams was determined not to abandon his ship into the hands of the wreckers. Whether due to pride in his ability to captain the ship no matter what her condition, or belief that such effort would clear any stigma to his name, he insisted he and his men would assist with the salvage attempt. Many of the Circassian crew, however, did not agree with the captain's plan to see the ship through salvage. A few of the men had been uneasy about the reputation of the ship from the beginning and knew this was not her first grounding.
In December of 1869, on a voyage from New Orleans to New York, she had run ashore off Manasquan, New Jersey. It had taken five days to free her and then she had had to be laid up afterwards for repairs. About five years before that she had run aground off Sable Island on a New York to Quebec run. Again, she had been damaged enough to have been laid up for repairs. Now, with two able captains and one well-trained pilot aboard, the Circassian was ashore again in this her third grounding. This ship had already had her share of misfortune and her crewmen knew it. After experiencing a month of intense storms at sea, witnessing the loss of the Heath Park, and then running aground themselves, the seamen wanted nothing to do with the salvage efforts. Ultimately, tweet, men deserted the ship, demanded their wages, and left for New York. Williams was left with only his three mates, six seamen, the three apprentices, the cook, a steward, and the stowaway to help with salvage.