In an era of six-masted schooners, with 10 having been built from 1900 to 1910, the Mertie B. Crowley was a majestic craft. Launched in 1907 as a transport along the northeastern U.S. seaboard, the Crowley was 296 feet long at the waterline and overall an impressive 412 feet from tip to stern. Her masts were 122 feet high, and each supported a 58-foot-high topmast. From the top of the main mast to the deck below was the equivalent of a 10-story drop.
Carrying loads of coal to Maine with return loads of ice, the Crowley sailed the Atlantic Ocean past the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts on each leg of the route. On what would be its final voyage, in January 1910, the Crowley was bound for Boston with a full load of 4,796 tons of coal. Capt. William Haskell, his wife Ida, and a crew of 12 were aboard.
Weather conditions had deteriorated during the voyage to thick fog and rain followed by winds of 50-60 mph and rough seas. Visibility was poor when the crew saw a lighthouse beam they thought was on Long Island. However, the Crowley had made more headway than the crew realized: It had reached the waters off the Vineyard, and at 5 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 23, it grounded on a shoal that extended south from the island. The vessel was then broadsided by mighty 10- to 12-foot waves, its stern turning 180 degrees in moments to face the island, at a point about four miles offshore, opposite the town of Edgartown. The waves broke over the deck of the Crowley, tearing away its lifeboats.
The crew’s first priority was to get Mrs. Haskell up from below where she was sleeping. They took her to the deck and lashed her to the first mast. One of the crew climbed up to the topmast, where he tied off his shirt as a distress signal. The only other thing that crewmembers could do was to wait, in hope that local fishermen would come to their aid. About an hour after its grounding, the Crowley split at the middle into two pieces as breakers continued to smash into it. The masts became loosened and began to swing wildly but remained in place.
The wreck of the Crowley was first discovered by the pilot of a steamer anchored in Edgartown harbor. Word was relayed to Capt. Levi Jackson, another local fisherman, who at age 31 already had a successful track record of rescues at sea. It was a foregone conclusion that Jackson would risk his life once again, for the crew of the Crowley. What Jackson lacked in size, at 5′ 6″ and 145 pounds, he made up for in muscle, courage, and sheer determination. Perhaps it was in his blood: In 1893 his father Hiram had attempted to save the crew of a ship wrecked at Cuttyhunk Island. Sadly, he drowned in the effort.
Jackson responded from his home in Edgartown to the wharf, where his boat, the Priscilla, was tied up. The 37-foot, 10-ton craft was considered a large cat boat, a type of vessel used primarily for recreation, but Jackson had it modified to be a fishing sloop that he used to work the waters from New Jersey to Newfoundland. In addition to its sail, the Priscilla had a 16-horsepower engine, and it was equipped with three dories, each 17 feet long and capable of holding five people. Crewmembers of the Priscilla would vary over the fishing season, but on that day, three of his regular crew were at the wharf: Patrick Kelly, his brother Henry, and Louis Doucette. Jackson devised a rescue plan, and with his crew, including another man who happened to be at the wharf, Eugene L. Benefito, set off from the harbor at 8:30 a.m.
Able to travel only about 6 m.p.h., the men circled the east end of the island and eventually reached an area that had a good vantage point from which Jackson could assess the feasibility of his rescue plan. By 11 a.m., the men were in a position from which they could see the extent of the wreckage of the Crowley, whose crew was up in the rigging. The decision was made to proceed.
The tide had changed by then, and the seas were not as turbulent. Reducing sail and relying on the engine, Jackson maneuvered the Priscilla back and forth around the waves in a serpentine course, continually getting closer to the wreck. It took another hour until he had the Priscilla 150 feet to the lee side of the wreck, near its midsection. There, Jackson dropped anchor. Winds were from the southeast, and waves striking the Crowley were broken up as they passed over its deck. It was then noon, and the Crowley crew had been stranded for seven hours, whipped by winds and freezing salt spray.
The crew of the Priscilla launched a dory, which Doucette took to the Crowley to set a line between the two vessels. The plan was to pull the dory back and forth between them to effect the rescue, but the seas tossed the unoccupied dory about and the attempt was abandoned. Jackson was left with no other option but to perform each rescue by manned dory, one person at a time. He and Benefito would stay aboard the Priscilla while the Kelly brothers and Doucette would each maneuver a dory single-handedly.
The Kellys were the first to go, but Patrick’s attempt was thwarted by breaking waves, and he was forced to return to have his dory bailed out. Henry rowed to the Crowley successfully. Mrs. Haskell was unlashed from the mast but kept a rope tied around her shoulders as a safety line. In January, the temperature of the water surrounding the Vineyard is generally in the upper 30s, and being in the water even for a short time could have fatal consequences. As a wave took the dory up toward the deck of the Crowley, Mrs. Haskell jumped at just the right moment and without hesitation and landed in the dory. Henry quickly rowed his passenger to the Priscilla, where Jackson and Benefito pulled her aboard. It was then one o’clock, and the first rescue had just been completed.
Patrick meanwhile was back out in his dory and picked up Capt. Haskell. Repeating the efforts of his brother, he took Haskell to the Priscilla before heading back out for the next rescue. And so it was a rescue by Henry, and then a rescue by Patrick, and then by Doucette, each man taking a turn to save one crewmember at a time. Henry made four trips and saved four lives. Doucette made seven trips altogether, including one in which he rescued Patrick, whose dory had again filled with water. In addition to Haskell, Patrick rescued three crewmembers.
It was around 3 p.m., after two hours of grueling work that all 14 souls had been saved from the Crowley. The Priscilla with her crew of five, plus the 14 from the Crowley, headed back to the safety of Edgartown harbor, taking another two hours to make the trip. From the time of the wreck until everyone was safe on shore, 12 hours had lapsed. The crowd that had formed on the wharf during the day cheered the return of the Priscilla. A week after wrecking on the shoal, the Crowley was battered to pieces. The final mast to go was the one to which Capt. and Mrs. Haskell had been lashed.
For their efforts, Jackson and his crew were each awarded the Carnegie Medal and a financial grant. Jackson’ wife wanted to use his $2,000 grant to purchase a home in Edgartown, but Jackson used it to pay off debts owed on the Priscilla and to have a new vessel built…the Priscilla II. Jackson retired from deep-sea fishing in the 1940s and died in 1962 at age 83, leaving six children, 20 grandchildren, and 38 great-grandchildren. The Vineyard Gazette eulogized him: “To have lived in the town, or on the island, or in a generation with Levi Jackson remains a privilege, something to be proud of… Levi Jackson’s long career stands as his memorial, and so it will stand, into the far reaches of time.”
By Herbert R. Ward
Vineyard Haven, Mass.
Ward, an amateur genealogist, is a great-grandson of Capt. Levi Jackson. Capt. Jackson’s Carnegie Medal is part of the collection at Mystic, Conn., Seaport Museum.
Photo courtesy of the W. Howard Andrews Collection.