Nantucket’s Life-Saving History

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, This Week in History, Traditions
on November 30, 2003

The story of Nantucket, a Massachusetts whaling port in the early 1800s and a crossroads for ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean or traversing the Atlantic coast, is the story of the sea. Sea stories mean shipwrecks, and more than 700 are documented off the island, whose shoals, 40-foot waves, and violent storms inspired the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

“America used to travel by sea, playing a game almost of Russian roulette, with no weather forecasting or radio,” says Maurice Gibbs, 69, a retired U.S. Navy meteorologist. “Literally thousands of ships passed Nantucket every month.”

Shipwrecks mean rescue, and rescue runs in Gibbs’ blood. He’s president of the Nantucket Life-Saving Museum, the grandson of a rescuer, and the son of a policeman.

Seafarers have always looked after their own, Gibbs says, and Nantucket’s first lifesavers were local boatmen willing to risk their own lives to save others. Since that often meant pushing off from shore in raging weather and wild surf, they soon came to be called “surfmen.”

Others participated in the Massachusetts Humane Society, formed in 1785 in Boston to aid shipwreck victims. Since some victims made it to shore on their own, yet died of exposure, the Humane Society built huts along the coast dubbed “Humane Houses.” Nantucket’s citizens helped build such houses on their island, equipping them with firewood, kindling, lanterns, blankets, and furniture.

When the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a federal agency, formed in 1871 and turned rescue into a modestly-paid job, “the Humane Society was the real model for the government to copy as it was the best-organized,” Gibbs says. The service built 279 life-saving stations nationwide, staffed with men who patrolled beaches nightly in the winter months. In 1915, it evolved into the U.S. Coast Guard by merging with the Revenue Cutter Service.

It’s that tradition—from volunteer to professional—that the Nantucket Museum preserves and honors, with emphasis on Nantucket’s history and on such moments as one of the island’s greatest rescues.

When the H.P. Kirkham, an English schooner, shipwrecked 15 miles off Nantucket in January 1892, its crew of seven wrapped themselves in its sails as the ship drifted 15 hours in snow, sleet, and 16-degree weather.

A lighthouse keeper saw what looked like flares from the ship—the crew was burning mattresses—and called the life-saving station keeper, Walter Chase, who telegraphed for a tugboat to meet him a few miles from the wreck.

But the tug didn’t show, Gibbs says, so the surfmen rowed out to the sinking Kirkham and threw a weighted rope so the crew could pull the lifeboat toward them. “But they were so far gone they were panicking and pulled too quickly. A painting in our museum shows Chase asking a crewman to hold a knife and cut the line if necessary. He had to save his own crew and didn’t want to commit suicide.” In the end, one of the rescuers was lost, but all aboard the Kirkham were saved.

The Life-Saving Museum, founded in 1967, is housed in a replica of a Nantucket life-saving station, a few miles outside the town. Its first curator was the late Edouard Stackpole, president of the Nantucket Historical Society for many years, editor of Nantucket’s Inquirer & Mirror newspaper, and author of Life Saving Nantucket. Many exhibits are from the collection of the late Robert Caldwell, a museum co-founder and ex-Coast Guarder, and include one of the last four Humane Society surfboats—designed in 1807 by Nantucket boat builder Henry Raymond.

Bob Mooney, a museum co-founder, recalls how 226 Irish immigrants sailing to New York, shipwrecked off Nantucket in 1851, were saved by volunteers. “It was a terrible crossing, supposed to take four to five weeks but taking three months. When David Patterson got there with two schooners, he was told no cargo, only penniless Irish, were aboard. ‘Captain, we get nothing for saving lives but we will rescue your passengers,’ he said.”

Villagers fed and sheltered the immigrants until Christmas Day, when they resumed their journey by steamboat. All left except for newlyweds Robert and Julia Mooney, who stayed behind.

“From that day forward they refused to take another ship,” Mooney says, “and spent the rest of their lives in Nantucket, settling down as tenant farmers. They had eight children. “He was my great-grandfather,” Mooney quietly adds.