Lest Nantucket forget the wrecked, the rescuers

The largest gallery at the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum evokes a boathouse and includes one of three remaining Massachusetts Humane Society vessels.
The largest gallery at the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum evokes a boathouse and includes one of three remaining Massachusetts Humane Society vessels. (Ron Driscoll/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ron Driscoll
Globe Staff / July 20, 2008

NANTUCKET - Proof that this island, now better known for trophy homes, celebrity chefs, and private jets, retains strong links to its past lies in the community's response to the reopening of the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum.

"The last I heard, five people had come in with donated items in the past two weeks," said Jean Grimmer, executive director of the museum, which opened its doors July 1 after a $3.1 million renovation and expansion.

"I think what happens is that people on the island have a life ring or some other item in their barn, and they realize that we would be good stewards of something that's precious to their family's past."

Generations of Nantucketers have been involved in seafaring. By the late 19th century, as many as 250 ships a day were navigating the waters off this isle between New York and Boston. That bustling route was dubbed "a sea highway similar to I-95" by Nathaniel Philbrick, an island resident and author of the acclaimed books "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" (Viking, 2000) and "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War" (Viking, 2006).

The treacherous shoals, unpredictable weather, and primitive navigation tools of the day led to shipwrecks, more than 700 of them documented through the years. The second lighthouse in the nation was built at Nantucket's Brant Point, and early efforts included huts set in the dunes to aid those washed ashore. Few of the shipwrecked ever made it that far.

The museum's goal is to preserve the history of efforts to safely guide mariners and save those whose vessels were wrecked off this island 35 miles off Cape Cod. The renovation, expansion, and rebranding of the former Nantucket Lifesaving Museum drew more than 400 visitors for its free-admission Family Day on July 6.

It has also energized a staff keen to tell how the lifesaving legacy evolved, to share stories of heroic feats under deadly duress, and to bring the stories alive with tools and artifacts artfully displayed.

"We don't want the museum to just be a cabinet of curiosities," said James Lansing, the curator. "We want people to be able to picture the men launching the boats, sometimes in the snow, fighting hour after hour to perform a rescue. It's hard to imagine them doing that in these boats."

Lansing is a former Coast Guardsman, and in his four years in the service, he heard little about the organization's lifesaving legacy.

"I was stationed in New Jersey at one point, which has a long history of rescues along its shores," he said. "But they just don't tell the story of lifesaving in the Coast Guard."

The US Coast Guard was formed in 1915 through a merger of the US Life Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. In turn, the US Life Saving Service had been an expansion of the Massachusetts Humane Society, which began in 1786 in an effort to stem the needless deaths of ships' crew members.

"The humane society replaced what until then had been volunteer rescue efforts," said Jeremy Slavitz, museum education director. "It was modeled on the British Humane Society, and a handbook from those origins had tips on how to revive the recently drowned, and also included a terrifying version of CPR."

In 1994, as Nantucket was increasingly becoming a playground for the wealthy, the Egan Maritime Institute was co-founded by Philbrick and Bud Egan. In 2004, the lifesaving museum became affiliated with the institute, whose mission is to preserve "the traditions of Nantucket, which are shaped by the maritime character of people who live by the sea. For within these people lies, in great part, the story of America."

One of them was Joshua James (1826-1902), generally regarded as a legendary lifesaver. He joined the Humane Society at 15, and was still working for the US Life Saving Service on his death at 75. As a crew commander, James is credited with saving hundreds of lives. His father, mother, brother, wife, and son were all lifesavers.

Much of the physical evidence of the heroes of the shore watch was preserved by the late Robert Caldwell. Caldwell was a Nantucket native who served aboard a Coast Guard cutter in World War II. Intrigued by the history of the Coast Guard and his own experiences at sea, Caldwell began gathering artifacts of Nantucket's rich lore. He founded the original Nantucket Lifesaving Museum on a corner of his property, and it opened in 1971.

The self-avowed pack rat talked in a 1987 Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror article of snatching a box bound for the dump that included sepia photos of all of the island's lifesaving stations and their crews.

"The old museum was really a clubhouse for Bob and his friends," said Grimmer. "It was utterly charming. I think Bob would be proud of our new museum."

The recent renovation enabled the museum to roughly double its exhibit space and provide a climate-controlled environment for its collections. It will also allow for display of items that outside entities would not have previously loaned because of the building's condition.

A new effort to draw youngsters' interest is through the tale of Marshall, a Newfoundland dog who was rescued from the ship W.F. Marshall by the crew at the Surfside Lifesaving Station in 1877. Several "wayfinders" throughout the exhibits, along with the chance to help construct a Nantucket lightship basket and operate a miniature "breeches buoy" rescue device, will particularly appeal to children.

The story of the museum "is such a strong story for kids because it's not death and destruction. It's hope, helping your fellow man," Lansing said.

One room of the museum is set aside for changing exhibits, and Slavitz spent a week at the Coast Guard station to produce this year's "Brant Point 24/7: Nantucket's Coast Guard." The photo essay forges a link between the lonely beach patrollers of the 1800s and the group's sea-rescue mission of today.

Ron Driscoll can be reached at

If You Go

Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum

158 Polpis Road, Nantucket


The museum is 3 1/2 miles from Nantucket Town, reachable by car, Nantucket Regional Transit Authority bus, or the Polpis Bike Path. Daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through Oct. 13. Adults $5, children $3, under age 5 free.

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