Note to Reader – It is recommended by the author to read this month’s Sentinels and Saviors of the Seas Installment – The Mystery of the John Dwight, first.
Less than forty-eight hours after the John Dwight sank mysteriously into the depths, Vineyard Haven hard hat diver David Curney stood at the gunwale aboard the salvage vessel. Donned in his heavy gear, his assistant re-checked his airline. Curney gave the assistant a thumbs up. He was ready to go. Employed for the hundred foot descent to determine the condition of the vessel, he stepped off the ship and began his plunge into the darkness. Upon reaching the bottom, he located the wreck and began his investigation. The deck was still loaded with barrels – marked Flour. Curney knew the ruse. He and everyone else in New England who had been following the mysterious “Dwight” case knew that the barrels contained straw wrapped bottles of Frontenac India Pale Ale. He continued to slowly walk across the decks exploring. Inside the steamer’s quarters and in the holds, he located cases upon cases of whiskey. As he ascended and was pulled back aboard the salvage vessel’s deck, he saw Coastguardsmen alongside the vessel and on deck. The salvagers were ordered to leave the wreck site immediately. While Curney and the salvagers followed the orders, it would not be the last dive on the John Dwight.
In July of 1923, the U.S.S. Falcon and the United States Revenue Cutter Ossipee hovered over the wreck of the John Dwight. Three U.S. Navy deep sea divers, utilizing Mark V gear, worked diligently to ensure that other salvagers wouldn’t be lured to the wreckage to make an attempt at the sunken cache of illegal booze. Four fifty-seven pound TNT mines were carefully placed aboard – one in the bow, two amidships and one in the engine room. Fused together, the divers ascended to their tender, the U.S.S. Falcon. The captains of both vessels maneuvered from the wreck site. Aboard the U.S.R.C. Ossipee, the order to detonate the charge was passed. A rumble came seconds later from the murky depths. Within moments debris began to gurgle to the surface. Cork dust, cork tops, part of a life-preserver, a length of spar and a countless number of dead fish littered the waters of the Sound. According to the U.S. Navy, and in official accounts published widely throughout New England, the John Dwight had been rendered a total wreck and her precious cargo of illegal whiskey and pale ale had been totally destroyed. Diver Curney, the first man to reach her sunken wooden decks months earlier though thought otherwise. He was determined to return to the wreckage. Twelve years later, he would have another chance.
In June of 1935, Curney stood aboard the Silver Heels alongside the salvage vessel’s owner, Max Gene Nohl and his recently made acquaintance, Captain John D. Craig, a famous diver, author, and underwater movie producer. The three men and their crew were convinced that stories about a safe aboard were true. According to various reports, upwards of one hundred thousand dollars might have been stowed in the steamer’s safe. Curney and Nohl made several dives to the wreckage but no distinct discovery of the safe had been made. Several bottles of Scotch were raised and despite the hopes of the divers, water had infiltrated the bottles rendering the Scotch useless. Nohl later recounted his last dive on the site. Donned once again in his diving gear, Nohl descended to the wreck. Once on the wreck, Nohl gingerly walked across the wooden skeletal remains of the steamer’s wooden ribs. As he walked gingerly across the wreckage, he was careful where he stepped in the shifting sands littered with bottles and other debris. Suddenly he spotted a large object before him in the wreckage that he had not seen on previous dives. He was convinced that it might be the safe. He continued to maneuver closer to the object noting what he thought was some skeletal remains alongside it. Nohl however never reached the “safe.” He was receiving a message from topside to ascend immediately. The hopes of the three men and their safe retrieval expedition had been dashed. While the 1935 expedition may not have made the salvagers any richer, the observations by Captain John D. Craig of Max Gene Nohls’ revolutionary new diving equipment and processes served as the catalyst for a much more important diving feat.
Captain John D. Craig had been in New England conducting photographic experiments when he heard of the plans for the John Dwight expedition. Travelling to Cuttyhunk, Captain Craig struck up a conversation with Nohl about diving equipment. Nohl, then working on his thesis related to a revolutionary new diving suit and rig at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was “amazed” when Captain Craig related that he had written a story, only a few years earlier, of a completely self-contained diving suit similar to the one Nohl was working on in school. After Nohl’s dive was cut short by a quickly approaching storm, Captain Craig was convinced that the young diver and inventor was on to something. The two men retreated to Nohl’s cabin aboard the Silver Heels. Working into the wee hours of the night, the two divers discussed plans to develop a fully functional self-contained diving suit that would be able to safely allow divers to explore the depths.
For the next two years, the men worked on developing their vision. Nohl and Craig were convinced that the use of a helium-oxygen breathing blend was crucial to the advancement of deep sea diving with safer operating conditions and less lengthy decompression time tables. The diving duo teamed up with Dr. Edgar End of Marquette University’s School of Medicine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to assist with the scientific aspects of their quest. Dr. End and his experiments in the a recompression chamber would provide the divers the necessary decompression schedules so that divers could safely descend and more importantly, ascend while limiting, and hopefully removing, the dangerous effects of nitrogen narcosis from deep sea diving.
As Dr. End continued to develop the time tables, Nohl and Craig developed the diving dress and rig. Initial experiments and tinkering was relegated to modification of standard diving equipment but soon evolved into an entirely new design. The final design, which would eventually be named the Craig-Nohl suit, included a new helmet design that did not have a traditional breast plate or two part design. The new helmet was made of polished aluminum and weighed roughly forty-five pounds. It had a three hundred and sixty degree face plate and was outfitted with a “depth gauge, watch, compass, pressure gauges for the back mounted cylinders, and a container for liquid food.” The self-contained portion of the diving rig was the back mounted cylinders which housed the breathing mixtures. The diving dress was made of rubberized canvas and was worn over wool undergarments and socks. Similar to the traditional diving rigs of the era, the diver would wear eighteen pound leaden diving boots.
During the spring and summer of 1937, a host of dives in various depths were completed. On each dive, the divers and Dr. End compared the new Craig-Nohl rig versus the traditional diving equipment of the era and more importantly, the differences between effects on both divers on their individual bodies. With each set of test dives a success, the men decided to push the limits and set a new world record. On December 1st, 1937, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Antietam cut across the cold waters of Lake Michigan. LT. E.C. Whitfeld, commanding officer of the cutter, reviewed the nautical charts with Nohl and Captain Craig. The three men agreed to the location. Upon reaching the site, LT Whitfeld ordered a depth measurement. All concurred at the lead-line readings. The cutter was in four hundred and twenty-feet of water. It was time to make the dive. Nohl was suited up and was swung over the side and hung from the descending line. Only the descending line and a telephone cable were attached to him. Utilizing the Craig-Nohl diving suit, his breathing supply was solely self-contained. The order was passed to the Coastguardsmen working the lines. Nohl began to be lowered into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan.
Within three minutes, Nohl had reached a depth of two hundred feet but there was a problem. The men panning out the telephone cable had let too much out too quickly. Nohl was unaware of the problem until he reached two hundred and forty feet and found himself completely entangled in the cable. In contact with the surface, Nohl decided to be hoisted back aboard. Shortly after his ascent and now clear of the cable, at twenty-five minutes past one o’clock in the afternoon, Nohl again slipped beneath the surface of the lake. In nine minutes, Nohl had reached the bottom of the lake. The men aboard the cutter cheered. Nohl reported that the visibility was poor as he crawled and walked along the murky lake bed. After roughly six minutes, he began his ascent to the U.S.C.G.C. Antietam. His ascent, marked by a very large safety measure insisted upon by Dr. End, would take a total of one hundred and eighteen minutes with various decompression stops at different depths. Upon breaking the surface, Nohl was quickly freed from his diving suit and examined by Dr. End. The physician found him in perfect health with no issues related to the dive. Nohl’s only complaint was a pair of very cold feet. The dive on December 1st, 1937 not only set a new world’s record it also demonstrated the successful utilization of a helium-oxygen breathing mixture for deep sea exploration.
The John Dwight, though detonated by the U.S. Navy three months after her sinking, would become a popular dive location over the last ninety-plus years. Scuba divers who work the site have brought up fully intact bottles from the wooden skeletal remains and even the steamer’s bell was eventually retrieved. While the 1935 dives did not provide a watery windfall of cash for the Dwight expedition members, it served as a vital catalyst for the continued efforts by Captain John Craig and Max Nohl that would culminate in the advancement of deep sea diving and exploration and set the stage for the record breaking dive by Nohl in late 1937. With its unique connection to rum-running and the advancement of deep sea diving, the sinking of the John Dwight in April of 1923 will forever stand as an eerie footnote of the macabre murder mystery that occurred in our waters.
The Gazette Chronicle.
Rum Runners. (From Gazette editions of June 1935.)
Kane, John R. “Max E. Nohl - The World Record Dive of 1937.” Article. Historical Diver Magazine, No. 7, Spring 1996.
Keatts, Henry. New England’s Legacy of Shipwrecks. American Merchant Marine Museum Press, Kings Point, New York, 1988.
Nohl, Max E. “Invading a Last Frontier.” Article. Popular Mechanics Magazine, September, 1937.
Okrent, Daniel. Last Call, the Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, New York, 2010.
The New York Herald Tribune.
“8 Men Drown As Ale-laden Craft Founders,” April 8, 1923.
“Divers Seek $100,000 on Sunken Rum Boat,” June 17, 1935.
The Sunday Herald.
“Mystery Hulk Dwight Wiped Out, But Not Forgotten,” July 8, 1923.
Willoughby, Malcom F. Rum War at Sea. United States Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1964.