Rhode Island’s Worst Maritime Disaster
Off Block Island Near Watch Hill Lighthouse, Rhode Island
The Collision of the Larchmont and the Harry P. Knowlton
New England winters are well known for their ferocious stormy weather, and many have become victims of its relentless storms over the years, especially where many storms came upon vessels with little warning. One of the worst disasters in Rhode Island’s maritime history involved the collision of the Larchmont and the Harry P Knowlton during a fierce winter storm.
Originally named the Cumberland, the Larchmont was over 250 feet long and known as one of the finest side-wheel paddle wheel steamers of her day. She left a routine launch from Providence heading towards New York City at about 7 p.m. on February 11, 1907. Once past Point Judith Light, Rhode Island, Captain McVay left responsibility to Pilot John L. Anson at the helm as he headed for bed. As the Larchmont headed west across Block Island Sound, a near gale-force wind was blowing, and as the vessel rounded Point Judith by Point Judith Lighthouse, the full effect of gale force winds came upon her. The pilot pointed the paddle wheel steamer into the very heart of the gale and continued down through Block Island Sound as the weather worsened with snow squalls and poor visibility.
When the Larchmont reached about three miles from Westerly’s Watch Hill Lighthouse in Rhode Island, pilot Anson noted that two sets of lights could be seen off the bow. It was the schooner Harry P. Knowlton heading straight for the steamer. The coal-laden schooner, heading for Boston, was being blown about from the gale force winds and was heading straight for the steamer. Several blasts were sounded on the steamer’s whistle, as Pilot Anson and the quartermaster tried to veer the Larchmont away from the schooner to avoid collision.
Before another warning signal could be sounded on the steamer’s whistle, the schooner crashed into the port side of the Larchmont just before 11 p.m., where the passengers were awakened by the sound of the crash and then, an explosion from the ships boilers. The impact of the schooner forced its way more than half its length over the breadth of the Larchmont, but the ferocity of the sea soon separated the vessels, and as the schooner slid away from the steamer, water rushed into the Larchmont’s gaping hole.
The majority of passengers on the Larchmont had retired for the night, and when the collision occurred there were few on board prepared for the freezing weather. Literally freezing in the cold, many rushed back below to secure more clothing, while others, barefooted, and clad only in night gowns, stood on the decks, fearing that to go below would mean certain death, although these passengers became the majority of fatalities ending up freezing to death in the icy waters. Most died of exposure on an evening when the temperature had dropped to zero with a gale force wind blowing against them. Even those few who were fully dressed, and had later survived the ordeal, endured extreme hypothermia and serious frostbites.
Every boat and raft sent from the Larchmont immediately headed for Fishers Point, the nearest point of landing, which was still about five miles in the dark from where the steamer went down. Most of the boats and rafts became separated with the heavy winds and never made it ashore as most of the passengers and crew succumbed to exposure from the extreme cold.
Some of the passengers of the Larchmont were able to escape in lifeboats and made it to Block Island, where Keeper Elam Littlefield and his family at Block Island North Lighthouse, hearing of the incident, helped to assist the frozen survivors. Some survivors were also rescued by Block Island fishermen, who braved the stormy seas to try to rescue many from their frozen lifeboats and makeshift rafts.
One man in one of the full lifeboats was unable to handle the extreme cold, and after watching those around him perish from the cold, went insane and slit his own throat to end his agony. The rescuers only found one survivor left from the boat, Oliver Janvier, a 21-year-old Providence man, who managed to make it to shore to tell the tale.
Captain McVey, providing his point of view when his lifeboat came ashore, gave most of the details of the terrible disaster. The captain later stated that it was shortly after 11 p.m. in the evening when his lifeboat was cut away from the sinking steamer, and it was not until 6:30 in the morning that it arrived at Fishers Point near Block Island to be rescued. None of the crew in the boat expected to survive the excruciating cold and icy water from the storm. The rescuers found that no one in the lifeboat was able to walk. Their feet were frozen so badly that the rescuers had to carry the survivors over their backs with their limp arms and legs to the life-saving station.
The steamer Larchmont, with a huge hole torn in her side, was so seriously damaged that no attempt was made to try to get ashore, as she sank to the bottom in less than half an hour. The 128 foot long schooner Knowlton was carrying a load of 400 tons of coal, and after she had backed away from the wreck, began to fill with water rapidly, but her crew manned the pumps and kept her afloat until she reached a point off Weekapaug, where the men were able to get in their lifeboat and row ashore. There were no fatalities on the schooner, but the men suffered with hypothermia and frostbite from the extreme cold.
During the next day forty-eight bodies were found washed ashore, some frozen in the lifeboats and rafts. Many with their limbs and body parts frozen, broken apart, and encased in ice, were tossed ashore in such disarray that only six of the forty-eight bodies could be identified.
Both captains, who survived, would blame one another for the tragedy. Capt. George McVey, of the Larchmont, declared that the Knowlton had suddenly swerved off from her course, was lifted up in a huge sea swell by the gale force winds, and crashed into the steamer. Captain Haley, of the Knowlton, declared that the steamer did not give his vessel sufficient sea room and that the collision occurred before he could steer the schooner away from the path of the oncoming steamer.
During the formal investigation in the days that followed, Captain McVey claimed he was the last to leave his sinking ship. Those passengers that had survived disputed his claim, stating that they observed the Captain and his crew as being in the very first lifeboat, leaving the frantic passengers on their own.
Due mostly to the freezing winter weather over 143 perished, and only 19 survived, ten members of the crew, and only nine passengers. The few who survived were in a horrible condition from the freezing temperatures and icy waters. After the investigation, the pilot Anson, who went down with the ship, was blamed for steering the Larchmont in the wrong direction when approaching the schooner Harry Knowlton. An official accounting of the Larchmont’s passengers was never made since the list perished with the ship.
Years later, recommendations from the Larchmont’s disaster required multiple lists of passengers and crew to be created and distributed between the vessel and on shore destinations in case of further disasters. Out of many of New England’s shipwrecks and disasters, many safety regulations were further established to help prevent or minimize these events, and to help mariners, passengers, and family members of victims and survivors.
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