July 21, 2010
The Wreck of the
George W. Wells, September 3, 1913
She was a beautiful sight. At 325 feet long (302 feet
at the keel), 48 feet at the beam, and weighing 2,970 tons, the
six-masted coastal schooner, George W. Wells,
was one of the largest wooden sailing ships ever built. Her frame was entirely
of white oak; her six inch planking, hard pine. Her garboards (the first strake
of planks laid next to the keel) were eight inches thick.
According to a contemporary account,
"the six lower masts are splendid sticks of Oregon Pine, each 119 feet
long.... The cabins and staterooms are finished in ash, sycamore and
cherry, and supplied with steam heat, baths, hot and cold water,
electric bells and a telephone line to the galley and engine house."
The Wells, built for John S. Crowley's
Coastwise Transportation Company at the Holly M. Bean shipyard in Camden, Maine,
at a cost of one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, slid down the ways
and into the harbor on August 14, 1900 as ten thousand people looked on.
The George W. Wells:
(Click on photo to view a larger image.)
The schooner was named for a fifty-four year old entrepreneur/investor
who was born on a farm in Southbridge, Connecticut. At the age of
eighteen he had secured a job in the Robert H. Cole & Co. optical
shop where he quickly distinguished himself as a mechanical genius. By
1869 he had advanced to partner. In that year he became one of the
incorporators of the newly organized American Optical Company. Three
years later he became General Supervisor; then Treasurer in 1879. In
1891 he was elected President of the corporation.*
George Washington Wells:
(Click on photo to view a larger image.)
The ship's christening ceremony was performed by George W. Wells'
daughter, Miss Mary Elizabeth, who "scattered white roses upon the bow
of the vessel as she started down the ways, and at the same time let
loose a flock of white pigeons."
After the ceremony the young society women of Camden sponsored a dance in the Opera House.
Reports of the day indicate that “every arrangement aboard
ship…[was] on an improved plan.” Both the captain’s cabin and the crews’
quarters were “models of neatness and comfort.” The Wells was constructed, as so many other coastal schooners, for hauling
lumber, coal, and other merchandise. Sailors aboard employed modern steam
machinery to hoist her cargo between ship and dock.
Before her commissioning, word spread among the sailing
community that the traditional designations for the names of her masts would be
replaced by numbers or days of the week. Her skipper, Captain Arthur Crowley,
the owner’s brother, would have none of that. The Wells’ masts, he made clear, would be foremast, mainmast,
mizzenmast, spankermast, jiggermast, and drivermast.
Old salts who had heard of the plans to build such a large
vessel shook their heads and declared that she was doomed to failure. Too large
and cumbersome, they thought, the Wells
would be unwieldy in port and difficult to control at sea. They were largely
mistaken. Nearly as fast as a coastal steamer, but considerably less expensive
to operate, the George W. Wells,
twenty-eight sails, proved to be a formidable and economical vessel.
One writer noted that "while she is a large vessel, she is also a
handsome craft being much the best looking of all the large
schooners afloat. Her great length takes away every appearance of
bulkiness, and so she looks like an immense yacht, with her sharp bows,
clean run aft and graceful lines all over...."
Ironically, in June of 1901 the Wells collided with the Eleanor
A. Percy (launched October 10, 1900 in Bath, Maine), at the time the only
other six-masted coastal schooner. Neither vessel was seriously damaged.
For thirteen years the George
W. Wells plied the Atlantic Ocean between ports as far north as New England
and as far south as Cuba. On September 3, 1913, en route from Boston,
Massachusetts to Fernadina Beach, Florida, the Wells was driven into the breakers on Ocracoke Island by hurricane
A Painting of the George W. Wells:
(Click on photo to view a larger image.)
The storm struck the island just after daylight, roaring in
from the southeast at 90 - 100 mph. Small boats, steamers, and sailing vessels
were no match for the hurricane. The British steam ship, Glenaen, grounded in the breakers near Ocracoke’s south point. For
two hours the crew of the Ocracoke Life Saving Station battled wind and tide to
approach the Glenaen. After being
forced to abandon rescue attempts by surfboat, Keeper Williams ordered horses
hitched to the beach cart. Tide water swirled under the cart up to the axle. By
10:30 a.m. the tide receded, leaving the Glenaen
“high up on the beach” and out of immediate danger.
As the life savers struggled to help the Glenaen they watched a water logged
six-masted schooner being blown down the beach with distress signals flying.
All of the George W. Wells’ sails had
been torn away, and she was leaking badly where seams in her hull had opened.
Captain Taylor of the Glenaen
decided that he and his crew of 23 would remain on their vessel, so Keeper
Wiliams and his crew turned their attention to the Wells, and followed the schooner for eight miles.
As the schooner approached the shore Captain Joseph H. York
ordered her anchors lowered, but the chains parted, and the Wells was driven onto the beach near the
present day pony pen.
Surfman Roscoe Burrus at the Hatteras Inlet station had also
spied the Wells. Well aware of the
difficulty of attempting a rescue in hurricane force winds, Keeper Barnett
requested assistance from Durant’s Station on Hatteras Island. Crews from all
three stations arrived at the wreck between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Reports
indicate that they participated in one of the most daring and courageous rescue
operations ever recorded.
Surfmen from the Hatteras Inlet station had harnessed ponies
to their beach apparatus cart which was heavily loaded with breeches buoy,
pulleys, sand anchor, various sizes of hemp line, brass Lyle gun, and other
equipment. The sea tide was rushing over the beach, inundating the cart as
every wave passed by. After two miles the ponies balked and refused to
continue. Without hesitation the surfmen hitched themselves to the cart and
pulled their equipment the remaining six miles, often in water up their waists
and through quicksand, to the site of the wreck.
Keeper Barnett’s first two shots from the Lyle gun fell
short of the Wells. He fired five
more shots, but none succeeded in getting the breeches buoy to the schooner.
The last line parted as it was being hauled to the vessel.
Finally Captain York tied a line to an empty oil barrel and
sent it adrift. After an hour the life savers were able to reach the barrel by
wading into the sea up to their necks. Soon afterwards they were successful in
sending the breeches buoy out to the stranded schooner. Captain York secured
the hawser high up on one of the masts, and signaled that he and his crew and
passengers were ready to abandon ship.
By 11 o’clock that night all 26 people (20 crew members,
three women, and three children) and a large Saint Bernard dog were brought
safely to shore. One of the passengers was barely able to keep his two year old
child’s head above water as they were pulled to safety. Captain York was the
last to leave his crippled ship. He carried the Saint Bernard and a red
lantern, the latter of which he dropped into the ocean just before landing on
Just over a week later the once grand George W. Wells was sold at auction for a mere $800. Shortly
thereafter the Wells was set on fire
and burned. For years, remnants of the George
W. Wells were visible on the beach at Ocracoke. In recent times a section
of a long ago shipwreck, more than 75 feet long and more than 15 feet wide, is
sometimes exposed north of the pony pen.
The Remains of the George W. Wells?
No one knows for sure, but many
believe it is the last of the George W.
Wells, a silent reminder of the days of sailors and sailing ships, and the
brave and courageous life savers who watched over our shores.
Washington. Wells' three sons (Channing McGregory, Albert [A.B.], &
Joel Cheney) continued to manage the American Optical Company after
their father died in 1912. Eventually the company was sold out of the
family. Today the American Optical Company manufactures a superior line
of quality sunglasses.
In the 1920s
the three Wells brothers began collecting antiques. In 1935 the Wells
Historical Museum, a non-profit educational corporation, was
legally organized and established. Just one year later plans were drawn
up for the creation of a typical New England village (1790-1840) on the
site of George W. Wells' home on Main Street in Sturbridge,
Massachusetts. In 1946 the enterprise became "Old Sturbridge Village"
and was opened to the public. Today it is one of the country's largest
living history museums. You can read more here: http://www.osv.org.
to Kathryn Wells for information about her husband's family, and for
the photos of George Washington Wells and the painting of the schooner George W. Wells.