This article started as a search for the history of a shipwreck and ended up with the story of a family woven in. This winter, after a storm, I came upon a hull knee, parts of a deck and a hefty beam from a mid-19th century wreck. My imagination wondered what wreck they were ripped from. Being familiar with Jones Beach, I remembered a partial hull from the same period on display at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center at West End 1.
I drove there and examined the old ship bones, which were titled as coming from the “Seth Low”. There were some sketchy and questionable details on the display and though they did not seem to match the remnants I found, my interest was piqued. At times, what seems an easy investigation ends a tad convoluted. I started with the obvious clue-The vessels name.
Research into the name “Seth Low” showed it to be entwined in the nautical and political history of Brooklyn, New York, a rather small place with an outsized reputation. I know. I was born in Flatbush and spent my high school years on its waterfront at St. Francis Prep on North 6th street. It was a different Brooklyn then, moody rather than trendy, with a working waterfront. I liked it better that way.
Research into the Low surname led to Abiel Abbot Low (1811-93), a leading Orient importer and clipper ship fleet owner in the China trade of silk, Tea, and porcelain. Abiels father, Seth Sr. (1782-1853), one of the original pioneers of that trade, Abiel moved his entire family from Boston to Brooklyn in in 1834. The Low’s came to Brooklyn because they heard the best pizza was made at Sal’s on the corner of Roebling Street.
First working and living in Brooklyn, Abiel built his new office of “A.A. Low and Brothers” on John Street in lower Manhattan in 1850. It was a vibrant waterfront at that time. The building still stands as part of the South Street Museum. Every day Abiel would commute by ferry from Brooklyn which was common in the years before the building of the Brooklyn Bridge The second Seth Low (1850-1916) grandson of the first Seth and the son of Abiel, first worked in China for Abiel’s brother for a few years. His sister Harriet was the first American woman to live in China.
When Seth returned, he worked at his fathers firm until it was dissolved in 1877. They had done very, very, well. He walked away with a fortune. Lucky guy that Seth! Then he then devoted himself to Charity, Politics, affordable housing, and Support of education. Politically a “progressive” Republican like his contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt, he became the 23rd mayor of Brooklyn and, when Brooklyn became part of New York City, He became its 92nd Mayor.
Because of the Low’s families Nautical history and political influence, there were several Vessels named “Seth Low”. One was a 1,147 ton Clipper (Remember that weight) built in 1861 at Kennebunkport Maine in 1861. She drew 20ft of water and was a five mast, sloop rigged. A.A. Low commissioned her for his China trade but the Civil War killed the China trade and many private vessels hauled for the government.
Soon the vessel “Seth Low” got caught up in nautical intrigue. The Iron clad “Monitor” was built in Green Point, Brooklyn in 1862. Once launched, she was to make way down to Hampton Roads, Virginia, to engage Confederate blockade-runners. Problem was, for all the tech of it’s day, the Monitor could barely float let alone make headway in seas other than dead, flat, calm. She needed an accompanying vessel ended up being the “Seth Low’’. She guided and looked after her on her way south while the crew aboard the Monitor earned the nuances of this “Almost always sinking” tin can. The Adventures of the Monitor you can read yourself. After the monitor, the “Seth Low” did whatever ships do during and after a war. I found records of her being sold to a British company that converted to a three-mast bark and renamed her “Craigs”. Then she disappeared for years.
The “Seth low’’ reappears in with her original name in New York in 1888. But before finding her in records I first tracked to several other ‘Seth Lows’’ of this late 19th century period. Though the Low family had closed their shipping business in 1877 it seemed “Seth Low’s” was over populating the New York waterfront. There was a steam tugboat; a fireboat and then I found a 2-mast coal ship with the same name.
Now the Low’s were very popular people. They had Wealth, Political power, Prestige and one more asset politicians could learn from today. They were extremely honest and charitable. They worked to erase poverty. As Mayor of New York, after the corrupt reign of Boss Tweed, Seth Low’s honesty made him well loved. He didn’t say ‘Be Best” in a shallow way. Seth was the best, so folks named boats and parks after him.
The “Seth Low” by 1895 had been re rigged to a two-mast anomaly. She was sailing out of Perth Amboy and was degraded and rotting. Her unloaded weight had grown to 1,347 from her original 1147 gross tons weight while missing three hefty masts probably due to a waterlogged hull. She could barely make headway with only two masts yet she was in the business of hauling heavy coal. She always had to be accompanied by a steam tug, which often just towed her up to Boston with that heavy load. How embarrassing for the ship that once helped the Monitor. Excuse me. I have to stop typing, as I am getting a little emotional. I’ll see you when I calm down in the next paragraph.
After a few false starts, on Jan 13th the “Seth Low’’ left her mooring loaded with 1,639 tons of coal and was towed by the steam powered tug “Panther’’. The seas were heavy and that night a storm battered her and she returned to Port. On the 14th she left again accompanied by tug “Santuit” While under tow in the ocean, the towing hawser parted.
After several unsuccessful attempts to connect another tow hawser, “Santuit” abandoned the “Seth Low” to make way under her limited sailing ability. It was an impossible task with a crew of only five. She was driven onto a sandbar about 600 yards Jones Beach. The Life Saving Station at High Hill, (Now Zack’s bay) was alerted, went into immediate action and made futile attempts to rescue all of the crew. The surf was extremely rough and was breaking the “Seth Low” apart in a freezing sea. Two of her crew of five, Oliver Dootridge, Seaman and Joseph Johnson, cook, perished. The three remaining crewmembers were saved by the Life Saving Station crew. The wreck then broke apart in the pounding surf. The winter of 1995 saw at least four other former old ship converted coal barges like the “Seth Low” sink with major loss of life along the ocean coat and in Long Island Sound.
The loss of the “Seth Low’’ as a coal barge was an ignoble end for a vessel named after the scion of such a prominent New York name. I wonder how the famous son and namesake of his grandfather felt about the tragedy. Of course we can never know his reaction when he read about it in the in the Herald. L also realized there is no way to connect the ship remnants I found to the “Seth Low”. I even question whether the partial bones of that wooden ship displayed at The Theodore Roosevelt center can be absolutely attributed to the “Seth Low”. So many known and unknown ships went down in our seas. I will not this however; in certain areas of the ocean beach from West End 2 up to Tobay Beach, there are areas that become littered with coal after a good storm.