Historical Perspective: City of Columbus wrecked 128 years ago

"The wreck of the City of Columbus," based on a sketch by an officer on board the revenue cutter Dexter was published in Harper's Weekly on February 2, 1884. — Photo courtesy of MV Museum collection

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history, in a regularly appearing series called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

This week marks the 128th anniversary of the wreck of the passenger steamer City of Columbus on Devil’s Bridge off Gay Head. As we researched the details of this tragic accident for the Museum’s current exhibit, Out of the Depths: Martha’s Vineyard Shipwrecks, we found many compelling stories that we could not fit into the exhibit. One involves the ways that news of the disaster spread beyond the shores of Martha’s Vineyard.

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. 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.

There had never been a New England maritime disaster as deadly as the wreck of the City of Columbus. The media of the day, newspapers and tabloid magazines, sent reporters and artists to record the horrible scene and capture stories of the survivors, rescuers, and bereaved relatives of victims.

Zephaniah Pease of the New Bedford Morning Mercury was notified as soon as the Dexter arrived in port with 22 survivors from the wreck. He wired the news to the Boston Globe. Captain Wright sent word of the disaster to his employers, who engaged a special train to carry them to New Bedford and to return the survivors to Boston. By the morning of January 19, there were stories in the Globe and the New York Times.

Headlines told the terrible news: “On Devil’s Bridge Rocks, One Hundred and Four Lives Lost at Sea,” “One of the Worst Horrors Ever Known in New England.” Passenger lists appeared in the papers. Incomplete and inconsistent accounts came from survivors and rescuers. These reports brought distraught relatives to New Bedford and Gay Head to search for the bodies of their loved ones.

The next day there was more. From the Boston Globe: “AFTER THE WRECK. Gloom in Many New England Homes. Terrible Details of the Loss of the City of Columbus. The work of Recovering Bodies of the Dead. Scenes at the Reef Where the Sunken Steamer Lies… A Temporary Morgue Improvised… The Sad Search of the Bereaved for News of Those Whom They Had Lost. CAPTAIN WRIGHT’S STATEMENTS. Apparent Inconsistencies–Was He Sleeping When the Steamer Struck. THE CAPTAIN CONDEMNED. A Survivor’s Charges of Lack of Discipline –Crew and Passengers, Every One for Himself. A STRUGGLE FOR LIFE. Heartrending Scenes as Viewed from the Rigging.”

But as dramatic as these accounts were, they could not offer the vividness of the illustrated newspapers. On Friday, January 25, The Daily Graphic of New York published wood engravings based on sketches made by one of its artists, who arrived on Martha’s Vineyard four days after the wreck. His illustrations were based on direct observation and imaginative reconstruction of the stories he heard from survivors and other witnesses. The Graphic described the scene: “…The night was rough and stormy, a gale was blowing, but the sky was cloudless, the moon shone brightly, and the Gay Head light was as plainly visible as the Madison Square electric cluster…” Then disaster hit and “…many of the passengers were drowned in their staterooms, where their bodies still lie untouched. Many more were swept off the decks into the icy sea before they fully realized what had occurred. Others filled the life boats and were spilled into the ocean while the little crafts were being launched. Some reached the rigging. A few held on until help came the next day, but by far the greater number, benumbed by the cold, fell from the ropes and were drowned before the eyes of their fellow sufferers. Of all the women and children, not one escaped…”

Arriving at the wreck in a chartered tugboat, the artist sketched what he saw: “The maintopmast was gone, and the angry waves were dashing over the rigging, which was completely covered with ice. There were stray pieces of human garments tangled in the frozen ropes, where their occupants had clung for their lives, which told more eloquently than words of the struggle that had taken place by the light of the solitary lamp on that dark and stormy night.” The illustrator then went ashore at Gay Head, where he found “The fish-house, with its human catch” and other grisly scenes.

In the following weeks, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published more stories and engravings of the disaster, as did Harpers Weekly and the National Police Gazette. These are the scenes that, along with artifacts salvaged from the wreck, bring this sad story to life today.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s exhibit, Out of the Depths: Martha’s Vineyard Shipwrecks, explores the fascinating and often tragic stories behind this and other ill-fated voyages through photos, paintings and salvaged wreckage. Visitors can see a door, life preserver, and other artifacts from the City of Columbus and learn what underwater exploration is telling us about the relics that remain on the sea floor.

Bonnie Stacy is chief curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, on School Street in Edgartown. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441.