At the beginning of the 20th century, boat building reached new heights. From 1900 to 1910, ten six-masted wooden schooners were built in New England. Launched in 1907, the Mertie B. Crowley was one of them. She was 412 feet long from tip to stern, 48 feet wide, and had six masts of 122 feet in height, with additional topmasts of 58 feet. (By contrast, the Shenandoah is 108 feet long, the Island Home 255.)
These huge schooners were designed and built specifically to carry cargoes up and down the East Coast. Considered more efficient than railway shipping, these vessels sailed past Martha’s Vineyard on a regular basis. The journey to Boston meant a journey around the islands and the Cape, because the Cape Cod Canal did not exist at that time. Construction for the canal began in 1909, opened on a limit basis in 1914, and was completed in 1916. The canal shortened the route from New York to Boston by 62 miles. It also changed forever the view from the Vineyard of the large schooners passing by and reduced the use of Vineyard Haven Harbor, once one of the busiest ports along the coast.
The Mertie B. Crowley left Newport News, Virginia, on the morning of January 18, 1910, with a load of almost 5,000 tons of coal to be delivered in Boston. During its trip to Boston, she encountered periods of fog, rough seas, and a storm with 50- to 60-mile-an-hour winds. Vessels this size were hard to pilot, especially in fog, because the captain could not see the bow of his vessel, some 400 feet in front of him.
Disoriented, the Mertie B. Crowley grounded on the west side of Skiff’s Island Shoal, off Chappaquiddick, on Sunday, January 23, 1910, at 5:35 in the morning. On board were 14 souls: Captain William Haskell and his wife, Ida, and a crew of 12. Once grounded, the captain, his wife, and the crew took to the masts, where they lashed themselves a hundred feet above the deck, praying to be rescued.
It was not until 7 am that the wreck was discovered by Manuel K. Silvia, pilot for the steamer Uncatena, in Edgartown Harbor. A cable was sent out to the Acushnet seeking assistance for those on the wreck. In the meantime, Mr. Silvia asked Eugene Benefit, a local fisherman, to notify Captain Levi Jackson, also a local fisherman who was known to have excellent lifesaving skills.
Mr. Benefit walked up Main Street to the house next to the Edgartown National Bank, and informed Captain Jackson of the wreck. By eight in the morning, Captain Jackson and his crew — Patrick Kelly, Henry Kelly, and Louis Doucette — had readied his 37-foot catboat, Priscilla, for rescue. When Captain Jackson and Eugene Benefit arrived at the dock, final preparations were made, and the Priscilla left from Edgartown wharf at 8:30 am.
There were strong winds, extremely high waves, and the temperature was below freezing. It took a half hour for the Priscilla to make it to the northern end of Cape Pogue, relying on her auxiliary 16 horse power engine. It would take another two hours to reach the southwest corner of Chappaquiddick.
The Mertie B. Crowley split in half around ten in the morning. The Captain, his wife and 12 crew members had been lashed to the masts for more than four hours by that time.
At 11 am, when Priscilla made it to southern end of Chappaquiddick, Captain Jackson could see the crew, alive in the rigging of the Crowley. It took another hour the Priscilla to be navigated by Captain Jackson through the breakers into a safer area, about 150 feet from the leeside of the Crowley, where they dropped anchor. Louis Doucette set out in a 17-foot dory to try to set up breeches buoy. Deemed an unsafe option, the breeches buoy was abandoned, and Doucette returned to the Priscilla. Patrick and Henry Kelly were next to go out in dories. Patrick Kelly’s dory became partially swamped, and he returned to the Priscilla. Henry Kelly made it to the Crowley, and rescued Mrs. Ida Haskell, wife of the captain, who had to jump 30 feet from the rigging into the moving dory below.
After 7½; hours in the rigging, lashed to the mast, Mrs. Haskell was the first rescue to be completed. It was now one o’clock in the afternoon. Patrick Kelly went back out and rescued Captain Haskell. Henry Kelly and Louis Doucette made successful rescues. Patrick Kelly on a return trip had his dory swamped by the ship’s steward, who delayed in jumping, landed in the water, and was clinging to the bow of the dory. A large wave washed them both over the jib boom rigging where they were able to cling to safety. Louis Doucette rescued Patrick Kelly. For two hours Doucette and the Kelly boys took turns with their dories shuttling between the Priscilla and the Mertie B. Crowley.
By three in the afternoon, all 14 aboard the Mertie B. Crowley had been rescued. With her crew of five and cargo of fourteen, Priscilla turned about for the return trip to Edgartown Harbor.
After two hours, the Priscilla arrived at the wharf in Edgartown to cheering crowds at five in the evening. Islanders took in the rescued and provided them with meals and warm clothing. It was an historic moment for Edgartown. Captain Levi Jackson, Henry Kelly, Patrick Kelly, Louis Doucette, and Eugene Benefit were recommended for Carnegie Hero Awards, which recognized acts of heroism in civilian life. In January of 1912, they were each presented with a Carnegie Hero Award.