The Wreck of the Zoo Ship City of Salisbury From A Charting Boo Boo
Graves lighthouse is located on a small group of rock ledges called the “Graves” that wreaked havoc with mariners just outside of Boston Harbor, eleven miles from the Boston shoreline. During the spring season, the area can often be quickly engulfed in thick fog with frequent changes in New England weather. At 113 feet, it is the tallest lighthouse in Boston Harbor.
Captain William H. Lewis was guiding the City of Salisbury toward the outer harbor of Boston. The vessel was bound for New York from Calcutta, India with a cargo of exotic animals (including 40 pythons, 40 cobras, 300 monkeys and 20 crates of rare birds) estimated at a cost of nearly $2,000,000. The 419-foot steamer was nearing completion of a 10,000-mile odyssey, from Calcutta, India, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and now Boston. It had been a difficult journey as a Himalayan bear had escaped before they left port in Calcutta, a king cobra cannibalized its mate while at sea, and at Halifax twenty-five monkeys escaped.
On Saturday, April 23rd, 1938, as Captain Lewis made his approach to Boston Harbor on what appeared to be sunny weather, a thick fog suddenly engulfed the area. Using the charts, Lewis headed just northeast of Graves Ledge Light, as the charts showed there should be 33 feet of water, over which the steamer could easily pass. Not long thereafter the steamer lurched to a halt.
The vessel had lodged itself on an uncharted area of the ledge, near the outer edge of Graves Ledge. It listed to starboard, but settled on the ledge. A distress call was sent out as tugboats were sent from the mainland to remove the crew and its cargo of animals. The tugboats spent most of the day safely removing passengers and crewmembers. A skeleton crew remained aboard to try to see if anything could be done to try to have the vessel lifted off the ledge, but their efforts were futile. The next day, strange noises were heard in the hull, signaling that the vessel was about to break apart. Tugboats were sent to pick up the rest of the remaining skeleton crew of 14 men and 4 officers to safety. There were no lives were lost aboard the “Zoo Ship,” and nearly all the animals were rescued safely.
As the vessel lay on the ledge it became a local tourist attraction. The following days and weeks, as the tides and currents continued to pound the wreck, the SS City of Salisbury broke in two in front of its smoke stack. By the end of that summer the forward section had slipped off the ledge into deep water, then during an October nor’easter storm the stern sank down the other side of the ledge.
Later the Coast Guard investigation would clear Captain Lewis and his Boston pilot at the helm of any wrong doing, finding that “Government Chart #246 was incorrect” in indicating there was over thirty feet of water available, where clearly a portion of the ledge was not mapped correctly.
Boat Tours to the Graves Lighthouse
The lighthouse is not accessible to the public, but tours out and around Boston Harbor offered by the Boston Harbor Cruises. For those who prefer a smaller vessel, the Boston Harbor Island Park Service passes close to the lighthouse on its 2-hour narrated Boston Harbor Lighthouse Cruise. It’s unique diamond shaped lantern exterior and stone tower make it one of more interesting beacons in the area.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues, like the one about the City of Salisbury zoo ship mentioned above. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.