Maritime Log #46 Many Boating Disasters Recorded off Plum Island

By Dyke Hendrickson, Outreach Historian for Custom House Maritime Museum

Several boating collisions occurred this summer in local water but the number of mishaps was nothing compared to years ago. Those who engaged in ocean-going commerce in the past faced peril.

Historian John J. Currier, in 1906, wrote that between 1874 and the turn of the century, “nearly 100 serious disasters have occurred off Plum Island, and nearly as many of lesser importance have taken place where assistance was rendered and life and property saved.”

Here is a photo from the late 19th century, depicting a vessel under duress.

The historian documented some wrecks in the late 19th century by saying, “Feb. 10, 1886, the fishing vessel Lizzie H. Haskell went ashore on the beach and was a total loss. On April 6, the schooner Beta with a cargo of wood and six aboard, was wrecked on the north breaker. One man and three children drowned. On Feb. 9, 1896, a small steamer, Laura Marian, under the command of Capt. William Pettingell, from Gloucester to Newburyport, was swamped in a heavy sea on the bar, while attempting to enter the harbor. All hands were lost and only a few articles of value were recovered from the wreck. On Feb. 3, 1906, the sloop Fortuna from Yarmouth, Maine, to Boston was stranded on the southerly end of Plum Island. It was navigated by two men, who were completely exhausted by hunger and fatigue. The sloop was imbedded in the sand and afterward floated and taken to Boston for repairs.”

Then, as today, the entrance to the river was narrow and shallow. Also, the fast-flowing river current meeting a strong tide makes for difficult navigation.

One of the greatest catastrophes took place in 1851, when 74 fishing vessels from the North Shore were lost in a deadly storm called the Yankee Gale. Historians say 18 missing ships were from Newburyport, and the loss of fathers, sons, brothers and husbands devastated the community.

If you would like me to speak to your organization, I can be reached at dhendrickson@thechmm.org