5 Fathom Lightship Lost

Respectfully submitted by: Arthur Motta, City of New Bedford, MA, in preparation of inclusion of additional names to the granite base of the U.S. Lightship Memorial at Waterfront Park, New Bedford, Massachusetts, in cooperation with the United States Coast Guard, the U.S. Lightship Sailors Association and the American Lighthouse Foundation.

The following account of the accident at Five Fathom Bank Lightship on April 22, 1874 comes from the local newspaper, The Cape May Ocean Wave. The article does not carry the author?s name. It was published in Cape May City, New Jersey, on Thursday, April 30, 1874 on page 3. The original copy of the article is illegible in some places as noted in the transcript below. The article relates that at the time of the accident, the lost Capt. Smith, though not a member of the crew of the Lightship, was in some way substituting for the mate, who was aboard sick. It is interesting to note that the tender vessel was apparently blamed for as many as five additional deaths in previous accidents. Indeed, due to this account it is possible that a heretofore-unrecorded loss of life associated with this station may have occurred in 1872, and needs to be researched separately.

Local Affairs.

Terrible Drowning Accident.

The winter of 1873-4 will long be remembered in this section for it?s melancholy and startling train of sad local incidents which in all-ways inscrutable Providence has permitted to visit, and bring trouble and mourning to many of our firesides. Again, has the mysterious sword of the destroying angel descended in our midst, and in one fell sweep severed the life thread of four of Cape May?s stalwart sons. This awful disaster occurred Wednesday of last week by the foundering of the tender of the Five Fathom Lightship on Old Spring bar, and the drowning of four of it?s crew. Captain Chas. P. Smith; Henry Hoffman; Virgil McKean; and Frank Willetts. The circumstances attending the accident as narrated by Captain John Reeves, the only survivor of the unfortunate boat?s crew, and captain of the Lightship, are briefly given in our report of the evidence taken before the coroner?s jury. It should be explained, however, in this connection, that three of the drowned men Captain Chas. P. Smith, Henry Hoffman, Virgil McKean ? did not belong to the crew of the Lightship, from which they were returning when the disaster occurred which resulted in their deaths.

Mr. Smith is captain of the George G. Richardson, one of our Cape May Schooners, and had for a few weeks been supplying the place of the mate, Mr. Samuel Stifwell, onboard the Lightship, the latter being sick. The two other young men were friends of Willetts, the ship?s cook, who was off on a short leave of absence. All three were in the full flush of manhood ? active, hearty and industrious, and like most young people relished an occasional recreation, so that when it was proposed to them to join their friend on a trip to the Lightship, whither he was going to accompany the mate on the latter?s return to duty, they gladly consented and made preparations accordingly for a days pleasure, starting early Wednesday morning in the ill-fated tender of the Lightship. They made the trip to Five Fathom Bank in good time, and leaving the mate they took on board Capt. Smith ? all hands in happy anticipation of a favorable sail homeward. The sad termination of the voyage is related below in the language of the captain of the Lightship, Mr. John Reeves.

The boat used was of a model which rendered it totally unfit for the service for which it was required, being too narrow for its length. This is the same boat which upset in the surf two years since, drowning two of its crew ? the others who were aboard narrowly escaped by swimming ashore. Three others are reported to have been drowned by the same vessel ? evidence sufficient we should think of as utter incapacity.

The first intelligence of the disaster received was brought by Capt. Reeves, who was taken off the beach Thursday, (illegible) by Capt. Sutton of the Sloop Bertha, and landed at Schellenger?s Wharf. The Coroner was at once notified, and that official proceeded forthwith to the beach with a party of men to take charge of the bodies. On arriving at the scene of the disaster, which was indicated by the wrecked boat about a mile from the mouth of the inlet, they found the bodies of young Willett and McKean locked together and lying in the bottom of the tender. Capt. Smith?s body lay within a short distance, cold and lifeless, and face badly disfigured. On examining the body of young Hoffman their astonishment may well be conceived to find it exhibit sounds of life. He was immediately conveyed to the station house, while a messenger was dispatched in haste for medical assistance. Our informant, Mr. Wm. L. Cummings, gives the following particulars of succeeding events, from his personal observation:

?The bodies of the drowned men were consigned to the care of Coroner Messick, who had them conveyed to Schellenger?s Landing. In the meanwhile every effort was made to bring back the life which was so near gone, to the body of our dear friend Henry Hoffman. He was gradually improving, which afforded us great encouragement. In a short time the boat arrived (illegible) on the Island, Dr. James Mecany, who did all in his power to resuscitate our young friend. But God willed it otherwise. About 7 o?clock his father and brother with Capt. Cresse arrived. At this time, he was improving and about midnight he returned to consciousness and recognized his relatives and those around him. But his shattered frame was unable to bear up longer under the great shock it had been subjected to. For twenty-one hours he had lain on the damp beach, exposed to the rain storm of the night. It was more than human strength could stand, and from that time he gradually failed until half past six o? clock, when he ceased to breathe?.

The Inquest

Nine o?clock the following morning the coroner?s jury met for consultation and to receive the evidence of the Captain of the Lightship, John Reeves, at the City Hall. The Captain was in a very feeble condition, and had to be supported to a seat. The jury was composed of the following citizens ? David Plereon, Foreman; E.R. Williams, H.R. Doolittle, George Schellenger, Joshua Rash, George Hickey, Robt. Chambers, William Cassidy, Joel West, Alexis Schellenger, Joseph (illegible), and Jamos German. Capt. Reeves having been sworn testified in substance as follows:

?I left the lightship Wednesday in the tender for the purpose of coming ashore. I was accompanied by Chas. P. Smith, who had charge of the boat. Henry Hoffman, Virgil McKean and Frank Willets, and everything was going on nicely until we reached Cold Spring Bar. Frank Willets was the only one of my crew. Mr. Smith had been aboard the lightship in place of my first mate, Mr. Stillwell, who had been home sick. Captain Smith was apparently well and in excellent spirits. The usual precautions in coming over the bar were adopted. We took in the after sail, unshipped the rudder and steering oar. Coming in we shipped a sea on the quarter bow, which caused the boat to fill and turn on her broadside. While clinging to the boat in this position, we were washed off several times; but managed to get onboard the boat again. The third time, I assisted Mr. Smith to regain his hold, which he did with difficulty. Another sea then struck us and the last I saw of him was his hand disappearing in the breakers. I judged Mr. Smith was drowned about twenty minutes after shipping the first sea. The boat righted up about this time, when the three others managed to get into her. I next perceived that the boat had got out of the worst of the breakers, and was drifting slowly but gradually towards Two Mile Beach.

This circumstance encouraged me to hold on, and to cheer the others to follow my example. Young Willets replied that he did not think there was any hope of reaching the shore alive. I advised them not to give up, but to use every exertion to keep their blood in circulation by moving their limbs and pounding themselves. But in spite of all I could do to cheer them, Willets and McKean gave up a few minutes later, and embracing each other they both sunk together in the boat. How the time passed I really don?t know, but after some delay during which I pounded myself incessantly to keep from getting benumbed, I endeavored to wade ashore but found it too deep, the boat having by this time grounded upon the bar two hundred yards from the main beach, while there was a deep gully between us and the beach.

As the evening wore on, I tried it again and with much difficulty succeeded, my limbs by that time having become quite cold and stiff. After moving about a little, I looked and saw Harry Hoffman was still on the tender, but apparently lifeless. I returned to the boat as soon as my strength would allow and though much exhausted, I managed to get him ashore. I showed him the life saving station, and explained that I wanted to get him there. He asked how far it was, when I told him it was but a short distance. He then wanted to know if it was more than a mile. He immediately sank completely exhausted and in spite of all I could do I was unable to arouse him after that. At length I found my strength fast failing, and was obliged to seek shelter or perish with him. I then crawled into an old stable where I covered myself up in some hay and spent the night. In the morning I returned to look after the bodies. I found young Hoffman where I had laid him, in a gully. The boat I found had come ashore with the night tide and in the bottom lay the bodies of Willets and McKean ? the faces of both badly disfigured. At this time I had no idea there was any life in the body of young Hoffman. I didn?t see the body of Capt. Smith and supposed it had been washed to sea.?

There was no other evidence taken nor was any more necessary. The jury at once returned a verdict in accordance with the facts as here related ? that Capt. Smith, Virgil McKean, and Frank Willets came to their death by accidental drowning, from the tender of the light-ship on Five Fathom Bank, which foundered on Cold Spring Bar, Wednesday, 22nd inst.

Arthur Motta, Director, City of  New Bedford Office of Tourism & Marketing


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