This was then: The steamer Martha’s Vineyard


The sidewheel steamer Martha’s Vineyard was one of the four original steamships owned by the enterprise now known as the Steamship Authority. Built in 1871 in Brooklyn, it was some 185 feet long (about 45 feet shorter than the modern vessel of this name), with a separate ladies’ saloon, and stewards to take care of passenger comforts.

In the early morning of June 6, 1903, under the command of Captain Claghorn, the Martha’s Vineyard set out on its scheduled run from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole in a thick fog, carrying a large number of passengers, the mail, and a heavy load of freight. With little warning, it collided with a Gloucester mackerel seiner, Senator Saulsbury, anchored just outside the harbor.

As the New York Times reported, “The vessels struck with great force. The steamer’s bow struck the schooner forward, the bowsprit of the fisherman raking the steamboat, carrying away both the upper and the lower decks back to the paddlebox. The fore rigging of the vessel became entangled in the wreckage and was carried away. Russell Hancock of Chilmark, a passenger on the steamboat, was badly injured, and several other passengers, unable to escape the sweep of the schooner bowsprit, were knocked insensible.” Hancock was a 62-year-old Chilmark native and former whaler who had long since taken up the gentler pursuits of farming, Sunday school teaching, and carving duck decoys. He was traveling that morning with his wife, Susan.

The damage was all above the water line, so the Martha’s Vineyard managed to limp into Woods Hole an hour later. The unconscious passengers had revived with only minor injuries, but Hancock was rushed to a doctor. His wounds, though bloody, ultimately proved not to be life-threatening.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.