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

Wreckers from the Coast Wrecking Company were at sea speeding along the coast to Bridgehampton. In business since the 1840's, the Coast Wrecking Company had often been called upon by the insurance companies in maritime emergencies. Early salvagers, having little sophisticated equipment, relied almost completely on their own experience and seamanship. In a profession considered too dangerous for insurance either on the wrecking vessels or the men, the salvagers risked their vessels, equipment. and pay on the success of their efforts. These men heading out to Bridgehampton were men of experience. Surprisingly, they were also already familiar with the Circassian herself. Captain Edward Perry, supervisor of the overall operation, had gotten the ship off at Manasquan. Captain John Lewis, who would be in complete charge of the ship itself and all work on board, had already gotten her off at Sable Island.

On Wednesday, December 13, the Coast Wrecking Company vessels reached the Circassian and began work. She seemed in good condition and in a stable position broadside to the beach with her bow heading east-northeast. After thorough inspection by company engineers. the wreckers concluded that the ship was just on the inside edge of the bar in about twenty feet of water, definitely down in the sand. Inside, the ship was filled with water from the storm, but seemed structurally sound and not bilged; she was taking in no new water. As steam pumps started pumping her dry, a plan of salvage was made.

Usually ships grounded most easily pulled off stern ... however, had gone completely lay parallel to the shore: with posed to the open sea, she was exceptionall vulnerable to the force of the head on and were first. The Circassian. Over the bar and a whole side exexceptionally vulnerable to the force of the waves or a storm. She would have to be pulled around and angled with the bow out to sea as soon as possible and would have to be hauled over the bar bow first.

A pair of huge anchors on which hawsers would be run off the ship's bow seaward. On shipboard, the hawsers would be wound round the capstan to keep a constant strain on the anchors. When heavy swells or a high tide provided water under the ship, muscle power on the capstan bars, assisted by mechanical power of a small steam engine, would take up the slack and pull the ship against the anchors. If the hawsers did not snap or the anchors drag, the ship could gradually be inched seaward.

She could be turned in this manner, but being so large and heavy, she would not clear the bar. Part of her cargo would have to be unloaded for greater buoyancy and mobility. They would need manpower and lighters, the specialized schooners to unload and transport cargo, sent out from New York. When the ship was emptied, a hawser would be run from the ship to a wrecking tug. On a high tide, such as the spring tide due in two weeks with the full moon, the tug could pull the ship over the bar. The Cyclops, a wooden side-wheel steamer, was the company's most powerful tug; if anything could move the ship, the Cyclops would. The aim of the wreckers was to get the Circassian free of the bar and out to deeper water as soon as possible. As long as she was so near shore, even turned seaward, danger existed. If the weather held, though, they would get her off.

Captain Perry was to stay with the crew of the tug and schooner. Captain Lewis and four wrecking engineers would stay full-time on board the Circassian. In addition, Lewis required a regular crew to help him on board and a working crew to help with removal of cargo. Captain Williams and the remnant of his men would assist on shipboard, but more hands were needed.

Lewis would inquire on shore to see who was qualified and available. The men who were to stay on the ship needed to be physically strong, have some knowledge of wrecking, and be capable seamen. The company brought some men for work crews with them, and extra hands for this cargo gang could be hired as needed. There were always men in coastal communities willing to work as crewmen or laborers in salvage operations. In addition to these men, Lewis needed a surtman to ferry men and supplies from shore to the ship and back. Someone on shore would fill that job too.

By December 14, the Coast Wrecking Company was in charge of the ship. Lewis hired Luther D. Burnett as his ferryman. Burnett was reputed to be the best and most experienced surfman available in the area. He would remain on hand to run his boat from shore to ship, as needed, all through the salvage operations.

Next, following local recommendations, Lewis sent to the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, a small settlement about seven miles from the scene of the stranded ship, to recruit the men he needed to fill his regular crew. The Shinnecock were tall men, vigorous and strong. They knew the sea well, nearly all having been fishermen or whalers, and as whalers they had a reputation of being unsurpassed by any. Over the years they had also volunteered for many maritime emergencies along this shore; they were experienced. Lewis could ask for none better.

From ancient times the Shinnecock were involved with the sea, and it was they who introduced the first white settlers to offshore whaling. In the 1830's when Sag Harbor became one of the country's leading deep-sea whaling ports, the Shinnecock took an important place in those crews also. Though Sag Harbor had had no whaling for the past five years, whaling in New Bedford was still a thriving business and many Shinnecock shipped from there, becoming as well respected for their prowess in Massachusetts as they had on Long Island. By 1876, though, whaling, always a dangerous undertaking, was becoming even more of a risk. Ships were leaving the depleted waters of the Pacific and seeking their prey in the frigid waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. Excluding actual military combat, whaling was probably the most hazardous occupation a man could choose to enter.

In December, as the Circassian lay stranded on the Bridgehampton bar, word had just arrived at the Reservation that a New Bedford ship was looking for whalers. A few had already chosen to go, but other Shinnecock men. glad to have a chance to earn money while staying safely near home, decided to accept work on the stranded vessel. When these men left for Bridgehampton to answer Lewis's offer, only women, children, and old men remained behind on the Reservation. The Shinnecock were not the only local men to respond to the call of the wreckers; James Thurston, a resident of Southampton, also went to the stranded ship seeking work.

By Friday, December 15, salvage work on the grounded Circassian had begun. and the decks and hold of the ship were busy with salvage activity. Steam pumps had pumped out half her hold and only four feet of water remained. Anchors ran off her bow to start turning her seaward; cargo removal had already begun. Engineers, wrecking crew, and cargo crew were all on board tending to every necessary task to free the stranded vessel. The ship, still taking in no new water, proved to be undamaged either by her accidental trip to shore or the buffeting she had taken on the bar once more. Hopes were high she would be saved.

Men, women, and children still came from near and far to see this large ship which had come ashore at Bridgehampton. Nevertheless, at the foot of the present Ocean Road life at the Mecox station went on much as usual. On December 16, the lifeboat and gear were taken from the beach and carefully stored away. The hawser and hauling lines, though, still remained attached to the ship and securely anchored on shore. As work on the Circassian proceeded, another cargo schooner arrived and anchored just east of the station house.

The weather had stayed threatening, with high tides and a heavy surf, since the ship came ashore. On December 16, the ship rode through yet another storm, again without incident, but the continuing bad weather delayed lightening operations and the cargo gang and lighters could not work full time. Aided by the storm swells, efforts to turn the ship seaward were more successful. During the first week of salvage, the ship had moved about a hundred yards on the bar. Her bow, now resting on the bar itself, faced the open sea. Two large bow anchors and several smaller stern anchors kept her safely pointed southeast, at an angle to the bar and shore, her position more secure.

Despite warnings, Captain Lewis ordered the hauling lines and hawser removed from the masthead of the ship. Lewis, in charge on board and having much salvage experience, believed the lines would needlessly interfere with the task of moving the ship across the bar; with the ship no longer broadside to the shore, the vessel was out of danger and the lines were unnecessary. Captain Henry E. Huntting, superintendent of the entire Life Saving district, was present on the beach when the stranded ship's crew were rescued, and was later on the beach many times checking on the ship and salvage operations. He was well aware of the ship's condition and progress, and he disagreed.

Work progressed without mishap. On Tuesday, December 19, eight days after the grounding, the first full cargo schooner arrived in New York. By Sunday, December 24, the Circassian was in position to be hauled across the bar.

Cargo removal, delayed by the weather, continued as two more schooners arrived in New York. By Thursday. December 28, almost 400 tons of cargo, about one third of her load, had been removed from the ship's hold. The Circassian, resting with her bow on the bar and her stern floating inside the bar, had been pumped dry. Last minute lightening efforts would be made the next day and the remaining cargo shifted for better balance.

Captain Lewis, anxious to see the job completed, had had valuable equipment and many men tied up for over two weeks during the company's busiest season. The ship's remaining cargo was already overdue in New York, and the vessel was not yet completely out of danger. The next day, on the 6 P.M. tide, he was determined the Cyclops would haul the Circassian over the bar. She would take to sea under her own sail, continuing the voyage to New York.