It was Friday, August 30, 1872 and the end of another idyllic summer in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. The Ocean House Hotel and the other large hotels were still full of guests. The weather in the past week of August had been perfect but early that fateful morning, while the guests were still sleeping, the weather changed. Squalls and a cold rain was driven by a strong southeast gale that rattled the windows. The sound of huge breakers boomed on the beach. As guests and hotel employees woke up and looked to the surf they were horrified to see human forms struggling in the water. The people caught in the heavy surf were passengers from the Steamship Metis which had sunk hours earlier 5 miles offshore. Hotel employees ran to spread the alarm.
The Metis was a 200 foot long, 1238 ton, propeller driven wooden steamer belonging to the New York and Providence Steamship line. She was built in 1864 as a freighter to carry cargo for the Civil War. In 1871 she was converted, by the addition of a second hurricane deck, to carry passengers as well. On this last weekend of the summer, the Metis was overcrowded carrying at least 110 passengers with a crew of 45 bound from New York City to Providence, Rhode Island which was her normal route. As the Metis prepared to leave New York, at the last minute, she was hastily loaded with a cargo of cotton bales. These large heavy bales were stowed on top of some of the hatches. These hatches gave access to the holds of the ship and this unsafe loading would later have unforeseen consequences.
The Metis left New York City under the command of Captain Charles L. Burton around 5 p.m. August 29th for the 12 to 15 hour trip. She headed through Hell Gate into Long Island Sound with her sister ship Nereus following a mile astern. During the night as the two ships steamed up the Sound, the weather changed to a strong gale with high winds, heavy seas, and pelting rain. At 3 a.m. the lookout on the Metis saw the signal from the Watch Hill Lighthouse. The Metis was making about 12 knots when through the driving rain the lookout saw another vessel approaching less than 150 yards away. The approaching vessel was the schooner, Nettie Cushing.
The 91 ton Nettie Cushing, under the command of Captain Emory D. Jamison, was sailing in the opposite direction bound from Maine to New York City with a cargo of lime. Captain Jamison latter spoke about the events of that night, “We had made Watch Hill Light and were steering west by south for Gull Island Light; had the lower four sails set, and were running about six knots. We were about five miles from Gull Island and all hands were on deck when we saw a steamer’s light close aboard us inshore.
We were steering clear when three minutes after, just as she reached us, she gave a sheer across our bows and struck on the starboard side of our stem, tearing away our bowsprit and head gear close up to the knightheads. Although the weather was thick our lights were burning brightly at the time and so were the steamer’s. We swung clear and I shouted to her that we were sinking but she paid no attention but kept on. Subsequently, I heard her blowing her whistle.”
The captain of the Cushing did not know what vessel they’d struck and assumed the strange steamer that had appeared out of the storm only minutes earlier had not been seriously damaged. The Nettie Cushing was leaking badly and Captain Jamison thought his ship would sink. He had no choice but to try and proceed to the nearest port which was New London. The Cushing arrived at the mouth of the Thames River at dawn barely afloat.
On board, the Metis Captain Burton ordered the engines stopped and two of his officers to look for any damage. Aside from some rigging that had come through a porthole in the crew’s quarters, everything else appeared normal. The two officers then tried to examine the forward cargo hold where the heavy cotton bales had been stowed on top of the hatch. They reported that it would take two to three hours to remove the cargo to gain access. The officers then took a lantern and leaning over the side of the ship inspected the hull for damage but couldn’t see any. After sounding the hold and finding no water they reported to the captain that they could find no critical damage.
Believing all was well Captain Burton restarted the engines and reversed course to see if the schooner required aid but the schooner had already left. The Nereus came alongside the Metis and signaled to see if Burton needed assistance. Captain Burton signaled the Nereus that all was well. The Nereus’ captain, upon hearing the signal, resumed his course and steamed off out of sight. Why the Nereus did not stand by to make sure the Metis was alright is one of the mysteries of this tragedy. Captain Burton brought the ship around and resumed her course to Providence
Although little damage was apparent on deck, unbeknownst to Captain Burton, the hull near the bow of the Metis had been penetrated, tons of water was rushing into the forward hold and was only held back by an old wooden bulkhead. Later, in the investigation into the tragedy, it was found that 3 foot holes had previously been cut into that bulkhead and later closed up. These had weakened the bulkhead and as pressure built up it suddenly gave way. This explains why no water was found earlier when the officers examined the hold. At 4:30 a.m. the engineer sent word to Captain Burton that water was flooding into the engine room. He told the captain that the Metis was sinking and he should try and beach her.
The captain turned the Metis toward the Watch Hill shore about 3 miles away but after a mile, the water reached the boilers and the fires went out. With no power or pumps, the Metis was doomed. Only 30 minutes later at 5 a.m., the Metis sank beneath the storm waves.
The sleeping passengers that had been awakened by the collision rushed on deck. Many were still in nothing but their nightclothes and in the dark stormy night, terror and confusion reigned. With heavy seas breaking over the ship the purser and engineer tried to help passengers find life preservers but there were not enough to go around. The engineer tried to lower lifeboats but was hampered by the heavy seas. With great difficulty, four lifeboats were launched and quickly filled mostly with crew members. As the Metis sank, bales of cotton and other freight broke loose and floated away. Some of the passengers jumped into the sea and swam after them only to be carried away by the storm.
There are many tragic tales from that fateful night. Among the saddest was the story of a young family of four. They, like most of the passengers, were asleep but were awakened by the shock of the collision. Almost immediately a steward rushed into their stateroom informing them the ship was sinking and to put on their life preservers. They woke the children, one a baby only six weeks old, the other, a boy three years old. The mother took the infant and the father took the three year old and they made their way up to the deck. The water was knee deep already and within 5 minutes the couple was washed into the sea. In the pitch black night, the storm waves swept the children from their arms. The husband was now exhausted by the struggle and slipped beneath the waves. The woman was saved just in time by the Revenue Cutter Moccasin.
Over 50 passengers climbed to the top of the hurricane deck waiting for the ship to sink. Miraculously as the Metis foundered the hurricane deck broke away from the ship and drifted off with the desperate passengers clinging to it. As morning dawned the Watch Hill shore became visible and a few hours later the hurricane deck reached the breakers below the Ocean House Hotel. The heavy surf broke over the deck washing people into the debris filled water. Captain Burton was one of the 50 who rode the makeshift life raft toward shore and survived.
William Sheridan, of Boston’s Globe Theatre whose wife was killed, gave this account, “I rushed out on deck, to find the steamer sinking; I hurried my wife into a lifeboat; there were too many of us in the boat; we proceeded nearly to land, when a rough sea caused the boat to tip over; all were thrown into the water. It was a terrible moment; there were few of us who could swim. Only eight or ten succeeded in laying hold of the boat. My poor wife was not among them.”
That morning a large crowd of onlookers had gathered on East Beach in Watch Hill and began to pull people out of the water. Many of the survivors owed their lives to the heroic efforts of the men in the crowd pulling them to safety through the strong undertow.
One of those men was 19-year old J. Cortland Gavitt, a head porter at The Larkin House, became a hero for his efforts in the rescue. Years later, Gavitt wrote to his niece telling of his experience. “That morning it was terribly rough and the breakers were coming in with a roar like distant thunder. The day was just beginning to break and I was looking at the ocean when I saw what I then took to be seaweed in large bunches. After I looked again, and not far from shore I saw lots of men on rafts and what I thought were boxes among a lot of wreckage, and a large raft with a lot of people on it. I ran back to the hotel and raised the alarm, then found a long rope, and headed to the beach.”
After receiving the alarm retired Watch Hill Lighthouse keeper and owner of the Larkin House, Captain Daniel Larkin, and 4 others rushed to the lighthouse where a 20 foot metal life boat was kept. Larkin spoke about the rescue. “Before we got opposite the wreck we discovered people drifting on debris from the wreck. We could see 6 or 8 at a time. We commenced to save them, the sea running so big that we had to bail out the boat, head into the seas and trim astern to take them in. We took 17 aboard the boat, 15 men and 2 women, which was all we could possibly carry. At this time the wind had changed and was blowing strong from the west and we left some five or six more in sight at the time. We could not take any more.”
Gavitt described the scene on the beach. “I, with a lot of other people, went to the rescue of the shipwrecked people who were in a perilous position. The wind was blowing very heavy from the southeast bringing in real heavy seas that were breaking high on the beach with a great undertow, making it dangerous for people to go into the surf. The hurricane deck which floated when the ship sank came ashore first. There were 30 to 40 people on this raft. When it got among the breakers, the first breaker cracked it badly, the second one broke it a bit more but the third one smashed it all up, throwing everyone in the water.”
Although Gavitt couldn’t swim he tied the rope he’d brought under his arms and waded out through the surf to the struggling people. A group of men on the beach held the other end of the rope ready to pull him back through the undertow. “The people were thrown among the wreckage making it hard and dangerous for the people to rescue them”, Gavitt recalled. “However, we got every one of them ashore alright, not one being lost. The last one I went in to save being a young man. He was an immigrant, he told me later. I got into deep water to get him by the hand. A big sea knocked us both down, but he never let go of my hand. The people on shore had all they could do to save us both from being drowned.”
By this time Gavitt was in great pain as both his shoulders were dislocated from the rope tied under his arms. A doctor from the hotel noticed him and asked what was wrong. After being told the doctor stepped behind Gavitt, put his knee in the middle of Gavitt’s back, grabbed both his shoulders and pulled hard. The bones went back into place.
There were still many people in the water and a shift in the wind started to blow them out to sea. After the doctor had fixed Gavitt’s back he and some other men commandeered a fishing boat. “The first survivors we came to were 4 men afloat on one the ship’s skylights holding a youth about 18 years old. The men said he was dead but after getting him into the lifeboat it was found that he was still alive The next one we came to was a young lady about 20, lying on a life raft about 2 feet out of the water. She had only a nightdress on and a life belt around her. She sang out just before we got to her and asked if she was saved. I think we all called out at the same time saying, ‘yes, you are saved.’”
“We took her onboard and laid her down in the bottom of the boat out of the wind and took off all our clothing except for our underpants and shirts to cover her up as it was very cold and she was in a bad state. We managed to keep our boat head to wind and kept bailing all the time until the revenue cutter Moccasin came to and we managed to get the people we’d picked up aboard her. The girl was given a whiskey and rolled in blankets and put to bed. The youth was taken down to the boiler room where it was warm, brought back to life again.” The crew on the fishing boat rescued 15 people and recovered 6 bodies.
The revenue cutter Moccasin from Stonington, Connecticut received word of the wreck and the captain immediately ordered steam to be raised. The Moccasin collected a total of 41 survivors and 18 dead. Captain George Harrison in the fishing smack Quilp, returning from Block Island found 7 men in a lifeboat off Watch Hill and with difficulty rescued them.
By the following day, curious onlookers lined East Beach in Watch Hill for miles. Newspaper reporters did interviews and a photographer from a Norwich paper took photographs. Men using shovels dug in the sand recovering barrels, boxes, and bales of cotton. A representative from the steamship company helped organize the recovery of luggage which was loaded on a schooner. Two of the Metis’ life boats and a life raft had been pulled up on the beach near the large smokestack from the ship. This large metal pipe had protruded through the hurricane deck into the water during the storm and acted as ballast, keeping the deck from capsizing in the heavy seas.
By Monday anything of value from the wreck had been salvaged and the crowds were gone. The locals noticed an abrupt exodus from the hotels as guests seemed to want to try and forget the tragedy. A correspondent from a local paper wrote, “It was evident that in only a few hours all signs of the great disaster will disappear. We were told that the last four bodies to come ashore at Watch Hill were identified, had been removed; and that only two injured persons rescued from the wreck remained at the hotels.” Many of the dead had been taken to a hall in Stonington where those searching for missing loved ones, as well as curiosity seekers, walked past the unidentified bodies.
J. Cortland Gavitt and eight other men were singled out as heroes and were awarded gold medals. During the official investigation by the Steamship Investigation Service, each captain blamed the other for the collision. Captain Burton and his pilots were cited for failure to avoid a collision and inefficient management of the aftermath. But, only six months later, Captain Burton was back in command of a vessel on the same route from New York to Providence the Metis had taken when it went down. Many people were outraged by the farcical results of the investigation. One positive outcome of the disaster was the construction, in 1879, of an official U.S. Life Saving Service Station at the Watch Hill Lighthouse.
A few years after the Metis disaster, the hero, J. Cortland headed to New Bedford where he signed on the whale ship Mabel. When the Mabel arrived in Hobart, Tasmania Gavitt decided he wanted to stay and jumped ship. In a letter to his niece, he wrote about the disaster, “I did my duty at that time and would do the same again if by chance that happened again.” Gavitt died in Tasmania in 1945 after a long and adventurous life, over ten-thousand miles from the scene of his greatest adventure.
Today the wreck of the Metis is a popular dive site 3½ miles from the Watch Hill Lighthouse in 130 feet of water. The wooden hull has rotted away and only the engine, boiler, and driveshaft are still visible marking the place where 147 years ago one of Rhode Island’s greatest marine disasters unfolded.