By Cathy Schisler
Fire Island is famous for its serenity and beautiful beaches, most people travel by ferry or their own boat to enjoy the beach houses and relax and soak up the sun on the beach. If you have been around Davis Park long enough, you might have heard the history of our famous shipwrecks, the “Glückauf” and the “Bessie A. White.” My first experience was many years ago. I was standing at the end of third walk with a local who grew up there, he told me to look to the right and said that’s the “Glückauf.” He told me when he was younger, he and his friends used to go snorkel around it, I haven’t done that yet. Right after Hurricane Sandy I was heading to Watch Hill for a walk, and another local told me about the “Bessie A. White” shipwreck that now is visible, so I headed past Watch Hill and there it was. I love history so I looked up some information that I’m going to share with you.
“Glückauf” — Newsday wrote about the history of this ship back in the year 2000. “Glückauf” (which means Lucky) was driven aground on March 24, 1893, just before dawn and during a small snowstorm. The “Glückauf” was a German tramp steamship, an oil tank boat, charted by Standard Oil Company. It went ashore on the south side of Long Island opposite Sayville. It’s now 75 to 100 feet offshore under 25-feet of water. Its stern is sunk in the sand, while its bow is up. The waves break over remains of the hull.
The men from Blue Point Life Saving Station were on hand, and the captain and the crew of the ship were brought safely ashore. The sea was not rough that day; it was actually a very calm night. Rumor has it that the grounding of the “Glückauf” was due to negligence. The “Glückauf” was insured for $200,000, and at the time was said to be worth twice the amount. ”Glückauf” grounded on the outer bar, and a storm was coming up the next day. Before wrecking steamers could reach her, she was driven, bow on, right to the beach. Had the “Glückauf” gone a thousand feet further, she would have cut the Blue Point Life Station in two.
A wrecking company tried to get her off the island for several weeks, costing thousands of dollars trying to pull her from the sand at high tide. Each day that passed she sank deeper into the sand. Then another storm opened a breach into her hold, pouring hundreds of tons of sand within the hull. She was stripped of most of her rigging, engines, and fittings, leaving her there for the sea to break up. The loss of this ship cost German stockholders hundreds of thousands of dollars. She was 300 feet long, and there she is miles before you reach Water Island. So take a walk and see if you can spot her.
“Bessie A. White” — Uncovered by Superstorm Sandy (the first time I saw it) east of Davis Park, past Watch Hill, the remains are thought to be the “Bessie A. White,” more than 90 years old. According to livescience.com she was a four-masted Canadian schooner carrying a cargo of coal. This was not the first time that this wreck of the schooner had made an appearance. It was exposed by the late October nor’easter that brought the North American blizzard of 2005. Before that, she made an appearance during another nor’easter in the mid-1980s.
The “Bessie A. White” was more than 200 feet long with a displacement of 2,000 tons. She left Newport News Virginia for St. John’s, Newfoundland, with 950 tons of soft coal for a gas works. She was 3 years old and owned by Charles T. White & Son of St. John’s. The Captain was Leslie T. Merriam of Spencer Island, Nova Scotia. First Mate was Harry McNally of St. Johns, New Brunswick, and Second Mate was B.F Porter of Spencer Island. Also on board was the captain’s son, Spencer, plus a crew of 10.
On Feb. 6, 1922, at 4:30 a.m. she fetched up on the bottom a half of mile west of Smith’s Point. The grounding opened her seems and she quickly filled with 8 to 10 feet of water.
In the darkness and fog the crew waited for daylight. The Smith Point Coast Guard Station was closed due to budget cuts. Their distress signals were not visible to either the Bellport station four miles to the west, or the Forge River station four miles east. Upon daylight the crew launched two boats and escaped to shore, one of the boats overturned in the surf, crushing a seaman by the name of Rynburgh. When the Coast Guard arrived, Rynburgh was transported to a hospital in Brooklyn, the rest of the crew survived.
A company called Foster Sills & Harry Paine of Patchogue purchased the ship’s salvage rights. The masts and rigging were ravaged as the wreck was pushed closer to shore by wind and waves. The crew tried to save as much of Bessie as possible before the sea claimed the rest.
The Long Island coast has many wrecks in addition to the “Glückauf” and “Bessie A. White” but many do not get the chance to survive as such magnificent relics. However these two remain on Fire Island reminding us of a bygone era. Explore history, be it through a book, hike, or scuba mask!
Write to Cathy with any Davis Park news at firstname.lastname@example.org.