The destruction of the small steamer Laura Marion on the Newburyport Bar Massachusetts in the evening of December 23, 1899 resulted in the loss of three lives. The circumstances as developed in the investigation conducted by the assistant inspector of the Second Life District Lieutenant Worth G Ross, Revenue Cutter Service, clearly set forth by that officer as follows:
“This disaster was most deplorable since it was utterly uncalled and a needless sacrifice of human life. The testimony shows those who took the desperate chance of crossing the seas of the Newburyport Bar on the night of December 23 in diminutive unseaworthy steamer and who swiftly paid with their lives were not on strange ground. The captain and pilot were men of long and exceptional experience in the neighborhood and were considered experts in their calling. They were at the helm when the ill-fated craft was headed into the furious breakers; that they should not have been clearly aware of the peril of their undertaking surpasses belief.
“The Laura Marion left Gloucester Massachusetts late afternoon, December 23 without cargo and proceeded through Squam River bound for Newburyport. She was a small steamer, 40 feet long by 10 feet beam and with a draft of 4 feet. There were on board Frank W. Saggrent, the captain, and owner William J Pettingell Johnson, engineer. The vessel’s papers permitted her to navigate rivers and harbors only, and the course for her to have pursued was by way of Plum Island Sound River, the inside passage, but instead of taking this she stood up the coast on the outside, in violation of the limitations of her certificate of inspection. Although she was probably not more than a mile offshore, her lights were not seen by the patrolmen of either the Beach Station or the Plum Island Station, and it is a question whether she set any lights until she arrived off the bar at the entrance to the Merrimac River.
“A light breeze from the southeast prevailed at the time, and a heavy easterly swell was rolling in, which caused a strong dangerous sea along the beach. This sea had been increasing throughout the day and indicated boisterous weather somewhere offshore. When the little steamer reached open water in the vicinity of Annisquam, Cape Ann, it should have been apparent to those on board that the Newburyport Bar would be impassable under the conditions that existed. Nothing daunted, however, the craft sped on, one minute descending into the deep trough of the swell and the next rising the top of an incoming wave.
“At 6.25 in the evening it being cloudy and very dark, Surfman Pike, of the Plum Island Station, who had been outside the building, was opening the door to enter when he saw what appeared to be lights just off the bar. He at once reported the fact to the keeper who was in the mess room. The latter hurried to the window, raised it and caught a glimpse of the lights with both the naked eye and marine glasses. He had no sooner done so than to his amazement, the lights suddenly disappeared, the port side light seeming to be first. The vessel at this time was near the outer striped buoy of the bar entrance, which at present is little more than half a mile east-northeast of the station. The keeper, seeing the red light disappear, thought first that the steamer was turning to go back. Nevertheless he quickly ran up into the lookout tower and carefully scanned the sea with the glasses, but could make out nothing of the craft. He then joined the members of the crew who had rushed down to the beach before him.
“In two or three minutes the lights of a steamer were observed not far from the buoy approaching from the southward./ All supposed for the moment that it was the same vessel that had been previously noticed, and that she was about to take another look at the bar, but it could not be explained how she had got around to this position without a trace of her lights being seen by anyone on shore, a point which gave rise to doubts and misgivings. The keeper, knowing that it was altogether too rough for safe passage over the shoals, fired a red Coston signal as a warning, and the steamer turned and put back in the direction of Cape Ann. The situation was not by any means cleared up, and caused grave apprehension. A furious surf was tumbling in against the ebb tide and the bar was a mass of surging breakers. No boat of any kind could have lived in such a sea.
“The keeper anxiously hurried up the beach, accompanied by one of the surfmen, to meet the man on north patrol and ascertain if he had any definite information. The patrolman, it appears, about half past 6 while he was at the extreme limit of his beat and in the act of opening the safe in the key post, had seen a white light off the bar, his attention having been called to it by the lighthouse keeper. A few minutes after this, the light became lost to his view and he concluded that the vessel carrying it had gone about and stood away. The evidence tends to show that this must have been the masthead light of the steamer which was warned off by the Coston signal.
“After receiving the report of the patrolman, the keeper returned to the station. At half past 7 the south patrolman came running in and announced that he had found wreckage washing up about a quarter of a mile south of the station. He had seen a masthead lantern screen, a string of net corks, two waist boards with herring scales on them and a compass box. He said then although he was not aware that the vessel was in the vicinity, that he believed the articles were from the Laura Marion, as he was well acquainted with her and her outfit. The keeper at once called all hands, and the men taking with them grapnels boat hooks, lanterns and a heaving stick and line scattered along the beach, while word was sent by telephone to the Knobbs Beach Station that parts of a vessel were coming ashore.
“At 8 o clock a port side light screen with the words Laura Marion on it was found on the beach in front of the station, which left no room for further conjecture. At 11 o’clock the dead body of Sargent, the captain of the steamer, was recovered from the surf about 300 yards south of the station, the watch in the pocket of the vest having stopped at 6:27, which was very near the time the disaster occurred. The medical examiner at Newburyport was notified by telephone, and he requested the life savers to take charge of the body and any others that might come ashore.
“The next day (24th) at 9:25 am the remains of Engineer Johnson were found, and the following forenoon those of Pettingell. Johnson’s body was recovered from the surf by an act of noteworthy daring performed by Surfman Black, who ventured into the sea up to his chin and was in deadly peril of losing his life when Surfman Fowler gallantly went to his assistance, and aided him to reach the shore. All three bodies, which were more or less mutilated by beach fleas, were found in about the same place. The station men dragged them out of the surf at considerable personal risk. They were disposed of according to the directions of the medical examiner, and the trinkets and valuables belonging to them were turned over to that officer by the keeper in the afternoon to save.
“This is the plain story of the tragic fate of the Laura Marion and her crew, a terrible affair bringing sudden anguish to the hearts of the families who on the eve of Christmas were preparing a joyous home welcome for the men. The craft was undoubtedly swept under by one fell stroke of the sea. The attempt to cross the shoals under the circumstances was most audacious and could not have resulted otherwise. When the practical experience and ability of those who guided the vessel to her destruction are considered, the occurrence becomes most appalling and extraordinary.
“It was impossible for the life savers to render any assistance on this occasion. When the lights of the steamer were seen off the bar, she had proceeded too far to escape and in an instant thereafter was engulfed in the breakers and lost. The north and south patrolmen at this time happened to be at the farther ends of their beats and therefore were not in position to do service, if any had been possible at the scene of trouble. The keeper appears to have made the best of the situation by promptly calling out his men and establishing a vigilant patrol of the beach. This watch and search were kept up until the necessity for such vigilance was past. No boat could have been launched or maintained in the sea that was running, and so there was no opportunity to afford succor by that means, even had the conditions offered the slightest chance otherwise.
“The steamer that approached the bar, causing the keeper to fire a Coston signal and went about, proved to be the Pet out of Newburyport. She had followed the Laura Marion, being about a quarter of a mile in her wake previous to the accident. Her captain, who had seen the lights of the little steamer disappear, proceeded as far as the shoals but finding them impassable turned and put back to Annisquam, although the Pet was a much larger and abler vessel than the Laura Marion. In his testimony he says, ‘In view of the condition of the bar I can not understand why Captain Pettingell ventured to try to cross, as it was utterly impossible for his vessel, in my mind, to have lived.’ All the witnesses testify to the same effect, and agree that there was no possibility whatever of any aid by the life saving crews to those lost from the little steamer.
“Pilot Pettingell is said to have been a man of great experience and superior skill who was afraid of nothing. The anxiety of himself and his companions to reach home Saturday night in order to spend the following Sunday and Christmas day, which came on Monday, with their families and friends is the only reason suggested in explanation of their rashness in attempting the bar.”