The Valentine’s Day Wrecks: Shipwrecks, the Sea, and Late Nineteenth-Century American Culture

Valentine’s Day–glorious for some, shipwrecks for others. In the spirit of the day, I’m posting a paper I gave at the 2008 NASOH Conference in Pensacola, Florida about two shipwrecks that wrecked on Valentine’s Day, 1899. It was written to spur debate and if memory serves me–it did just that!

Like most conference papers, however, this one thoroughly occupied me for a few weeks only to disappear into the dark recesses of my harddrive. Fortunately, it wasn’t all wasted effort–it was in this paper that I started working through some of the ideas that have become central to my dissertation [I’d revise a fair bit of it now].

Unfortunately, these wrecks just aren’t finding their way into the dissertation. Their stories are worth sharing so here’s the paper, unedited, with screenshots from the powerpoint presentation. [note: the paper addresses the conference theme–“the maritme edge”–and is overly aware of the biases of conference participants against most variants of cultural history.]

Any thoughts/comments very appreciated!

The Valentine’s Day Wrecks: 

Shipwrecks, the Sea, and Late Nineteenth-Century American Culture

~Paper presented by Jamin Wells at the 2008 NASOH Conference, Pensacola, Florida.

On February 14th, 1899, a winter gale wrought havoc along the New England coastline. In the following morning, newspapers across the country recounted the wrecks of the Boston Fruit Company steamer Admiral Dewey and the four-masted coal schooner Addie Anderson. Each wreck garnered a flurry of press coverage and concentrated salvage efforts. Yet within a week, the Dewey was safely moored in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts while the Anderson laid abandoned under 55 feet of water in a busy shipping channel. In this paper, I use these two relatively unspectacular shipwrecks as case studies to investigate cultural conceptions of shipwrecks and the sea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

During this time, coastal shipwrecks became increasingly common occurrences and resonant symbols in American art, literature and popular culture. But not all wrecks were viewed in the same way. Local, regional and national newspapers covered the wrecks of the Anderson and Dewey very differently. In this transitional period, coastal shipwrecks were more than local news stories, romantic images or inconsequential metaphors; I argue that they held an integral place in late nineteenth-century American culture. And I suggest that coastal shipwrecks were liminal spaces that blurred the “maritime edge” and linked the maritime to the continental both along the physical shoreline and in American culture.

Unfortunately, there is little scholarship on the wider relevance of shipwrecks in late-nineteenth century America. The existing scholarship generally investigates shipwreck iconography and narratives through an analysis of famous wrecks and “high” culture.[1] Yet beginning in the 1890s, if not earlier, there was an increasing number of coastal shipwrecks, and a resurgent interest in the “maritime world” in popular literature, juvenile periodicals, and the emerging medium of silent films. This paper explores popular representations of late-nineteenth-century shipwrecks and the sea through the wrecks of the Addie Anderson and Admiral Dewey. It argues that culture is central to any investigation of the characteristics, connections, boundaries and influence of the maritime world.

Viewed from the shore, the Anderson and Dewey were two vessels sailing just over the horizon or two names hidden in the fine print of “shipping news” columns. The Anderson was a quintessential east coast four-master built at the height of wooden schooner construction in one of Bath, Maine’s most prolific shipyards.[2] The Anderson was culturally invisible for most of its career, except for the time when a naval transport fired a pair of warning shots across its bow for neglecting “to fly the American flag at sea, when called upon to do so.”[3] The Dewey was built in 1898 for a precursor of the United Fruit Company. It was designed to exploit the expanded commercial opportunities secured, at least in the popular mind, by the vessel’s namesake, Admiral George Dewey.[4]

On February 3rd 1899, the Anderson appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Maritime News” column advertising a cargo of 1600 tons of coal for Providence, Rhode Island. Six days later the Admiral Dewey left Port Antonio, Jamaica bound for Boston with 18 passengers and a cargo of oranges, bananas, and limejuice. Twelve hours out of Jamaica, the Dewey encountered a continual storm of snow and wind. Passengers, reassured by Captain McGrath’s “grim smile,” later praised the “stability of the craft and able work of the captain” in the “wicked seas.”[5] After five days in the storm, the weather began to moderate, and the exhausted crew continued north towards the shelter of Martha’s Vineyard Sound.

The Addie Anderson departed Newport News, Virginia around the same time the Dewey left Jamaica. According to first mate B. H. Garfield, the schooner was instantly “out in the storm,” but the Anderson “behaved well… in the teeth of the heavy northeaster.”[6] By the time the weather cleared along the eastern seaboard on the 14th, the heavily iced schooner was off the southern coast of Long Island. Garfield later described the Anderson as being “like a glass blower’s ship on a huge scale” weighed down with hundreds of tons of ice.[7]

Newspapers later published detailed narratives of the schooner’s final hours. To briefly summarize: after passing Long Island, the Anderson struck a section of a wooden derelict that was “hidden below the high running sea.”[8] The schooner’s pumps temporarily stabilized the leak, but after eight hours its was “settling by the head” off the entrance to Narragansett Bay.[9] At the same time, the Admiral Dewey was just over the southern horizon in a relatively calm, but ice-laden sea, soon to enter what passengers described as a “vapor which was quite mystifying in its effect.”[10]

The winter storm that the Dewey and the Anderson sailed through impacted a wide swath of the country; there was ice-skating in New Orleans; New York harbor froze; and Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were surrounded by ice, “cut off from the world.”[11] At sea, vessels later reported hurricane force winds, “blinding snow[,] and mountainous waves.”[12] Such descriptions of the dangerous, sublime sea, however, were not limited to winter storms: the “mystifying” vapor reported by passengers aboard the Admiral Dewey reiterated the persistent Romantic perception of the sea in American culture. Yet perceptions of the sea and the meanings attached to them were, and are, culturally constructed – continually reimagined, recontextualized, and redeployed to meet contingent social and cultural imperatives.

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, America’s relationship to the sea changed dramatically; the closing of the frontier, rising waves of immigration, the decline of the merchant marine, rapid technological developments, and overseas imperial aspirations and expeditions revived popular interest in the maritime world. As industrial, modern America formed, the sea remained an integral part of American life. There was a resurgence in American sea fiction led by writers like Stephen Crane, Jack London as well as a number now largely forgotten authors like Morgan Robertson and Thornton Hains. Bert Bender argues that this literature defined “the sea itself as the essential element of sea fiction.”[13] At the same time, a distinct American style of marine painting that emphasized the individual’s conflict with a romantic, sublime sea matured in the work of Winslow Homer.[14] In popular culture, the solo-sailing adventures of Alfred Johnson, Howard Blackburn, and, most famously, Joshua Slocum, shared headlines with polar explorers and passenger shipwreck narratives, distant naval engagements and local yacht club regattas. Popular juvenile periodicals like the Youth’s Companion urged boys to build boats, and they regularly published detailed plans and instructions for skiffs, dories, canoes, “bicycle boats,” and ship models.[15] And in 1899 alone, dozens of films offered urban theatregoers dramatic images of ongoing America’s Cup races, sailing ships and ocean liners, harbors, storms, and shipwrecks.

Yet at the close of the nineteenth century, nostalgic perceptions of the Romantic sea paralleled and often stood in opposition to a growing scientific and technological outlook. Passengers on the Dewey, for example, praised both the “able work of the captain” and “stability of the craft” yet readily acknowledged their fear of the “wicked seas” and awe of the “mysterious” vapor.[16] The sea was still considered to be dangerous and volatile, but it was a place that was increasingly under the control of men through science. In September 1899, editors of the Century Illustrated Magazine introduced an issue devoted to “man’s relations to the sea” by lamenting how steam navigation and the efforts of the US Hydrographic Office “have taken much of the [sea’s] mystery from us, and left a world that only the poets can any longer call a tractless waste, and they only half-heartedly.”[17] Yet, not all agreed. McClure’s Magazine published an article several weeks later that was titled: “Guarding the Highways of the Sea: The Work, Records, and Romance of the Hydrographic Office.” Similar contradictory assessments also appeared in short silent films and in newspaper depictions of the frequent coastal shipwreck – shipwrecks like that of the Addie Anderson and Admiral Dewey.


We left the Anderson and Dewey, on diverging courses less than 30 miles apart as Valentine’s Day ended. Around 1 AM, an hour after passing Whale Rock Lighthouse, the wind died and the tide began to ebb against the Anderson. It suddenly “gave a plunge,” and the crew abandoned the schooner with its sidelights burning, steam pump running, and sails set.[18] For the next six hours, the crew worked to keep their boat next to the Anderson’s protruding topmasts and away from the Bay’s dangerous ice flows. In the morning, a schooner picked up the shipwrecked crew before the Life-Saving Service’s lifeboat reached the wreck.[19]

About an hour after the Anderson sank, the Dewey ran aground on Cuttyhunk Island’s Shipwreck Ledge, just 100 feet from the island’s Life-Saving Station. Being in no immediate danger, the passengers elected to stay aboard the Dewey, and the crew jettisoned the steamer’s cargo; 160 barrels of limejuice soon floated in a sea covered with thousands of oranges, but the Dewey did not budge. By three in the afternoon, the passengers and their baggage had been safely put on a steamer and were bound for Newport, Rhode Island while the Dewey’s officers and crew remained aboard to assist and direct the salvage effort.[20]

Both wrecks were major, page-one events for Rhode Island’s largest newspaper, the Providence Daily Journal. The Journal published fundamentally different shipwreck narratives for each of these local wrecks. The Anderson’s narrative emphasized the crew’s success on a capricious yet known sea. The Dewey’s narrative, however, was a story of failure, both technological and human, on a mystical realm. Examining the illustrations accompanying each narrative highlights some of these differences.

The nostalgic drawing of the Anderson under full sail [see image] complemented two smaller pictures of the Narragansett Life-Saving Station and the Whale Rock Lighthouse [see images]. These illustrations as well as the accompanying articles highlight the successes in the Anderson’s narrative rather than the shipwreck — the failure itself. The lighthouse safely guided the schooner up the Bay, the life-saving station offered a prompt, daring (if unnecessary) rescue, and the Anderson is depicted under a full press of sail on a breezy day, not 55 feet under Narragansett Bay.

The single illustration of the Dewey [see image] provides a sharp contrast. The steamer is depicted as it lay, stranded with a slight list on Shipwreck Ledge. The illustration emphasizes the Dewey’s vulnerability on the exposed reef. The Dewey’s shipwreck narrative, unlike the Anderson’s, is marred by failure – failure of the lighthouse, the fog whistle, and the Dewey’s crew to guide what was considered “one of the latest and best” American merchant steamers.[21] Further, pessimistic headlines like “fear that she will become a total wreck” contrast the widespread optimism for the Anderson’s eventual salvage.[22]

In the Providence Journal’s illustrations and articles, the Anderson is depicted as an anachronistic commercial vessel that was wrecked by an unseen and apparently unavoidable derelict. And the Dewey, a new steamer, emblematic of the nation’s emerging imperialist program, wrecked because of technological failure and its crew’s incompetence. We might expect the newspaper editors to embrace technological innovation over a common wooden schooner. But in this case, shipwrecks forced a consideration of technological and human failure. Differences in the coverage of the Anderson and Dewey’s wrecks, then, may reflect an underlying ambiguity with technology and progress that shipwrecks only exacerbated.

Despite the extensive coverage in the local paper, the Dewey and Anderson were just two of dozens of wrecks from this particular storm that were covered by regional newspapers. Papers, like the New York Times, situated all of these wrecks in a shipwreck landscape that was familiar to their readers. The Dewey’s narrative is particularly illustrative. Noting “the ribs of many wooden vessels lie scattered along the beach opposite where the Dewey struck,” reporters placed the steamer six miles from the City of Columbus disaster of 1884, a few miles from the stranded Fairfax, and in “almost the identical spot where the Government tug Triana went ashore, and was lost several years ago.”[23] The Dewey itself entered this landscape: in 1902, a Times article placed the wreck of the Indian “about three-quarters of a mile to the westward of where the Admiral Dewey went ashore.”[24] This shipwreck landscape clued newspaper readers to the likelihood of salvage, the danger of wreck sites, the experience of captains, and the reputation of salvage outfits.

Few shipwrecks, however, had a lasting national impact similar to the wrecks of the New Era, the Portland, or the Maine. Yet newspapers across the country printed short articles on the Anderson and Dewey’s wrecks.[25] And dozens of papers, including the Dallas Morning News, the Santa Fe New Mexican, and the Butte Weekly Miner, published stories of the shipwrecks, narrow escapes and salvage efforts left in the wake of this Valentine’s Day storm.[26] National press outlets carried these stories because they were popular — they sold. In an increasingly regimented, bureaucratic world, shipwrecks and the sea represented a lack of control and a mystical realm, and they nostalgically recalled an increasingly distant past of iron men and wooden ships. In other words, they were stories people would pay good money to read about.

When the Anderson and Dewey wrecked, shipwrecks were a central part of American culture – not a uniquely maritime or even coastal phenomenon. The metaphor of the shipwreck continued to find wide cultural relevance among statesmen, religious leaders, artists, and poets.[27] And newspapers, popular periodicals, literature, art, and the emergent film industry regularly portrayed the suffering, danger, and spectacle of shipwrecks to national audiences.[28] At the close of the nineteenth century shipwrecks, like the sea, garnered renewed popular interest and cultural resonance. And while the broader implications still need to be explored, I suggest that as America’s relationship with the sea changed, representations of shipwrecks offered a compelling rejoinder to the dominant discourse of progress, faith in science and technology, and American exceptionalism.

I would like to conclude by suggesting that late nineteenth-century coastal shipwrecks were liminal spaces that blurred the “maritime edge” [topic of conference]. Coastal shipwrecks literally linked the maritime to the continental along the physical shoreline; breeches buoys physically connected wrecks to the land as salvage tugs struggled to pull them back to sea. Cuttyhunk’s Shipwreck Ledge and Narragansett Bay were, and continue to be, part of the marginal spaces that John Stilgoe describes as the coastal realm: “the zone between what seamen call ‘open ocean’ and what landsmen call ‘ordinary inland landscapes.”[29]

Coastal shipwrecks also complicated boundaries between a distinctly maritime and American culture. On shore, shipwreck narratives served as powerful cultural metaphors. In the maritime world, they were visceral warnings of the consequences of incompetence, technological failure, or just bad luck. And beyond physical and cultural spaces, shipwrecks were sites inhabited by liminal figures like wreckers, lifesavers, and professional marine salvors. Late nineteenth-century coastal shipwrecks complicate attempts to define the unique characteristics of “the maritime” and “the continental,” and they highlight the overlapping, shifting, and contingent boundaries of the “maritime edge.”

[1] For earlier scholarship see: Robin Miskolcze, “Don’t Rock the Boat: Women and Shipwreck in Early U.S. Culture” (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Nebraska, 2000); Robin Miskolcze, “The Shipwrecked Woman in British and Early American Literature,” Prose Studies, XXII, No. 3 (1999): 41-56; Hugh Egan, “Cooper and His Contemporaries” and Donald P. Wharton, “The Colonial Era” in Haskell Springer ed., America and the Sea: A Literary History (Athens, GA, 1995), 64-82, 32-45; Donald P. Wharton, “Introduction,” In the Trough of the Sea: Selected American Sea-Deliverance Narratives, 1610-1766 (Westport, CT, 1979), 3-27. For scholarship addressing the late-nineteenth century see: David C. Miller, “The Iconology of Wrecked or Stranded Boats in Mid to Late Nineteenth-Century American Culture,” in Miller ed., American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature (New Haven, 1993), 186-208; Daniel W. Lane, “Nineteenth-Century American Shipwreck Narratives and National Identity” (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Delaware, 2002).

[2] The Anderson was built by the famed New England Company in 1890.  W. J. Lewis Parker, The Great Coal Schooners of New England, 1870-1909 (Mystic, CT, 1948); William H. Rowe, The Maritime History of Maine: Three Centuries of Shipbuilding and Seafaring (New York, 1948).

[3] The Duluth News Tribune, 30 April 1898; The Morning Herald [Lexington, KY], 30 April 1898; Bismarck Tribune [Bismarck, ND], 2 May 1898.

[4] Boston Daily Advertiser, 19 August 1898.

[5] Providence Evening Bulletin (hereafter PEB), 16 February 1899.

[6] Providence Daily Journal (hereafter Projo), 16 February 1899.

[7] Projo, 17 February 1899.

[8] Ibid, 16 February 1899.

[9] PEB, 15 February 1899.

[10] Ibid, 16 February 1899.

[11] Ibid, 17 February 1899; NYT 15 February 1899.

[12] New York Times (hereafter NYT), 16 February 1899; Projo, 14 February 1899.

[13] Bert Bender, Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present (Philadelphia, 1988), 7.

[14] John Wilmerding, American Marine Painting (New York, 1987 [1968]); Roger B. Stein, Seascape and the American Imagination (New York, 1975).

[15] Albert B. Farnham, “A Cheap Skiff,” Youth’s Companion, 21 June 1894, 291; George A. Stewart, “Boats that Boys Can Build,” Youth’s Companion, 7 March 1895, 118; Stewart, “Boats that Boys Can Build: Part II,” Youth’s Companion, 14 March 1895, 128; George R. Riley, “How to Build a Bicycle Boat,” The Ladies’ Home Journal, XXI (August 1904), 25. Plans for building boats were also published in many of the “how-to” books published for boys during this period. See for example: Daniel C. Beard, The American Boys Handy Book (New York, 1907 [1882]), 95-131, 281-285, 389-409; Beard, The Jack of All Trades (New York, 1914 [1896]), 146-169; Beard, The Outdoor Handy Book (New York, 1914 [1896]), 156-221; and Maurice Thompson, ed., The Boys Book of Sports (New York, 1886), 91-99, 199-232.

[16] PEB, 16 February 1899.

[17] “The Fascination of the Sea,” Century Illustrated Magazine, LIIX (September 1899), 800-801.

[18] Projo, 16 February 1899.

[19] PEB, 16 February 1899.

[20] PEB, 16 February 1899.

[21] Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, 21 February 1899.

[22] Projo, 16 February 1899.

[23] Ibid, 19 February 1899; Ibid, 17 February 1899.

[24] NYT, 31 March 1902.

[25] For example see: Fitchburg Sentinel [MA], 15 February 1899; Idaho Daily Statesman [Boise], 16 February 1899; Nebraska State Journal [Lincoln], 17 February 1899; Trenton Evening Times [NJ], 16 February 1899; The Macon Telegraph [GA], 16 February 1899.

[26] See for example: Dallas Morning News, 12, 16 February 1899; Santa Fe New Mexican, 13 February 1899; Butte Weekly Miner, 16 February 1899; Helena Independent, 16 February 1899.

[27] The shipwreck metaphor was utilized in many contexts. The religious usage was pervasive, for example: “The Sunday School: Paul’s voyage and Shipwreck,” Christian Observer, XX, October 1897: 6; and “Making Shipwreck of Faith,” Christian Advocate, 29 June 1899: 1013-1016. In children’s literature see: “A Sugary Shipwreck,” The Youth’s Companion, XIV, August 1899, 419. Further examples include: “Practices and Procedures: How Far the Inefficiency of the Bar Therein Shipwrecks Litigation,” The American Lawyer, IV, (January 1896), 9-11. See also: Miller, “Iconology of Wrecked or Stranded Boats.”

[28] An incredibly large amount of cultural ephemeral related to shipwrecks was produced during this period. Representative periodical/literature includes: Stephen Crane, The Open Boat (New York, 1898); Joanna R. Nicholls, “Co-operation Between Seamen and Surfmen: an Imperative Need of the Life-Saving Service,” Godey’s Magazine, CXXXV (September 1897), 249-254; Page Milburn, “Two Shipwrecks,” Zion’s Herald, XII (October 1898), 1298; J. Hooker Hamersley, “Youth’s Department: Shipwreck,” New York Observer and Chronicle, 30 December 1897, 923.  For representative art see: Winslow Homer, The Wreck (1896), Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899); Harrington Fitzgerald, The Wreck (1901). Representative film shorts released in 1899 include: Wreck of the Norseman; Wreck of the ‘Mohican’ and Wreck of the S.S. ‘Paris’ (UK); Launching the Lifeboat and Shooting the Life Line; Launch of the Porthonstock Life-Boat (UK); American Mutoscope & Biograph, The Breeches Buoy. Search results,, 12 January 2008.

[29] John R. Stilgoe, Alongshore (New Haven, 1994), 9.



Filed under Dissertation Digest, Notes from the Field

3 responses to “The Valentine’s Day Wrecks: Shipwrecks, the Sea, and Late Nineteenth-Century American Culture

  1. Jamin – I was there at Pensacola and saw your talk. Is there any chance we could run this as an article in our magazine?

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