By B. Arnold Kerr
The two-masted schooner Lizzie Carr shattered on rocks near Portsmouth Harbor during a terrible storm in January 1905.
Typically, this should have been the end of the story.
But pieces of the ship are still available for viewing in New Hampshire.
Part of the schooner’s hull is now on display in the Seacoast Science Center at Odiorne Point.
The ship’s wheel can be seen at the Rye Historical Museum.
A wooden spar from the vessel served as the original yardarm flagpole installed in downtown Portsmouth’s Market Square.
According to local lore, several homes in Rye are still bolstered from the cargo of timber lost during the shipwreck.
And two decades ago, after the ship’s remains were found by a young boy walking along Wallis Sands Beach, it was the subject of a major archeological dig.
While these surviving artifacts represent a lost era of the region’s shipping industry, they don’t tell the dramatic story of how the vessel came to its end on our local shores.
It’s a tale illustrating the heroism of the old U.S. Life Saving Service – and in these trying times we really can’t get enough stories of selflessness, even if they’re more than 115 years old.
The 286-ton Lizzie Carr was built in Thomaston, Maine, back in 1868. She was carrying lumber from Calais, Maine, to New York City, as well as a crew of seven led by Capt. Fred Merchant, on what would be the schooner’s final voyage.
On the evening of 6 January 1905, the Lizzie anchored just two miles south of the Wallis Sands lifesaving station during a heavy gale and rainstorm.
According to a 1985 Portsmouth Herald feature recounting the incident, a local tugboat was sent out to the vessel and the crew offered to tow the vessel into port.
However, this would have required a towing fee. Merchant, the Lizzie’s skipper, declined the offer, feeling certain the winds would eventually abate. During the night, however, the situation deteriorated.
The following morning, as described in a 1905 annual report published by the U.S. Life Saving Service, a sudden gale raising heavy seas carried the ship toward rocky shores, dragging its anchors.
Members of the ship’s crew lashed themselves to the rigging to avoid being swept overboard, but when the vessel slammed into the rocks the masts crashed onto the deck.
Merchant was thrown overboard in the rigging and clung to the wreckage for his very life.
By now Seacoast readers are hopefully aware our coastal area was once dotted with stations manned by the rugged surfmen of the Life Saving Service, a precursor of today’s modern-day Coast Guard.
Also known as “storm warriors,” these sturdy gents were charged with pushing out in wooden rowboats during even the stormiest of seas to rescue mariners in distress.
They were hard men living hard lives, for little financial reward. Their spartan existence was defined by the agency’s unofficial motto – “They say you have to go out, but they don’t say you have to come back.”
Fortunately, the Wallis Sands surfmen had been monitoring the Lizzie and were able to respond quickly that January morning.
They brought out a small, cannon-like apparatus to fire lifelines over the vessel, but one shot wound up getting entangled in the rigging and other attempts fared little better.
“The wind had now increased to hurricane force, and the sea and surf running so high that the life-saving crew, in attempting to reach the wreck, were swept back each time and cast upon the beach,” according to the 1905 report.
But then surfmen from neighboring stations at Rye Beach and Jeffreys Point in New Castle also arrived at the scene.
And so did Capt. Silas H. Harding, a Portsmouth resident who happened to be the superintendent of all life-saving stations in the states of Maine and New Hampshire.
“From the first the surf was high and dangerous and the sea so full of wreckage that it looked as though no human power could force a boat through it,” the report declared, stating “for a time it looked like the shipwrecked men were doomed.”
Harding selected a group of his storm warriors to sally forth in a surfboat to the stranded vessel, which “was being ground onto driftwood.” This time, with the combined might of the multiple lifesaving crews, the rescuers managed to push the boat out into the water.
Rowing thru the lost timber cargo, which became potentially deadly battering rams in the throes of an angry sea, it took several long minutes before the crew came across “6 drenched and streaming figures, limp and inert, clinging to the top of the deck house, which was jumping about like a living thing in the huge wash of the sea,” according to the report.
The exhausted mariners were dragged aboard over the side of the surfboat, which carried them to the beach stern first. Those surfmen who’d been left on shore, including Harding, waded waist-deep into the sea to help haul the rescue boat back onto land.
Unfortunately the Lizzie’s first mate, Frank Treen, had earlier chosen to try for shore on his own rather than waiting for the rescuers. He set out on some floating timber and was carried out to sea by the storm. A search over the next few days failed to turn up his body.
The survivors were treated for their injuries at the Wallis Sands station and two of them had to be hospitalized, but soon all were released. While it may have seemed longer to all involved, the entire operation took little more than an hour.
“Under the circumstances it seems miraculous that anyone escaped,” the service declared in its annual report.
Harding in particular was a legendary figure within the lifesaving community, and the Seacoast. “Harding’s example in life was to show what a true surfman could do,” a local historian once wrote.
As keeper, or officer in charge, of the Jeffreys Point station, he had previously led perhaps the region’s most celebrated rescue following the 1888 wreck of the frigate Oliver Dyer. Harding and each member of his crew earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal – the highest award presented by the Life Saving Service – for their heroism during the Dyer incident.
One of those surfmen was Ephraim S. Hall, who by 1905 had succeeded Harding as keeper of the Jeffreys Point station.
Hall would go on to preside over the transfer of that station to Wood Island near Kittery, Maine, in 1908. He also oversaw the local transition when the agency merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to become the United States Coast Guard we know today.
One of Hall’s surfmen in 1905 was Charles A. Hand, who years later was appointed keeper at Wood Island. Tragically, Hand led a rescue effort in 1920 off the Isles of Shoals, only to discover one of the fatalities was his newly married son-in-law Sherman Parker.
Parker, only 20 years of age, had survived the front lines of France during World War I only to drown as an Isles of Shoals surfman during a routine errand, six months after marrying Hand’s daughter. Hand’s service in the Coast Guard eventually extended into World War II.
Between the shattered wreck of the schooner and its scattered lost cargo of timber, the aftermath of the Lizzie Carr shipwreck left a scene of utter devastation. The Portsmouth Athenaeum’s vast collection includes copies of photos and even postcards of the wreckage.
The 1986 Herald article notes “tradition has it that many a house in Rye, especially near the beaches, contains some of the lumber that was taken from Wallis Sands Beach.”
A wooden spar from the Lizzie which had been stored for decades in a Rye barn was donated to the city of Portsmouth and installed as a yardarm flagpole for the nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebration.
The original flagpole was located right in the middle of Market Square, but resulting traffic problems required its relocation to the current garden plot right outside the Athenaeum.
Around 1980, the wooden flagpole was replaced by the current metal pole.
Part of the Lizzie’s hull remained buried beneath Wallis Sands until a boy walking along the beach came across it in 1998.
The discovery sparked a regional archeological mystery as to the identity of the wreck, until a local resident visited the digging site to show Plymouth State University Professor David Switzer a photo of the Lizzie incident.
Today that hull is on display at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. With the country slowly working its way back to normal, folks may soon be able to see these artifacts for themselves.
B. Arnold Kerr eagerly awaits the planned maritime museum at Wood Island, which will someday house heroic stories like this, if they forgive Kerr’s baseball treachery.
(June 22, 2020)
He can also be found on seacoastonline.com