One hundred and forty-six years ago this month, a steamship sunk off the coast of Watch Hill, RI. It made the headlines of newspapers around the world.
About 5 a.m. on Aug. 30, 1872, the Metis, on an overnight journey from New York City to Providence, R.I. in high seas, was in a collision with the Nettie Cushing, a schooner out of Thomaston, Maine.
Initially, thinking there was no damage to the steamship, the captain searched for the schooner for about 20 minutes before realizing that his own ship was taking on water.
According to Page 1 of the Aug. 31, 1872 issue of The Hartford Courant, it was an appalling disaster. With many of the passengers on the upper hurricane deck, the ship steered for shore, but about 4 miles out, the hull plunged to the bottom, leaving the hurricane deck drifting in the ocean.
In rolling waves and strong winds, it was about an hour before the floating deck and its clinging passengers, most dressed in their night clothes, approached the crashing breakers of East Beach in Watch Hill.
The residents and visitors of Watch Hill, numbering about 150, woke to the sight of the deck and a couple of lifeboats approaching land and gathered on the beach waiting to help the passengers when they reached shore.
But when the deck touched the shore it immediately broke apart in the surf which was rolling mountain-high. The lifeboats were capsized and passengers were tossed about by the waves.
A group of young men visiting from Hartford, rushed into the surf with ropes about their waists and rescued many of the nearly drowned. They were later awarded with Medals of Honor for their heroic actions.
Forty-two additional survivors were rescued in the next six hours by the Revenue Cutter Moccasin, some as far away as Block Island. Many were plucked from the water floating on mattresses and bales of cotton, cargo from the Metis. The Mocassin also recovered 18 casualties.
The schooner A.H. Beldon pulled in to Newport, R.I., with two additional drowning victims of the sinking.
Back in Watch Hill, many of the passengers on the deck could not swim and perished in the breakers. Their bodies washed ashore in the strong waves.
Among the recovered bodies aboard the Moccasin, was a woman thought to be the wife of G.W. Howard, married just two days before in New York. They were on their honeymoon. Identified by the initials N.A. on the ring she wore, her body was sent by train to their hometown of Sharon Springs, N.Y., where funeral services were to be held.
Upon arrival in New York it was discovered that the Metis victim aboard the train was not the wife of G.W Howard. One of the two Newport victims was later identified as the real Mrs. Howard. Both women wore rings with the initials N.A.
The following are Special Dispatches that were published by The Hartford Courant, in the days and years following the wreck. From the Hartford Courant Sept. 3, 1872.
An Account of the sinking
by Wm E Sheridan, of the Globe Theatre, Boston
Wm E Sheridan, whose wife was among the missing and presumed dead, stated “I rushed out, to find the steamer sinking; I hurried my wife into a lifeboat; there were too many of us in the boat; we proceeded nearly to land, when a rough sea caused the boat to tip over; all were thrown into the water. It was a terrible moment; there were few of us who could swim. Only eight or ten succeeded in laying hold of the boat. My poor wife was not among them.”
Sheridan here became much affected; his face was buried in his hands. In a moment he resumed, with broken voice. “I have no physical trouble; my grief is elsewhere. I have telegraphed to Providence to learn if my poor girl is among those taken there by the cutter.”
“Our boat capsized close by the shore, and it was a sad sight to us when we had gained our lives to struggles of those unable to withstand the terrible undertow. They were drowned in our sight. Their upturned faces and sparking looks will haunt me to my dying day.
Sheridan also said, “Among the pathetic incidents of the disaster, I remember the death of two children. All evening they played about the saloon, prattling gayly with the passengers, seemingly wrapt up in each other. When bedtime came, one of them said: “Tiss me, Mamma; tiss me for I am going to sleep.” And I saw them no more alive. This morning their bodies washed ashore on the beach, clasped in each other’s arms. They were beautiful as in life; their countenances bore a placid smile, as if their death was painless.”
A follow-up article appeared in the Hartford Courant on Aug. 29, 1915.
Wreck of the METIS at Watch Hill
by Lois Willoughby
In the lobby of the Colonial hangs a cross-shaped segment of the steering wheel of theMetis. In the office of H. E. Burdick, one of the rescuers, is the quartermaster’s stool from the pilot house. And over in the Larkin cottage by the bathing beach is an icebox, still in service, on which one lucky traveler rode in to shore in safety.
Lewis Stanton recalled the rescue:
A crowd gathered on East Beach and waited for the hurricane deck to land. For an hour they watched it, dashed nearer and nearer by the tremendous surf. At times it was thrown up as high as sixty feet to crash down, and then up again – over and over the same wild experience. As the life saving boats fought their way toward the floating wreck, it struck the beach and turned completely over. With the smokestack as a lever, the big timbers snapped like kindling and the crashed wreck went back again with the surf into the sea.
There was no official manifest or headcount for the number of passengers and crew, which was thought to be about 150. Based on the number of survivors, the Metis fatalities are estimated to be about 70, with only 22 victims identified. Approximately 48 others are thought to have perished aboard the ship as it sunk.
The twin girls were identified as the Girard Twins but no record of their birth has been found so their first names have been lost to history. Their father, Frederick, was a Blacksmith living in Providence in 1877. Their mother, Mrs Girard, initially thought to have perished, was listed as a survivor a few days after the wreck occurred.
The wreck of the Metis is located a few miles off the coast of Watch Hill, and was discovered by Scuba Shack’s former owners, Tom Misenti and Bill Roe in 1981. It sits upright in about 140 feet of water. Over time, Tom, Bill, current Scuba Shack Divemaster Dave Lockrow and a few others salvaged several items – brass portholes, brass knobs, coins and one of two safes.
In 1994 Tom and Bill raised the anchor belonging to the Metis from the ocean floor.
Maybe you have seen it? The anchor has been on display at Scuba Shack for more than 25 years.