The 1918 Wreck of the Port Hunter

The 1918 Wreck of the Port Hunter

by Stan Lair

Transcribed by C. Baer, 1995.

[ This is a transcript of part of a tape-recording labeled 'Port Hunter 1918.' It is on the back of a tape dated May 25, 1979 and was probably made about the same time. He quotes heavily from the booklet Shipwrecks on Martha's Vineyard by Dorothy R. Scoville (Dukes County Historical Society, 1972.)]

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May 25, 1979. This is Stan Lair. This time we'll talk about the old Port Hunter, the ship that was wrecked off East Chop during the First World War and was quite a source of revenue for a lot of families in town.

It was on November second, 1918. I got up, oh, fairly early that morning. I had a good breakfast. I can't remember what, but my mother always made a good breakfast - probably bacon and eggs or something like that. We lived on Center Street, in Vineyard Haven, right across from the Village Cemetery. So anyway, after breakfast I went downtown. I saw a lot of English sailors around. I couldn't quite figure out what was going on down there. Finally I got word that what had happened, and we can fill in a little bit here about the Port Hunter.

A book Shipwrecks on Martha's Vineyard by Dorothy Scoville gives quite a bit of information. 'The Port Hunter was rammed and sunk by the tug Covington.' He said visibility was 'good.' I think it was fairly early in the morning, still dark of course. The sea was calm when this accident happened. The tug rammed the Port Hunter and the captain of the Port Hunter maneuvered so he'd be over the shoals there when she went down, and she of course did sink. She was 5500 tons, a British freighter, and where she went down was called Hedge Fence Shoal - it's about three miles off Vineyard Haven. Her superstructure was above water, and the cargo hatches weren't too far below the surface. She had a crew of fifty-three men, and they'd all been taken off, and taken ashore to the Seamen's Bethel. So she was, apparently, an abandoned ship.

She left Boston with Capt. William Stafford in command. She left Boston November first, to join a convoy making up in New York. She was loaded with army supplies going for the U. S. forces in France. All kinds of things in there - there were leather jerkins, there were leather vests, lined with olive drab wool, long woolen underwear, there were wool socks, olive drab shirts, trousers, matching wool puttees - those were the puttees that they used to wrap around their legs. Several yards of puttees to cover one man's legs. And lots of soap, boxes of soap were aboard there. Oh she had all kinds of things. There were also trench candles - they had long ones and short ones. She had narrow-gauge rails aboard. She had 800 sets of railroad car wheels, and several unassembled railroad engines. Motorcycles. She had 2000 tons of steel billets, weighing about six pounds each. She had a lot of stuff on that ship.

Well, one of the hatch covers apparently came loose and the cargo began to float around. That's when we got the word that the cargo boxes were coming ashore on the north side of the Island. So a bunch of us boys headed down toward the Herring Creek, about a three mile walk through the woods. And we arrived there, and sure enough, there were all sorts of things coming ashore in boxes.

There was a man, an old gentleman right ahead of us, going along, pulling stuff up, his name was Shubael Vincent. He was putting his initials on every box that he came along, 'S. V.', 'S. V.', throwing them up into the bushes and the boys were coming along right behind them and picking them up and making off with them!

There was all kind of stuff coming ashore there. There was of course soap, and candles, shoe dubbin. That was about all the stuff that would float there, of course a lot of the stuff was taken out of the holds later. For a time there was 'finders keepers,' and fishermen were bringing leather jerkins into the town wharf, and selling them right off the boats for a dollar apiece. Two dollars each for the black ones which were rare ones, prize ones, I guess. Dollar each for the others. And they were bringing those things in by the hundreds. They were packing bales of a hundred. I recall my father was out there and he had a bale of the things.

That brought all the merchants from New Bedford here, every boat that came in was loaded with them to buy up some of this stuff. And of course when the demand started to be as it was, why the price started to go up. Finally got up to around four or five dollars apiece for these leather vests.

I recall one of my schoolmates going up there. He only had a little dory. He got out there, and he came in with a bale of these leather vests - how he ever did it I don't know. But the method was to get over the holds with a long pole with a hook on it and hook this stuff up. But anyway he had a hundred dollars in tow there, so he did alright. That was Onslow Robinson.

I also recall a drayload - a dray is a little wagon - a drayload of rubber boots going up past my house on Center Street. Just heaped right up with old rubber boots, well new rubber boots, that is. There were unlined so they weren't that great but there they were.

Then the Coast Guard made the announcement that everything must be turned into them at the Vineyard Haven wharf. They had an armed guard there on patrol. Nobody paid any attention to it. I don't know how much stuff it turned in. I don't think it was very much. But they tried anyway.

Now let's see what Dorothy had to say about that: 'Heavy wool 'long johns',' she says, 'went for 50 cents each, and a wool lined leather vest sold for three dollars. A Vineyard tailor...' - yeah, I remember, E. Issokson! - '...made serviceable leather coats out of two vests and charged five dollars for the job.' That is correct. I remember that. E. Issokson, by the way, was also noted for repairing sails on sailing vessels, and the story goes sometimes he would lay them right out on Main Street and sew them when he didn't have room to put them anywhere else. I don't remember that, but I've heard about it.

What else did Dorothy say? Yeah - 'In February, a salvage company headed by Barney Zeitz, New Bedford man, came to Vineyard Haven, took over the Port Hunter cargo for the Federal government. Vineyard men were warned off. There were stories that the salvage crew was armed with rifles and would shoot any unauthorized boat coming near. There also was a well founded rumor that watchman had been placed aboard the wreck, but the sea had something to say about plans for the Port Hunter. Winter gales swept in and the swift tides gouged the sand out around her hull. Slowly the ship began to settle. Soon only her masts were visible.'

Now this Barney Zeitz, he hired the sanitary laundry in Oak Bluffs, run by Mr. Nichols, and he employed quite a few people there, all fifty or so people, to launder these things. They'd been in salt water of course and they were washed, and they were pressed and packaged and sold to mainland buyers. They would hang these out to dry in the yard by the laundry. There's a fence around the area, almost like a chain link fence. In the evening, why, men on the outside of the fence would come equipped with fish lines and poles and throw the line over the fence and hook out a few leather vests and so forth. Well, they were worth four dollars apiece, three or four dollars apiece, so there was a lot of pirating going around. Also it wasn't safe to hang your vests out on the line to dry at your home along with your wash, 'cause you'd look out the next morning and the whole thing would be gone, including your family wash. So there were a bunch of pirates around here in those days!

They did bring several people here, several families came here that remained - not several but some anyway. The Brennan family, Chester Brennan came here as a diver on a Port Hunter job. I recall seeing Chester making a dive, a trial dive down at the village wharf. They were trying out telephone communications with the diver. Up to that point all communications were with a line. Two pulls on the line meant something, and three something else. Chet had a telephone in his helmet and he went down to try it out, and I guess the thing worked alright. He reported so when he came up anyway.

I believe Dave Curney[?] came here on that job too. He was a diver. There also was a young diver, I don't recall his name, but we got quite friendly with him, we used to hang around with him quite a bit. He was one of the younger group.

You know I went to a yard sale last summer, and lo and behold I saw some of these little stubby candles in a dish. I asked the lady if they were Port Hunter candles and she said 'yes.' They were ten cents each.

Well, according to Dorothy in her book, 'In 1934, after much litigation, the Port Hunter salvage rights were awarded to the J. E. Doherty Co. of Boston. Poachers were threatened with prosecution, and some were hailed into court, but they were difficult to catch on dark, moonless nights.'

'Periodically, in 1937, 1951, and again in 1953, new salvage schemes were announced but they did not materialize.' Now this vessel was sunk in a real tough place to work. The tide runs very fast through the sound, and the only time they could work on this Port Hunter was at slack tide. I think that's what - maybe a couple hours. So it was a long, drawn-out thing. 'Skin divers began to explore the sunken hull. Sanford Low of Hart Haven, Oak Bluffs, wrote an exciting story about his explorations and it appears in the Vineyard Gazette. In 1960, a trio of Oak Bluffs summer residents, including Dick and Willy Jones, and Arnold Carr, brought up numerous trinkets they found in the Port Hunter staterooms. Among the items were medicine bottles, dark glasses, and a Masonic button. Later the boys gave them to the Dukes County Historical Society. They reported the rusting hulk now was nearly 60 feet below surface and was in a cradle of sand.'

'The final chapter of the Port Hunter story was in 1962, when the Coastal Marine Survey and Salvage Co. sent five men, a scow, and a small tug to Vineyard Haven harbor. Steel rails and billets were to be brought up from the Port Hunter's lowermost hold.'

'Unfavorable weather plagued the salvage attempts and brought near disaster when the loaded scow developed a leak and had to be beached beside the Vineyard Haven sea wall.' I remember that. She laid there quite a while. 'She lay there for weeks, an eyesore for curious sightseers who speculated on the possible values of the rusting scrap iron.'

'Another tug and a larger scow arrived to resume work but the fall storms came to hinder salvage efforts. In late October, tug, barge and men left Vineyard Haven. It was spring of 1963 before work was completed and no estimate was announced by the salvage company as to the value of the reclaimed material.'

'Now that the Port Hunter's bones are picked clean, she lies at peace in the sand of Hedge Fence shoal, final resting place of the most productive wreck the Vineyard ever has known.'

Well, this material is from Shipwrecks on Martha's Vineyard by Dorothy R. Scoville, and I've added a few things that I remember myself. So that about completes all we can recall on the Port Hunter. But as Dorothy said, it was one of the most productive wrecks the Vineyard ever has known. I know one or two new homes were built from proceeds from this wrecking business. So, it was a productive operation.