Long Island Was Once Called "Ship Wreck Alley" - 27 East

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Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

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Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

Long Island Was Once Called “Ship Wreck Alley”

authorJim Marquardt on May 25, 2022

Midnight, January 24, 1904, the big four-masted coal schooner Augustus Hunt runs aground on the south shore of Long Island in gale force winds and thick fog. It is being pounded by heavy seas. Surfman Levi Crasper of the Quogue Rescue Station, patrolling the shore, has just made contact with patrolman Herman Bishop from the Potunk (West Hampton) Station. They see the outline of the ship through the fog, swing their lanterns to tell the ship’s sailors they are spotted, and run back to their stations to sound the alert. By 2 a.m. lifesaving crews are on the scene, setting a sand anchor and assembling the Lyle gun and apparatus for a breeches buoy. Several times they fire a line from the gun to the stranded vessel but get no response. Station Keeper Charles Herman and a team of surfmen launch a lifeboat but are thrown back by breaking waves.

Early the next morning they hear cries from the Augustus Hunt as the masts come crashing down, sweeping away seven sailors lost into the freezing sea. Two remaining crewmen leap to a piece of wreckage. The surfmen again fire the Lyle gun that takes a line to the survivors, but as waves carry them toward shore, they lose hold of the line. Seeing their imminent danger, surfman William Halsey Jr. ties a heaving line around his waist and jumps into the waves. He manages to reach one of the exhausted crewmen and drags him close to shore where a chain of surfmen pull them to the beach. While Halsey and the crewman recuperate, surfman Frank Warner dives in and struggles through the waves to the second survivor. The two crewmen are the only ones saved from the Augustus Hunt.

The story of the Augustus Hunt is one of many told by historian Van R. Field in his fascinating book “Wrecks and Rescues: The Story of the U.S. Life Saving Service on Long Island.” He writes that the first lifesaving station was established on the ocean beach in Amagansett in 1849, the forerunner of 30 similar stations built between Montauk and Rockaway Point on the western end of Long Island. Many shipwrecks later, in April 1902, Thomas R. Bayles wrote an article for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that described the lifesaving service, even listing names of the station keepers in charge at the time. William B. Muller was keeper at the station in Ditch Plains near Montauk; nearby was John S. Edwards, keeper at Napeague; Jesse B. Edwards at Amagansett; Nathaniel Downing at Georgica; Nelson Burnett at Southampton; Alanson G. Penney at the Shinnecock Station; and Charles H. Herman at Quogue. Proving the reputation of “Shipwreck Alley,” Bayles wrote that in one previous year, there had been 30 vessels wrecked along the coast and some 300 lives saved by the Long Island Life Saving Service. All or most of the unfortunate sailing vessels were approaching or departing from busy New York harbor and were the victims of heavy storms or the primitive navigation at the time.

The men in the lifesaving crews were trained for the work, chosen for “their hardihood and knowledge of the sea.” Station keepers earned $75 a month, their crews of seven surfmen each received $65 a month “while on duty” from December 1 to April 30. The service was closely regulated. When a surfman patrolled along the beach, he held a numbered tag until he rendezvoused with a patrolman from an adjacent station and exchanged the tag with him. Each man carried a red beach lantern to warn off a ship, or if it is grounded, to let the skipper know he has been spotted and help is on the way. Where other stations were far away, small huts called “key posts” were set along the beach and the patrolman used a key at a hut to register on the clocks they carried.

When a grounded ship was spotted, a surf boat was loaded onto a wagon at the closest station and hauled along the beach to be launched at a point near the wreck. But if the surf was too turbulent, the lifesaving crew prepared to shoot a line to the ship. A Lyle cannon in the wagon was loaded with a missile with heavy and light lines and a wooden board attached. The board was printed with instructions in English and German. If the line reached the ship, the board told the crew to attach the heavy line to the bottom of a mast. Meanwhile, the surfmen on shore sank anchors in the sand and secured a breeches buoy to the second line. The breeches buoy was hauled to the stranded vessel by the sailors aboard. One at a time, the sailors stepped into the buoy, a circular canvas arrangement like trousers, and were hauled to the beach.

The first paid lifesaving surfman was hired in 1871 when the U.S. Life-Saving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service. Years later it became the U.S. Coast Guard. You can visit a lifesaving station at Amagansett that has been restored through the efforts of East Hampton Councilman David Lys and a group of volunteers through the nonprofit Amagansett Life-Saving and U.S. Coast Guard Station. Originally built in 1902, it is open weekends from May to Labor Day. It now houses a museum dedicated to the lifesaving service and U.S. Coast Guard, including the famous landing and eventual capture of German saboteurs during World War II. A Beebe surf boat will be added to the museum; the last one known to exist is being restored at Frederick Beebe’s boatyard in Greenport. Also under construction is a replica carriage for the boat.

On July 4, 1904, at the annual dinner of Long Island surfmen at Roe’s Hotel in Patchogue, Halsey and Warner received a Gold Lifesaving Medal. Halsey retired as a warrant boatsman in July 1931 after supervising the Quogue Station for many years. Warner, captain of the Ditch Plains Coast Guard Station, retired in 1934. If you’d like to learn more about these heroic men, find a copy of Van R. Field’s book “Wrecks and Rescues on Long Island: The Story of the U.S. Life Saving Service.”

Jim Marquardt is a lover of Sag Harbor history and a regular columnist for The Express News Group.

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