The late William Waterway of Edgartown was a poet and, among many other attributes, one of the guardian angels of our lighthouses. Back in the early ’80s, Waterway gave a tour of the East Chop Light to a handful of friends. But first he stood at the rugged wooden rail overlooking Vineyard Sound, and he said these unforgettable words: “Anywhere you stand on our shores staring out to sea, you’re looking at a maritime graveyard.”
Down through the ages, shipmasters have sailed with great caution across Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds to the ragged edges of the Island. Shifting sands build shoals often not marked on charts, so that large vessels give these waters a respectful berth.
The most fearsome subject of New England history is the large number of ships stranded or wrecked off her shores — since 1616, more than 2,000 such disasters have been recorded.
Our beloved Martha’s Vineyard Museum, in its original campus on School Street in Edgartown (the stately old Marine Hospital is still undergoing sweeping renovations), pays tribute to this tragic history in “Shipwreck! Stories from Beneath the Sea,” running through the rest of the year. The small room at the heart of the museum is painted with faintly scary dark blue walls. A far wall holds a giant map of the Island, with names and dates of boats lost off our shores. The stunning exhibit, designed and curated by Anna Barber, features two of our most famous naval disasters, the Port Hunter and the City of Columbus.
The British freighter Port Hunter was bound for Europe with supplies including toilet paper, soap, and more than 200,000 leather jerkins to keep our troops warm. On Nov. 2, 1918, the freighter collided with a tug and sank on Hedge Fence Shoals, off East Chop. There was, mercifully, no loss of life, but a quantity of goods washed ashore to be salvaged by Islanders, prized in their homes for years, and eventually given over to the museum for safekeeping.
Ms. Barber says museums are charged to show 10 percent of their holdings. “For ‘Shipwreck!’ we searched high and low for relics, coming up with such interesting items as one of the Port Hunter jerkins, many of which kept our Island forebears warm over our brutal winters.”
There are also choice items on display such as a piano key from the City of Columbus, delicately scrimshawed years after the wreck, and a severely rusted fork and spoon beside a well-preserved white bone-china plate with a pale green City of Columbus logo at the upper corner.
The City of Columbus was a passenger steamer bound from Boston to Savannah on Jan. 17, 1884. It was a dark and stormy night when it struck another set of infamously dangerous rocks strewed along our coast, Devil’s Bridge off Aquinnah. The loss of life totaled 28 crew and 75 passengers.
So many articles from this luxe liner (luxe compared to the spartan goods of the military Port Hunter) washed ashore over the months and years, and were collected by up-Islanders; a Victorian chair here, an exquisite arch of carved-wood fretwork there, and over the years people proudly told their visitors, “This went down with the City of Columbus.”
Lest it be thought that Islanders exploited shipwrecks for their booty, well, yes they did, but now the museum has a lot to show for the collectors’ good taste. The museum also devotes a poster to the Massachusetts Humane Society, inaugurated in 1791, teaching swimming and resuscitation to volunteer lifesavers, of which there were many on the Vineyard.
Other star features: A flat screen shows divers rippling through the ruins of the Port Hunter, pale lights casting the shadows of the deep in haunting blues and greens; a recently recovered porthole from the Port Hunter; a photo and story about Charles Tallman, a sole survivor out of a four-man crew of a coal schooner which, in a blizzard of 1866, went down in a collision with Hawe’s Shoal off Cape Poge. Mr. Tallman clung to the rigging for four long days until he was at last saved. He lost his fingers and toes to frostbite, but ravages like that have never stopped a resilient Islander: The man opened a small shop in Oak Bluffs, and sold souvenirs and photos of himself and the wreck.
Recovered items from two losses in or near our waters have pride of place at the museum: a quarterboard with the title “Coimbra,” from a tanker sunk by a WWI German U-boat off Long Island, and a beautifully preserved teak deck chair from the Andria Doria, which sank south of Nantucket in 1956.
Bring the kids, bring your octogenarian uncle: This is an exhibit for everyone that somehow, in its sheer factuality, beauty, and horror, makes us oddly aware of what it means to live on this Island, surrounded by sometimes dark and frothing seas.
“Shipwreck! Stories from Beneath the Sea,” now through Dec. 23. For additional information, visit mvmuseum.org.