Hard Times

The air is crisp. The nights are cool. Autumnal constellations sparkle above in anticipation of the approaching fall season. So toss another log into the hearth and pour yourself a couple of fingers' worth of J&B. It's time for another installment in my series of Cape Cod stories that didn't make it into our latest book, Cape Cod Harvest.

The following article was originally to appear in a chapter entitled, "Hardship on the Oceans," but I had written about Dennis seafarers in our previous book, Cape Cod Voyage, so it was cut for space. Being a resident of Dennis for most of my life, I'm partial to the 400 or so master mariners who hailed from these five villages (though Sturgis of Barnstable, and Richardson of Centerville, and Nye of Sandwich, and Eldridge of Yarmouth weren't too bad either!).

By the way, those interested in hearing more Cape Cod tales (that actually made it into our book!) are invited to stop by the Dennis Public Library on Tuesday, September 25 at 1:00, at which time Jim Coogan and I will share stories from our book and will also talk a little on how we went about publishing Cape Cod Harvest.

Until then...


Hard Times for Dennis Seafarers

Seafaring was a dangerous way to earn a living as any number of obstacles stood between a Cape Cod mariner and his safe passage back home. During one gale in October 1841, 57 Truro men and more than 20 Dennis men were lost. Cemetery stones from across the Cape display the drama of the sea with chiseled words calling out across the centuries in telltale fashion - "Lost at Sea."

There is such a monument in the South Dennis Congregational Church cemetery that speaks of events that we landlubbers of the 21st century can scarcely imagine. The words upon the obelisk-shaped stone recall a pair of tragedies that visited one particular Dennis family over the course of one year. The stone reads: "This monument is erected to the memory of Jonathan Nickerson, Jr., Master, and John S. Nickerson, First Officer, of the schooner Sarah Adams, bound from Baltimore to Loche {sic} Foyle, and shipwrecked on the coast of Ireland and all on board lost in April 1847." (Lough Foyle is an inlet near Londonderry, Northern Ireland.) The story that unfolds upon the standing stone, with a little understanding of 19th century Irish history, tells that 40-year old Jonathan and 28-year old John shared their final voyage together in an attempt to delivery much needed food to the starving Irish people during the famine that inflicted that country.

Yet, the stone contains further woe for the Nickerson family with the words: "Also to the memory of Scotto B. Nickerson, Master, and Job Chase, 2nd, First Officer, of schooner Abner Hall, bound from Providence to Philadelphia and shipwrecked and all on board lost about thirty miles south of Montaug {sic} Point on the 16th of Dec 1847." (Montauk Point is located at the eastern tip of Long Island, New York.) Further explanation is provided with the chiseled text: "Jonathan, Scotto B. and John S were sons and Job Chase 2nd grandson of Jonathan Nickerson, Esq. and Hatty, his wife." In one terrible year, three sons and a grandson were lost beneath the waves.

Captain Walter Chadwick Hall is another 19th century Dennis seafarer who suffered terrible hardship at sea. Hall first went to sea at the age of 12 on a fishing boat to the Grand Banks, and later sailed the oceans of the world to become a mate by age 19. He eventually became master of the vessels Moonlight, Jessie Rhynas, Norah, and, finally, the D. Chapin, which in December 1886 was just north of Bermuda when a storm struck. Rough seas disabled the vessel and as her cargo of salt shifted she began to list. Captain Hall ordered his crew of nine into the lifeboat, escaping the D. Chapin just as she came apart.

The men now found themselves alone in an open boat upon the wide ocean. For nearly a week they drifted without food and water, edging hour by hour closer to their deaths. In his delirium Captain Hall begged repeatedly for a drink and attempted to drink seawater. He eventually perished, as did two of his crew. On New Year's Day rain arrived, thus sustaining the seven remaining crewmen until their rescue in the form of the vessel Louisa C. Rabal, out of Boston. Captain Hall left behind a wife and daughter.

West Dennis had a seafarer in the form of Edward E. Crowell, born in December 1823. He set his sights on the sea at an early age and by his mid-teens was sailing the oceans, learning quickly, and making his way up through the ranks. By age 20, he became first mate on the Francis Hallett. On one voyage from the Caribbean to New York with a cargo of coffee, the mettle of young Mate Crowell would be severely tested.

While off the coast of Haiti, the Hallett's Captain Orin Lewis fell ill with yellow fever. This deadly sickness, caused by a virus carried by mosquitoes, was contagious and very soon the captain was dead and members of the crew were becoming ill as well. Though ill himself, young Edward Crowell took command of the vessel as news spread throughout the region of the vessel's predicament. With a sick crew and an untested captain at the helm, the ship was ripe for either a wreck or an attack from pirates.

Crowell successfully navigated his vessel through the maze of islands and up the East Coast, arriving at New York. He was praised for his seamanship under adverse conditions in safely delivering the ship and her cargo to her destination. Once recovered, Crowell was awarded a number of commands and went on to lead a long and successful seafaring career. Eventually retiring from the sea, he lived into his eighties -- his bout with yellow fever a distant memory.

Jack Sheedy

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