200 Plus

Struggling to Save the Elmina

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Mar 13, 2019
Life-saving Station No. 21 in Ship Bottom

During a gale in January 1884, a life and death drama was playing out on the LBI beach. The barkentine Elmina, from Salscombe, England, had grounded on the bar just offshore. Keeper James Sprague and his crew from the Long Beach life saving service station had hauled the life-saving equipment to the site and were attempting to shoot a line to the ship.

The New York Times of Jan. 12 reported, “Red light was constantly burned by the life saving crew to let the imperiled sailors in the rigging know that their situation was understood. The work of firing the mortar and lifeline was continued, this being much retarded by the wet flying sand, which covered the shot-line. By 9 o’clock the gun for a fourth time was in readiness, and it is believed that it reached the vessel. In the meantime, the mainmast had fallen. This showed that the vessel was beginning to break up, and soon the lights on board disappeared.”

Finally, on the fifth attempt faint cheers could be heard coming from the Elmina as the line had reached the men in the rigging.

“While the cheers meant contact had been made, the crew and the lifesavers still had to accomplish the most difficult part of any rescue. The beach cart was equipped with two large reels of heavy line. Now the shot line would be attached to a block (a large pulley) in between the two reels and pulled back to the stricken vessel. This was back breaking work for the victims. They had to drag the block and two heavy ropes through the surf toward them. This was difficult for men on a deck, but for men in the rigging it was a nightmare. The men on shore had to make certain the two lines remained separated as the block was pulled away because if they twisted once the block was attached to the mast, the line couldn’t move freely.”

At this point crews from Ship Bottom to the north and Bond’s to the south were on the scene. The official report states, “After waiting a reasonable time to allow the tail-block to be made fast by the sailors, to whom, being invisible, signaling was impossible, both life-saving crews manned the whip and began to pull away. Suddenly they found the whip-line tense in their hands, with not an inch of give to it. Startled at the unexpected resistance, they strained violently upon the line, but without avail. Instead of circulating through the block, taking out the hawser in its passage, as expected, it remained stiffly drawn under the tension of the haulers, like a rope made fast at the end. Under the circumstances, hardly any occurrence could have been more dreadful. … All effort to start the whip-line had ceased. The men could only stand in a sort of stupor, gazing out into the roaring gloom at that spectre, the mere shadow or rough sketch of a vessel, which could be seen through the quietly descending screen of rain, with her masts sharply slanting to the northward from the dark riot of waters on her hull.”

Launching the surfboat would have been foolhardy.

“The wind now went to the southwest, backed quickly to the southeast, and blew again with frightful violence. The register at the nearest signal service station gave its velocity at sixty-eight miles an hour. Driven before it was a flood of rain mingled with volleys of scattered spray from the breakers. … At one o’clock Keeper Truax and six men from the Ship Bottom Station arrived upon the beach, together with three men from Beach Haven. The whole group consisted of twenty-eight men. All hands now manned the whip-line in another effort to make it work free. It was useless.”

Helplessly, the lifesavers on the beach were trying to see through the driving rain what was happening just beyond the breakers.

“About three o’clock there was heard through the deafening tumult a faint but ominous crashing of timbers. Every eye was strained upon the gloom. The vessel had disappeared. At the same moment both parts of the whip-line snapped near the shore. All was over. … In the forlorn hope that some of the men from the wreck might still be washed near shore, the brave group held their position. They remained until nearly four o’clock. By this time the tide, which was extraordinary, had reached its full height.”

There was nothing the men on the beach could do.

“… the day broke drearily over the miserable scene of shipwreck. The ghastly light revealed a barren waste of plunging waters, from which a shapeless fragment of wreck protruded blackly, and an expanse of beach studded with slat pools left by the ebbing tide, and strewn with fragments of wreck – life buoys, buckets, and the like, which the sea had washed ashore. The ship’s name was discovered from being painted on some of these.”

What had gone wrong? Why couldn’t the men pull the line through the pulley?

“… three days afterward, on the 11th of January, Mr. Joseph K. Ridgway, an agent for the underwriters, was at work with his men digging out the remnants of the wreck which had been washed ashore, when he came upon the foremast and yard; and upon clearing away the sand found the whip-line, readily recognizable by the red yarn woven into one of the strands. The secret was at once laid bare. Instead of the whip being attached by the tail of the block, both parts of the line were found to have been gathered together, wound around the yard, and tied twice. Of course, in this position the line was perfectly immovable … it seemed incredible that sailors, who know so well the use of a tail-block, should voluntarily have done such a thing as make fast the line below it.”

The official investigation tried to solve the mystery, saying, “Up in the rigging, whither there is no doubt the sailors betook themselves at an early stage of the disaster ... they clung to masts slanting giddily in darkness over the awful tumbling of the seas, swayed to and fro and rocking in their steps with every convulsive roll of the hull, and threatening every minute to topple down. Under the horrors of their condition the men must have become quite unmanned, and it is probable that when the whip-line reached them, afraid that the mast might fall at any moment, and unable through terror to await their rescue when there was a chance, however desperate, of at once gaining the shore, they solidly fastened the line and attempted to come in on it, sailor-fashion, hand over hand. This view (is) confirmed by the fact that beyond the cheer which greeted the arrival of the whip-line no voice was heard from the vessel during the couple of hours before she went to pieces. … As it was, exhaustion must have overtaken them, and they doubtless dropped from the line one by one into the sea.”

While the failure of the life-saving crew to save the victims had been explained, The New York Times published a troubling report.

“Six mounds, freshly made, mark the resting-places of seven of the victims of the disaster to the bark Elmira. … Two of the bodies are those of sailors. The other bodies were those of a woman and little child, believed to be the wife and little child of the lost Captain. All of the bodies were mutilated beyond recognition. … Placed in pine boxes, the bodies were hastily buried in the sand. Each grave is marked with a number, the same number being attached to the remnants of clothing taken from the bodies.”

The idea that local residents would simply bury the bodies on the beach, to be washed away at a later date, would not sit well with the Lifesavers who had risked their lives, or with the citizens who lived on LBI.

Next Week: Fake news.


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