Online map a key to harbor shipwrecks

Chart is new website’s link to area’s coastal disasters

Victoria Stevens, Hull Lifesaving Museum curator, with the chart that inspired a website devoted to Boston-area shipwrecks. Victoria Stevens, Hull Lifesaving Museum curator, with the chart that inspired a website devoted to Boston-area shipwrecks. (Paul E. Kandarian for The Boston Globe)
By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2010

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HULL — Victoria Stevens became curator of the Hull Lifesaving Museum 10 years ago, and took note of a highly detailed chart of Boston Harbor shipwrecks over the centuries that had been hanging on a wall for years. It was created by Weymouth native Robert F. Sullivan, now of Florida, a diver and historical researcher and author of “Shipwrecks and Nautical Lore of Boston Harbor.’’

She looked at the chart one day a few years ago and thought the little numbered ship sails dotting its surface, marking wreckage locations, looked like computer icons. Then the idea hit: Why not link those ship symbols to a website about the shipwrecks in the waters just outside the museum at Point Allerton? During the heyday of sailing vessels in the 18th and 19th centuries, those waters were as treacherous as any in America.

The site was created and launched this spring, and thus far has been well visited by those curious about what lies in the waters of Boston Harbor.

“It’s such a forgotten story, an invisible story,’’ Stevens said of the harbor wrecks. Perhaps 100 wrecks are known in all, some 75 of which are detailed on the site, “People look out at Boston Light, and many have no idea the whole area is dotted with wrecks.’’

The nonprofit Hull Lifesaving Museum landed a small grant to help the project, and it enlisted Audissey Guides of East Boston to create the site. It is easy to follow, showing the chart and listing known wrecks from the Abel E. Babcock, a Pennsylvania coal ship that sank off nearby Toddy Rocks on Nov. 27, 1898, through the YMS-14, a Navy minesweeper that sank near Broad Sound on Jan. 11, 1945, the latest recorded wreck. Two of the earliest were the brig John, carrying salt and wine that sank Nov. 3, 1703, off George’s Island, and an unidentified brig that ran aground off Peddocks Island around 1614.

Stevens worked to cull as much information as she could from the National Archives, which has a New England branch in Waltham. As a result, many of the listings on the site include old photos or drawings of the wrecks, postcards about them, log entries, reports, and other historic information.

“Bob Sullivan has an encyclopedic knowledge of the wrecks,’’ she said. “It just seemed so natural to use his chart to create hyperlinks on a site.’’

One of the most compelling wrecks, she said, occurrred in 1896, when the three-masted schooner Elrica, bound from Nova Scotia to Hoboken, N.J., loaded with plaster, ran aground in foul weather on Nantasket Beach. All on board were saved by the Point Allerton US Lifesaving Station crew in the surfboat Nantasket — which is on display at the museum.

The rescue was led by local lifesaving legend Captain Joshua James, who was 70 at the time, and had been knocked out of the Nantasket by waves. The boat ran over his head, but he latched onto the steering oar and was dragged back to shore. Undeterred, he continued the rescue, and not a man was lost. Not many were in the history of the lifesaving station, Stevens said.

James died in 1902 at age 75 when, after leading a routine boat drill on the beach, he turned to his crew and said, “the tide is ebbing,’’ and keeled over in the sand.

Passage was so treacherous in the harbor because the Nantasket Roads channel was the only way in, and then ships had to navigate The Narrows to get to Boston. It was like threading a needle in the best of times, worse still in bad weather. Many ships were moored when storms hit, only to have prevailing winds drive them into Point Allerton, Toddy Rocks, or Harding’s Ledge.

By 1902, a much wider Presidents Road was dredged, creating a safer way to get to Boston Harbor. And by around 1910, much shipping was done by motorized vessels that had more control and weren’t at the mercy of the winds.

Visitors to the website can also learn of the amazing rescues in the Great Storm of 1888. That day, Hull rescuers worked around the clock in brutal weather along 5 miles of shoreline to save 29 sailors aboard five schooners and a coal barge that ran aground..

Nine of those lifesavers earned US Treasury Department Gold Medals for their part in a rescue that James himself called miraculous. Photos and newspaper accounts of that day are on the site, as is the story of the French 74-gun Magnifique, which wrecked in the harbor Aug. 15, 1782.

The wreck resulted in bureaucrats compensating France for the Magnifique by offering that country the America, a warship being built at Portsmouth, N.H. The shipwreck website says that Captain John Paul Jones, the naval hero who had supervised the America’s building, was so upset at losing his vessel that he resigned his commission and sailed off with the French fleet when it left Boston Harbor.

Also at the site is an audio interview with a Hull resident, identified as “Mr. Tripp,’’ that was conducted by Hull Community Cable in the 1980s. Tripp worked for the town highway department in 1927 when the schooner Nancy came ashore, and he helped deliver the surfboat Nantasket to the beach — by hooking it up to a horse-drawn snowplow.

“I’m the only one left on that outfit,’’ Tripp said, then going on to name local men who rowed out to the Nancy.

The website will also be used as a teaching tool in schools, Stevens said.

“This is one of the most innovative and high-tech things we’ve done here at the museum,’’ she said. “When the site went up, we started getting a stream of museum newsletter sign-ups.’’

Copies of Sullivan’s chart are also for sale at the museum, proceeds from which benefit the museum and Children’s Hospital in Boston.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at

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