They need a boathouse that suits their needs

— File photo by Chuck Stevens/ Phil Cox

A commenter yesterday liked the story we put up at that told the story of the wreck of the City of Columbus on Devil’s Bridge 128 years ago this week and the thrilling news coverage and illustrations of the sad event. She related the 19th-century tragedy to the grounding this week of the cruise ship on the Italian rocks.

The horrifying wreck of the City of Columbus was a sensational news story in 1884, fully appreciated by the contemporary media, as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s account, published this morning in the print edition of The Times, makes compellingly clear. This week’s marine disaster has similar astonishing elements, plus human storylines of an appalling and distressing melodramatic nature.

But, it is possible to make another instructive line, this one between the story of the City of Columbus and the wrangle between some Chilmarkers and the Coast Guard over the latter’s plans for a new boathouse at Menemsha. The Coast Guard will replace the boathouse that fire destroyed in July 2010 with a new one that, in shape, style, and exterior finish, recalls the landmark building that dominated the tiny harbor’s shore. But, the new building, reflecting the Coast Guard’s changed and expanded mission and its new equipment and practices, will be significantly bigger and a little taller.

Unreasonably, critics want the building no bigger than the one it replaces – and they go so far as to say that if the 21st century vessels the Coast Guard uses in its work are too big to fit the old building, let them be dragged up the hill to the Coast Guard headquarters and maintained in the open there. One needs only to have a look at the expanded Coast Guard facility in Woods Hole to see how callous government construction can go horribly wrong and even disfigure a lovely shorescape and how sensitive the plans for the new boathouse actually are.

But, in fact, satisfaction of the vital responsibility the Coast Guard discharges predominates in deciding how to accommodate the Coast Guard’s life-saving presence in Menemsha Basin. The assistance the Coast Guard offers mariners, including fishermen and pleasure craft operators who base themselves in Menemsha, extends across Vineyard Sound into Buzzards Bay, westward toward Block Island, and south of the Vineyard where the fishermen chase bass, bluefish, tuna, and groundfish. The Coast Guard’s work is vital, and Menemsha has always been proud to host the service.

As Senior Chief Jason Olsen, Station Menemsha officer in charge, said, “Our people come first, and we need to provide a boathouse that can support them and our mission with the highest standards of quality to continue to be successful with supporting not just Chilmark, but the rest of our maritime community.”

“The City of Columbus ran up on the rocks of Devil’s Bridge at 3:45 on the morning of January 18, 1884, on her way from Boston to Savannah,” the museum’s Bonnie Stacy writes. “When Captain Schuyler Wright ordered the ship into reverse, ice-cold sea water poured through the holes that the jagged rocks had torn into the hull. Within hours the ship was lost and 103 of her passengers and crew were dead. Despite the heroism of the primarily Wampanoag rescue team from Gay Head and the crew of the revenue cutter Samuel Dexter, which happened upon the wreck the next day, only 29 from the ship survived.”

The 21st century relic of that Gay Head crew is the Coast Guard crew at Menemsha. They need a boathouse that suits their needs.