I’m sitting at the stern of the charter boat Thunderfish owned by undersea explorer Captain Bill Palmer, looking at the shore of Watch Hill less than three miles away. The sun is shining and the sea is calm. You can clearly see people on the beach enjoying the beautiful warm day. It’s hard to envision that here; a little over a hundred years ago, Rhode Island’s worst maritime disaster took place.
Imagine what the scene must have been like – you’re on a large steamship, the luxurious main salon filled with happy people chatting over cocktails, the warm atmosphere makes you sleepy and you retire to your cabin. You undress and put on your night clothes, ready for bed. You can hear the wind roaring outside on the deck and you think how cozy the cabin is. Suddenly the cabin vibrates, you hear a deep roaring sound and the cabin goes dark.
You fumble for your spectacles and bathrobe in the dark. Now you can smell something burning and the cabin starts to list. Pushing down panic, you find the latch to the door and stumble out into the hallway that is filled with other passengers. No one knows what is happening as the hallway fills with smoke.
The sounds of shouts and screams fill your ears. You struggle to the exit and emerge into the stormy night, blasted by icy spray driven by a 50-mile-per hour wind. The air temperature is 3 degrees below zero and the wind chill is 30 below. You suddenly realize that you’re probably not going to make it. The cost for a passage to New York that day was one dollar. That night, one dollar bought you a one-way ticket to hell!
It was the night of February 11, 1907, when the wooden paddlewheel steamship Larchmont on the New York/Providence run, and the lumber Schooner, the Harry P. Knowlton collided. The Knowlton had been icebound in the Hudson River and when the ice freed her she put up all sails to make up for lost time.
At 10:55 p.m. that stormy night, approximately 3 miles south of Watch Hill, Rhode Island she struck the Larchmont.
The Larchmont was 252 feet long, had a beam of 37 feet, drew 14 feet of water and had a gross tonnage of 1,606 tons. The Harry Knowlton displaced 317 tons and was 128 feet long, about half the length of the Larchmont and carried a cargo of 400 tons of coal.
Some people have said the Larchmont could have been a cursed ship. She was originally named the Cumberland and there is an old saying – it is bad luck to change the name of a ship – this was certainly true in her case. She was built for the International Steamship Company in 1885 and she ran between Boston and Nova Scotia for many years without incident. In 1902 she was sold to the Joy Line and renamed the Larchmont.
The newly named Larchmont had a run of bad luck from the very first. On October 4, 1902, five days after her maiden voyage, a pile of mattresses caught fire in the men’s cabin. The fire was quickly brought under control. On January 24, 1904, she ran aground off Prudence Island near Bristol, Rhode Island. This performance was repeated again off Warwick Light in Narragansett Bay inside of two weeks.
Eight months later, on October 11, she collided with the lumber schooner DJ Mountson off Stamford, Connecticut. Then on February 19, 1905 25-year-old John Harta, a Providence engineer, was asleep in his stateroom when he was shot through the head and robbed. His murderer was never caught. Fire broke out again on January 11, 1906 caused by a defective electrical connection. It was quickly brought under control.
On her last voyage to New York the Larchmont was under the command of Captain George M’Vay. He was only 27-years-old and the youngest captain in the fleet. The ship left Providence and steamed down the East Passage and by 9:30 that night she was off Point Judith, Rhode Island where she then turned to the west.
The wind, which had been picking up since she’d left Providence, increased to a violent 50-mile per hour gale. The Larchmont proceeded into Block Island Sound with salt spray from towering waves lashing the ship. Everything on deck was covered with a layer of ice.
In the salon groups of friends gathered to chat, drink and eat. Captain M’Vay, having finished his rounds, returned to the wheel house. He commented briefly on the foul weather to Larchmont’s first pilot John Anson. Leaving Anson in command Captain M’Vay went to his cabin and took off his coat and vest. He began to sign some papers when Anson suddenly yanked the Larchmont’s whistle cord four blasts. For a split second M’Vay was uncomprehending and then he realized it was the danger signal!
Out of the darkness, Anson had seen the lights of the Harry Knowlton. She was commanded by Captain Frank P. Haley, a 60-year-old hardened veteran of 46 years in the coasters. Aboard the Knowlton, the mate at the wheel yelled to Captain Haley who was below in his cabin, he immediately came on deck. Not more than 400 yards away the port light of the Larchmont was visible. The two ships were heading directly for each other.
The mate turned to the skipper and yelled into the teeth of the storm, “He ain’t going to clear us, Captain.” Haley didn’t reply. The Knowlton, under sail, had the right of way. “Keep on course”, Haley ordered and swore under his breath “those steamers”. “Aye, aye, Sir” responded the mate as he gripped the wheel even tighter.
On the Larchmont, Anson must have realized the ship was in imminent danger. He had just released the whistle when he yelled at the quarter master, “for god’s sake, Staples, port the wheel! Port the wheel!” Quarter master Staples shoved the wheel over as far as she would go and hung on and prayed.
Anson’s command whether done out of fright or ignorance, or both, was the worst possible one he could have given. It drove the Larchmont to starboard, directly into the path of the on-rushing Knowlton. By then M’Vay had reached the pilot house but it was too late. “My God, John Anson,” he groaned, “What have you done?”
Hoping to save people trapped on the other side he gave the order to lower his boat. The gale force winds quickly drove his boat away from the ship removing any chance of a rescue. The Larchmont sank in less than 10 minutes. In the subsequent hearing Captain M’Vay had to defend himself against charges of cowardice for leaving the ship. He insisted that he did everything he could to save the lives of his passengers.
Aboard the Knowlton the crew took to her lifeboat. They tied a line to the stern of the schooner and then signaled the Larchmont for assistance but the steamship had already sunk. They eventually made it to shore at Charlestown, Rhode Island suffering from frostbite and hypothermia.
In the early morning hours of February 12, lifeboat #6 from the Larchmont containing Fred Helgessel and six dead companions ran aground and turned over on Block Island. Young Helgessel staggered ashore. He made his way up to the North Lighthouse to summon help. Upon learning of the disaster many Block Island fisherman put to sea in search of survivors.
The fishing boat Elsie spotted the floating wreckage of the hurricane deck with 15 people clinging to it but only eight people were still alive. The cold was so intense that a man in one of the Larchmont’s lifeboats went insane and slit his own throat to end his agony. For days the frozen bodies from the Larchmont came ashore at Block Island. They were stacked like cord wood, loaded aboard wagons, and taken to where they were finally shipped home. There were only a total of 19 survivors including the captain, the purser and the quartermaster.
For weeks the newspapers carried accounts of the sinking and of the subsequent trial. Both captains survived and would blame one another for the tragedy. After the investigation, the pilot Anson, who went down with the ship, was blamed for steering the Larchmont in the wrong direction when approaching the schooner. The purser, Oscar Young, claimed the passenger manifest was aboard the Larchmont, therefore he did not know the exact number of people on board but on his deathbed he said that there were at least 150 people on board that night of terror.
It has been over 100 years since the sinking of the Larchmont, one of the worst maritime disasters in US history. Many questions still remain about the cause of the wreck, was it Captain M’Vay’s inexperience? A raging gale was blowing that night, visibility was poor and the ship was in congested waters. It seems a strange time for the captain of a ship to retire to his cabin leaving the pilot in charge.
Or did the pilot John Anson panic when he gave that fateful order to the helmsman at the last minute? Captain Haley had the right of way but was his decision to carry on in spite of the danger the right one?
The mystery of what happened that terrible night will probably forever remain unsolved.