By D. Allan Kerr
The rugged heroism of the United States Life Saving Service has been largely forgotten over time.
But the rescue of the frigate Oliver Dyer during a raging Portsmouth Harbor snowstorm 130 years ago this month is the stuff of legend. And now a local group preserving the history of this once-fabled agency is trying to track down a George S. Wasson painting depicting the scene.
Before our shores were patrolled by the U.S. Coast Guard, stations of the Life Saving Service were manned by members called surfmen.
These surfmen – also called “storm warriors” by newspapers of the day – ventured out in wooden rowboats to aid mariners when most folks were hunkered in the safety of their homes.
According to archives made available by the Coast Guard, on the morning of 25 November 1888 the wind “was blowing a howling gale from northeast, with a thick snowstorm, while a tremendous surf had grown upon the shore.”
By the end of the following day, the surfmen stationed in the harbor would perform “prodigies of heroism seldom equaled.”
“Every man in this crew came within an ace of losing his life, from the keeper down,” a superior later reported, “so that while they were doing their utmost to save the crew of the wreck, they were in turn saving the lives of each other.”
— THE INCIDENT —
The Oliver Dyer, manned by a crew of five, had anchored just inside the harbor at about 0130 (1:30 a.m. for landlubbers) on the 25th. The ship was hauling coal from Weehawken, New Jersey, to its home port of Saco, Maine.
The local station back in those days was located at Jerry’s Point in New Castle. As the station’s keeper, Silas H. Harding was in charge of the crew operating there. Seeing the Dyer anchored just a half-mile northeast of the station, and other vessels nearby, Harding sent out a signal advising a lookout would be on watch if the ships needed assistance.
The Jerry’s Point station was only about a year old at the time. The Life Saving Service had been established just nine years before that, primarily thru the efforts of a native Mainer named Sumner Increase Kimball. The agency was created in the wake of several maritime disasters resulting in large losses of life.
Harding saw the potential for such a catastrophe the morning of the 25th and made preparations in advance.
Sure enough, while on patrol around 0545 the following morning, surfman Ernest Robinson saw the Dyer being swept closer to shore by the pounding surf. He shot off his signal flare and ran to the station to sound the alarm. He met Harding there and they rushed toward the water, finding the vessel just 400 yards from the station but 200 yards into the sea.
Harding was about to launch a rescue boat to row out to the vessel when he saw the Dyer had lost its anchor and was heading toward a ragged ledge to the east. Then “a tremendous sea caught the vessel upon her broadside and lifting her bodily threw her thirty or forty feet inshore,” according to the 1889 inspector’s report.
As the Dyer’s crew climbed up the rigging, the sea crashed over the entire length of the vessel and one man was swept aboard from 40 feet above the deck.
“The truth is that when the first seas went over that vessel there was nothing of her in sight but her top masts and lower mast heads, and it is a miracle that every soul was not washed into the sea,” Harding later told the inspector.
But the ship was also being pushed shoreward within 75 feet of a wide, flat rock. So now the surfmen of the Life Saving Service had to make their way to that rock between crashing waves to attempt a rescue.
It’s quite possible the surfmen had in the back of their minds the unofficial motto of the service – “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”
— THE HEROISM —
The inspector’s report emphasizes “the weather was piercing cold and the ground was covered with slush and ice” during the following actions.
Another sailor who had jumped from the vessel was seen struggling in the water, and Surfman Ephraim S. Hall waded out to assist him. Hall’s comrades were just getting ahold of the seaman when “a huge breaker washed the rescuers and the rescued together off the rock.”
“Fortunately they fell upon the inshore side, or all would have been swept out by the undertow and drowned,” the report states. “They, however, clung to the ragged edges of the rock, tearing the flesh upon their arms until the blood ran, and when the sea receded, they regained their footing.”
Meanwhile the Dyer’s cook had leapt overboard as well. Surfman George Randall caught hold of the fellow as he was being dragged out by the undertow and hauled him to safety.
With two men still on board, Harding fired a rescue line onto the vessel and instructed the sailors to wrap the line beneath their armpits and jump into the water. Harding’s crew then heaved on the line to haul the men to safety.
At that point, Randall and Winslow Amazeen were sent to a higher ledge to see if they could spot the man who had initially been washed overboard.
“The brave fellows had just succeeded in gaining a footing upon the rock, when a big sea took them off their feet,” according to the report. “Amazeen caught hold of Randall, and, as the sea rolled back, they clung to the rock and were saved. Their escape was narrow indeed, and when recovered from their peril by the rest of the crew they were far gone with exhaustion.”
To illustrate the extreme danger of this operation, the report describes how Harding at one point was washed from a rock and had to be saved by Randall, who in turn was later rescued by Amazeen. Then both Randall and Amazeen had to be “dragged almost lifeless from the seething smother.”
“All hands were tumbled from the rock by merciless breakers and rescued each other,” the report continued. “Every time they went to that sea-combed rock upon their errand of mercy it was a forlorn hope, but they led it and conquered.”
The rescued Dyer seamen were brought to the station where they received shelter and care for the next two days. Although the ship and its cargo were a total loss, the surfmen were able to salvage personal effects of the sailors.
The body of the Dyer crewman tossed overboard, an Austrian named Giuseppe Puez, was never found despite a search over the next several days.
— THE PAINTING —
The actions of Harding and crew were later “highly praised” by the Dyer’s captain, Samuel Emerson, to the Portsmouth Daily Chronicle.
The newspaper further reported nearly 200 lives were saved by surfmen all along the Atlantic coast during this terrible storm. A neighboring station at Wallis Sands in Rye also aided mariners caught in the rough weather.
“The country owes a debt of lasting gratitude to Mr. Sumner I. Kimball, the present chief and founder of this humane work, for the splendid results of his hard labors,” the Chronicle declared. “The good accomplished in these two days more than pays for all the money required to keep the service in operation.”
The inspector’s report was written the following January by Lieutenant Charles F. Shoemaker of the Third Life-Saving District. Based on his recommendation, Harding and his entire crew were each awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal. It is the highest honor they could have earned for their heroism.
Selden F. Wells and John Smith were the other storm warriors recognized.
The medals were delivered along with a handwritten letter from U.S. Treasury Secretary William Windom, as the service was part of his department. The letter dated 21 May 1889 declares the medal was awarded “for heroic service at the wreck of the schooner Oliver Dyer, November 26, 1888.”
To further commemorate the rescue, renowned Kittery Point painter George S. Wasson – who would later gain fame as a novelist as well – recreated the scene on canvas.
An accomplished boatbuilder himself, Wasson is still famous for his maritime paintings. He also drew several sketches of the shipwreck, at the site of the rescue.
There is today an old newspaper clipping, date unknown, describing a “set of bronzed and hardy-looking men” marveling at the accuracy of the painting on display in a shop window. The group turned out to be “Capt. Harding” and his life-saving crew.
“No greater compliment could be paid to Mr. Wasson’s work than has been accorded it by these men,” the article concluded.
However, the whereabouts of the painting are unknown today.
There are digital images of the front and back of the painting, which shows on the rear frame a handwritten note indicating the artwork was “done for” Harding as a gift from Wasson. The year “1888” is also written on the back of the painting.
The station at Jerry’s Point was later closed and relocated in 1908 across the Piscataqua River to Wood Island, just off Kittery’s Fort Foster. In 1915, the Lifesaving Service was merged by President Woodrow Wilson with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard.
Harding remained as keeper at Jerry’s Point until his 1896 promotion to superintendent of District One, overseeing all 15 stations based in Maine and New Hampshire. For many years he was a resident of New Castle, where he served as one of the first trustees of the public library and conductor of the local Sons of Temperance division.
“Harding’s example in life was to show what a true surfman could do,” local historian Ken Maxam once wrote in an unpublished history of the town. Harding lived to the ripe old age of 86.
Ephraim Hall, it should be noted, went on to serve as keeper of the Portsmouth Harbor station from 1903 until his retirement in 1919. So he presided not only over the transfer from Jerry’s Point to Wood Island, but also from the jurisdiction of the Lifesaving Service to the Coast Guard.
The station at Wood Island, after passing hands several times, was eventually closed. It sat in ruin for decades before a local non-profit group called the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association took on the task of restoration.
One component of the group’s plan is to establish a maritime museum at Wood Island. And organizers would love to have the Wasson painting for display.
They believe the artwork was in California about five years ago, but have since lost track.
“This painting certainly should hang in the fully restored Wood Island Station, for the enjoyment of the public, without a doubt,” said WILSSA President Sam Reid.
The group is currently in process of purchasing a separate, smaller painting of the scene by Wasson, just located in Tennessee.
But they still hope to find the canvas created by one Seacoast legend and gifted to another.
D. Allan Kerr is the author of Silent Strength, a book about the 1963 loss of the nuclear Navy submarine USS Thresher.
(Nov. 22, 2018 – Happy Thanksgiving!)
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