Schooner Thomas J. Martin, January 1883

A boat load of fertilizer would grow another crop of heroes.

By James D. CharletShip picture

The Economics

Trade between the North and the South of the USA during the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s was mostly confined to east coast Atlantic shipping; and almost always, was done by the hard-working “blue collar” vessel of the times: the schooner. The origin of the term “schooner” is not certain, but probably from the Scottish term loosely meaning “skipping over water,” such as shipping stones, which every boy has done numerous times in their childhood. Compared to the lumbering, heavy ships preceding them, the schooner may have felt like it was skipping over the water.

Although the South was largely agricultural, it tended to be mostly large plantations rather than small farms. Consequently, not generally known today is that the North necessarily had many small farms for local produce. One of the most important ingredients for these farmers was fertilizer. By the 1880s, commercial fertilizer was being produced which contained three main elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

The first large-scale phosphate mining in the US were in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina, in Charleston, Colleton, and Beaufort counties. Mining started in 1868 and continued until 1938.

Beach patrol pic

The Beach Patrol Daily Duty

Two men from each station were sent to the beach all at the same time.  They would walk in opposite directions, heading towards their neighboring station. They would meet the neighboring station’s surfman on Beach Patrol halfway, chat and exchange Beach Checks to prove to their keeper that the patrol was complete.

What they are looking for was not only recent shipwrecks but also potential shipwrecks.  If they spot a shipwreck, the surfman sends up a flare. That does two things: (1) it tells the shipwreck crew that they have been spotted, and to remain on the ship because the primary cause of death and injury in shipwrecks was from jumping into the water, being hit by huge chunks of debris in the air or water, or from simply drowning; and that professional help is on the way, and (2) it tells the station there is a shipwreck and prepare to go out immediately.

If they spot a potential shipwreck, one far too close to the visible shore or the invisible shoals below, the surfman again sends up a flare to say, “alter course away from here!”   They also carried lanterns to see their way.

Every Beach Check in the entire Service bore three numbers: The District (of 13) in the U.S., the Station within that District, and the Surfman Number (1-8) within that Station.  Consequently, every Beach Check was unique – there was only one combination of those three numbers in that order.


The Wreck and Rescue

So it was that the schooner Thomas J. Martin, whose homeport was Bridgeton, New Jersey, with a crew of eight, was bringing a load of phosphate rock from Charleston, South Carolina to New York. Unfortunately, this voyage was scheduled for January of 1883. Not long after weighing anchor in Charleston, the Thomas J. Martin was sailing dark into the blustery night off the North Carolina coast. Around 1:00 o’clock that morning, the weather worsened, blowing the typical strong north-northeast for that time of Outer Banks year, and it was frothing up the sea. Thomas J. Martin was out of control and stranded about 400 yards from shore and a half a mile to the north of the Caffeys Inlet Station, now renumbered to Station No. 10.

Lifesaving medal

On regular north-bound beach patrol from Station Caffeys Inlet in the night of Tuesday, January 9, 1883, the station patrolman was over two miles north of the wreck when he discovered her, which was about 20 minutes after her stranding. He at once fired his red Coston light and ran for the station, where he arrived at two o’clock, badly exhausted with the speed of his course.

Years of daily training, standard at every United States Life-Saving Service station, immediately kicked in. Keeper Daniel B. Austin immediately threw up some rockets, both as a signal of cheer for the ship and to recall the patrolman on the south beat for service with the rest of the crew. The Annual Report that year states, “The night was so black and thick and the surf so high, that it was judged prudent to operate with the wreck [Lyle]gun rather than the boat, and this, with the beach apparatus, was accordingly taken, the rescuing party arriving abreast of the wreck by half past two.” 2 That means all hands with necessary lifesaving equipment on the two-ton wreck cart had been on scene in seventy minutes after the wreck was spotted, ready to serve “so that others may live.”

Mother Nature, however, was not cooperating. It was so utterly dark that the lifesavers could not even see the wreck. This made the Lyle gun attempt unfeasible, since there was no target and no known distance. Furthermore, the surf had become so turbulent that it precluded the use of the surfboat. In complete frustration, the only course left to the lifesavers was to wait.  Even then, however, it would not be idly. The Annual Report continued: “In the enforced interim of waiting, the keeper left one man with orders to build a fire upon the beach, and hurried back with the remainder of the crew to fetch the surf boat for use if it should be required.” So typical of this Service – always prepared for all contingencies.

Shortly before dawn, the weather cleared enough for the wreck to be seen. The Lyle gun was planted, aimed, elevation set and fired, and produced a near perfect attempt, placing the shot and  shotline in the forward rigging. As usual, immediately following was the whip line sent to the wreck, then the hawser and finally the instrument of salvation; the breeches buoy.

Lyle gunSetting up all the equipment aboard the wrecked vessel itself requires 100% effort of the ship’s crew. The efforts of crew of Thomas J. Martin, however, were not up to the standards of keeper Austin, and were so dismally slow that it was light enough to safely launch the surfboat, which keeper Austin did! The Caffeys Inlet lifesavers made speedy work of the rescue, the eight men on board being brought ashore at the first trip, and most of their baggage at the second. By half past 7:00 a.m. all hands were in the station, where the rescued men received proper attention; five of them were fed and sheltered at the station for a day and a half, when they left for their homes; the other three remained for eight days. That is what this Service does.

KnotBut that is not all. They are also very frugal. Annual Report: “At one o’clock on the day of the rescue the life saving [sic]crew again went out in the surf boat, taking with them the schooner’s mate, and made an effort to recover the shot line, which had been left attached on board.” Rough seas made the attempt unsuccessful, so they tried again three days later, but it proved to be so entangled that is was let go.

As almost a post script, the Annual Report ends with “Two patrolmen from the two stations on either side of Caffeys Inlet [Poyners Hill to the north; Paul Gamiels Hill to the south], not meeting with the patrols therefrom, pushed on to see what was the matter, and finding them at the wreck turned in and rendered good service. The colored cook of the Caffeys Inlet Station, Appollus Owens, also volunteered, and helped all he could.”

Another successful, joyous, difficult rescue by the United States Life-Saving Service that hardly anyone has ever heard of…


2 Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Services for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1883:


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