This Was Then: The Lime Schooners

Lime and water don’t mix well.

Lime schooner Bertha E. Glover still burns in Vineyard Haven Harbor, a full week after the Gale of 1898 caused its cargo to ignite. —Courtesy Chris Baer

On Feb. 7, 1895, a partial wreck drifted ashore at Paul’s Point, near Lambert’s Cove. The hull was completely gone – only the schooner’s deck, broken off just aft of the foremast, and its cabin, remained. The mast and main boom were attached, the mainsail still neatly furled. The bodies of three men and a dog were lashed to the top of the deckhouse, completely encased in ice, frozen to the roof of the cabin. Their legs were hanging down through the open cabin skylight.

As the bodies were brought to the beach, one frozen but warmly-dressed figure was immediately identified as Capt. Joseph Boswick, a 35-year-old Austrian native who had been plying the seas between Rockland, Maine and New York City for a dozen years. He had been a familiar face in Vineyard Haven harbor. The bodies were taken by the local medical examiner, Dr. William Leach, to the undertaking parlor in Vineyard Haven. There, the body of the ship’s Norwegian first mate was tentatively identified by two Rockland schooner captains who happened to be anchored in port. He had been clad in his stockings. 

A logbook was found floating in the cabin. It identified the ship as the T. P. Dixon, a lime schooner bound from New York back to its homeport in Rockland. The third body, a slender mustachioed man wearing a light rubber coat and kid gloves, was presumed to be crewman John Davidson of Nova Scotia. There were at least two other crew whose bodies remained missing. 

The fate of the Dixon remains a mystery. It’s believed that the schooner may have struck the Sow and Pigs reef or Devil’s Bridge while trying to enter Vineyard Sound during the gale which had struck the night before. The 130-ton vessel was built to hold 1,600 barrels of lime.

Lime — calcium oxide — has been used for centuries on the Vineyard as a basis to plaster walls; to make mortar, cement, and concrete; to treat acidic soil; and sometimes, as on Illumination Night, to fuel extremely bright limelights. Lime was produced in small quantities on the island by burning crushed seashells. It may also have been a byproduct of extracting salt from evaporated seawater in the many saltworks on the island during the early 1800s. (Salt was said to be the second largest industry on the island after wool in 1807.)

When mixed with water, calcium oxide (“quicklime”) becomes calcium hydroxide (“slaked lime”) in a strongly exothermic reaction. In other words, when water leaks into a barrel of quicklime, it will release an enormous amount of heat — enough to ignite nearby combustible materials. Quicklime is also highly caustic and can burn unprotected skin, especially in the presence of moisture. Nevertheless, in the 19th century, schooners were the most cost-effective way to transport it.

By the end of the 19th century, as Vineyarders were beginning to concrete their dirt streets and build sidewalks, the biggest producer in lime in the U.S. was in Rockland, Maine, where more than a million barrels of quicklime each year were produced in huge kilns from quarried limestone and shipped out in spruce casks upon a fleet of schooners. Delivering lime up and down the eastern seaboard, lime schooners were a regular sight in Vineyard Sound, and many stopped at Vineyard Haven harbor. Lime was the second-biggest seller after lumber in the island’s building supply stores, like Owen Tilton’s lumberyard in Vineyard Haven.

In late November 1898, a hurricane-force storm blasted New England. More than 150 vessels were wrecked along the Massachusetts cast. Nowhere was hit harder than Vineyard Haven harbor, where some 35 ships were sunk, wrecked, or driven ashore, and many lives lost. Among the vessels in Vineyard Haven harbor which failed to find shelter in the deadly storm – sometimes referred to as the “Portland Gale” – were two lime schooners from Rockland: the Bertha E. Glover, and the E. G. Willard.

The Bertha E. Glover, a 78-foot, 119-ton lime schooner captained by Frank Farr, grounded during the storm on the east side of the harbor, between the bridge and the old marine railway near the shipyard. It sprung a leak, and water got into the cargo. The wet lime ignited the ship, the ship began to burn, and despite the best efforts of the crew to extinguish it, the ship was still smouldering more than two weeks after the storm. The blaze finally went out on Dec. 19, after everything above the water’s edge had burned away.

The E. G. Willard, an 80-foot, 96-ton lime schooner, lost its anchor and chain in the freezing, blinding storm, and was grounded on flats in the harbor, not far from the Glover. The hull filled with water, the cargo of lime took fire, and this vessel went up in flames as well. 

George Wiseman, author of “They Kept the Lower Lights Burning” (1978), describes what happened next aboard the Willard: “The men aboard had to make a choice between being burned to death or drowning in a roaring sea. Their boat had been blown away so they had no means of escape. Another decision that had to be made was what to do with the cook? He had only one leg and depended on his crutches to get around. They didn’t have much time to think, but as it turned out time was not essential. To windward of them lay the schooner J. D. Ingraham. Like the other vessels she was torn from her moorings, and to the horror of those aboard the Willard, she was coming with terrific speed toward them. They watched terrified as the rolling, plunging ship drew near. Then the miracle happened. She struck her target, the force of the blow forcing her to back off, then the wind blew her alongside and remained long enough to allow the men to jump aboard from their burning vessel. Even the cook, still holding his crutches, was able to jump to safety.”

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released June 2018.