An Ocean Graveyard
So many ships have piled up on the hidden sand bars off the coast between Chatham and Provincetown that those fifty miles of sea have been called an "ocean graveyard." Indeed, between Truro and Wellfleet alone, there have been more than 1,000 wrecks.
When a storm struck the Cape in the early days, no one was surprised to hear the alarm: "Ship ashore! All hands perishing!" The townspeople would turn out on the beach, but usually the surf was too high for them to attempt a rescue. And by the time the storm was over, there was usually no one to rescue.
The first recorded wreck was the Sparrowhawk which ran aground at Orleans in 1626. The people aboard were able to get ashore safely, and the ship was repaired. But, before it could set sail, the ship was sunk by another storm and wasn't seen for over two hundred years. In 1863, after storms had shifted the sands again, the skeleton of the Sparrowhawk reappeared briefly. So the ocean takes and gives back and takes again. (The ribs of the ship are now on display in Plymouth at Pilgrim Hall.)
But if the passengers and crew of these early ships couldn't be saved, the cargo often was. After a wreck, townspeople would come out with their carts and horses and haul away the spoils: wine, coffee, nutmeg, cotton, tobacco, and whatever the ship had been carrying. Sometimes owners of the wreck paid the local people to salvage their cargo; often the local people simply went on the theory that finders were keepers. Certainly, this was their theory when the famous pirate, Samuel Bellamy, and his ship, the Widah, went down off Wellfleet in the spring of 1717. Although officially all goods on such a ship belonged to the colony, plunder occurred.
From the Head of the Meadow Beach at North Truro, the wreck of the Frances, which was sunk in a December gale in 1872, may still be seen at low tide. United States Life Saving Service men dragged a whaleboat from the bay across the Cape to the outer beach and rescued all aboard. The captain, who died several days later from the effects of exposure, is buried in Truro.
In the early 1800s, there was an average of two wrecks every month during the winter. The loss of life seemed especially sad when a sailor managed to get ashore on a winter night only to freeze to death after he got there. In 1797, the Massachusetts Humane Society started putting up huts along the most dangerous sections of the Massachusetts coast in the hope that stranded sailors would find them and take shelter. It was not, however, until 1872, that a really efficient lifesaving service was put into operation by the United States government. Stations were erected every five miles on the beach. Six or seven surfmen and a keeper lived in each station and kept a continuous lookout. At night, two men from each station walked the beach on patrol, met at a small half-way shelter between stations, and then returned on their same route.
As soon as a ship in distress was sighted, a red signal was fired from ashore to let the crew at sea know they'd been seen. Then the lifesaving crew went into action. If the sea permitted, they launched their special surfboats--some equipped with air chambers (to help keep them afloat), cork fenders (to keep them from being smashed against the sinking ship), and righting lines (to use in case they capsized). If they could not get out by boat and if the shipwreck was near enough to shore, the lifesaving team stayed on the beach and pulled the sinking crew to shore, one by one, in a basket-like contraption, called a breeches buoy, attached to a rope that was strung high over the water. By the use of a Lyle gun (a small cannon), a double line with pulley was fired to the ship. While the sailors on the ship tied their end of the line to the mast, the lifesaving crew attached the other end to a structure anchored in the sand and then sent the breeches buoy over the rope to the ship. A sailor from the sinking ship would climb into the breeches buoy and be pulled to shore. Then back the breeches-buoy would go for the next rescue.
A demonstration of a breeches buoy drill is given weekly during the summer months by National Seashore Rangers at Race Point in Provincetown.
The Old Harbor Life Saving Station at the east end of Race Point is still standing. Currently, it was restored to its original condition, complete with lifesaving equipment.