The First Coordinated Rescue Effort Between Lifesaving Services in Rescuing Survivors of the Metis Near Watch Hill Lighthouse
Up until the early 1900’s, Lifesaving services were divided into three branches; the Lifesaving Service, the Lighthouse Service, and the Revenue Cutter Service. Where the lighthouse keepers and their assistants were only allowed to attempt rescues near the proximity of the lighthouse, lifesaving stations, and their “surfmen”as they were called, under the Lifesaving Service, covered a vaster area and could assist a larger number of distressed survivors on a wreck a distance from the shore. They were more mobile and were specifically trained in their ability to rescue survivors. Both the Lighthouse and Lifesaving branches were responsible under the US Lighthouse Service. The Revenue Cutter Service was initially involved in rescue efforts only on those wrecks out in open waters, and as patrol vessels for shipping and trade, and for pirates. This event of the collision between the steamer Metis and the Schooner the Nettie Cushing involved the first coordination of all three of these branches of rescue service.
As with most lighthouses, although Watch Hill Lighthouse guided many vessels and their crews in fair and inclement weather, shipwrecks still occurred in the area. Unfortunately, two of the worst maritime disasters occurred near Watch Hill Lighthouse, the sinking of the Larchmont, and the collision between the Nettie Cushing and the Metis described below. From these incidents, however, came about special safety procedures and regulations that are used today.
In 1872, during the time of the disaster, there was not a regular life-saving crew at Watch Hill, but a group of dedicated volunteers. Captain Daniel Larkin served as keeper at the lighthouse at Watch Hill from 1861-1868, until he developed a profitable tourist business hotel called the Larkin House. He then volunteered to head up the volunteer lifesaving crew nearby. Captain Jared Crandall took over Larkin’s position as Keeper of Watch Hill light. He owned an old whaleboat, which served as the only lifesaving boat for any rescue efforts.
On the afternoon of August 29, 1872, the 200-foot wooden steamer Metis was heading north from New York to Providence, Rhode Island, with a load of cotton cargo bound for the New England textile mills. She was carrying a full load of 104 passengers and 45 crewmembers as a summer gale storm approached the region. During the storm, a small schooner, the Nettie Cushing was carrying a load of lime heading for New York. Around 8:00 P.M., the winds had reached to gale force and continued through the night. Around 4 o’clock, fog and mist followed the pouring rain as both vessels were about six miles from Watch Hill.
All of a sudden the Nettie Cushing collided into the wooden steamer’s front port side, creating a gaping hole. As water poured into the lower deck region of the Metis, Captain Burton ordered to prepare the passengers as the crew ran below to awaken all. He ordered to head the ship for the beach near Watch Hill Lighthouse, as most passengers barely had time to dress and put on their life preservers.
The steamer blew her whistle to send out a distress signal as the Metis continued heading for the beach outside of Watch Hill Lighthouse. The vessel was still within five miles of the beach when the bow of the steamer started sinking below the waves, sucking down 30-40 people under the waters. Everyone fell into panic as only three lifeboats were launched, and two managed to break away from the doomed vessel, carrying mostly men.
A large group of about 50 passengers and crew were struggling to climb on the upper hurricane deck, when it suddenly became detached from the hull as the steamer stared to sink, setting the structure adrift. Luckily the tide was coming in, as the separated deck continued to bounce over the waves and high winds bringing the exhausted survivors within a mile from the rocky shore near Watch Hill. Many of the locals had heard of the distress and went out to help those survivors from that wreckage to the shore.
Watch Hill’s lighthouse keeper Captain Jared Crandall heard the Metisdistress signal and contacted the steamer Narragansett and the Revenue Cutter Moccasin who happened to be in Stonington Harbor a number of miles away to make way to the wreck for assistance. Crandall assembled the volunteer members of the lifesaving service crew who lived near the lighthouse, along with Captain David Larkin, one of the volunteer lifesaving captains stationed near the lighthouse. They launched an old lifeboat and drove out through the raging waves to assist the Moccasin to pick up any survivors, or bodies. These vessels, along with some of the local fisherman like Captain John Harvey and a crew of a netted fishing seine who wanted to help, retrieved survivors who were found clinging to cork mattresses, floating timbers, cotton bales and other debris.
The schooner Nettie Cushing, which collided with the Metis, survived the impact. The commander of the vessel, Captain Jamison, who was from Thomaston Maine, determined that she was not sinking. The night was so dark and stormy that the vessel did not see the steamer until it was too late to avoid a collision. After the collision, the vessel anchored on nearby Goshen Reef and was able to contact the revenue cutter Campbell. With a tow from the cutter, she made her way for Connecticut’s New London Harbor. The vessel had lost her bowsprit and headgear from the impact, and damages in the bow area were sustained, but the vessel was able to make to port with no casualties.
Although 67 persons perished on the Metis, through the coordinated efforts of various branches of the lifesaving services and personnel, and with the assistance of local mariners, 85 people were rescued in what could have been a more tragic incident in the loss of lives. This first interaction among the three government services (Lighthouse, Lifesaving, and Revenue Cutter Services), which previously had not been used as a coordinated rescue effort, became an accepted practice that would be utilized in many future events. Many of the rescuers received Congressional Lifesaving medals for their heroism. The medals were specially minted with an engraving depicting the rescue in commemoration.
In the following years, with the use of many successful coordinated rescue efforts between personnel of the Lifesaving Service, the Lighthouse Service, and the Revenue Cutter Service, the success prompted the merger of these services into what we know as our current Coast Guard in 1915.
Exploring Watch Hill Lighthouse
Watch Hill Lighthouse grounds are open to visitors and a small museum has been established in the oil house. The museum, which features a fourth-order Fresnel lens once used in the tower, is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer months. During low tide you can walk along the stone seawall outside the fence that surrounds the grounds to get some close views. Fishing offshore is a frequent past time.
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 story of the Metis here. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers. You’ll also find plenty of stories of hauntings around lighthouses.