Into the Lifeboats

Just after midnight on 20 February 1856,

The first mate of the packet ship John Rutledge began scratching out quick log entries.

It had been a punishing crossing from Liverpool. Storm after storm had pounded the Rutledge since it left the protection of the Irish coast for the open Atlantic.

Into the Lifeboats For days at a time, the hatches to the steerage compartments were shut.

More than 120 emigrants—mostly Irish—were shut into a hellish twilight of swaying whale oil lamps, the sour stench of vomit, and the taut grip of fear.

Into the Lifeboats— Abandoning “4, morning, the same,” wrote the first mate, Samuel Atkinson, whose papers listed him as hailing from Philadelphia,

but whose personal history was his own secret, as it was with many seamen sailing in the Atlantic packets.

The John Rutledge, bound for New York, was now caught in the vise of the North Atlantic’s “Iceberg Alley,”

the dangerous corridor off Newfoundland for bergs and other ice floes carried south from Greenland’s glaciers.

Many veteran mariners were saying that what they encountered in early 1856 was the worst ice they had seen in generations,

with towering icebergs and smaller, but still fearsome, fragments known curiously as growlers.

Into the Lifeboats “8, steady breeze, and the ship making more headway.

Into the Lifeboats— Abandoning the Packet Ship John Rutledge Passed some very large ice-bergs.

Into the Lifeboats— Abandoning At 9, the I ….” The ship’s log ends there. Atkinson never wrote another word.

Stories of sea tragedies and heroic rescues were a staple of mid-19th century New England culture.

Rarely, however, did both intertwine with such drama as during that winter in the North Atlantic sea lanes.

In the span of eight weeks in 1856, four well-known vessels were lost at sea—the Rutledge, the steamship Pacific, and two clipper ships, the Driver and the Ocean Queen.

All told, more than 830 souls were lost before March was out. Among the dead that year were two Cape Cod captains.

Into the Lifeboats— Abandoning the Packet Ship John Rutledge Asa Eldridge of Yarmouth Port went down with SS Pacific.

The veteran sea captain had achieved celebrity status at the helm of the steampowered yacht North Star,

belonging to tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, on a European cruise for Vanderbilt and his guests in 1853.

The next year, Eldridge broke a transAtlantic speed record in command of the clipper ship Red Jacket.

Alexander Kelley (sometimes mistakenly spelled Kelly) of the John Rutledge was on his first run in command of the ship on its return trip from Europe.

Of the passengers and crew who went into the Rutledge’s lifeboats, only a young deckhand, Thomas W.

Nye, of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, survived.

I first came across the story of Thomas Nye and the John Rutledge at a shipwreck exhibit in Centerville on Cape Cod, the hometown of the ship’s captain, Kelley.

I soon learned that there was a much larger story to tell about those tragic months in 1856, and the questions about the 22-year-old Nye only grew the more I learned.

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