On December 17, 1847 the brig Falconer, loaded with bituminous coal, wrecked at Crane Beach (known then as Patch’s Beach), bound for Boston from St. John, New Brunswick. 36 crew members were rescued but 17 were lost at sea. Captain Joseph Rolerson and his son, master Charles Rolerson were buried in Belfast, Maine. Three bodies may have never been found. Thomas Shaw and his wife, Julia Laskin, Margaret Hennesy, Edward Fling, Peter Conners, James Casson, George Hayes, Thomas Warren, John Summers, Thomas Grady and Isaac Jones were interred together at the Old North Burying Ground in Ipswich under a single memorial visible from the sidewalk.
Sidney Perley told the story in Historic Storms of New England.
“The month of December, 1847, was remarkably dry and warm until the middle, when it suddenly changed to wintry weather, and a cold northeasterly storm began. This was on the night of Thursday, the sixteenth, and it continued till about nine o’clock the next evening, when the fierceness of the wind abated, and a snow storm set in, which did not cease until two days had elapsed. The strong wind caused many disasters along the coast.
The disaster that caused the greatest general interest in the storm was the wreck of the brig Falconer of Belfast, commanded by Capt. Joseph Rolerson, who also belonged in that town. She measured three hundred and sixty tons, was twenty years old, and at this time was transporting a cargo of three hundred and fifty tons of coal from Sydney, N.S. to Boston. She also carried a large number of passengers, making with the crew fifty-three persons on board. The trip was successful until the night of the storm, when Squam light at Gloucester, Mass., was made, which in the thick weather was mistaken for Cohasset light.
The captain tacked, and stood to the northward, but when he sighted the Ipswich and Newburyport lights he discovered his error. Not recognizing them, and knowing that no beacons were located at any such distance and direction from Cohasset, he did not know where he was, and with wisdom and discretion born of experience dropped anchor about three miles from shore. Had he been aware of his location he could have run into the harbor in safety.
The brig rode through Thursday night, all day Friday and that night, and until about seven o’clock on Saturday morning, when she dragged her anchors, being driven on a sandy reef about three-fourths of a mile from the shore, off the southerly end of Patch’s beach, two miles from the lighthouse. There she became bilged, and the sea made a long-continued series of great breaches over her. The leaks increased greatly, and in the cabin the water became so deep that the passengers were compelled to come on deck into the midst of the heavy seas that were constantly sweeping over it, carrying away everything that was movable.
The only security that was afforded them was in lashing themselves to the rigging and other parts of the vessel that were still intact and had force sufficient to resist the power of the tremendous waves. This they did as well as they could. The masts had been carried away by the wind, and only the useless hull remained far from shore with tons upon tons of icy waters dashing over it, throwing the spray to a great height. In the cold and wet, suffering with hunger, and without the least hope of rescue, those fifty-three men, women, and children were confined as in a tomb. On that Saturday morning they were all alive, but many of them were nearly exhausted and could not long survive the exposure.
An attempt was made to reach the shore in the boat belonging to the brig, which still remained. Seven persons made their way into it, and turned his bow toward the land, but as they neared the beach they were buried beneath the mountainous waves, and three of them were drowned. The other four fought their way through the surf and the keeper of the lighthouse there had watched the vessel as it lay anchored off the shore all Friday night, expecting it would be driven in. On Saturday morning, he saw it on the reef, but was unable to go to it, as there was no lifeboat. If there had been one probably all the people would have been saved.
The only family living on the beach was that of Capt, Humphrey Lakeman, whose house was nearly two miles away from the place of the wreck. As soon as they learned that the vessel had struck, news was quickly sent to the village five miles away, and many persons came to the beach through the driving snow, bringing with them thick clothing and invigorating and nourishing supplies for the living, together with articles for wrapping the dead. Though a large number of people had gathered on the beach in the pitiless storm, they could do nothing to save the many men, women and children, whom they could dimly see on the wreck through the thickly falling snow. The only boat that was near was small and leaky, and it was agreed that it could not possibly resist the power of the breakers.
However, something ought to be done, and, feeling the imperativeness of the case, a brave young sailor, named William Chapman, who had come down from the village with the other people, jumped into the miserable little dory, and pulled out alone through the deadly surf to the side of the wreck. But he had hardly reached it and scrambled on deck, when the boat in which he had come filled with water and sank. He was now without means of getting on shore again himself, but with hardly a thought of his own desperate condition, he turned his attention to reviving the hopes of the sufferers. His very presence even gave assurance of assistance, and encouraged them to renew their struggle for life.
Learning from young Chapman’s successful passage through the water that a boat could live in the surf, the men on shore ran to the lighthouse, and dragged some boats that were there over the soft sand for two miles to the point nearest the wreck. They were launched and quickly manned by the Ipswich men, who gladly and courageously volunteered to assist in the performance of the hazardous duty. Back and forth successfully pushed the boats through the dangerous waters amid the howling and the gloom of the storm, now mounting the great crested waves, and then plunging into valleys, where it seemed as if the almost perpendicular walls of foaming water before and behind them would engulf the craft. By the humanity of these men, the thirty six survivors on the wreck safely reached the shore. As they landed the people put clothing upon those who had been so long exposed to the cold and wet, and when they had used all they had brought with them from town they stripped themselves of their outer garments, giving them to the needy.
The survivors were all conveyed to Captain Lakeman’s house as speedily as possible, and everything that he and his family had was most generously placed at their disposal, all that they could do being done for their comfort. Every exertion was made to revive those that were brought in the boats or had washed on shore, who were in an insensible condition. Captain Rolerson himself survived only half an hour after reaching land, and his wife and son Charles were also among those that perished. Of the cabin passengers, three men and as many women were lost, and of the steerage passengers seven men and a boy. In all, seventeen of the fifty-three persons perished, most of them by exposure rather than by drowning, The boy was washed overboard from the brig, and his body was never recovered. Thirteen bodies came ashore and were brought to the house on the day of the rescue of the survivors, and the other three were found the next day, after the abatement of the storm.
Many of the passengers were poor emigrants coming to the States from the British dominions. The rescued people were soon taken from Captain Lakeman’s house to the village where they were nursed back to health and given every comfort that was in the power of the citizens. The bodies of the lost mariners that were found and recovered were also taken to the village and placed in the town hall, where on Monday afternoon (December 20) their funeral took place under the auspices of the town authorities.
The services, which were rendered by the several clergymen of the town, were very impressive. A long procession then formed, and followed the remains in the sad march to the High street burying-ground, where they were interred, with the exception of the captain and his family. As the captain was an Odd Fellow the Ipswich Lodge took possession of the bodies of himself and his wife and son, and deposited them in a tomb, preparatory to removing them to the place of their late residence, where five children mourned their loss.
One of the men who were saved had a bag of money, which he threw into the boat, when he was taken ashore in the storm, but when near the shore the boat was carried by a wave upon the sand and broken in two, the money being lost. In 1887, some gunners picked up several Mexican dollars on the beach where the vessel was wrecked, which were supposed to have been some of those lost at the time of the shipwreck. The incident created considerable excitement, and in the afternoon of the same day, about thirty young men of Ipswich, with rakes, hoes, and shovels, went to the beach and diligently searched for the missing treasure, but in vain.”
According to Thomas Franklin Waters, coal began to be used in Ipswich about 1832 and in 1839 advertisements of coal stoves appeared in the Ipswich Register. The first full cargo of coal did not arrive at our wharves until the early forties. The use of coal was so little understood that David Harris brought home a large lump of coal he found on the beach near the wreck, put it in the fireplace and marveled that it would burn “no better than a stone.”
The sandbar that extends from Plum Island out from Crane Beach has caused many shipwrecks. In 1839 the schooner Deposit was lost at Crane Beach with only the Captain’s wife and two crew members surviving. In 1909 the sand schooner Ada K. Damon grounded at Steep Hill Beach but with no casualties, and remains there today.
- Perley, Sidney: Historic Storms of New England
- Snow, Edward Rowe: Storms and Shipwrecks of New England
- Waters, Thomas Franklin: Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony Vol. II
- Waters, Thomas Franklin: Publications of the Ipswich Historical Society Vol. XXII
- History of the City of Belfast in the State of Maine