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.

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