200 Plus

The Fate of the Elmina

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Mar 06, 2019
Source: NJ.GOV Life-saving Station No. 21 in Ship Bottom (click on PDF below for more information)

Some shipwrecks are simple tragedies affecting only the lives of those involved; others, like the Titanic, lead to sweeping government actions to improve safety. LBI has had two wrecks that led to change. The first is well-known: the Count Perasto, which was witnessed by Manahawkin Dr. William A. Newell, who then led the fight to form the United States Life-Saving Service. The other is not as well-known but affected how we deal with victims of disaster. This wreck took place in early 1884, and The New York Times described the scene.

“The place where the ill-fated vessel came ashore was a mile north of the Life-saving Station No. 21, and about five miles south of the well-known shooting resort of Harvey Cedars. The spot is isolated, Barnegat Bay separating it from the mainland, and the nearest place being West Creek village. Ordinarily the beach presents the aspect of a broad, interminable avenue of sand, with the ocean on one side and a low line of hummocks and mounds crowned with coarse grass – back of which is Barnegat Bay – on the other. Upon Tuesday night the broad beach was flooded by a furious sea.”

The official Life-Saving Service report concluded, “It will be seen how little is known of this melancholy disaster. The sorrowful story is resolved into the fact that eight men perished in darkness and silence, amidst a doleful monotony of tempest, without availing themselves of the means of escape the life-saving crews had faithfully and ably supplied. … It is not their fault that these conditions were not taken advantage of. The tragic fate of the poor sailors has the offset of the skill brought into play to save them, and the noble constancy which watched over them to the end through a long night of hardship and peril.”

What had happened? What had gone wrong? The report begins the story.

“The vessel was the barkentine Elmina, of Salscombe, England. Her complete destruction, together with the loss of her entire crew, obscured her record at the time, but it was subsequently ascertained that she was bound from Natal, Brazil to New York, with a cargo of sugar in bags, and that her crew consisted of eight men. … At nightfall on the 8th of January a violent east-southeast gale was blowing on the New Jersey coast, the rain was coming down in torrents, and the surf was raging.”

During the winter of 1884, LBI was an isolated place, and most residents were fishermen.

“At about half past seven in the evening two brothers, Charles and Thomas Crane, who lived with their father a few hundred yards south of the Long Beach Station, went down upon the beach to haul their fishing skiff out of reach of the tide, and while so engaged saw through the wind-blown deluge the red light of a vessel out in the dusk on the sea. It disappeared almost immediately, and the young men concluded from its proximity to the shore that the craft to which it belonged had struck upon the bar, which was about 200 yards from shore. One of them accordingly ran to the life-saving station to give the alarm, while the other hastened home to inform his father, that the team which the latter was under engagement to furnish upon occasion for station use might be harnessed and ready for the call.”

The keeper of the Long Beach station was James Sprague, who gathered his crew and along with the Cranes headed for the wreck.

“In a short time, the party arrived opposite the vessel, which was abreast of a point three quarters of a mile south of the station. The tide was just turning on the flood, and the surf was already so high and dangerous as to preclude boat service. The rain came driven on the strong gale right from the sea, thickening now and then into violent rain squalls which made the dark air impenetrable. Nothing could be seen beyond the distance of a few feet while these squalls lasted, but in the intervals the vessel could be descried 200 yards away, apparently on the other side of the bar, her bow headed toward the beach, her foresail and foretopsail set, and looking, through the downpour, like some large phantom, dark against a deeper darkness. A dim spot of light, low down, vaguely indicated a lamp in her cabin.”

Once the men were at the site, little time was wasted.

“A red Closton light was burned to let the men on board know that help was at hand, and a cheer, apparently from all hands, responded to the crimson blaze of the signal. Mr. Crane was sent back with his horses to the station for the surf-boat in case a possibility of using it should arise. … The crew were ranged on the crest of the beach, four or five feet from the water. Before them was a towering rabble of breakers, through which a strong current swept to southward. Behind them darkened away a level beach, three hundred yards wide. Ending in a ridge of beach-hills.”

Launching the surfboat seemed to be out of the question. Sprague decided to employ the Francis life car, which required that a mortar fire a light line to the ship, which those on board would use to haul aboard a heavier hawser attached to a pulley block system, which was needed to send and retrieve the life car filled with survivors.

The New York Times noted a problem.

“The live-saving keeper, George W. Sprague, and his crew could with difficulty find a place upon which to plant the mortar for an attempt to reach the vessel by means of a shot line. … She was about 300 yards distant from the beach at low tide. It was evident that no shot line could possibly reach her at such a distance in the teeth of the hurricane that prevailed. If it had, it would have been useless at that time, her decks being completely swept by the seas and her crew being up in the fore-rigging for safety. No one was in a position to haul upon a line from shore.”

Finally, those on shore were ready. The report continues.

“Aim was taken with the aid of the dim light visible on the vessel’s hull, and the shot-line flew. There was no doubt that it reached its destination, for in hauling upon it a little, the men felt it sawing across something; but this sense of contact soon ceased, and the line came away, and was hauled back to the beach.

“A second and a third shot were fired without result. The fourth shot carried the line over the vessel, but it was concluded to have fallen out of reach, as it was not hauled upon. It was now about half past ten, and by this time it was evident that the ship’s company were all aloft, for the heavy seas were visibly tumbling in huge floods over the hull.”

As the rain let up, those on the beach could see that the ship was now parallel to the Island. The life-saving crew could not figure out why the waves were not pushing the Elmina closer to the beach and rescue. An investigation later decided, “With the wind, sea and tide all urging, and all tremendous, she should have driven so near the beach that the rescue of her men would have been swift and easy. The reason was subsequently suggested to the officer who conducted the investigation, by an examination of the relics of the wreck. The probability, amounting to a moral certainty is that upon nearing the bar the crew of the barkentine committed the fatal error of dropping the anchor. In this case, the vessel would be held, unable to move forward, an object for the sea to beat to pieces.”

By this time the crews from Ship Bottom to the North and Bond’s to the South had joined the effort. Desperately they would make one last try.

“Keeper Sprague and his men, deeply troubled at the disheartening conditions under which they were working, were yet stung to anxious effort by the consciousness that the rising tide would soon drive them back to the very beach hills, when with 300 yards added to the distance between them and the vessel effort would be impossible. The gun was therefore again carefully trained upon the wreck, aimed at the foretopsail yard, and fired. An instant after, above the stormy roar of the surf, a faint cheer came from the sea. This denoted that the people on board had caught the line.”

The light line was attached to the pulley block, and those on board the Elmina began to pull.

“The whip-line crept away slowly and steadily, nearly all of it being taken from the reel before the cessation of its movement denoted that the block had reached the vessel. … Under the hard conditions of the hauling it took an hour to get the whip-line out.”

Now all that was needed was to have a crewman climb high into the rigging and tie off the block to the mast, so the rescue could begin. Unfortunately, one mistake would doom them all.

Next Week: Bodies ashore.


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