The Great Gale of 1879 showed why Nantucket earned the nickname the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The storm, which began on March 31, disabled dozens of vessels in the waters off the island. The townspeople picked bodies off the beach for several days and cared for 40 shipwrecked mariners who were brought ashore.
Thomas Sandsbury earned a silver lifesaving medal and $25 for bringing one of them in. And then the U.S. Treasury gave him a gold medal.
The Great Gale of 1879
The Great Gale made landfall on the evening of March 31. The storm grew more violent though the night. Ferocious winds, dense fog and storm tides that nearly swamped the docks. The sea grew white and the elements raged, according to an Inquirer and Mirror story when it finally ended on April 5.
The U.S. Coast Guard later reported 68 disabled vessels off the coast of Nantucket on April 1. The island sat right on a busy maritime highway along the East Coast. There were schooners and brigs from Philadelphia, New York, Boston, New Jersey and Maine, and they were sailing to Boston, New York and Philadelphia. They carried coal, sugar, lumber and lime.
Dozens of vessels sailed past the north and south coasts of Nantucket every day. As the Great Gale of 1879 approached, they hunkered down in the lee of the storm. But when the fog lifted enough for people on land to see what had happened, they saw many, many vessels in distress.
At first light on April 2, 1879, Town Crier Billy Clark told Capt. Thomas Sandsbury that the storm had left four vessels in distress off the west end of Nantucket near Tuckernuck Island.
Sandsbury volunteered for the Massachusetts Humane Society. The MHS, founded in 1786, relied on volunteers to risk their own lives to save others. As an incentive, the Humane Society awarded silver and gold medals, as well as cash, for heroic rescues at sea.
The federal government then created the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1848, modeling it on the Humane Society.
By 1871, the Massachusetts Humane Society managed 78 lifeboats and 92 huts, boathouses and other structures along the coast. Like many Humane Society leaders, Thomas Sandsbury was later hired by the Life-Saving Service. He served for several years as the first keeper of the Muskeget Life-Saving Station beginning in 1883.
But in 1879 Sandsbury was still a volunteer, and after he got the word from Billy Clark he summoned seven other volunteers. They would spend the next 32 hours out straight, rescuing mariners in distress.
Sandsbury hired a team, and the men hitched a dory to it and drove it six miles to Eel Point. There they launched the dory. The men rowed three miles through the fog and the roiling waters to Tuckernuck. They reached the island and then rowed to the schooner John W. Hall. The schooner had sought shelter in the sound, but the storm broke her anchor chains and she hit rocks near Muskeget. The John W. Hall crewmen had lashed themselves to the rigging until the rescue crew arrived. Sandsbury’s crew took four men off the schooner. According to one account, they carried them in the surfboat to Muskeget. Or perhaps they rowed with them to other distressed ships.
Emma J. Edwards
They then rowed out to the incapacitated schooner Emma. The crew wasn’t in grave danger, Sandsbury and his men then spotted a ship bouncing on the waves about four miles off Tuckernuck Island. They rowed out to it and found the nearly capsized Emma J. Edwards.
Fifty-eight years later, Marcus Dunham, the last surviving crewman, recalled the ordeal of rowing four miles in rough seas to the Emma J. Edwards.
“The seas kept breaking over us all the time we headed her into the wind. It was cold and the water was like ice. We couldn’t get anywhere near the schooner at first. She was lying on her side, her masts lifting to every sea and, as she had all sail set, every time she come down she’d sent the spray twenty feet into the air.”
“The condition of this vessel was dreadful,” according to the Massachusetts Humane Society citation. “She was capsized and full of water. Enormous seas continually poured over her, and at each one she would roll, thrashing the water with her topmasts, which would rise again fifteen or twenty feet, and flail the water anew, so that it was almost impossible to get near her. “
They spotted a man lashed to the upper cross-trees, making weak hand gestures. Two dead men lay under him.
The rising and falling masts threatened to smash the surfboat to bits, but Sandsbury, with difficulty, maneuvered the boat out of danger. Then George Coffin fastened himself to a line, jumped into the water m to the cross-tree. He then cut loose the survivor, tied his line around him and lowered him into the sea. The others hauled him into the boat. Then, after some effort, he freed the dead bodies and lowered them into the sea where the others could retrieve them. Then he jumped into the sea himself and got pulled into the surfboat.
Sandsbury realized the overloaded boat couldn’t make headway against the violent wind and surf toward Tuckernuck. So they maneuvered the boat before the wind and rowed 11 miles to Nantucket.
More Rescues During the Great Gale of 1879
The men then deposited the bodies with the medical examiner and took the survivor to shelter. The storm still raged, and they knew they had more work ahead. So they wheeled a surfboat to Madaket on the western end of the island and rowed out to Muskegat Island. There they spent the night under the boat for shelter.
At daybreak they towed out to retrieve the crew aboard the Emma. According to some accounts, it was then that they took the J.W. Hall mariners off the vessel. They then rowed their overloaded surfboat back to Madaket, arriving at 3 p.m.
For their bravery, they each received $25 and a silver medal. Sandsbury also got the gold medal. You can see one donated by Marcus Dunham at the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum.
With thanks to the “A Legacy of Infamy and Heroism” by Olivia Jackson for the Egan Maritime Institute. This story updated in 2022.