Tales of Block Island’s history consists of the Giovanni da Verrazano’s sighting (1524), Pequot Wars (1636-1638), Captain William Kidd’s visit (1699), and the Shipwreck of 1907. Just 13-miles south of the Rhode Island coast, and 14 miles east of Montauk Point, New York is the location of Block Island. One mile makes the difference, placing Block Island, named for Adriaen Block (1614 voyage) in the State of Rhode Island. Originally, the Niantic Indians called the little island “Manisses”.
In the waters near Block Island, a collision resulting in the major shipwrecks of the steamer Larchmont and schooner Harry Knowlton made the front-pages of the national newspapers in February 1907. The surviving captains, crews, and passengers gave different versions of events, as well as the number of survivors, missing, and identified dead.
The steamer Larchmont was built in 1885 at Bath, Maine, a center of shipbuilding that resulted in large local family fortunes. Between 1849 and 1853, the discovery of California gold had increased the demand for vessels to carry cargo, passengers, and future gold miners to the Pacific.
It is believed, the Larchmont, a side-wheel, single-deck, two-masted steamer was originally named the Cumberland with a gross tonnage of 1,605, and “was 252 feet, 2 inches in length with a beam of 37 feet and a depth of 14 feet. Her engines developed 1,000 horse power, and she was built to carry a crew of fifty”.
When the collision took place the Larchmont was owned by the Joy Steamship Company (known as Joy Line), and named for its 1899 founder Allan Joy. It was in competition with the New Haven Railroad for passengers between New York City and New England.
The history of the steamer Larchmont was laced with a number of problems during her sailing career. Soon after her launch in 1885, she was in a collision in Boston Harbor and sank.
Joy Line vessels also suffered a number of collisions, on March 30, 1900, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper reported, the vessel Old Dominion, while sailing between New York and Boston was damaged by fire.
Two years later on July 22, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle promoted, “Short Water Tip to Boston Growing in Popularity.” The newspaper’s Information Bureau asked, “Is there a direct line of steamers to Boston?” This service was now provided by the Joy Steamship Company!
In 1902, the Larchmont was on fire in the Long Island Sound, and her 200 passengers were panic stricken. The crew was able to put out the flames, and the steamship Larchmont made it to port.
Later in 1904, the Larchmont collided with the lumber-laden schooner D. T. Melanson off Stratford (CT). This was the same year she went aground in Narragansett Bay off Prudence Island!
The Joy Line continued, to expand their marketing efforts in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. On June 20, the Eagle newspaper stated, “A Trip for the Fourth”. The Joy Line was offering a holiday sailing beginning at Pier No. 35, NYC, passing Martha’s Vineyard, around Cape Cod with “a fine view of Newport and the beautiful scenery and the homes along the shores of Rhode Island…”
A year later, another fire started on board the steamer Larchmont off North Brother Island (CT), due to defective insulation. On April 16, the steamer Larchmont was “hauled off to undergo some necessary overhauling, but few have any idea to what extent she will be improved”. But, by December, the New Haven Railroad had purchased the troubled Joy steamship Company.
Two years later, when the steamer Larchmont collided with the schooner Harry Knowlton in February, Captain George W. McVey was the master. Just after the collision, the New York Times’ article of February 13 printed Captain McVey’s statement. He believed there was between 50 and 75 passengers aboard; however the surviving Purser gave an estimate as 125 to 150 passengers. Whatever the steamer Larchmont’s system of keeping track of their passenger, the total number aboard has not been accurately reported. It is believed the records were lost with the steamer!
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle continued with Captain McVey’s account, “We carried a crew of forty men. We left our dock in South Water Street at 7 o’clock, and reached Point Judith at 9:30 o’clock. At that time the wind was blowing hard, probably between thirty-five and forty miles an hour. It was a clear night, and just after we passed the Point (Judith), I went below among the passengers and looked over the freight deck. It was a trifle rough, but nothing unusual at this time of the year”.
The Captain continued, “I left John Anson, a good, capable man, in the house, and with him Chief Quartermaster James Staples of North Brookville, ME, at the wheel”. John Anson, the captain believed was to be married. He was probably the John Anson, born in Sweden in 1878. According to his Nationalization Record, he arrived in New York City on May 13, 1893. The Captain stated, “Poor Anson! He is dead now…”
The Chief Quartermaster James Staples was born in Maine in 1878, and his parents were John and Ruth Staples. Seven years before the collision in the 1900 US Federal Census, he was enumerated living with his parents at Brooksville, Hancock, Maine. James’ occupation was listed as sailor (sailing vessel). His father John’s occupation was given as sailor (sailing vessel), as well as his brother Charles (1876). His younger brother Ormand would by the 1930 US Federal Census be enumerated as a captain of a steamship.
Regarding the Larchmont’s fatal night, Captain McVey continued his story, “At 10:45 o’clock, I came on deck again and went into the pilot house and saw that everything was all right. Then, I went into my room and prepared to retire. I had just begun to undress when I heard the pilot blow a number of sharp, short blasts on the whistle, the usual warning of danger.”
It is interesting that the Captain stated, “Springing into the pilot house I saw a schooner, which but a few moments before had been coming along to the eastward of us almost dead ahead of us. She had changed her course and was now running parallel with us, going of course, in the opposite direction. She was on our port side. She had hauled up and was coming directly at us.”
“The pilot told the quartermaster to put the wheel hard a port, and he, keeping his head, did as he was ordered,” the Captain mentioned. “The schooner was about half a length ahead. It all happened in less time than it takes to tell…The boat was immediately enveloped in steam. The engine stopped suddenly and the steamer commenced to fill with water.”
The Captain said he sent the Pilot George Wyman, of Taunton, and the Quartermaster Staples, to investigate the main deck. “They came back in a few moments and reported that the boat was sinking rapidly. They had to fight their way through a dense crowd and thick steam to reach my side, and were almost exhausted from their struggle. When I got that report I ordered everyone to his post and gave additional orders that the boat crews should go to their stations, make the boats ready, and swing them for instant use. There were eight boats and four life rafts on the Larchmont.” The Captain gave the orders for the “passengers to pile into the lifeboats”. He also believed, the “crew acted finely and were just as cool and collected as though they were going through their ordinary weekly lifeboat and fire drill at the dock in Providence or New York”. As for the passengers, the Captain stated, “men and women were bumping into each other and struggling like mad for a place in the boats. It was a terrible sight and one that I will never forget to my dying day”.The captain’s boat was the last to leave the steamer with one (1) deckhand, two (2) waiters, two (2) firemen, the purser, and chief quartermaster. He continued, “When my small boats struck the water I saw at once that it would be impossible for us to make Watch Hill, which was three miles east of us and about fifteen miles from Block Island.” Watch Hill is situated on a peninsula going out into the Block Island Sound. Giving orders to his crew to circle the Larchmont, the Captain had hopes of picking up some of the passengers. The crew of the life boat did not accomplish this task due to the darkness, rough sea and strong wind. But it seems the captain and crew might have left the steamer before most of the passengers. He stated, “The majority of the passengers were on the leeward side of the vessel. That was the side which was highest in the water. I tried to work around to that side but could not.” He does not state whether these passengers are in the water, life boats or still on the ship! All he seemed to know “was that the passengers piled into the boats as well as they could”. Captain McVey mentioned, “After several vain attempts to steer over to that side, we finally gave up the attempt, and following the rough of the sea, pressed toward Block Island. It was terribly cold, and we kept our blood in circulation by stamping our feet, punching each other and taking turns at the oars. Finally, about 6:30 o’clock this morning, after having been in the water since 11 o’clock, we floated in on the surf nearest Sandy Point Light, on this Island. Every man of us was frozen in some way, some more than others”.The Sandy Point Light (officially named Prudence Island Lighthouse), is located on Prudence Island (RI), the oldest lighthouse tower in the state was built 1823 and transported to the Island in 1851 from near Goat Island.Captain McVey claimed to be the last to leave his sinking ship. Other survivors claim the Captain and his crew were in the very first lifeboat, leaving the frantic passengers to fend for themselves. Part 2, the Captain of schooner Harry Knowlton will give his account, as well as other survivors of the steamer Larchmont will tell what they remember of the fatal night!