The Circassian Story: "We'll Float Tonight or We'll Go to Hell!" cont'd.

The Building Storm
On Friday, December 29, 1876, the first entry for that day in the journal of the Mecox Life Saving Station read: "This day comes in with moderate northerly winds and small sea. Later, at daybreak, skies proved gray, dismal, with a wind changing from northerly to easterly. The temperature was in the mid-twenties. At first the barometer held steady and did not indicate a storm, but the barometer gradually fell and the raw air felt more and more like snow.

To Captain Lewis, on board the Circassian, an approaching storm was a good omen. With a nearly full moon, a storm from the east would bring even higher tides. Once before Captain Lewis had maneuvered this staunch iron ship off a bar. He knew the ship and his twenty years of wrecking experience gave him confidence that today she would ride free.

Since early morning the cargo gang had been at work removing more cargo. The more that could be unloaded, the less the weight - and thus, the draft - of the ship; and the better the chance for freeing and refloating her later. By 9 o'clock Friday morning, the wind was from the southeast with increased velocity and the seas were running higher. Because of large swells, the schooners could barely maintain position alongside the ship to take on more cargo. Soon they were forced to cease work and pull away.

At about 10 o'clock Captain Luther Burnett brought ashore Charles Pierson, the company's local agent; Mr. Estabrook, the Customs officer supervising the unloading; and the remainder of the cargo crew. By then the storm was worse.

Burnett returned to the Circassian to try to get the regular working crew to shore too, or at least to persuade Lewis to have a lifeline run to shore. With this common safety precaution in such a situation, rescue could be accomplished if the storm grew more severe. This aid was refused again as it had been refused previously.

The ship had already ridden through several storms since grounding and ridden through them well. Captain Lewis had originally ordered the line unrigged from the ship so as not to hamper operations on board. Now, on a day when all activity on the ship was geared to freeing the vessel, this reason held doubly true for Lewis. He was taking no chances that, with the lifeline in place, his men might panic at the least threat of danger and desert at a crucial moment - just when he needed all hands most to man the capstan or hoist sail. All the crew, including the Shinnecock men, had been engaged to stay on board, day and night, until the ship reached New York.

Realizing the danger, Burnett urged Lewis to bring the men ashore. "This is your last chance, for no vessel can withstand the coming storm, and my boat will be the last to come out here. Some of the ship's original crew, in particular the apprentice seamen who were hardly more than boys, must have been anxious to be safe on shore. Previously, one Shinnecock, Alfonso Eleazer, a former whaler, actually had left the ship. Now, probably many would have preferred to leave, but Lewis absolutely refused Burnett's entreaty and ordered all crewmen to stay.

The Shinnecock all were familiar with this local shore and the effect of its storms; more than half were veteran whalers out of Sag Harbor or New Bedford. These seamen surely knew the signs and sensed the destructive nature of this coming gale. Now whether because of the rum that was already being passed out to warm the men against the day's bitter cold, or promises of higher wages once they reached New York, or threats "which might be enforced" that they would not be paid and would never again be employed on other salvage operations, they stayed. There are stories handed down from generation to generation which persist to this day, that pistol threats had also been used to encourage the men to stay with the ship. No matter the reason, they stayed.

When Captain Luther Burnett left, it was the last direct communication between the Circassian and the shore. Thirty-two men, isolated in the rising seas and the flurrying snow, were left aboard: Captains Lewis and Williams, four wrecking engineers, ten Shinnecock, one Southampton man, and fifteen other crewmen.

Years later, Charles Bennet, a Southampton Life Saver employed with Luther Burnett, was interviewed by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Captain Bennet, who also urged Lewis to take precautions and send men ashore, recalled vividly Captain Lewis's response, the last words Lewis spoke to him, "We'11 float tonight or we'll go to hell!" By noon, it was too dangerous for any boat to take to the surf and the storm was growing even worse. On board, the men finished preparations for later work that day and went below to warm themselves with another round of rum. The ship had not been greatly disturbed by the storm and many thought the gale would blow over and work would proceed. The winds, still predominantly southeasterly, kept increasing, blowing cold with sleet and wet snow; the seas, growing rougher than anyone had expected, began washing white water across the ship's deck.

By early afternoon Lewis ordered a pair of stern cables slacked to allow the ship to rise with the seas and ride more easily. Within two hours the ship, caught by the force of the wind and waves, had only rolled and thumped and slued around with her stern more to the westward. The ship, now a little more than 300 yards from the beach, lay somewhat closer inshore than she had previously. Still, on board, no immediate danger was anticipated. It was, after all, an iron ship and an iron ship that had ridden through many gales. So far, this was just one more gale.

There was no abatement of the storm, only increase - more wind, higher seas, bitter cold, and thickening snow. At about 4 P.M., as seen from shore, the hawsers leading to the large seaward anchors were also slacked to allow the ship to slip off the bar and into the deeper water inshore. Because of the intensity of the storm, all plans for the scheduled freeing of the ship were abandoned. The wrecking tug and the three company schooners left for open seas. The schooners, one with Captain Perry on board, headed west toward Sandy Hook; the tug headed east to ride out the storm well off Montauk, at sea and safely clear of land. Should conditions worsen, they would all seek harbor.

The iron Circassian was now alone, laboring and pounding on the bar. Some on board felt the stranded vessel could still work herself free during the storm. Some, concerned about the severe gale, hoped the ship would move closer to shore and beach within reach of rescue during the night. Suspiciously, when the main hawsers were slacked, the ship, instead of being forced closer to shore, continued thumping exactly where she sat. She was still at an angle but now more parallel to shore with her bow facing east-southeast, taking much of the force of the waves broadside. Concern was growing on shore for the ship and crew. By nightfall, it was impossible for any surfboat to have reached the vessel. By nightfall, the ship was already in trouble.

The winds blew fiercely, the ship pounded heavier and heavier, waves broke over the decks, and the ship's boats beat against her sides. The steam pumps. which had already been working for several hours to keep ahead of seepage from the seas washing her decks, were performing well. A leak was also discovered in her hull; thinking the pumps had the situation under control, the crew was concerned but not alarmed.

The crew were below at supper when, suddenly, the ship rapidly flooded with water and the galley fires were put out. The men fled from the turmoil below deck to the tumult above where they hastily sought shelter in the deckhouses or climbed the forerigging to avoid being carried overboard. The decks were continually awash, smashing the ship's wooden boars to pieces. Debris hurtled past in the bitter, wintry wind. Everywhere the tossing ocean, the howling wind, and the stinging snow surrounded the men.

In all probability, the ship had already damaged her hull by the time the hawsers were slacked. The steam pumps worked until the inrushing water surpassed what the pumps could handle; when the water level rose and put out the boilers, the pumps stopped. Now as the ship filled even more, she began to lay somewhat more steady. A few men returned to the deck, but at 7 o'clock the Circassian, realizing her peril, sent up a signal of distress.