Home Business and Labor The Wreck of the Charles A. Briggs

The Wreck of the Charles A. Briggs

What does a Nahant shipwreck in 1898 have to do with the Wizard of Oz?

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Just two days before one of the worst storms in memory hit New England, the three-masted schooner Charles A. Briggs was sighted off Highland Light on Cape Cod making its way north with its foresail gone and spars crippled.  The Briggs, hauling a cargo of coal from Philadelphia to Portland, had fought gales since leaving Philadelphia on January 23.

Photo of the Charles A. Briggs

Then on Monday, Jan. 31, 1898, the fierce winter gale struck.  In the city of Lynn, Mass., howling winds downed telephone lines, snow piles buried train tracks and broken tree limbs blocked roads. Several fires broke out in the city and factories had to close for lack of electrical power.

The gale continued out at sea through Tuesday.

The Charles A. Briggs in Peril

Unknown to Capt. A.C. Wentworth, skipper of the Charles A. Briggs, he was heading into that massive storm.

Wentworth, 50, from East Boston, was an experienced mariner, having been at sea since he was a boy.  He had survived a shipwreck earlier in his career and understood the dangers he now faced.  As the weather deteriorated, he ordered the mainsail double-reefed, wisely taking in sail to keep the ship steady in the strong winds.

It is unclear if Wentworth planned to stay on course for Portland or to head for Boston for shelter and repairs. Yet sometime on Monday night, during the height of the storm, the Charles A. Briggs ran perilously close to shore, driven by the northeasterly winds.

The Briggs’ course took it nine miles north of Boston into Nahant Bay. It passed the lighthouse station on Egg Rock, a forbidding, treeless outcropping, just off the town of Nahant.  Winds shook the light tower so violently that Light Keeper George L. Lyon had to stay awake all night tending the lantern.   After midnight, Lyon saw flares shot from a distressed ship as it neared the coast.  The vessel at that point was between Egg Rock and Little Nahant.

George L. Lyon

By now, it was too late.


Nahant consists of two rocky islands, Nahant and Little Nahant, tied to the coastline at Lynn by a tombolo, a causeway or long sandbar that extends southward into Massachusetts Bay. Little Nahant is closer to the mainland and is connected to the outer larger island by Short Beach (Little Nahant Beach).

In the early morning, the Charles A. Briggs struck the jagged rocks along the southern shore of Little Nahant straight on, smashing the vessel to pieces and killing all eight seamen aboard.

Site of Briggs wreck

People who lived on this part of the coast were familiar with wrecks. They included the bark Tedesco off Swampscott in Nahant Bay in 1857, and the bark Vernon that ran aground at Lynn Beach in 1859. Twelve died in the Tedesco wreck.  In the seven years before the Briggs disaster, no fewer than 12 wrecks occurred in and around Lynn and Nahant, some with loss of life. On February 16, 1898, the Lynn Daily Evening Item published a map showing wrecks from the previous hundred years.

Map of wrecks off Nahant

Scene of Devastation

The next day broke bright and sunny, exposing a scene of devastation.  Remnants of block and tackle, rigging, iron work, barrels and piles of coal were strewn over Short Beach. High surf still pounded the remainder of the ship against the rocky shore of Little Nahant.  A 20-foot section of the stern lay forlornly on the beach.  Despite the deep snow, police, firefighters and townspeople labored to clear debris and search the wreckage for bodies.  Relic hunters grabbed what they could carry, one making off with a steam pump.

Among the artifacts found onshore was a gold pocket watch that the newspaper reported had stopped at 1:17:2, presumably the time of the wreck. Searchers also recovered a seaman’s hymnal and a ticket for supper at the Boston Seamen’s Friend Society.

Illustration of wreckage from Lynn Item

New England Pummeled

The storm had a great impact on New England. It completely cut off several towns in Massachusetts, including Brockton and Marlboro. Twenty-foot snow drifts crippled transportation in Maine and New Hampshire, and the tempest drove several schooners ashore on Cape Ann.

The Daily Evening Item reported the storm claimed the lives of 18 sailors throughout coastal New England, and 40 vessels wrecked or badly damaged.

In a curious incident, a Boston and Maine Railroad station agent in West Lynn was overcome during the storm and buried in a drift. He was saved from freezing to death when a passerby saw his umbrella protruding from the snow.

After the Charles A. Briggs Disaster

On the Wednesday after the disaster, Mrs. J.J. Young of Boston, wife of the schooner’s mate and mother of a young child, made the sad journey to Nahant Town Hall to reclaim the body of her husband. She was just one of several making a similar journey that week.   The Seaman’s Union of Boston dispatched a representative to Nahant to help identify the bodies.

Almost immediately, Lynn and Nahant residents called for a permanent lifesaving station to be built in Nahant for just such a disaster. At the time of the wreck of the Charles A. Briggs, Nahant relied on volunteers from the Humane Society. According to Julie Tarmy of the Nahant Historical Society, it “…consisted of remarkable men who would charge into the waters in an open boat to assist mariners in peril.”  More was obviously needed.

Nahant Life Saving Station

Within two years a Life Saving Station was built on Short Beach.  The station is no longer active, but the building still stands and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

By 1927, the lighthouse tower on Egg Rock was destroyed and never replaced.  Today, the island is a bird sanctuary.

And in an historical curiosity, one of the eight victims was John Haley, 31, the ship’s steward.  Haley lived in South Boston. He worked primarily as a waiter, but sometimes served on short coastal hauls, such as the Charles A. Briggs’ run between Philadelphia and Portland.  Haley was the father of actor Jack Haley, famous for his role as the Tin Man in the movie The Wizard of Oz.

Jack Haley, Sr., as the Tin Man.

The future movie star was six months old at the time.

Photo Credits

IMAGES: Ship photo, Courtesy of Nahant Historical Society; 1859 Map, Courtesy of Nahant Historical Society. Briggs wreck site, The Daily Evening Item, Lynn, Massachusetts, 2 Feb 1898, p. 1, accessed online through Lynn Public Library, Egg Rock, Courtesy of Lynn Public Library. Wreckage illustration, The Daily Evening Item, Lynn, Massachusetts, 2 Feb 1898, p. 6, accessed online through Lynn Public Library. George L. Lyon, Courtesy of Jeremy D’Entremont. Wrecks near Nahant, The Daily Evening Item, Lynn, Massachusetts, 16 Feb 1898, p. 8, accessed online through Lynn Public Library. Tin Man, MGM, {{PD-US}}; plaque, Courtesy of Nahant Historical Society. Nahant Life Saving Station By User:Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23029736. Map of Greter Boston, By OpenStreetMap contributors – openstreetmap.org, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18944328.


The Lynn Daily Evening Item, Lynn, Massachusetts, 2,3,4,7, and 16 February 1898, accessed online through Lynn Public Library.

Nahant (Mass.) Historical Society.

Shipwrecks North of Boston, Vol. 1: Salem Bay, by Capt. Raymond H. Bates, Jr., Commonwealth Editions, 2017.


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