Chapter One: Rising Storm
An unusually light and warm southwesterly wind for mid-February stirred the stands of dune grass on New Jersey's barrier islands. Dried and speckled with salt left behind by the procession of gales during that harsh winter of 1846, the tawny blades swayed in an almost breathlike rhythm. Up beyond the berm of the dunes in nooks low and sheltered from the prevailing winds, holly and cedar grew in small woodlands. Fallen leaves and twigs covered the ground, creating a bed of deep, soft vegetation ideal for rabbit and fox, and the gulls that came to roost in the shadows beneath the ragged canopy.
The dunes, the woodlands, and the band of surf stretching away as far as the eye could see compounded the desolate, wild, and inhospitable feel of New Jersey's outer coast. Like a broken chain with ribbons of blue ocean running through the inlets into the back bays beyond, the islands extended for more than one hundred miles from the curved tip of Sandy Hook southward to the broad protrusion of Cape May. On all this land, there were only a few small villages, little more than clusters of shacks tucked in the lee of the dunes.
The inhabitants of the barrier islands led simple lives. They raked oysters from the shallows of the bays behind the islands and fished in the surf on the ocean side. They hunted duck and geese from flat-bottomed boats in the marshes fronting the vast reaches of pine forests that covered much of the state. The men ranged inland to shoot deer and rowed back to the islands with fresh meat for their wives and children. Their lives were far removed from the prosperity, culture, and vigor of New York City, although the metropolis was less than a day away by horse and steam ferry. But at times, especially during the winter, there was a form of perverse commerce between the residents of the city waiting for goods to come in on sailing ships, and those of the dunes who could not afford the most basic household items.
When the winter gales swept in from the northeast and sent towering waves to break on the shores, the children of the islands offered God a special prayer. Kneeling in front of their beds, the tiny fingers of both hands clasped together at their chins, the children whispered: "God bless Mom and Pop and all us poor miserable sinners, and send a ship ashore before mornin'."
On stormy nights or during evenings shrouded in thick fog, the fathers of some of these children crept from their shacks out to the beach. Together, a group of men piled hay up in mounds ten feet high. They hung lanterns from the sides of their horses and walked the animals around and around the haystacks. From offshore aboard the pitching deck of a sailing ship the effect resembled the loom of lighthouses, the lights blinking a welcome to safe harbor. The unwary captain, thinking he was near Sandy Hook, turned westward only to find his ship stranded on the shoals, trapped and at the mercy of the islanders, many of them notorious for the age-old practice of wrecking. They were called land pirates, these New Jerseyans, and they were very good at their opportunistic trade.
There were other residents of the barrier islands, however, who did not actively lure ships ashore with false beacons. They waited until the ocean delivered a wreck. There was no need for deception. Men, women, and children lined the beach with long poles and fished the wreckage and bodies from the surf, taking whatever they found of value. School teachers and preachers were allowed to use the longest poles to afford them a better chance at the best salvage. Passengers and crew aboard the stricken vessel often looked on and begged for help while the looting took place, until the ship broke apart and anyone aboard drowned in the breakers. The loss of life and property was just the natural way of things on the barrier islands, the redistribution of wealth by indiscriminate nature. Sometimes, though, the sea was exceptionally cruel. Cruel enough to shock the most rugged of islanders.
Sailing off New Jersey on that mild Saturday morning of February, 14, 1846, was the pilot schooner Blossom, heading slowly south with a gentle breeze off the bow. The fickle wind painted dark swaths across the smooth, shiny backs of the swells rolling in from the North Atlantic. The sea and sky blended into an expansive world of gray. The three remaining pilots aboard the schooner removed their frock coats and silk top hats.
They loosened their cravats, mopped their brows, and gazed uneasily to the northeast at the parade of heaving hills of water washing toward them from midocean. The boat pitched and jerked with each passing wave. The wooden booms and gaffs on the main and foremast slammed and creaked against their fittings. The canvas main, foresail, and jib thundered and shook as the sails emptied and filled.
The pilots cursed quietly. Bad weather was right over the horizon. The men knew the signs well. Sailing slowly, however, their schooner stood less of a chance to chase down some of the many ships bound for New York, put aboard the remaining pilots, and run for port before the storm hit. A large blue flag indicating that pilots were still available and ready to work flew from a long slender pole mounted at the truck of the main topmast more than fifty feet above the deck. It was every man's wish to see that flag down off the mast and stowed below. Home and loved ones waited. With the voyage almost done, the apprentices, pilots in training who served as the schooner's crew, were anxious to get back.
Not far from Blossom were at least half a dozen ships heading north toward New York Harbor. The schooners Pioneer, Alabama, and Register, the bark New Jersey, and the full-rigged sailing packets Orleans and John Minturn ghosted along with the wind fair astern. Most of these ships had already taken on a pilot, a special breed of mariner whose livelihood depended on guiding ships safely into port. But several of the ships, including Orleans and John Minturn, still required a pilot. At approximately nine o'clock, Blossom sighted the brig Moses and dispatched a pilot, leaving two aboard. Shortly thereafter, two other ships hove into view. Slowly, Blossom sailed up to the nearest vessel and sent pilot Thomas Freeborne to board her.
Standing on the poop deck of the packet John Minturn, Captain Starke watched with indifference as the nearby pilot boat lowered her yawl, a swift rowboat used to ferry the pilot to the waiting ship. (A yawl is also a two-masted sailboat.) The flags indicated the schooner was one of the New York boats. Starke had heard stories about them. Bad seamen, mere political appointees out for easy money, that was the scuttlebutt along the waterfront regarding the New York boys. He much preferred boats from the Sandy Hook Pilots, an organization that came into being in 1837 to boost the quality of piloting services for the harbor. That one of his lifelong friends, Captain Richard Brown, was a Sandy Hook Pilot no doubt strengthened his bias.
"Some of the New York boys are every inch a sailor," Brown had said on one of those many occasions when Starke and Brown drank together, while both of them were in New York at the same time, he at the close of a voyage up from New Orleans, Brown between stints offshore aboard the pilot boat William G. Hagstaff. But on this day Brown's opinion did not move Starke. He did not trust the man in the yawl below who stood ready to help.
"Keep her sails full and drawing," Starke said to his first officer. "Perhaps the man will see he's not wanted here."
In such faint winds, the oarsmen in the yawl had no trouble catching up to the ship. As the yawl pulled close to the vessel, Thomas Freeborne noted that there was no ladder hung over the ship's side to allow him to climb aboard. He sighed. Craning his neck, he peered up at the officers on deck. "This is Thomas Freeborne of the pilot boat Blossom. I'll come aboard, Captain!"
Starke strode to the rail and gazed down at Freeborne. "Off with ye, now!" he yelled. "I'll not take a man from a New York boat."
"As you wish, Captain. Put her about, lads," he said to the apprentices at the oars of the yawl. The boys glumly struck out for the row back to the schooner. Off on the horizon, the ship Orleans ghosted on a northerly heading. Blossom slowly sailed to her, offered a pilot, and received the same rejection. Piloting had come to a sorry state in 1846, one year after the laws regulating the service were repealed and the unity and honor of the business seemed to have vanished. Some of the older salts clung to the hope that the situation might change for the better, and they had reason to hope. The business might attract a disreputable few, but by and large the best of the pilots, whether from New York or New Jersey companies, were among the most skilled sailors in the world.
The pilots of Sandy Hook received years of training to learn their trade. They served for nine years as apprentices studying the ways of the sea and the location of every channel, sandbar, reef, and navigation aid in the harbor, until they could draw a harbor chart from memory. After the apprenticeship, the pilots started work on the smallest of vessels. Gradually, they progressed to the largest of the sail and steam packets and became known as Full Branch Pilots.
Though the job demanded sacrifice and was often dangerous, the Full Branch Pilots enjoyed far more freedom and a better chance to put roots down ashore than a sailor serving before the mast or even as a ship's master. The pilots did not have to play host to wealthy passengers and listen to their prattle at the captain's table, as was the case with the commanders of the packets sailing between New York and Liverpool. They did not have to bend to a shipowner's wishes and run the risk of landing permanently on the beach if a shipowner became displeased. These were independent seamen head and shoulders above the majority of those then serving in the United States merchant marine, and as traffic coming into New York increased, their jobs played a crucial role in keeping the commerce of the city going.
New York City was the busiest port in the United States. Ships from all over the world came and went without pause, hundreds of them every month, even in the midst of winter when the risk of disaster increased. The inbound ship coming from the southern ports of the United States, the West Indies, or South America first had to pass New Jersey, which offered no safe harbors. The inbound ship coming from Europe had to pass the equally inhospitable and dangerous south shore of Long Island, which, like New Jersey's, was over one hundred miles in length. Together, these landmasses formed a funnel, with the approaches to New York at the tip. Across the narrow opening to the safety of the upper harbor lurked additional obstacles. These took the form of sandbars that grew and shifted with each passing storm and the daily cycle of the tide.
The dangers off Sandy Hook had been well known since the earliest times Europeans ventured across the Atlantic Ocean to the present-day northeastern United States. Sailing for the Dutch in 1609 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage aboard Half Moon, Henry Hudson was aware of the shoals. He took great care as he probed his way up the lower bay and through the Verrazano Narrows into the river that eventually bore his name. One of the ship's company, Robert Juet, described the harbor: "The Land is very pleasant and high, and bold to fall withall...we stood along the Northernmost [portion of the harbor near the Narrows] thinking to have gone into it, but we found it to have a very shoald barre before it, for we had but ten foot water." Other captains followed Hudson. Adriaen Block, Hendrick Christiaensen, and Cornelius May explored the lower and upper harbors for the Dutch entrepreneurs that eventually established New Amsterdam in 1626. They, too, noted sandbars and the best channels weaving across them to the final approach in the upper harbor off Manhattan.
Ships of the day were not deep-keeled. They could operate in relatively shallow water. As a consequence, the shoals, which came to be known as the Sandy Hook bar, were not a serious hindrance to the development of the port. But by the end of the 1600s, with Great Britain then in possession of the island settlement of New Amsterdam, and all of what was formerly New Netherland (renamed Manhattan and New York respectively) since 1664, the Sandy Hook bar caused enough problems for shipping that the government took action.
On March 9, 1694, the Assembly of New York passed "AN Act for Settlying Pylotage for All Vessells That Shall Come Within Sandy Hook." Part of the text reveals the nature of the hazards mariners encountered.
Whereas the late Easterly storm there were severall banks thrown off at the south of the Harbour at sandy Hook whereby the entry is rendred very difficult and dangerous to all vessells bound for this Port and required an attendance of men at the hook to be in readiness to pilot them in to safety, be it Enacted and Ordained by the Gouveneur and Councill and Representatives Convened in Generall Assembly and it is hereby Enacted and Ordained by the authority of the same that there shall be four men appointed and commissioned by his Excellancy the Gouveneur who shall constantly attend at some convenient place near the Hook with a boat to give all aid and assistance to all vessells bound for this Port which they are obliged to pilot up as far as the narrows.
So much had changed from those early days of piloting. Yet, much of the job remained the same. The shoals still claimed ships. The New Jersey and Long Island coasts still posed a real danger. The basic need for the pilot was if anything more acute than ever before.
Throughout the day Blossom cruised up and down the coast looking for inbound ships, and throughout the day the weather deteriorated. The southwesterly wind increased, suddenly shifted to the northeast, and came in strong. Waves formed atop the swells and gradually began to break. The temperature plummeted to below freezing and it began to snow. At around five o'clock, Blossom again caught sight of John Minturn and this time she signaled for a pilot.
Thomas Freeborne gripped the rails of the yawl as the apprentices worked hard at the oars, their muscles bulging unseen under their oilskins with every stroke. The bow of the little rowboat plunged deep into the breaking crests. Spray and snow soaked Freeborne's face, his southwester pulled low over his head, partially obscuring his weathered cheeks. His silk top hat he had left behind aboard the schooner. However, he still wore his heavy frock coat and a knit wool sweater underneath it to keep warm. John Minturn's hull towered above him. His boatmen drew close alongside.