Long Island’s Shipwrecks:  A Graveyard of Galleons Beneath the Breakers

         By Kathleen Lonetto

           Since Colonial times, the Port of New York has attracted ships like a great beacon. Vessels came
    to her harbor through Long Island waters carrying immigrants, pirate’s loot and every type of cargo
    imaginable. Fishing vessels, pleasure craft, military ships and a vast number of schooners, sloops and
    barges paraded incessantly around Long Island.
           Unfortunately, the gentle sands of the South Shore and the picturesque slopes of the North
    Shore were illusions that harbored deadly navigation for all pilots. Currents and breakers were
    treacherous, sand bars and jutting rocks plentiful and storms too common and brutal. Therefore, “on
    the average, there’s a shipwreck every 50 feet on Long Island’s shores,” states Frank Braynard,
    curator of the Merchant Marine Academy Museum and author of many books about maritime history.
           The shipwrecks began to accumulate almost as soon as European civilization was introduced to
    Long Island. The earliest recorded vessel is the Dutch ship Prins Maurits. The ship was carrying
    settlers and soldiers from Holland to the Nieuw Netherland colony.
           In 1657, the Prins Maurits encountered a spring storm and floundered off the Fire Island coast.
    The 160 soldiers and Dutch colonists were all saved, but the vessel was lost. At that time, there was no
    established life-saving system on Long Island, however, the Indians escorted the Dutch across the
    exotic island that they had found and brought them to their destination, Nieuw Amsterdam.
           The Prins Maurits was a relatively commonplace wreck. All lives were saved and the vessel was
    lost. Also, the image of apprehensive settlers evokes sympathy and a tale different from that of
    another shipwreck that took place later in the century.
    In the year 1699, the Island was touched by one of many pirate ships, the Adventure. Long Island had
    already sustained visits by Captain Kidd and his infamous crew when an equally fierce pirate brought
    the Adventure to the shores of the South Fork. Joseph Bradish steered the Adventure to Long Island
    after seizing the ship and cargo near India. The cargo was extensive and quite valuable, consisting of
    gold, gems and opium. Sloops were hired from Southold and Southampton to remove the cargo from
    the Adventure. The crazed crew then sank the Adventure by blowing holes in her hull. She sank
    beneath the waters of the Sound between Long Island and Block Island. Some of her treasure was
    later found with the Sagaponack member of the Colonial Assembly of New York, Henry Pierson, who
    had assisted the pirates in their endeavors. Pierson was released after assuring officials that he was
    innocently ‘holding’ the loot for the pirates.
           In a more honorable nature is the story of the wreck Culloden. Culloden Point occupies a spot in
    the Montauk Point area and was named for the British vessel that went down at this site. In January
    of 1781, the warship Culloden and other British ships were pursuing several ships of the French fleet.
    She was an impressive ship containing 76 guns within her 161 foot length. However, a January
    snowstorm blew the Culloden into the Shagwoggonac Reef, puncturing her hull and disabling her. The
    Culloden floundered and sank off the coast of Montauk. A crew of 600 was aboard when the Culloden
    went down, luckily, no lives were lost. She was later stripped, salvaged and burned by the British;
    however, the Culloden was still visible at low tide for hundreds of years after her sinking. Now, a point
    of land on Long Island is named for a ship that was vigorously fighting against the cause of the
           As the nation grew, the nature of her ships changed. In 1818, a new concept in design and
    elegance was introduced. The Savannah was launched as a trans-Atlantic sailing vessel that was also
    equipped with steam power. Paddle wheels were collapsible and powered by coal and wood. This 120
    foot long marvel was also fully rigged for sailing. She was known in her day at the elegant steamship,”
    stated Braynard. “She was the first vessel with a steam engine ever to cross any ocean.”
           In 1819, Savannah made the journey from Savannah, Georgia to St. Petersburg, Russia. Since
    that day of departure, May 22 has been celebrated as National Maritime Day. The crew and captain of
    the Savannah, John Coles of Glen Cove, became welcomed over the world and quite celebrated.
    In November of 1821, however, the ‘elegant steamship’ met with disaster near Fire Island. She was
    smashed to bits by the waves after being stricken in the sand. All 11 crewmen, including Captain
    Coles, were lost. The exact location of the Savannah is not yet determined because of the sand
    movement. “Many, many people have tried for years and years to find her,” states Braynard.
    However, these salvagers, historians and divers have been unsuccessful. The Savannah lies buried
    with her treasures and history beneath the sands of Fire Island’s waters.
           During the mid 19th century, the South Shore continued to bedevil sea captains and wrecks
    mounted beneath the breakers. However, the North Shore of Long Island also was the site of many
    disasters. “On the Long Island Sound side, you have an equal number of wrecks, but a great many
    fires because that was the premier route of the overnight boat,’’ states Braynard. “You had as many
    as 30 big overnight boats, some carrying 1,200 on each, racing from New York up to Fall River, New
    Bedford, Providence, New London and New Haven.
           “They were elegant vessels with red carpets, gold stateroom keys, fine, big dining rooms and
    lovely public rooms for the passengers.” However, these floating crafts of pleasure were often too
    dangerous, carrying a deadly combination of flammable material and passengers. There were serious
    disasters and heartbreaking tales of doom and death associated with the steamboats.
           “The General Slocum was lost early in this century with a loss of 1000 Sunday School children
    and their parents,” recalls Braynard. The General Slocum was gliding along on a Sunday school outing
    when she caught fire around Hellgate. The Baptist Sunday school patrons suffered a major loss of life.
    Also of importance was the steamship Seawanhaka. “Her loss was a front page story for many days
    because so many important people were aboard,” relates Braynard. After the Seawanhaka caught fire,
    the captain of the vessel piloted her to the beach in spite of the raging fire that singed his beard and
    hair to the roots. He saved many lives of the commuters who rode her from Sea Cliff to New York;
    however, the captain was indicted for murder as a scapegoat. As a result of this shipwreck, the
    Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots was formed. Today, it is the strongest union of officers in the
           Famous among the wrecks on the North Shore is the Lexington. “She was a fast vessel and very
    colorful,’’ states Braynard. “Many people took her because of her speed. Her rivals were all kind of
    jealous of her speed and they used to note in their advertisements that ‘we do not sail until five
    minutes after the Lexington has sailed,’ meaning that they would not be around in case the Lexington
    blew up. In those days, the boilers were very primitive.” Approximately 138 people were burned to
    death in the Sound as the Lexington sank. There were only four survivors, one with a colorful tale. “A
    bale of cotton fell overboard during the fire and one of the survivors had the common sense to sit on
    it,” relates Braynard. “He stuffed cotton into his clothing to keep warm. It was very cold at night and
    he burrowed right into the bale of cotton and floated all the way to Wading River.”
           It appears that even with the stormy ocean waters, the vessels in distress on the South Shore
    sustained less loss of life than on the North Shore. On the South Shore in March of 1886, the Cunard
    Line’s Oregon met her fate. The Oregon was returning from Liverpool with 845 passengers and crew.
    She was nearing the Center Moriches shore when she was struck by a small sailing ship. The 360 foot
    long ship filled quickly with water and sank.
           Steve Bielenda is a scuba diver and owner of Undersea Adventures, Inc. In his boat, Wahoo,
    Bielenda conducts underwater tours of the wrecks along the Long Island coast. One of the more
    popular wrecks the Bielenda tours is the Oregon. “It was a steam engine vessel with a propeller, but it
    had four masts because in the mid 1800s they didn’t believe that the propeller was here to stay. So,
    the ship was built with four masts, two square rigged and two, fore and aft, which they never used. It
    had three circular compound engines that burned approximately 30 tons of coal a day,” states
    Bielenda. “It was the first fully electrified ship to sail the Atlantic Ocean.’’ However, this marvelous
    ocean cruiser went down approximately 17 miles out of Moriches.
           Frank Braynard noted that “she was the fastest ocean liner in the world for a period and she was
    wrecked in the 1880s not far from the Fire Island Light. In fact, the lighthouse keeper gave the alarm
    ... saw her going down and sent a wireless to the Cunard Line headquarters in New York to send help
           The small three-masted schooner that hit the Oregon was never identified. The number of crew
    or passengers was not known since all perished aboard the schooner. “Everyone assumed that the
    Oregon would stay afloat,” notes Braynard. “They tried to find the little vessel that had hit them in
    order to help save some people, but instead of that, both vessels went down. Everyone was lost on the
    schooner.” Fortunately, the Oregon did not have great loss of life. Other ships came to her assistance
    and helped crew and passengers to safety before the Oregon sank to the depths.

    Long Island Shipwrecks... Part 2

           Last month, Long Island Heritage started telling the story of Long island’s shipwrecks. Hidden
    sand bars, reefs and currents, violent storms, ice-cakes and crushing big breakers have caused the
    most powerful, sea-worthy vessels to flounder and become stranded along the Long Island coast.
    Remains of some of these ships are still present along the coast, existing like a treasure find for
    divers and marine historians.
           The tales of these wrecks were told by maritime historian Frank Braynard and scuba expert
    Steve Bielenda. The stories encompass the tragedy and drama that was present when the great ships
    lost a battle with the elements.
           The Dutch ship Prins Maurits, British warship Culloden, and the pirate ship Adventure all met
    their fate along the Long Island coast. Thousands of passengers cruised the Sound in elegant
    steamships such as the Lexington and General Slocum and many were burned to death in tragic fires
    aboard these vessels. One of the greatest liners in the world, the Oregon, sank after an ill-fated
    encounter with a schooner whose identity is still a mystery. With the knowledge that there are
    approximately 1,000 shipwrecks along the Long Island coast, Long Island Heritage continues its story
    of the vessels that have touched the depths near our shoreline. Their fate has caused them to become
    interwoven with Long Island’s own history and reminders of their presence are still found by divers or
    are occasionally washed to shore with the waves.
           World War I brought about a new danger to ships. Mines and torpedoes from German U-boats
    caused an insidious danger to American ships. The cruiser California was launched in 1907. She was a
    large vessel with four smokestacks and a ram bow. Later, she was renamed the San Diego. “It
    actually had a protruding piece of steel at the water line right at the very front of the ship so that she
    could ram an enemy ship,” states Braynard. “This was a carry over from the days of the Roman
    galleons, really an archaic-type thing.” However, the special bow and other weapons could not save her
    from her ill-fated meeting with the German U156 in July of 1918.
           Steve Bielenda also dives for the San Diego. He noted that only six lives were lost after the ship
    was destroyed 13 miles from the Fire Island inlet. “The USS San Diego was the only major warship
    that the United States lost during World War I,” states Bielenda. Today, she rests beneath 110 feet of
    water and rises an additional 60 feet above the sandy bottom. For divers, it’s a ‘novice dive’ to view
    the San Diego. In 1963, this wreck became controversial as the ‘save the San Diego fund’ was
    established to campaign against it being used for scrap metal. It became valuable to maintain beneath
    the depths “because of the marine life that it had brought into the area ... codfish, blackfish, the sea
    bass and the lobsters. It became its own artificial reef over the years. It became a horn of plenty for
    the fishermen and the divers,” relates Bielenda. “That’s one of the things that happens when a
    shipwreck does go on the bottom. It becomes an artificial reef.” This reef remains for hundreds of
    years before the ship deteriorates or sinks completely into the sand.
           A more colorful wreck and dive for Bielenda is the Lizzie D, rumrunner and late treasure chest.
    The Lizzie D sank in 1922 during the peak of the prohibition era. “We’ve been bringing bottles of 100
    proof bourbon off her made in Addingtonville, Kentucky,” notes Bielenda. “We found out that after
    we were bringing these bottles up, a few of them exploded because they were pressurized. So, we had
    to punch the cork to depressurize them and then found that the bottles were late 1880 to 1890 old
    freemold process bottles, to bottle collectors, worth in excess of $100.” A usual find for the Undersea
    Adventure Company, but then all wrecks appear to have a unique spirit marking them from other
           The exact number of Long Island shipwrecks is not known. In fact, a number of vessels that
    Bielenda explores often are not identified, but are given names by his company. For marine historian
    Jim Jenney, however, cataloguing the shipwrecks has become serious business that encompasses the
    computer age. Jenney established the United States Shipwreck Databank in Rhode Island. He had
    been researching shipwreck data for more than 15 years and has written several books about
    maritime history. Now, he has fed his valuable data into a computer for storage and use. “No one has
    ever tried, on a nationwide scale, to put together an entire collection of all the shipwrecks lost in
    American waters,” states Jenney. “It’s a phenomenal project, but it’s a labor of love.”
           Jenney reports that the cape areas are the most treacherous with Cape Hatteras reporting the
    largest record of shipwrecks. Cape Cod, Cape Hamilton and the Florida Keys are also the sites of
    numerous shipwrecks. Jenney considers Long Island waters to be a “good area” with approximately
    600 shipwrecks filed. However, “it should be noted that New York being the hustling, bustling major
    trading port that it always has been, there were also many more wreckers or salvagers. So, a lot of the
    potential marine disasters in the area did not actually end up as wrecks that are still there today,”
    states Jenney. His files are taken from old newspaper accounts and are available to anyone who would
    be interested, whether divers, educators or researchers.
           It appears as if each shipwreck is its own epic. The ships were often the largest, the fastest, the
    best in the world at something. Often, there was a loss of hundreds of lives with heroics and
    heartbreaking losses. In 1839, a whaling vessel, the Edward Quesnel, sank with 2,300 barrels of whale
    oil. The cargo of the Chippewa in 1908 was no less dramatic -  39,000 watermelons, alligators and
    ostriches splashed into Long Island waters. A blockade runner Mesopotamia fell silent in 1863 after
    service and romantic escapades. Just before the beginning of the Civil War, nine persons were saved
    near Montauk Point in 1858 after their ship sank. The ship was never identified, but it was thought to
    carry slaves.
           In 1846, the Susan became a maritime disaster with 100 Irish immigrants finding their
    debarkation point in the new country to be quite exciting. A similar fate was in store for the
    Catherine out of Dublin in 1851. Catherine carried 300 Irish immigrants who had an unusual manner
    of touching down upon their new soil  - the sand of the South Shore. These vessels had come aground,
    been tossed by the stormy seas and found rest near the coast of Long Island.
           Crew members lashed to the rigging, passengers frozen to death in icy waters, the great ships
    stranded upon the sand bars and breaking apart in the breakers ... all these dramatic images are part
    of Long Island’s maritime heritage. The shipwrecks are gruesome or romantic, depending upon the
    image evoked. However, the cargo and passengers who either floated to safety or were given a final
    resting place within a quiet village cemetery have become enshrined in our history pages and will
    always be one with Long Island’s heritage of the sea.

First published in Long Island Heritage