Martha’s Vineyard Museum exhibits shipwrecks

A painting of wreck of City of Columbus, done on a piece of salvaged wood from the ship. — Photo courtesy of MV Museum

In January 1884, the passenger steamer City of Columbus ran aground on Devil’s Bridge off the Gay Head Cliffs. More than 100 people perished in the wreck and the incident was reported as one of the worst ocean disasters of its time.

25 years later, a 320-foot WWI supply freighter, the Port Hunter, sank off of East Chop after a collision with a tugboat. This wreck resulted in no loss of life, but tons of supplies headed for troops in Europe instead made their way into the homes of Island families.

These are just two of dozens of recorded shipwrecks whose ghostly remains lie in Vineyard waters. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has assembled an impressive collection of artwork, documents, and artifacts surrounding these two disasters, and has installed a new exhibit called Out of the Depths: Martha’s Vineyard Shipwrecks, which also includes modern research on the wreck sites based on underwater exploration.

Said the museum’s chief curator Bonnie Stacy, who along with assistant curator Anna Carringer assembled the exhibit, “This is something that has a very broad appeal. Shipwrecks and the rescues and the all-Island involvement in saving people fascinate people. It’s so dramatic and such a part of Island life.” The exhibit is made up of items from the museum’s collection, such as the beautifully carved 20-foot long quarter board from City of Columbus. Other artifacts, such as an oil painting of that boat as it lay after the wreck, are on loan from private collections.

A large map indicating the sites of known shipwrecks dominates the entrance to the exhibit. A smaller map from the 1700s highlights the multiple shoals and shallow areas surrounding the Island. “This is a particularly dangerous area to navigate,” Ms. Carringer said.

But, although terrain played a part in the two famous shipwrecks documented in the exhibit, Ms. Carringer noted that both were primarily due to operator error and carelessness. Reports from crewmembers and passengers from the Port Hunter (which are included in the exhibit) do little towards sorting out the facts, since there are major discrepancies in the accounts.

The exhibit includes a number of items that were salvaged from the two shipwrecks. Ms. Stacy talked about how these relics help tell two very different stories from Vineyard history. Since the City of Columbus wreck was a human tragedy of immense scale, Islanders often commemorated the disaster by embellishing salvage finds. An ivory piano key has tiny scrimshaw carving of the wreck and a sugar bowl has been engraved with the date and details of the tragedy.

On the other hand, goods salvaged from Port Hunter were put to more practical uses. The exhibit includes a blanket hand-sewn from woolen military puttees, and recorded oral histories where people recall using salvaged candles and wearing clothing fashioned from the wool and leather goods from Port Hunter’s cargo.

The oral histories also attest to the impact that these disasters had on the Island. Heroics and tales of survival played a part in the legends of the day. “You can’t talk about shipwrecks without the heroism,” Ms. Stacy said. A group of Wampanoag Indians was instrumental in saving the lives of City of Columbus’s 27 survivors.

Shipwrecks were a part of life that citizens of seaside communities were prepared for. The first room of the exhibit includes the sign from a lifesaving station and one of the exhibit’s most interesting artifacts – some of the apparatus from a sophisticated lifesaving device that involved a small cannon, a rope-bearing missile, pulleys, and large life preservers with sling attachments.

Wrecks are an integral part of the Vineyard’s past but they are also, enduring, yet unseen elements of our ocean environment. “One of the things that struck me is that we look at a lot of these shipwrecks as things of the past that are no more, but they’re still there,” Ms. Stacy said.

Sam Lowe and Arnie Carr, whom Ms. Stacy calls “the local shipwreck guru,” have been conducting ongoing research of Island wrecks and have contributed recent sonar studies of the Port Hunter and City of Columbus to the exhibit.

“We’re excited to be the first to present these images to the public,” Ms. Stacy continued. A short video will introduce viewers to modern technology, which involves submersibles and side sonar.

Ms. Carringer noted that Massachusetts is very active in the study of shipwrecks. She said, “We’re encouraging people to keep their eyes open about what’s coming on shore today. It’s important for people to be vigilant. You never know when something big might wash ashore.”

Out of the Depths: Martha’s Vineyard Shipwrecks members preview party, Friday, Sept. 30, 5–7 pm, M.V. Museum, Edgartown. Free.

Exhibit opening, Saturday, Oct. 1, 10 am–5 pm. $7; $6 seniors; $4 children 6-15; free for children under 6.