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"We Had to Jump for Our Lives"

By Joan Russell Osgood

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U.S. Coast Guard Station at Cape Cod Canal 1938

(Courtesy of Chester A. Rich, Sandwich)

There have been many frightening shipwrecks and disasters with loss of life along our Cape coastline. In this story I’m focusing on one in particular that caught my interest. I suppose that’s because it occurred at the east end of the Cape Cod Canal – the Sandwich end.  And also, I recognized the names of two men who were involved in this incident.

The year is 1938. Americans have been riveted for months to graphic national and worldwide news reports. Frightening accounts of Nazi Germany’s offensive in Europe; a natural gas leak explosion killing over 300 children and teachers in London, Texas; the loss of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s aircraft; the German airship Hindenburg bursting into flames in Lakehurst, New Jersey killing 35 of its passengers and crew. 


How were these events received by my family and other families across our town? Well, as I think about their reactions, I imagine they were horrified. I can see them waiting for their newspaper delivery – or perhaps running to Pratt’s Drug Store on Jarves Street to buy a local paper – the Cape Cod Standard Times as it was known then. And of course turning on their radios. These unsettling events were certainly discussed as they gathered at the post office and shopped in our local markets. But, in reading our local newspapers back then, which I love to do, I found not much doing in our little town itself. Things were very quiet. 

That is until the night of January 27, 1938. It was a clear, chilly evening with hardly any wind. At 6:30pm our townsfolk heard a loud noise that echoed throughout the downtown village. And while the cause of the sound was not known, the location was apparent to the villagers. Some rushed from their homes down to the Cape Cod Canal. What had happened?


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Aerial photo of Cape Cod Canal taken by Ben Harrison in 1960. Sandwich village is in the left foreground.  

("Shipwrecks Around Cape Cod" by William P. Quinn)

The tugboat Plymouth had been towing a barge carrying coal and heading east through the canal to Boston. 

The collier Everett was heading west in the opposite direction, having just entered the east end of the canal. Darkness had set in but visibility was good. In testimony given at the inquest months later, it was apparent that there was a mix-up in signals as they approached each other.

The 382-foot Everett, with its sharp steel prow, rammed the Plymouth. The tugboat, with sixteen men on board, was practically cut in two.  It sank in less than three minutes. Three minutes! The crew had only time to cut the barge free. “She [the Everett] rammed us amidships,” Joseph Goodwin, Captain of the Plymouth, was quoted in the Boston Globe. “I thought most of the crew were gone.” Because the impact of the crash broke the steam pipes of the Plymouth, Goodwin was unable to see any of his men through the dense clouds of steam. The tug sank in 35 feet of water. It sank so quickly the crew was not able to get to the lifeboat on board. “We had to jump for our lives,” Goodwin said. Only a few of the crew were able to put on life jackets.

Tugboat Plymouth Capt. James A. Goodwin

(Boston Globe)

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Sunken tug Plymouth 1938 - Only foremast and smokestack are visible.

Note the old freezer plant in background – the Fisherman’s View 

Restaurant now sits on that lot.  

("Shipwrecks Around Cape Cod" by William P. Quinn)

Rescued tugboat Plymouth crew member at Sandwich Coast Guard Station (Boston Globe)

What about the loud noise the villagers heard?


Two Sandwich men, Benjamin S. Harrison (1900 – 1988) and Ralph C. Rich (1896-1963) knew exactly what that noise was. Both were assigned to the Cape Cod Canal Coast Guard Station. Ben Harrison, a native of Sandwich, was a Boatman in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stationed in the east end Control Station. Ralph Rich, a native of Wellfleet and resident of Sandwich, was Commanding Officer of the Sandwich Coast Guard Station. They knew it was a collision in the Cape Cod Canal. In fact, the collision occurred a few thousand feet inside the east entrance of the canal.

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U.S. Engineers Boatman Benjamin S. Harrison

(Courtesy of Carl Harrison, Sagamore)

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U.S. Coast Guard Commander Ralph C. Rich

(Courtesy of Chester A. Rich, Sandwich)

Ben Harrison jumped into the Corp of Engineers 35-foot power boat and started toward the area of the collision. On the way he picked up a deckhand from a small boat in the area. When he arrived at the scene only the tugboat’s foremast and smokestack were visible. Crew members were clinging to these. Others were in the water. All were yelling for help. Harrison and the deckhand were able to come alongside the sunken tug and drag ten men from the water and into their power boat and start back to shore.

At the same time, Commander Ralph Rich had also launched a power boat and took off for the scene. He was alone in this boat but somehow, by himself, was able to maneuver the power boat and pull three men into it who were trying to stay afloat in the frigid canal water.  

That left three men unaccounted for. One was picked up by the Everett and one by an oil tanker in the area. Both were brought back to the Canal Station to recover.

Although, incredibly, fifteen men were saved, one man, Samuel Sprague from Malden, was missing. Sadly, Mr. Sprague was never found.

So ends the harrowing account of the sinking of the Plymouth and the courageous rescue by Rich and Harrison – but it’s not quite the end of my story.  A little more about Benjamin Harrison and Ralph Rich.

In World War II, Harrison served as a pilot flying photographic reconnaissance missions. After his retirement from the Corps in 1963, he became a commercial photographer specializing in aerial views of Cape Cod and the Cape Cod Canal. His reputation as an aerial photographer was well regarded. 

I recently had an enjoyable visit with Harrison’s nephew, Carl Harrison, at his home in Sagamore. He told me that Harrison piloted his own plane while he was taking pictures and had taken off much of the side of his plane so he could lean farther out to get a better shot! In the 1930’s he once flew his two-seat biplane underneath the Sagamore, Bourne and Railroad Bridges! During his photography career he crashed his plane five times but lived to 88 years of age. His photographs will endure long after we’re gone as a testament to what our precious Cape Cod used to be. 

NEW INFORMATION discovered after publication: In 1927 Benjamin Harrison saved a nine-year-old boy from drowning in the canal. He received a medal for his heroism. The clipping is from the May11, 1927 edition of The Sandwich Independent. Harrison's nephew Carl provided photographs of the medal.

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Harrison medal - back_edited.png

Ralph Rich also served in World War II and had an exemplary career in the U.S. Coast Guard.  Early in his career, he became the youngest officer in charge of any Coast Guard station. 

Of all the rescues he and his crew made during his 30 years of service, one stands out. It was highlighted in many news reports. In January of 1937 the flooding of the Ohio River had reached disastrous proportions. President Franklin Roosevelt

directed the United States Coast Guard to mount the largest relief expedition in the history of the service to that date. A crew from Coast Guard stations across New England was quickly formed and dispatched to the area. Ralph Rich was assigned as commander. The first day on the scene, Rich directed his crew to maneuver their surfboats up the raging debris-filled Ohio River to rescue 600 persons marooned on a levee while the angry river threatened to smash their boats against that levee. As commander of this rescue, he received national attention and tributes.  

Commander Ralph Rich (Back Row 4th man from right) with his crew,

U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Cod Canal. 

(Courtesy of Chester A. Rich, Sandwich)

Ralph C. Rich and Benjamin S. Harrison – two exceptional men.

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