Offtheshelf's blog

Steeplejacks with Nerves of Steel

By Jack Sheedy

As we enter Easter weekend, I thought it appropriate to glance skyward. Not so much toward the heavens. But rather, toward the tapering spires and steeples of the many churches which pepper this salty peninsula.

Travel any of the main routes throughout the various Cape villages and you are certain to happen upon an old meetinghouse or two. These historic buildings are part of the local landscape. And with their soaring spires and rising steeples come steeplejacks with nerves of steel to climb up them and maintain them.

For instance, in December 1916 the membership of the Congregational Church in Sandwich raised $140 for repairs to the spire and then hired a steeplejack to do the job. By August of the following year the spire was repaired and repainted, and the steeplejack moved on to his next job. Similarly, in 1926 steeplejacks performed work on the Congregational Church is Chatham, replacing timbers and repainting the structure (previous repairs were made in 1887, some 40 years earlier).

Our book, Cape Odd, contains a brief mention of a pair of steeplejacks who visited Barnstable in September 1928. In this particular case they were not painting a church steeple, but rather, a flagpole at the Court House. This job had the men hovering some 135 feet above the ground upon suspended seats. They were Hain Bask from Providence, Rhode Island and a fellow named Gardie Watt from Edinburgh, Scotland. According to a newspaper account, Watt was a bit of a celebrity in the steeplejack world. He was a war hero during WWI flying for the Royal Scottish Airship Corps, during which he was wounded in action over Marne, France and was later honored for bravery.

After the war he became a stunt airplane flyer in the United States, in Hollywood, but was injured in that endeavor as well. So he turned to a slightly less dangerous occupation, that of steeplejack. In his new job he found himself climbing not only church steeples and flag poles, but also radio poles, chimneys, and aerial masts. Basically, anything that was tall and required a person with a head for heights and nerves of steel was a job for Watt.

During his brief stint on Cape in 1928 his work attracted crowds who stood below at street level and watched him “perform.”

Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.

Run-ins with Sharks

By Jack Sheedy

A short entry to finish off the short month of February:

With an increased presence of great whites in Cape Cod waters during recent years, and with a long history of Cape Cod fishermen working the waters around the peninsula, it is not surprising that there were run-ins with sharks over the centuries. Here are some examples.

In 1878, a Woods Hole fisherman by the name of Charlie Healy caught what he described as “a good size shark,” which he then hauled onto his boat. As the fisherman reached for a club, the shark had other plans and bit Healy on the arm. Perhaps due to blood loss, the fisherman became faint. Another fisherman happened by and attended to him. It is unknown what happened to the shark -- perhaps it escaped and returned to the sea. Healy survived the ordeal.

Another Woods Hole fisherman, Frank Gifford, encountered a number of sharks in Buzzards Bay while scup fishing during August 1892. He managed to capture a 75-lb shark, which attracted a larger one – seven feet in length, compared with Gifford’s 13-foot boat. He was able to catch the second shark using a hook.

Off Provincetown, in June 1857, a “bone” shark measuring 30 feet long was captured in a mackerel net. It was described in a newspaper account as the largest shark caught at Provincetown Harbor. The creature’s one and a half-ton liver produced eight barrels of oil. Two years later, in September 1859, a nine-foot long man-eater was caught off Long Point using a harpoon. At Brewster, in November 1900, a 12-foot shark was caught in a fish weir.

In July 1929, while swimming at Craigville Beach, Navy Lt. Robert B. Yortson was attacked by a three-foot shark just beyond the outer float, well off the beach. Yortson saw the shark coming just before it bit him on his left hand. He fought off the creature by punching it on the snout. The injury to Yortson’s hand was not serious.

We’ll conclude with a story from 1891. While at Panama aboard the Dennis vessel Marjorie (a four-masted schooner commanded by a Capt. Edwards) a certain crewman made a fuss about having to perform his duties and was put in irons. At some point that crewman attempted to make his escape by stealing one of the ship’s boats when he fell overboard…and was swiftly attacked and devoured by a man-eating shark.

Jack Sheedy is co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.

Ye Earth Shooke

By Jack Sheedy

Turning the page to another tale from Cape Cod’s past…

When you consider earthquakes, you probably immediately think of California. You certainly wouldn’t think of the Northeast. Or Massachusetts. And certainly not sandy Cape Cod.

Yet, in 1638, this area felt a sizable earthquake – believed to be a 6.5 magnitude tremor – which Pilgrim William Bradford included in his journal, published in book form as Of Plimoth Plantation.

Bradford wrote:

“This year, aboute ye 1 or 2 of June, was a great & fearfull earthquake; it was in this place heard before it was felte. It came with a rumbling noyse, or low murmure, like unto remoate thunder; it came from ye norward, & pased southward. As ye noyse aproched nerer, they earth begane to shake, and came at length with that violence as caused platters, dishes, & such like things as stoode upon shelves, to clatter & fall downe.”

Bradford witnessed this event at Plymouth, yet it was also most likely felt on Cape Cod by the Natives living here, and by early settlers (the towns of Sandwich, Yarmouth, and Barnstable were incorporated the following year). The “rumbling noyse” of the earthquake came from the north – New Hampshire was believed the epicenter – and moved southward, shaking things along the way.

Continuing with Bradford’s journal:

“How ever it was very terrible for ye time, and as ye men were set talking in ye house, some women & others were without ye dores, and ye earth shooke with yt (that) violence as they could not stand without catching hould of ye posts & pails yt (that) stood next them; but ye violence lasted not long.”

It must have been quite a thing for the early residents of this area to have the earth beneath their feet “shooke.” But as Bradford wrote, the earth’s shaking didn’t last long, although it was followed half an hour later by a somewhat weaker aftershock, and then all returned to normal.

Earthquakes have indeed visited this area over the centuries, in 1755, 1766, 1847, 1860, 1869, 1909, 1929, and 1965, to mention a handful. The 1860 earthquake, which occurred upon a March evening, was strong enough to awaken Cape Codders from their sleep. Meanwhile, the 1929 quake, which was felt across New England, gently shook the Cape for about a minute upon one November afternoon, rattling houses, moving small objects, and cracking plaster at the town offices in Hyannis.

Although we now know earthquakes are caused by the sudden movement of tectonic plates along fault lines, thus releasing energy, Bradford in his journal considered the Lord’s hand in the event of 1638 which he said was not only felt by those on land, but also by those on ships off the coast.

Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.

Standing on Thin Ice

By Jack Sheedy

With the year ticking down to its last hours, and with the outside temperatures hovering in the mid-teens, we flip through the pages of Cape Cod history to reveal a handful of stories of locals falling through thin ice, from the book Cape Odd.

In days of old, there were a number of reasons why people might have found themselves on thin ice. Folks might have been skating on a local kettle pond, or ice fishing on a nearby lake, or harvesting pond ice to fill the village ice house, or simply crossing an icy surface as a shortcut from Point A to Point B. For instance, according to newspaper accounts…

In January 1908 Miss Lillian Howland was skating on Turtle Pond in Wellfleet when she fell through. Fortunately, she was rescued by Earnest Berrio and Master Atkins Berrio, who happened to be nearby. In February 1923, George Bastien fell through thin ice while fishing on Mary Dunn Pond in Barnstable. By chance, Joseph Maher and Charles Perry were in the vicinity doing some work at a nearby ice house and were able to rescue Bastien with the aid of a wooden plank.

Ice harvesting could be tricky business. During the same year Miss Howland fell through the ice at Wellfleet, David Love had a similar accident while filling the Nobscusset ice house in Dennis. He was pulled clear of an icy demise by local men, Ben Eldredge and Clarence Sears.

Ice surfaces could be especially tricky when horses were involved. In fact, there were a number of cases of horses falling through the ice. In February 1892, D. H. Baker’s horse went into the water at Bumpus Pond in Buzzards Bay. The animal was rescued and brought back to its stable to be dried off and rubbed down. At Cotuit in January 1900, a horse belonging to James Bracket fell through the ice while plowing. That animal was also rescued.

The temptation to cross the ice surface of a pond rather than going the longer and safer way around proved to be a dangerous decision for a number of locals, some being children. In January 1861, two sons of William Robbins fell through ice at East Harwich. The father tried in vain to save the boys (ages 9 and 11), but the ice around him kept collapsing. Fortunately, Captain George F. Pierce arrived on the scene and went into the frigid water to pull the two boys to safety. The older boy, who was not breathing, was revived. All survived the ordeal. (Apparently, during the previous year Capt. Pierce had saved another person from drowning.)

The very next year, in December 1862, a number of children were saved from locals ponds. In Chatham, Levi Atwood and Mr. and Mrs. Rufus Emery saved the daughter of local sea captain Philip Stetson. The girl had fallen through the ice while attempting to cross Oyster Pond. On the same day, two girls – identified as the daughter of Dr. Brownell and the daughter of Rev. Willett – fell into icy water while skating on a pond. Luckily, they were rescued by Gideon Eldredge, Jr., who happened to be on the scene.

Two years later, in February 1894, a 12-year-old girl pulling her younger brother on a sled across the Mill Pond in Sandwich broke through the ice. Their mother, Mrs. Eunice Tinkham, was unable to reach them. Somehow, the girl was able to push her brother up onto the ice. She then hung on until help arrived. Two local men, A. R. Pope and Josiah Newcomb, came with a ladder and rescued the girl from the cold water.


As this 13th year of blogging Off-the-Shelf comes to a close, I wish all a Happy, Healthy, and Safe New Year!

Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.  

The Last Pilgrim

By Jack Sheedy

A bit late for Thanksgiving…

Pilgrim William Bradford kept a journal, later published as Of Plymouth Plantation, in which the Governor provided much information of interest about those early years and those brave souls who came across on the Mayflower. Additionally, he included references to the arrival of subsequent ships – the Fortune in 1621, and the Anne and Little James in 1623.

Concerning those who arrived on the Mayflower, Bradford wrote, “Of these 100 persons which came over in this first ship together, the greater halfe dyed in the general mortality; and the most of them in 2, or three months time…of the old stock, of one and other, there are yet living this present year, 1650, nere 30 persons.”

Thirty years after their arrival some 30 Pilgrims were still alive, which makes sense since the “general mortality,” which killed half the Pilgrims during that first winter, saw children number near half the survivors come Spring 1621 when the Mayflower and its remaining crew set sail for England. By 1650, many of these Pilgrim children were now in their 30s and 40s.

Bradford, himself, died in 1657, yet in years following someone continued to make entries in his journal indicating those Pilgrims from the initial Mayflower crossing who were still living. For example:

“Twelfe persons liveing of the old stock this present yeare, 1679.”

“Two persons liveing that came over in the first shipe 1620, this present yeare, 1690. Resolved White and Mary Chusman {sic}.” Pilgrim John Cooke was also among the living, and was still alive as late as 1694 according to another entry.

And then, finally:

“Mary Cushman is still living, this present year, 1698.”

Born Mary Allerton in 1616, she made the Mayflower voyage with her parents, Isaac and Mary, and siblings Bartholomew and Remember. Her future husband, Thomas Cushman, arrived the next year aboard the Fortune. Married about the year 1635 or 36, Thomas and Mary Cushman raised a family and enjoyed more than fifty years together. Thomas died in 1691. Mary Cushman, who was a four-year-old child at the time of the Mayflower crossing, and who lived into her eighties, died in 1699. She was the last Pilgrim.

Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd. 

Spectral Evidence

By Jack Sheedy

Continuing with odd stories of Cape Cod…

This week the waxing moon rides the Halloween sky like a witch on her broom, casting beams down to bewitch jack-o’-lanterns perched upon front steps.

The Mid-Cape region has a witch in the form of Liza Towerhill, the locals’ moniker for an 18th century woman named Elizabeth Blatchford who lived in the woods of Barnstable along the old trail leading to Hyannis. Nowadays, that twisting route is known as Mary Dunn Road.

Elizabeth was born around 1711 in a hut in the woods. Her mother died when she was young, so she was raised by her father who taught her the ways of the forest. She married William Blatchford, and the couple built a home near Half Way Pond, now called Mary Dunn Pond, in the very same forest. They had eight children together. Elizabeth was a member of the church; William joined the church just prior to his death in 1755. The local villagers, not understanding Elizabeth's “odd” lifestyle of living alone in the forest, believed she was in league with the Devil and considered her a witch. She died in 1790 at nearly 80 years of age and was buried in the church cemetery as a member of the East Parish congregation.

Many stories are attached to Liza Towerhill which have been told and retold over the centuries. For instance…

A Mr. Wood of West Barnstable charged her with changing him into a horse at night and riding him to Plymouth in order to attend witches’ Sabbaths. Thankfully, this fantastic claim was dismissed due to lack of physical evidence. (It is important to note that at the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s spectral evidence was allowed.)

A similar story concerns a gentleman from East Sandwich named Benjamin Goodspeed, who claimed that she would on occasion turn him into a horse and ride him throughout the night, returning him to human form in the morning.

To escape the bewitching Goodspeed went to sea as a crewmember on a vessel far-removed from the Barnstable woods. Yet, the witch appeared one night as her familiar, a black cat, which swam after the ship, came aboard, and transformed itself into Liza Towerhill. She then turned Goodspeed into a horse and rode him across the nighttime hours.

Exhausted by these nocturnal visitations, Goodspeed took the advice of a shipmate and the following evening when the cat swam up to the vessel he rolled a page of the Bible into a pellet and, using a musket, shot the cat and thus killed the witch. Or so the story goes…

Until next time, Happy Halloween!

Jack Sheedy is co-author of Cape Odd and Cape Cod Collected.   

Belfast Stuck Fast

By Jack Sheedy

Flipping again through the pages of Cape Cod history, I recount here another shipwreck story. This one occurred in 1919 along the winding Cape Cod Canal and considers what might happen if one of the canal’s highway bridges were to become closed for a day.

Back in those days the canal was narrower and shallower than it is today, and the bridges which spanned it were much smaller and closer to the water, and in fact, were drawbridges. Opening to seagoing traffic in July 1914, the waterway had by the spring of 1919 seen nearly five years of activity, including a number of groundings and wrecks during those years. The Cape Cod Canal at that time was a tricky passage along its seven-mile land cut through Sandwich and Bourne, plagued by currents, tides, and fog.

In April of that year, the 320-foot steamer Belfast of the Eastern Steamship Line was making her first passage through the canal with about 100 passengers. Unfortunately, it would not be a successful voyage. Apparently, as the ship approached the Sagamore Bridge a problem developed with her steering gear, making the vessel impossible to maneuver. With the bridge’s draw open, the Belfast missed the opening and crashed into the side of the bridge, demolishing the ship’s pilot house and about 20 feet of the deckhouse. The vessel became stuck fast amidst the girders of the bridge, with the draw in an upright position.

A few passengers in the forward staterooms were injured by the sudden collision and one gentleman suffered broken ribs, among other injuries. The remaining passengers were tousled a bit, and were eventually removed from the stricken ship and placed in awaiting tug boats, which unloaded them safely at Sandwich.

Over the next day, with the aid of acetylene torches and saws the ship was separated from the bent girders of the bridge and with the assistance of tugs was pulled away and towed to Boston for repairs. Throughout, with the ship wedged in tight, the drawbridge could not be lowered and automobile and other ground traffic had to be rerouted to the Bourne Bridge in order to cross the canal. Imagine if something like that were to happen today – it would be a traffic nightmare!

As a footnote to this story, it is of interest to mention that some five years earlier – in October 1914 – the Belfast rammed the four-masted schooner Alma N. A. Holmes in thick early morning fog off Marblehead, sinking the sailing vessel. Fortunately, the crew of the Holmes was saved.

Jack Sheedy is co-author of Cape Odd and Cape Cod Collected.   

Longfellow Awakened

By Jack Sheedy

Continuing with the theme of odd tales of the sea, here is another Cape Cod shipwreck story, this one dating to September and November of 1904. That’s right, a shipwreck which took place during two separate months. In fact, I like this story so much that I included it in three books, most recently in Cape Cod Collected, published in 2015.

By 1904, the steamer Longfellow, named for the famous poet of such classics as “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” had been converted from a passenger vessel into a cargo ship. On September 9th of that year, the greater than 400-ton vessel was hauling about 300 tons of dynamite as she made her way along the outer Cape coastline when she began to take on water during a storm. Approaching Highland Lighthouse, the crew decided the time had come to abandon ship. All 16 crewmen were able to escape in two boats, and were assisted to shore by the lifesaving crews of Highland and Pamet (and possibly Peaked Hill) stations. Offshore, the Longfellow and her cargo disappeared beneath the waves.

Newspaper reports indicated that the steamer had sprung a leak and eventually sank some three miles off Highland Light - off Truro - and further described the risky procedure of launching lifesaving boats under such treacherous conditions to bring ashore the vessel’s crew. But all the crewmembers were safely landed, and within time the sunken vessel was forgotten. Until some two months later...

In mid-November, during a storm which had visited the Cape Cod coast, two sizable explosions were heard along the lower Cape. Atop the high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, lifesaving crews in their stations shaken by the ruckus thought there had been an earthquake. Yet, in the days to follow, the source of the disturbance was revealed as wreckage of the Longfellow washed ashore.

Apparently, the November storm had caused the sunken vessel to slam against the ocean’s bottom, awakening the steamer Longfellow from her slumber, and setting off her explosive cargo.

Or, to conclude by paraphrasing the last stanza of “The Wreck of the Hesperus”:

Such was the wreck of the Longfellow,

     In the midnight and the dark!

Lord, provide us with a death more mellow,

     Than that of a powder keg and a spark!

Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.

Wreck of the Castagna

By Jack Sheedy

Picking up where I left off with my last blog entry, for the remainder of this year I wish to continue to examine the strange and unusual as it relates to Cape Cod history. Back at the end of 2016 and into the beginning of this year I presented a five-part series on sea serpents and mermaids seen in Cape waters over the centuries. I’m sure I’ll include more stories of sea monsters in future Off-the-Shelf submissions. In October, I imagine Cape Cod witches and ghosts will provide the subject material for an entry or two leading up to Halloween.

But until then, we’ll look to the sea for some unusual stories. For instance, this story from just a little more than a century ago, which I include in the books, Cape Cod Companion, published in 1999, and more recently in Cape Odd, 2010:

   In February 1914 the Italian bark Castagna was sailing along the outer coastline of the Cape, en route from Uruguay to Massachusetts with a cargo of guano, when she encountered fierce winter weather which iced up her rigging. Unable to lower her frozen anchors, the ship and crew wandered in a haphazard fashion up the coast, within sight of the watchful eyes of the lifesavers at Cahoon Hollow Station. She was clearly a vessel in trouble, but was too far offshore to render assistance. So it was not surprising when, early the next morning, she was discovered foundering not far from the Marconi Wireless Station at Wellfleet.

Ill-prepared for weather conditions in northern latitudes during winter, the Italian crew, some without proper footwear, had no protection against the frigid temperatures and the equally frigid seas. They climbed into the rigging, where a number froze to death.

From shore, lifesavers fired a shot from their Lyle gun into the rigging of the vessel in an attempt to set up a pulley-system between ship and shore to remove the crew, but the men aboard the doomed Castagna were too weak to offer the necessary assistance. Eventually, the lifesavers launched a surfboat and were able to bring ashore the survivors. Of those that perished, some remained in the rigging until their bodies could be recovered and two were missing, including the captain. According to the March 4, 1914 issue of the Harwich Independent, “The body of a young man believed to be that of the cabin boy of the bark Castagna, which was wrecked off the wireless station at Wellfleet, Feb 17, was picked up near the Old Harbor station, Chatham, Tuesday, ten miles up the beach from the disaster.”

Yet, the body of the ship’s captain was not found … that is, not until about a year later. Someone walking the beach near Nauset Harbor happened upon a body protruding from the sand. Further examination determined that it was the body of the Castagna’s captain. And strangely, the body had survived a year without decomposing, or so the story goes. Apparently, it was frozen solid upon that February morning and eventually buried beneath the sands where it remained frozen and preserved until its discovery!

Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.   

Twelve Days of Sea Creatures - Finale

By Jack Sheedy

We conclude our Twelve Days of Sea Creatures series not with 12 drummers drumming, but with the granddaddy of all Cape Cod sea serpent tales, which took place in 1886 at Provincetown. The following story can be found in a number of classic Cape Cod books – Edward Rowe Snow’s A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod (1946) and Josef Berger’s Cape Cod Pilot (1937), just to name a couple.


For the Twelfth Day of Christmas

George Washington Ready was the town crier at Provincetown, a position which afforded him some standing in the community at the Cape tip, so much so that he was nicknamed the “Professor.” What he was a Professor of is unclear. According to Webster, besides the educational reference, a professor is “one that professes, avows, or declares.” After reading the following you can decide for yourself if Ready was a “Professor” or a “professor.”

As stated above, the year was 1886. During those times, folks were rather educated in terms of understanding the world around them yet they still clung to some of what we might consider fantastic beliefs. The matter of sea serpents fell into that gray area, somewhere between science and myth.

While walking along the shore at Herring Cove beach, Ready noticed a commotion of foam in the water offshore. Something extraordinary was happening. Alarmed, he hid behind a nearby bush and watched as the turbulence revealed its source. A huge serpent emerged from the sea and came ashore. Ready claimed the beast he saw was 300 feet long and 12 feet wide, with blue, red, and green scales covering its body. It had a large head which held six eyes – three red and three green – the size of dinner plates. Ready said the creature had two-foot long teeth, an eight-foot horn atop its head, and a 20-foot tail.

Further, the “Professor” claimed that an odor of sulfur came from the serpent, which produced some internal heat, setting bushes ablaze. The beast lumbered along to Pasture Pond, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile to a mile from the beach, where it disappeared, presumably down an unknown chasm in the pond where it hid out of sight.

In terms of explaining the creature’s sudden appearance, someone suggested that perhaps the beast had been nudged from its underwater lair by some recent earthquakes, causing it to come ashore to find safer lodgings. To further punctuate the story’s validity, according to A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod and Cape Cod Pilot, Ready signed an affidavit which recounted the story and stated that during the episode he was “not unduly excited by liquor.”

"...and to all a good night!"

Jack Sheedy is co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.