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

In Distress
On shore, E. Erastus Halsey of Mecox Station watched the ship labor in the gale and worsening seas. Through the heavily falling snow he saw the distress signal from the ship and rushed to inform Captain Baldwin Cook. Luther Burnett, moments thereafter, also appeared at the life saving station with the same dreaded news. Without delay, the station prepared once again for rescue.

A red Coston light was burned on shore in reply to the distress signal, horsemen were immediately dispatched to summon the Georgica and Southampton life saving crews and Superintendent Huntting, and a large driftwood fire was set ablaze in the shelter of the dunes. Within minutes the mortar was hauled out to the beach already flooded by the high tide and stormy surf. By 8 o'clock the mortar was loaded and ready to fire.

Suddenly, the wind veered, now blowing with hurricane force from the southwest, driving a blinding confusion of icy rain and sand directly into the faces of those on shore. The battle of wind and wave created mountainous seas between the shore and bar, and on the beach itself caused complete chaos. Captain Cook and his men were forced from their position.

On the Circassian conditions were deteriorating. Wind whistled through the rigging. The ship's pounding separated nuts from bolts, loosened deck planks, and opened gaps in her upper structure between the fore and main masts. At 8 P.~., when the wind shifted, swells swept the decks from all directions. With the ship pounding herself to pieces, the men were ordered to lash themselves to the rigging. The order came just before the wild seas beat in the iron doors of the deckhouses, sweeping everything away except the fore-house. The ship continued to pound as each tremendous wave lifted her and then dropped her back with a sickening crash.

Alarm was growing on shore. Fighting wind, rain, and surf, the Life Saving crews sought a place to plant their mortar for another desperate attempt to reach the vessel. Their final spot was 50 yards farther back, almost against the dunes and 380 yards from the ship. While setting up their equipment, they heard a sharp crash and nearby cries of "My God, she's breaking in half!" The iron mainmast snapped near the mainstay leaving only a ten-foot stump and taking with it the mizzen topmast. Three men aloft in the rigging also disappeared.

With frantic efforts the life saving men set up their gear, hoping against hope for the shot-line to reach the vessel. Their first rescue, seventeen days earlier, was from many yards nearer, in daylight, with no gale. Despite difficulty getting the mortar fuse to burn, the life savers fired time after time into the darkness towards the vessel. It was impossible to know if any ball actually reached her; visibility was diminished to nearly zero. It is definite, however, that not one line landed securely on the ship. Even if one had, the men in the rigging, stiff with wet and cold, could have been incapable of putting the rescue line to use. The dangerous decks were still awash under huge swells of icy water.

The worst storm in anyone's memory had not abated, and the surf was cresting and breaking into violent white water well beyond where the Circassian lay. Although some city newspapers carried sketches and stories of the life saving men attempting dramatic rescue by surfboat. no local newspapers or official reports confirm this. No lifeboat whatsoever could have been launched into the surf and survived the treacherous seas. Likewise, had any of the ship's boats still been undamaged, it is unlikely they could have been lowered without smashing or capsizing; the maelstrom between ship and dunes would surely have destroyed them. Swimming that distance, whether with or without life preservers - of which there were almost none on board - would have been almost certainly suicidal.

There was nothing to be done but watch and wait. The Circassian men, a mere few hundred yards from shore, were beyond human aid. Still, if the ship's men endured the cold, if the ship stayed together, if the storm dissipated, perhaps at dawn there would be another chance to save them. On the beach that night, besides the Mecox crew and Captain Huntting, were crewmen from Southampton and Georgica stations, agent Charles Pierson, surfmen and wreckers who had taken part in the salvage operation, and quite a number of captains and seamen living in the immediate area. As the horror of the storm continued, over a hundred people kept a lonely vigil.

Gale winds blew just as strong and the seas ran just as heavy, although the pouring rain gradually dwindled to a drizzle. From behind the clouds, the pale rays of an almost full moon lit a gray horizon. As the ship pounded on the bar, her men could be seen in the rigging through the Life Saving Station's field glasses.

About midnight, with the coming of low tide, the ship became more steady and less water flooded the decks. Many of the ship's men, chilled to the bone by their long ordeal in the savage winter storm, climbed down from the rigging to go below to the galley for shelter. Alexander Wilson, the ship's carpenter, nailed up boards to keep out as much water as possible, while Charles Campbell, a wrecking company engineer, and William Keefe, the boatswain, managed to start a fire. If there was any rum to be found, it was likely shared.

Some of the ship's men, conserving their strength and discussing the possibility of saving themselves, stayed in the galley; others returned to the safety of the rigging as the tide started to rise and the swells came higher.

Those on shore saw the flicker of lantern light on the ship, noting by its path that though everything had been completely washed from the decks, the damaged hull appeared intact. Then, at 2 o'clock, those in the galley heard the deck splitting right beneath them. Captain Lewis immediately ordered all to lash themselves to the rigging as the ship was breaking up this time for certain.

Through the glasses, those on shore saw the sea breaking over the ship and saw the men leave the forerigging for the mizzen rigging. The mizzen rigging, near the stern and closest to shore, was considered the safest. When, at intervals, the blowing and billowing clouds broke to let through the light of the moon, the silhouettes of the men in the rigging could be seen by all.

Local newspaper reports emphatically discount stories of there being Shinnecock women on the beach that night, and most likely, there were no women at all out in such a storm.

In the frozen night those on the vessel tried their best to comfort and strengthen each other. Reminiscent of their Indian tradition of a personal death song and revealing their belief in Christianity, the Shinnecock men led the others in hymns and prayer. At times, over the sounds of the surf and wind, the strong voices of the Shinnecock carried to shore strains of 'Nearer My God, To Thee" and 'Jesus, Lover of My Soul." Those on shore, at the limits of their own endurance, must have been overcome with emotion. Their frequent calls of encouragement, shouted into the face of the wind, were carried inland and never reached those on the ship. Helpless, except for offering their own prayers, they watched the bravery of those preparing to accept their fate. The Shinnecock were their neighbors, fellow mariners, and friends.

After 3 o'clock those on shore saw that the hull had broken. The ship had beaten about on the bar until now she lay with her forepart off the bar, and with her stern just scraping bottom. The vessel no longer pounded as it had, and as it still would have, if it had been whole. Minutes later the hull parted completely and the forepart, with the stump of the mainmast attached, slowly drifted away, listing to port. It is believed that too much cargo had been removed from the ship's center, making her too heavy near the ends. This, plus her dangerous position across the bar and the pounding she had taken during the storm, had proven too much for even an iron hull. With the mainmast spars already underwater, the forepart settled, bow down. and gradually sank to the sandy bottom. Though not sinking, the aft part of the ship also settled; the mizzenrnast was standing but starting to list, being still connected to the broken mainmast by the mizzen stay.

From time to time the cries of the men in the rigging could be heard on shore. At about 4 o'clock the ship's after part split down the middle fore and aft. With this the ship's stern listed to port and the mizzen careened closer and closer to the water. The men, still clinging to the rigging, were doused by the icy swells passing them. By then many must have been unconscious or already dead from exposure. Gradually the mizzen, the tips of its spars now under water, dipped lower and lower. The last words of John Lewis were purported to be, "My God. twenty years I have followed wrecking and now must be drowned at last." Shortly after 4:30 A.M., Saturday, December 30, 1876, the iron mast fell shoreward beneath the waves taking all men with it.