"The Wrecking Ground, pt. 7" by Lee Huttner
"The Wrecking Ground" is an essay told in parts by Lee Huttner. We will be publishing a new part each week on our blog. Stay tuned!
In the dark and early hours of July 19, 1850, the small American brig Elizabeth was at the end of its return journey from Italy under the inexpert command of first mate H.P. Bangs, the ship’s captain having died of smallpox only a week after setting out into the Mediterranean. Taking a sounding of twenty-one fathoms, Bangs believed the ship to be well on course somewhere off the southern coast of New Jersey. The wind was strong, the water roiling, the rain thick, and the Elizabeth labored northward. What circumstances, exactly, led to the ship’s wreck remain unclear. It is certain that Bangs was gravely inaccurate in his estimation of the ship’s location, and that, considering the tempestuous weather and the murk of the night, he would have been better off anchoring until daybreak.
Surely, Bangs saw a light in the distance. Likely, he believed it to be the lighthouse at Navesink, south of the entrance to New York Harbor, the ship’s final destination. In reality, it was Fire Island Light, some thirty-five miles to the northeast of Navesink. The lighthouse’s bright, hot flame drew Bangs onward. He let the wind carry the ship toward that glinting promise of safety.
A broken promise. At four in the morning the Elizabeth, laden with a cargo of Italian marble, struck a sandbar, driving a hole through her stern.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith Oakes recalled that there had been no storm like it in the eleven years they had lived on Fire Island. By noon the next day, the waves had torn the ship to pieces.
The sailors who swam to shore first—those who survived the swim—would not risk returning to the wreck in the lifeboat kept moored beneath the lighthouse. They waited until the storm began to abate. Nothing but debris and the ship’s shattered hull remained when they at last rowed back out.
Two days later, the papers reported that well near a thousand scavengers had flooded the island to pilfer the washed-up cargo. By then, the news of the wreck had only just reached New England.