Grueling Rescue of the H.P. Kirkman by the Coskata Lifesavers by Great Point Lighthouse on Nantucket Island, in a January Storm Near Sankaty Head Lighthouse
The Coskata Lifesaving Station was built in 1883 on Nantucket Island’s Coskata Beach, about two miles south of Great Point lighthouse. Lifesaving stations were built a few miles beyond a particular stationed lighthouse, for rescue operations a distance from shore that usually involved shipwrecks, as lighthouse keepers themselves had to remain near the lighthouse at all times, and had minimal rescue equipment, which was used mainly for rescues close to the shore and the lighthouse. Lifesaving stations specifically trained their mostly volunteer “soldiers of the surf,” more commonly referred to as “surfmen” in rescue techniques with near daily drills, and shore patrols would go out for miles at either side of the lighthouse to be on the lookout for wrecks, or victims in distress, especially during or after a storm.
Dangerous shoals off the eastern coast of Nantucket created many shipwrecks. The most dangerous was the Rose and Crown Shoal, some 15 miles offshore. Other shoals include the Great Rip Shoal, and the Bass Rip Shoal, to the southeast of the village of Siasconset.
One of the most grueling of rescues occurred when Keeper Walter N. Chase and his six-man Coskata life saving crew were involved in the rescue of the crew of the H.P. Kirkham, which was sinking off of Nantucket Island in a winter storm. On the eve of January 15, 1892, a bitter wind from the north approached the area followed by snow and sleet as the temperature plummeted well below zero. The H.P. Kirkham was a British three-masted schooner, sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, bound for New York. The vessel was carrying with her crew a load of salt and pickled fish. She became caught in the storm, and was battling her way through heavy seas, when she became lost in the blizzard. By seven o’clock the following night of January 16, 1892, she hit the Rose and Crown Shoal. The captain put out a distress signal using torches, as he set his crew to attaching themselves to the rigging to wait for help as the storm continued.
Early the next morning Keeper Chase of the Coskata Life Saving Station answered a call from lighthouse keeper Joseph Remsen at Sankaty Head, who told him that just before dawn he had seen torch flashes and believed he could see the masts of a vessel on Bass Rip, ten miles out from shore. Chase sounded the alarm and made haste with his surfmen in launching a rescue boat. The wind was to their backs and they were able to make it to Bass Rip, another dangerous shoal, but realized that the wreck was another five miles away over by the Rose and Crown Shoal. The keeper and his men continued towards the wreck, braving the freezing temperatures and rough seas, again with the howling winds filling their sails. When the lifesavers got near enough, they observed seven men clinging to the rigging, and could see the schooner had already worked itself so deeply into the treacherous shoal, that it would soon break apart as waves continued to pound and wash over the wreck.
The seas were finally getting a little calmer as Chase and his men steadied the boat, got a heaving stick and line to the crew, and fastened the line back to his boat. The sailors from the wreck were frozen and frightened as they hauled the boat towards the wreck so rapidly that they were in danger of swamping the craft. Keeper Chase ordered them to make the line fast, but the undisciplined crew of the schooner didn’t obey his command. Fearing for the safety of his own crew, the keeper passed his knife to the stroke-oarsman and shouted to the frightened sailors of the Kirkham that he would cut the line if they pulled the boat any closer. The frightened sailors heeded the keeper’s warning as the lifeboat was brought in as close to the wreck as safely as possible. One after another, Chase’s men took the seven men off the wreck and positioned them inside their boat.
The problem Keeper Chase now faced was a headwind all the way towards shore, as he decided to take down the mast and sail. The storm started to pick up again and they could see the powerful light of Sankaty Head lighthouse. They decided to make the closer distance to the beacon. After three hours of hard pulling, they passed the Bass Rip shoal but could make no further headway into the storm. They decided to anchor the lifeboat, waiting for the turn of the tide that might help them reach land. As the seas continued to thrash the boat, the tide broke around 9 P.M., but the storm hampered their efforts after an hour and the crew had to anchor again and wait the night out. By sunrise of January 17, the tide came up and the seas and winds were starting to calm, as the men made another pull for shore. They reached Siasconset Beach, near the lighthouse, on the southeastern shore of Nantucket by 10 AM, after 26 hours of having been out at sea. After a brief stay at the lighthouse to warm themselves, they still had to travel eight miles across the island to the Coskata Life Saving Station, and out of pure exhaustion, made it to the station by late afternoon.
The crewmen of the Kirkham all survived the wreck, and Keeper Chase and his crew were awarded lifesaving medals months later, although some had succumbed to various stages of frostbite. One of the crew, Surfman Roland H. Perkins, who came down with consumption from the ordeal, and who had battled with pneumonia a few months before the rescue, died a couple months after receiving his medal.
Exploring Nantucket Island, its Lighthouses, and Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge
Nantucket Island, off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, is a rather quiet island and offers many pristine beaches, quaint shops, historic Victorian homes, and beautiful harbors with local restaurants, for those who have come to relax and enjoy the views. There are also no streetlights on Nantucket Island. The Nantucket Regional Transit Authority (The WAVE) provides bus service all around the island. There are 3 lighthouses on the island; Brant Point, Sankaty Head, and Great Point. Brant Point lighthouse with its surrounding harbor side park visitors will find near just a short walk from the ferry dock. There is also a quiet beach there facing the harbor.
Great Point lighthouse is located on the extreme northeastern tip of Nantucket, in the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge. Public access to the tower and surrounding grounds is allowed by the park’s rangers, on many of their nature tours during the summer months. There, a naturalist guide will lead visitors on an over-sand vehicle tour through the salt marsh to learn about the geology, ecology, and history of the area and to climb the Great Point Lighthouse tower (great views!).
About a mile north of the village of Siasconset and its local beaches, Sankaty Head light sits adjacent to the 9-hole Siasconset Golf Course, which practices “pasture golf” so visitors can play dressed as they are and enjoy the views by the lighthouse.
Visitors can also explore the Nantucket Whaling Museum , and Nantucket Shipwreck and Life Saving Museum which provides more info on the Rescue of the H.P. Kirkman along with plenty of vintage maritime artifacts. Explore the Maria Mitchell Observatories.
Enjoy your summer!
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, like the rescue of the H.P. Kirkland mentioned above. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekend explorers.
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