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:

The schooner was named for a fifty-four year old entrepreneur/investor who was born on a farm in Southbridge, Massachusetts. 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:

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, with 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 force winds.

A Painting of the George W. Wells:

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 shore.

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.


* George 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:

Many thanks 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.


It was December of 1899.  The U.S. Life Saving Station at Cedar Hammock, just a mile or so from Hatteras Inlet, on the north end of Ocracoke Island, had been in operation for sixteen years.  The station had been built to provide rescue services for mariners involved in shipping disasters along the coast.  For three hundred years numerous shipwrecks had occurred around Cape Hatteras, and over that time many a sailor died because those on shore had no equipment or training to attempt a rescue.

In 1883 a dramatic change was made on Ocracoke.  James Howard was appointed the first keeper (or captain) of the new Cedar Hammock station.  Six surfmen, all natives of the island, were hired, and training began.  Over the next sixteen years a number of schooners and other sailing vessels wrecked on Ocracoke’s beach in stormy weather and high seas.  But most of the skippers and crew of those ships were delivered from watery graves because of the bravery and courage of the well-trained life savers.

The Cedar Hammock LSS (Keeper Howard on right; family members on left), late 1800s:
Cedar Hammock LSS

Not far from their fully equipped station, Keeper Howard and some of his crew had built modest homes.  Forsaking the comforts, conveniences, and community of Ocracoke village, the keeper and his surfmen brought wives, children, and other family members to their remote end of the island during their months of service (typically September to March, the period of severest weather). Keeper Howard and his wife, Zilphia, even had their grandchildren with them after their daughter, Lorena, died unexpectedly in her mid-30s.  Their father, Rev. L.O. Wyche, was a traveling Methodist preacher and was unable to take his children with him on his circuit.

As Christmas approached in 1899, the small isolated community at Cedar Hammock, including more than a dozen children, looked forward to the holiday season. Native cedars and yaupons were cut and used to decorate windows and doors.  Red bows were tied on wreaths and trees.  Christmas songs were played on the Howards’ parlor organ.  Stockings were hung by the fireplace in great anticipation of the coming holiday.  The surfmen and their families chose to pool their resources for a community-wide Christmas day celebration.  They would all gather in the station at mid-day on December 25 to share a festive dinner of roast goose, potatoes, collards, and pumpkin pie.   Each family would provide a portion of the meal.  James Hatton Wahab’s wife, Martha Ann Howard Wahab, accepted the responsibility of baking the pies.

On December 23, late in the afternoon, Hatton walked into the kitchen and discovered every level surface covered with pumpkin pies.  Martha Ann had baked, not just three or four pies for the two dozen or so people at Cedar Hammock.  She had baked enough pies for more than twice that many people.  “Whatever are you doing?” Hatton asked her.  “We can’t possibly eat all those pies, Martha Ann!”

“Well, Hatton,” she replied, “you know I always like to be prepared.  I want to be sure to have enough pies in case any folks from over seas come to join us for Christmas dinner.”

Hatton just shrugged his shoulders and walked back outside.  He had been scanning the skies.  Dark, ominous storm clouds had been rolling in over the sound, and the wind was picking up.  He had come home to check on his family.  After his five children were safe inside he would help at the station.  The other families had the same concerns.

Before long the children were all accounted for.  Some had been in the sound in their sail skiffs.  Two had ridden their ponies down the beach.  Others were in the yard, or in the house, playing games or singing along with the organ.  But now they were all safe inside.

The wind was stronger now.  The surfmen struggled to haul boats out of the water, put their horses in the stable, tie down equipment, and close the shutters.  The surf was rough and the tide was already beginning to rise.

Inside, the children were fed their dinners and put to bed around eight o’clock.  The adults huddled around their fireplaces, trying to stay warm, and worrying about what the storm might bring.  Cold wind was whistling through cracks in the walls, around rattling windows, and under the doors.  They might lose some shingles from the roof, or maybe a banging shutter would blow off.  But they were most concerned about the rising tide.  If it came too high they would be forced to open the doors (and maybe even the windows) to let the cold Atlantic water inside before it could lift their houses off of their foundations and float them away.

As the night wore on and midnight approached the worried families at Cedar Hammock were unaware of the drama playing out a few miles south in the Atlantic Ocean.

The steel hulled, schooner-rigged, British steamship, Ariosto, with a crew of thirty, loaded with wheat, cotton, lumber, and cottonseed meal, was making its way north, intending to refuel in Norfolk before departing for Hamburg, Germany.  Peering through the mist, rain, and clouds, on a pitching and rolling vessel, the Ariosto’s navigator spied a lighthouse.  At midnight he reported to his captain, R.R. Baines from Antwerp, that they were abreast of the Cape Hatteras light.  Captain Baines gave orders: “Steam straight ahead.”  And then he retired to his cabin.  It was a fatal mistake.

The ship was not well out to sea, east of the dreaded shoals of Cape Hatteras, as the officers believed.  The navigator had actually seen the Ocracoke light, and the Ariosto was headed straight for the north end of Ocracoke.

About two in the morning of December 24, 1899 Captain Baines was rudely awakened by a sudden thud, a fearful shuddering of his entire vessel,  a precipitous list to starboard, and the ringing of the ship’s bell.   Rushing to the deck, he leaned over the rails and saw nothing but wild, churning white water.   Thick, heavy weather enveloped the Ariosto, preventing visibility for more than a dozen yards.  He was convinced that they had run hard aground on the outer Diamond Shoals. Captain Baines ordered distress flares to be launched, but he had no hope that life savers from Hatteras could reach them in a storm such as this.

Fearing that his boat would break apart (already the starboard life boats had been carried away), Captain Baines ordered all men in the remaining life boats.  The first boat touched the roiling waves and was immediately capsized.  All eleven men were thrown into the frigid December waters.  Fifteen sailors climbed into the second boat when a wave struck it and it broke apart. All fell into the Atlantic.  The captain and three others who had remained on the vessel were now stranded.  Two sailors from the overturned life boat managed to grab hold of some tackle thrown over the side of the boat, and were pulled back onto the deck.

Painting of the Wreck of the Ariosto by Charlie Ahmen:
The Wreck of the Ariosto
It was then that the crew from the Cedar Hammock station arrived on the scene.  Immediately keeper Howard raised the international signal, MK, “Remain on Your Ship!”  The Ariosto was several hundred yards off shore, only about two miles south of the station.  By now the ship was visible from shore, and the life savers were busy unloading their beach cart.  While designated surfmen set the crotch and buried the sand anchor others got the Lyle gun ready and released the line from the faking box.  As soon as possible Keeper Howard fired the first shot line to the stricken vessel.  It missed, but miraculously fell across a struggling sailor.  He wrapped the line around his arm before loosing consciousness.  The unconscious sailor was hauled up on the beach and given artificial respiration.  He revived.

Against all odds an exhausted sailor, seaman Elsing, managed to swim to shore.   Another struggling sailor was pulled out of the surf when the life savers made a human chain by clasping hands and wading into the numbingly cold, turbulent breakers.

Eventually a shot line reached the Ariosto and the hawser was attached to a mast.  The traveling block and breeches buoy were sent to the vessel.  By late in the afternoon the five sailors and the captain (carrying his pet dog “Belgium”) were brought safely ashore.   As Keeper Howard noted in his report, if all had remained on board all would have been saved.  As it was, twenty-one main drowned that Christmas Eve, 1899.

The survivors were carried back to the station, given dry clothes, warmed by the fire, and provided with food and hot coffee. The work of the life savers was not over, however.  Their equipment had to be gathered up and repacked in the beach cart, then taken back to the station where the ponies were cared for.

After that the drowned were carried from the incoming tide and buried in unmarked graves in the dunes near where they had washed up on the beach.  Rev. Wyche, who was spending the holidays with his children, was called on to provide Christian burials for the hapless sailors.

That night eight sailors from the Ariosto were berthed in the station.  Captain Baines spent the night with Keeper and Mrs. Howard.

Zilphia & James W. Howard:
James & Zilphia Howard

The next day, of course, was Christmas.  The nine survivors from the wreck of the Ariosto were included in the Cedar Hammock Christmas dinner celebration.

When it came time for dessert, all were impressed that there was plenty of pie for everyone, for Martha Ann was prepared, and had anticipated having “folks from overseas” join them for Christmas dinner.

The Ariosto never broke apart.  Several days later, after the storm subsided, the captain and crew asked the surfmen to row them out to their ship in order to retrieve a few personal belongings.  Captain Baines insisted on bringing his caned platform rocking chair with him.  Once on shore he presented it to Keeper Howard as a token of gratitude for saving his life.

Captain Baine’s chair has been passed down in the family, and sits today in my living room, a silent reminder of the disaster of Christmas Eve, 1899.  And of the courage, bravery, and skill of the men of the U.S. Life Saving Service.

Captain Baines’ Platform Rocker:
Capt. Baines' Rocker

As Christmas approaches each year I decorate my home with a native cedar tree adorned with mini-lights.  I cut yaupon branches, thick with red berries, and decorate my table.  I put candles in the windows, and hang a cedar wreath (with bright red bow) on my front door.

In the evenings I like to sit in my recliner, next to a dancing fire in my cast iron stove, and read.  Not infrequently I’ll nod off for ten or fifteen minutes.  I sometimes wake with a start, still somewhat drowsy, and glance towards Captain Baine’s chair. That’s when I’m sure I see the chair gently rocking back and forth.  I force myself awake, and when I look carefully the chair is still.   Nevertheless, I wonder, could it be that Captain Baines returns every year at Christmas?  Maybe he stops to visit my great-grandfather this time of year.  If so, I wonder what they chat about?

Perhaps he returns to reminisce about the wreck of his ship, and his rescue….and to wish us all a very Happy Christmas!