At 3:45 am on Friday, Jan. 18, 1884, the 275-foot steamer City of Columbus, bound for Savannah from Boston, struck Devil’s Bridge off Gay Head, and sank beside the treacherous rocks. Despite the heroic labors of local residents — mostly Wampanoag fishermen willing to brave the bitter, dangerous winter surf — more than a hundred passengers and crew perished in what was one of the deadliest marine disasters of the century.
And when the rescue ended, recovery efforts began. Within days, a flotilla of tugs arrived from New Bedford and Boston, intent upon finding the bodies of the missing victims and salvaging the cargo. Some brought new, still rather experimental equipment known as “submarine armor” or “diving armor,” what today we would call “hardhat suits” — deep-diving equipment. Most important, they brought experts well-trained in donning the dangerous gear.
Five days after the disaster, the Boston Globe described the scene as one of the professionals from the steam tug Storm King prepared to enter the strong January currents. “The diver [was] attired in the curious-looking armor with its grating on the windows in its head, and the thick rubber suit on the other portions of the body. Around his waist was fastened a stout rope, while from the top of his headpiece extended a line of rubber hose. A round piece of glass, barred in front like a prison window, and screwed into position, concealing his face entirely.”
The popularization of rubber in the U.S. in the 1820s and the development of vulcanization made such suits possible, but saltwater was found to deteriorate the rubber hoses and seals so quickly that all the rubber parts had to be replaced every few months. The helmet, usually copper or iron, was bolted on with a monkey wrench, and one or two crewmen would slowly crank the handle of the air pump on the deck to keep air flowing. The weight of lead shoes and belt allowed the divers to stand and walk upon the seabed. Jerking the line three times in a row was the signal for the crew to pull them up.
Among the divers who salvaged cargo and recovered personal items from the wreck off Gay Head in the weeks that followed the disaster were two brothers from Quincy, George and Hiram Phillips. George, the elder of the two, earned his notoriety years earlier by placing first in an underwater race from Boston to East Boston under Boston Harbor, on foot, in a weighted diving suit. He won the three-man race in 17½ minutes, as part of a Fourth of July stunt in 1869.
The Phillips brothers went on to lead a successful and long-lived diving business in Quincy. And they soon took on and trained a young French-Canadian protégé. His name was David J. Curney (1874–1956).
Curney had immigrated from Nova Scotia in the early 1890s as a 16-year-old, working first on a Gloucester fishing boat before taking a course that earned him a steam engineering certificate. The Phillips brothers took him in and trained him as an underwater engineer, helping lay the massive sewer system in Boston Harbor at the turn of the 20th century. By 1906, Curney was working for them on undersea projects for Lynn Gas and Electric. One Lynn newspaper noted Curney’s “experience of many years in this not overcrowded means of securing a livelihood.”
Curney had a pair of near-fatal accidents in 1908 and 1909. In the first, working for the Phillips brothers at the bottom of the Charles River on a sewer, he became pinned by a heavy chain, and his lines tangled. After struggling for more than 20 minutes, he was finally freed, and pulled out unconscious, presumed dead, and spent the next three days in the hospital. In the second incident, he was suiting up to lay pipes in Lake Magog for the Concord Water Works when the ladder he was standing on suddenly broke, and he fell to the bottom of the lake with all his weights on, but no helmet. His tender “had the pull of his life to get me to the surface,” he reported afterward, “considering the weights and the suit full of water which he had to lift.”
Curney is remembered to have contributed to the construction of the Cape Cod Canal, as well as on Nathanael Herreshoff’s marine railway in Bristol, R.I., in 1911. About 1913, he moved to Bayonne, N.J., performing salvage operations for the Navy at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1917, at the age of 42, Curney joined an engineer construction gang, the Phoenix Construction Co., and was sent to Bordeaux, France, as a civilian engineer to build a large new wartime wharf in preparation for the arrival of U.S. troops. After a year, Curney returned to Philadelphia.
Then, in the early morning of Nov. 2, 1918, the 4,000-ton British steamship Port Hunter, en route to New York, collided with a tug. The 380-foot freighter sank on Hedge Fence Shoal, less than two miles off East Chop. It was filled with supplies for U.S. soldiers fighting in France, and had a cargo valued at more than $5 million, including everything from motorcycles to machine guns to phosphorus bombs, together with huge quantities of clothing — 5 million pairs of shoes, 250,000 leather jackets, and 10,000 pairs of rubber boots.
Professional and amateur salvagers from all over New England flocked to the site, Curney among them. Barney Zeitz of the Mercantile Wrecking Co. of New Bedford (and great-uncle of our local master sculptor) obtained the official salvaging contract, and rumors soon spread that Zeitz’s crew was armed with rifles, and would shoot any unauthorized boats that approached. It’s unclear which side of the law Curney was on, but Edwin Athearn of West Tisbury remembered Curney in his 1995 memoir: “I can recall working with Dave as one of the deck crew on one of the many attempts to salvage the military cargo of the sunken steamer Port Hunter … Two men were required to crank the wheels of Dave’s air supply pump, while a third man communicated with Dave by prearranged yanks on his rope lifeline. Adventurous activities.”
While diving the Port Hunter, Curney and his wife Hattie bought a home on Daggett Avenue. They would remain Vineyard residents for the rest of their lives, raising their children here.
In April 1923, eight corpses were found floating in Vineyard Sound, together with barrels of Canadian ale. Authorities soon found evidence of a bloody massacre on the rumrunner John Dwight, sunk off Cuttyhunk. Dukes County Sheriff Walter Renear contracted Curney to conduct an underwater investigation of the crime scene with two state detectives, basing their operations from the deck of the schooner Herman L. Rogers, under the command of Capt. George Fred Tilton. While the Coast Guard patrolled for suspicious vessels, Curney located the sunken hulk in more than 80 feet of freezing water. He reported the cabin and pilot house gutted, the hold full of whiskey. The crime is still unsolved. Twelve years later, at the age of nearly 61, Curney gained permission to revisit the wreck with diver Max Eugene Nohl of Boston (who would shortly afterward set the world depth record, with a 420-foot dive). Even by 1935, Curney was still the only person to have visited the federally protected wreck.
In September 1925, the SS City of Rome collided with U.S. Navy submarine S-51 near Block Island. Only three escaped from the sub before it sank. Curney joined the team of Navy divers who eventually raised the submarine with pontoons, from where it lay 130 feet beneath the surface, recovering the remains of the 18 sailors still aboard. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described it as a “titanic engineering feat that ranks with the greatest salvaging epics of the sea.”
In 1931–32, Curney patented a “Sand Trap for Protection of Shores,” U.S. Patent No. 1880838, a metal net to protect beaches from erosion. Alfred Francis recalls his grandfather Dave Curney building “giant sandworms” — huge rolls of wire mesh filled with sand — one of which was used at the end of Owen Little Way in Vineyard Haven.
In 1932, Curney was called back to Quincy to help search for the body of a young man who dove into Fallon’s Quarry from a high ledge and vanished. After three days of searching, the body of Oreste DeStefanini of Quincy Point was located under 60 feet of water. Later that year, Curney was involved in a serious car accident with a laundry truck. Thrown from his car, his chest crushed, his prognosis was grim. Nevertheless, he recovered; doctors attributed his miraculous survival to “his long experience in breathing at excessive depths.” In 1936, he made the national newspapers after donning his diving suit to harvest oysters from the bottom of Tisbury Great Pond.
By the late 1930s, now well into his 60s, Curney had begun to curtail his dives. But not completely. Described as “the oldest diver in active service on the Atlantic Coast,” Curney was hired in 1938 to raise the 65-foot yacht Intrepid III, lost in 55 feet of water off Nantucket, from aboard Capt. Zeb Tilton’s schooner Alice S. Wentworth.
In 1944, at the age of 70, while campers ran the air pump and his wife served as dive tender, Curney staged a demonstration of his diving suit for the St. Pierre School of Sport off the Standard Oil dock in Vineyard Haven.
Curney died in Oak Bluffs in 1956, but interest in diving on the Vineyard did not. The 1950s saw a new generation of young divers arise with the advent of a novel form of untethered equipment known as scuba, popularized and advanced by the work of French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. In 1956, the year Curney died, a group of young Vineyarders formed the Vineyard Vikings Dive Club, founded by Wally Tobin, Dick Jones, Arne Carr, and others. Dick Carr of Oak Bluffs became the first diver on the Island to own scuba gear, it’s recalled. Tobin’s Dive Shop was located on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven.
Following his death, Curney’s heavy diving helmet was passed to his son Everett, who in turn gave it to his grandson Warren, a Scituate lobsterman and dragger. Warren would occasionally use it to dive with his friends, until one day in the 1960s, their unattended fishing boat sank, taking the helmet with it to the bottom of the sea. “It’s sort of ironic,” concludes Warren’s daughter, Cindy Curney of Scituate. Maybe it will be salvaged one day. Another grandson, Everett (“Porky”) Francis of Edgartown, dived recreationally as well, using scuba gear, but he was better known as the owner of Capt. Porky’s Bait and Tackle in Edgartown.
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 in 2018.