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 Sparrow-Hawk 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 Sparrow-Hawk reappeared briefly. So the ocean takes and gives back and takes again. The ribs of the ship are stored 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 Wydah, 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.

Rescuing Sailors
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 flare 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 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 used a small, cannon-like gun to fire a line out to the sinking ship. The crew on shore and the sailors on the wreck tied off lines, and using a clothes line-type method called the beach apparatus, men from the wreck were pulled in one-by-one in a piece of rescue equipment called the breeches buoy. The buoy was then pulled back out to the ship to haul the next man in.

There were 13 life-saving stations on Cape Cod. Old Harbor Life-Saving Station was built in Chatham in 1898. After it was decommissioned bu the US Coast Guard, it went into private ownership. The federal government purchased it in the early 1970s. By then, it was in a precarious position on an eroding beach. The National Park Service moved it to Race Point Beach in 1977-78. The station has been furnished as it would have been around 1900. Today it serves as a museum, where the stories of wrecks, rescues, and the heroic life-savers are brought to life by volunteers each summer during open houses.

Last updated: April 24, 2020

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