Thanksgiving Rescue Near Cape Cod’s Wood End Light
During New England’s Worst Storm
One of the worst storms in New England’s history occurred during the Thanksgiving week of 1898, when two storm systems, one from the Great Lakes and the other from the South, would come together over the New England coast. The collision created a “perfect storm” of blinding snow, sleet, and hurricane force winds gusting to over 100 miles, and left destruction all along the New England coastline. The storm lasted over 30 hours and buried New England in 2 feet of snow, and was responsible for the deaths of 400 people.
Provincetown Harbor, believed to be one of the safest locations on the coast, could not hold back the ferocity of the storm. The storm destroyed at least ten large ships and many schooners, along with a multitude of local wharves and buildings all around Provincetown Harbor.
At Wood End Lighthouse, located just outside of Provincetown Harbor, Keeper Issac G. Fisher, had climbed into the lookout tower just before daybreak and saw the morning patrolman from the lifesaving station nearby, Frank C. Wagner, running back towards the lighthouse. Lifesaving stations were built near lighthouses with trained surfmen that would go out into the waters during fierce storms to rescue survivors of shipwrecks. Wagner had seen two schooners wrecked offshore a couple of miles down, and informed Keeper Fisher of the local lifesaving station to sound the alarm. The keeper had his surfmen attempt to bring the lifeboat on the wagon down to the shore, but the fierce winds were so strong that they were nearly blowing the heavy craft out of the wagon. The men finally had to take the boat off the wagon and drag it into the raging surf, where they were forced to push and drag the vessel in knee-deep freezing waters along the shore for nearly a mile and a half. This task took a couple of strenuous exhausting hours where they finally were within sight of the two schooners that had wrecked during the storm.
The gale was now at its worst intensity as the tired and frozen surfmen tried to maneuver the boat into the surf. Each time they would try to launch the boat, the strength of the winds would force the craft towards the shore. Determined to try to save anyone from either schooner, they relentlessly pushed the boat another mile along the shore to try to gain a better angle against the relenting winds. Hours went by as they continued their daunting task of pushing the extremely heavy craft along the surf. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, hours after the wrecks were initially sighted, they made another attempt to force the boat into the raging waves, even with the help of four fishermen whom they had enlisted along the way, and still the gale force winds kept blowing against the frustrated crew towards the shore. Again the crew tried to move the boat along the shore for a better position, and again they tried to launch the craft against the winds. This time, with all their might, they started slowly to make their way towards the closest of the schooners, the Jorden L. Mott. There they found 5 crew members, frozen, but four still alive clinging to the rigging. The fifth member, the captain’s father, had already frozen to death.
The men of the Jorden L. Mott were carefully taken off the rigging and carried onto the lifeboat still struggling in the raging waves. As darkness approached, the surfmen decided that they needed to bring those still alive back to the station before wasting any additional time in carrying the corpse of the captain. With the four survivors in the boat, the lifesavers headed for shore with the wind against their backs. When they brought their boat onto the beach, although the station was a short distance away from where they landed, it took nearly an hour to bring the exhausted freezing survivors to the station. Two men from the ship, Captain Charles Dyer, and one of his crew were too weak to walk with assistance and had to be carried to the station by the already exhausted surfmen. The Wood End lifesavers had been enduring the storm’s hurricane force winds, sleet, and snow in trying to rescue the survivors for nearly 15 hours, and were also extremely exhausted and beginning to display the effects of prolonged exposure in the storm.
It was now nightfall, and any efforts to attempt a rescue of the other schooner wreck, the Lester A Lewis, would have been fatal for the rescuers as the storm continued in its intensity. It was believed that all aboard had already perished. The survivors and their rescuers were placed in dry clothing and provided spirits and food for the night. Captain Dyer of the Mott was unable to walk on his own until the following night. The rescued crew stayed at the station for three days until they had recovered enough to travel back to their homes, with their expenses paid for.
After the storm had subsided a couple of days later, the Wood End surfmen went out to the wrecks to remove the body of Captain Dyer’s father on the Jorden L. Mott, and the five bodies of the crewmen who perished on the Lester A. Lewis. They brought them into Provincetown where they were properly taken care of. The efforts of the Wood End lifesavers were regarded as the most heroic under such extreme conditions and were highly praised by the locals and government officials alike. All of the brave rescuers recovered from their ordeal without any long-term effects.
The name of this storm was changed to the “Portland Gale,” after the steamship Portland sank with all its passengers and crew during this terrible storm. The storm is a reminder of the many relentless storms that frequent our coast, and for all those in service and local individuals, who have risked their lives in the past and in our present day, under often extremely difficult conditions, to assist those in peril, because it is part of our human nature, to help those in need. Thank you.
Have a safe and joyful holiday season,
A Word About Sherman A. Groenke, Master Artist:
The image above “Launching a Surfboat” is a watercolor painting by world famous watercolor artist Sherman Groenke, who also served with the United States Coast Guard. His paintings involve a focus on local rural and urban landscapes and landmarks. Groenke, a World War 2 veteran, enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1941 and was assigned to the graphic unit in New York, creating recruiting posters, training charts, and port security signs and posters. In August of 1944, he served in the Pacific Theatre of Operations as a combat artist, painting and sketching on location. After serving in the Coast Guard, Groenke was employed in advertising art studios and advertising agencies in Milwaukee and Chicago until he retired in 1981. Groenke had participated in numerous group and solo shows throughout his career including representation annually in Watercolor Wisconsin. He was an award winning painter and his works are represented in many private and corporate collections, including the US Coast Guard.
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, haunted lighthouse stories, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekend explorers.
Join, Learn, Support the The American Lighthouse Foundation