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"A Thrilling Narrative"

Shipwreck on East Sandwich Beach

By June Anderson Murphy

On the morning of Saturday, January 6, 1866, the brig Emma C. set off from Holmes’ Hole—now called Vineyard Haven—carrying sugar and molasses and headed for Boston. As the ship’s captain later related, there was every indication it would be a pleasant voyage.

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But on Sunday morning a severe nor’easter set in. It was snowing and intensely cold and windy. By noon the ship had lost its foresail. The gale continued all night, and on Monday the topsail blew away. They made it past North Truro's Highland Lighthouse that evening, but large waves washed over the ship and tore holes in the ships bulwarks and galley. The ship was dangerously iced up and the crew was already frostbitten. 

vessel’s stern through the wind to change direction, but in the process the jib, mainsail, and main staysail all split and the Emma C. was now totally out of control. They drifted that day and into the night.

 

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LEFT - A 19th century sketch of Highland Light, North Truro, aka Cape Cod Light. 

RIGHT - Gurnet Light (then twin towers, now one), Plymouth, aka Plymouth Light.

By daybreak on Tuesday the crew could see the Gurnet Lights about eight miles off, a pair of twin lighthouses on the northern border of Plymouth Bay. An attempt was made to “wear ship,” which in layman’s terms means they tried to turn the

About one o’clock on Wednesday morning, the Emma C., now off the coast of Sandwich, couldn’t withstand the storm as the rough sea washed completely over the ship. It began breaking apart. At first Captain Trask and the crew tried to take refuge in the cabin, but the water was too much. What happened next was afterwards described this way — 

“The second mate was the first one that left the cabin, and went into the main rigging for the purpose of lashing himself there. But a heavy sea swept him from his position and he was seen no more. The cook jumped overboard and swam to the main mast on which he hoped to drift ashore, but the sea soon washed him off and he was drowned. The first mate, did not succeed in getting out of the cabin, and was probably crushed by some portion of the wreck. The remainder of the party, consisting of the Captain and three of the crew, remained on the poop deck, which shortly became detached, and they were safely floated to the beach, which they all succeeded in reaching in safety, except George Graham, who became benumbed and fell into the surf while attempting to jump from the wreck to the beach [and the undertow swept him back out].”

Freezing and in desperate need of shelter, the surviving three had washed up on East Sandwich Beach. Exhausted, they set off through thick brush and brambles knowing they would freeze to death if they didn’t soon find refuge. Captain Trask fell behind, often crawling on hands and knees.

What they found was the home of Alfred Hall, now 10 Ploughed Neck Road Ext. and the home of the Don and Nancy Fleet family. 

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Road from East Sandwich Beach (photo courtesy of the Fleet family)

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10 Ploughed Neck Rd. Ext., in 1866 home of Alfred Hall,

(early to mid-20th century photo courtesy of the Fleet family)

 

Alfred Hall, a farmer, “gave them dry clothing and did all in his power to render their condition as comfortable as possible.” 

Informed that Captain Trask was missing, Alfred set out to search for him, first heading next door to the home of his cousin, Winslow Hall, to enlist his help. 

As he approached Winslow’s house—now 12 Fleetwood Road and later purchased by Albert Hoxie, whose fifth-generation descendants the Barrettes still live there today—he spotted the captain leaning against it, unconscious and unresponsive. Together, Alfred and Winslow got the captain inside and eventually revived him.

They later learned that the captain had used the last of his strength to crawl up to the dark house and had attempted to rouse those inside, but he wasn’t heard above the howling storm and soon passed out.

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12 Fleetwood Road c. 1940s or ‘50s, in 1866 home of Winslow Hall  (courtesy of the Barrette family)

 

The three fortunate survivors all made full recoveries. They were Captain Charles A. Trask of Gloucester, Mass.; James Philbrook of Rockport, Maine; and Thomas Dunn of Pictou, Nova Scotia. Thursday morning they were already on the train north to Boston. They were given free passage, and a collection of approximately $60 was taken up between Sandwich and Middleboro. “One Sandwich gentleman donated $10 the day before.”

“It was truly a narrow escape from death, and Capt Task, with the two men saved with him, feel very grateful to the Messrs. Hall for the kind and humane treatment received at their houses.”  

The four crew members who died were William Arner, first mate, from the Buffalo, New York, area; John McDonald, second mate, of Newburyport, Mass.; Joseph Artz, the cook, from St. Lucia; and George Graham from western Canada (position not noted).

The Emma C. was not the only ship lost that January as the bad weather plagued the eastern seaboard. At least four other ships also sank between January 9 and 11, from New York to North Carolina, all with loss of life.

Tragically, just two years later, on February 2, 1868, the young Cpt. Trask, who had been a mariner since his teenage years, died at sea at the age of 33.

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An example of a brig (The Collier Brig ‘Mary,’ painting by John Scott 1855)

This story was adapted from articles in the 1866 editions of the “Yarmouth Register” and the “Barnstable Patriot,” originally uncovered as part of research done by the Sandwich Historical Commission in support of a historic home marker.

June Murphy is a member of the Sandwich Historical Commission and the Friends of the Sandwich Town Archives.

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