It is 128 years since the worst maritime disaster in these waters, yet the story of the sinking of the City of Columbus, one half mile off Aquinnah, gains new life by the release of a book by Thomas Dresser.
Shipwrecks and the events that surround them never seem far from the public eye. Last month, there was observance of the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic. And in January, there was the sinking of the 952-foot cruise ship Costa Concordia, a story that is still unfolding.
But on a cold January morning in 1884, a horrific scenario hit home in the waters below the Gay Head Cliffs when the 272-foot City of Columbus sank, taking with it the lives of 103 people on board. It is a tragedy that stamped itself upon this relatively quiet Island and has reverberated sporadically since then.
Mr. Dresser, 65, of Oak Bluffs, told the Gazette this week that he got the suggestion to do the book in the fall of 2010. It came out of a conversation with John Hough, an author from West Tisbury. In 1963, Mr. Hough’s grandfather, George A. Hough Jr., had written a book on the same topic called Disaster on Devil’s Bridge. Celebrated author Edward Rowe Snow also wrote about the wreck. But this was a story, Mr. Dresser believed, that could be improved on and told again by utilizing the internet and today’s high-speed technology.
Disaster off Martha’s Vineyard, The Sinking of the City of Columbus, is a history story with great depth about not only those onboard the ship and their circumstances, but the maritime age at the end of the 19th century. It also includes enhanced information about the rescue provided by local Islanders as well as other sources.
Mr. Dresser dug deep into the archives about the building of the ship in 1878, and her launching into the Delaware River, near Philadelphia; how she was built and that she was named after the city in Georgia, on the shore of the Chattahoochee River.
“The City of Columbus was fitted with elegant appointments, appropriate for the wealthy clientele enticed aboard. The steamship was deemed a safe, luxurious and reliable form of transport from the wintry weather of New England to the warmth of the South,” wrote the author.
In researching the book, Mr. Dresser met and interviewed Eric Takakjian of Fairhaven, the diver credited with having found the remnants of the ship 12 years ago. With an old photograph of the ship, showing only its bow sticking out of the water, Mr. Takakjian was able to get a handle on where to look underwater. “Examination of the wreck indicated the ship lies on the sandy bottom of the north ledge of the Devil’s Bridge,” Mr. Dresser wrote. “The lower portions of the ship’s hull are buried in sand. The stern rests about 50 feet below the surface; the bow is higher, about thirty-five feet below. .... Massive boulders surround the wreck.”
Coincidentally (and a little eerily), his interview with Mr. Takakjian took place during an unexpected ocean storm that prevented Mr. Dresser and his wife, Joyce, from returning to the Island on the same day.
In a circuitous search for information about the ship, through a collector of memorabilia associated with lighthouses, Mr. Dresser was able to find and meet numerous local sources. Among them was Richard Boonisar of South Dennis, who had a menu from the City of Columbus from a prior voyage.
It was a during a trip to Waltham to the National Archives where he found documents about the ship, the cargo (destined for Savannah), including “boots, shoes, provisions, furniture and other merchandise” and some of the legal tangles that were recorded after the wreck.
Mr. Dresser said he recalled one day last January sitting in the archives for 3 1/2 hours and carefully turning pages of documents that probably had sat untouched for more than a century. He discovered many new details about the accident, But even more unexpected, he discovered details about another maritime accident involving the ship that had occurred four months prior to the sinking. In September, when the City of Columbus was in the fog off Nantucket, she accidentally ran into and sank a barkentine while enroute to Savannah. The City of Columbus crew then rescued those aboard the sinking ship and later brought them to Savannah. Though the City of Columbus was undamaged in the incident, all items and belongings aboard the barkentine that belonged to the captain and crew were lost.
As part of their journey in writing the book, Mr. Dresser and his wife visited a memorial tombstone in Beaufort, South Carolina. The ornate stone marks the grave of 23-year-old Lillie Small, a passenger aboard the City of the Columbus. Her body was found after the tragedy, but the remains of her two-year-old son, Darius Small Jr., were not.
Mr. Dresser also wrote extensively of those who made a great sacrifice to help in those critical hours after the accident was reported. “The grim accounts of the wreck in the national press were countered by the descriptions of the dramatic rescue: ‘It was seven long hours before any succor reached them,’” he wrote.
A full chapter is devoted to the rescue attempts, made by vessels as large as half the size of the City of Columbus to considerably smaller surf boats the size of whaleboats. Many Native Americans along with others from the Vineyard participated in the rescue.
Mr. Dresser makes his living as a school bus driver, though for many years he was a nursing home administrator. When school is in session he drives students who live in West Tisbury to the high school and the elementary school.
This is his 11th book.
In the months ahead, Mr. Dresser will be sharing his stories about the book at local libraries.
He will give a talk at 5:30 p.m. next Wednesday at the Chilmark Public Library; another at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Oak Bluffs Public Library; and another at 10 a.m. next Friday the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging. There will be many more events through the summer.
His book is available at local bookstores and through his Web site: thomasdresser.com.