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Thursday, February 6, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Wreck of the Montclair



     Cape Cod has seen countless shipwrecks over the centuries. Its shifting shoals and sand bars have always been hazardous to passing vessels especially on the Atlantic Ocean facing coastline. Between Race Point Beach in Provincetown and the southern tip of Monomoy Island in Chatham is nearly fifty miles of some of the most dangerous waters in the world. Estimates by the National Parks Service say there are upwards of 1,000 lost vessels in what is common referred to as an ‘ocean graveyard.’ Legendary wrecks include the 17th century Sparrowhawk, the 18th century Whydah pirate ship, the 19th century Portland, and 20th century Pendleton. Even vessels as large at the 473-foot Eldia, which was grounded on Nauset Beach in 1984, have not been able to escape the pull of the Cape’s sand bars.
     
     Some of these vessels, like the Sparrowhawk, have been revealed due to the shifting sands and had their wooden carcasses removed and put on display in local museums. One wreck that has been appearing and disappearing over the last decade is that of the Montclair. Located on southern Nauset Beach it is a glimpse into history and an adventure to explore. However it is a real ship and a real tragedy with numerous lives lost which happened nearly a century ago. This is the story behind the remains that have been photographed and shared throughout social media over the last several years. This is the story of the wreck of the Montclair.

The Orleans Lifesaving Station circa 1900, courtesy of Sam's Scrapbook.com

     The vessel known as the Montclair was a three-masted schooner. The 371-ton wooden ship was built in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1918 and designated a transport vessel. It was owned by Captain C.B. Martin of Partridge Island, Nova Scotia.

     On Tuesday March 1, 1927 the 142-foot Montclair set sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia en route to New York City with a cargo of 2.5 million wood laths. It was headed by Captain William McLeod with a total crew of seven men. That same day a British vessel, the Frederick H., also left Nova Scotia with New York as its destination. Neither would reach its destination. The very next day the vessels began to feel the effects of a strong late-winter storm raging in from the southwest. Winds of up to 60 mph tore at the ships as they rounded Provincetown and headed down through the shoals of the Atlantic side of Cape Cod on March 3rd. McLeod had the utmost confidence in his vessel and pressed on south.

     The wind and waves pounded the Montclair and began pushing it in toward the shore as it headed past Nauset Beach. The ship lost two of its three masts, the fore and mizzen masts. Unable to control the vessel they could only hang on as it was pushed into the sandbars roughly a mile off shore just south of Nauset Beach. It was at this point, early on March 4th, that the peril of the Montclair awakened Captain Edward L. Clark. Clark was part of a skeleton crew of three men at Coast Guard Station #40 located just east of Little Pochet Island, two and a half miles south of the current Nauset Beach parking lot. The station had been designated inactive in the early 1920’s ironically due to the fact that there had not been any shipwrecks in the area for decades.

The wreck of the Montclair in 1927, courtesy of the William Quinn Collection

     Clark notified the Provincetown and Old Harbor (Chatham North Beach) Coast Guard stations and people rushed to the scene. After one last attempt to swing the Montclair clear of the shoals it was tossed up on to the sand where it was beaten by the waves of the high rising tide. The brave Coast Guard crews headed out into the wind and waves for an attempted rescue even managing to shoot three weighted lines over the stern of the crippled ship. Five members of the ship’s crew grabbed on to one line while the other two men grabbed another before the Montclair was broken in half near the middle. The five crew members including Captain McLeod were washed overboard while the other two men were picked up and brought back to shore.

     The splintered ship was eventually lifted off the sandbar by the tides and brought to shore where it was tossed up onto the sands of Nauset Beach. Its cargo of wood laths scattered for miles along the sand. The two survivors of the wreck Nathan Bagg and Gartland Short were treated for hypothermia and hysteria at the Coast Guard station. The body of Captain McLeod was quickly recovered while three of the other four missing were also quickly pulled from the water as the storm subsided and the sea calmed. The fifth and final deceased member of the Montclair’s crew would be discovered on March 15th on North Beach in Chatham by Wesley Eldredge mostly buried under the sand.

The remains of the Montclair today

     Much like with the grounding of the Eldia decades later countless residents came out to see the wreck of the Montclair with some helping themselves to some of the unbroken wood laths that had been deposited for a half-mile along the coast. Considered to be the worst maritime disaster on the Cape in more than twenty-five years questions were raised after as to whether more lives could have been saved if the Orleans Coast Guard station had been active.

     The Frederick H., which had left Nova Scotia the same day as the Montclair, also ran into the destructive storm as it sailed around Cape Cod. Badly damaged as well it managed to limp its way into Vineyard Haven only thanks to constant pumping of the water from the hold and galley of the vessel by the crew.

     Along the coast of Cape Cod at the same time author Henry Beston was residing at his ‘Fo’castle’ beach shack, writing his soon-to-be classic ‘The Outermost House.’ The news of the wreck of the Montclair made its way to Beston who immortalized the disaster in his book’s sixth chapter. Deputy Collector Thomas Finnegan reported to the scene from New Bedford with a team of eight men as the Montclair had been a suspected rum-running vessel. He questioned the two survivors but did not secure any useful information. One blessing from the disaster of the wreck was that the Orleans Coast Guard station was restored to full strength after it happened.

The remains of the Montclair today

     The shifting sands have buried and uncovered the remains of the Montclair several times over the decades. In the 2010’s it was revealed repeatedly, each time slightly more decayed than before. The wood is soft and rotting away, while the iron is rusty and gives the ship a ghostly skeletal appearance currently. It is nearly a two and a half miles walk over the sand to reach the remains of the Montclair.

     Though an interesting adventure taking the walk out to find its remains it is a somber and solemn reminder of the dangers of the sea. It is important to remember the five men who lost their lives aboard the Montclair as well: William Downing, William Stewart, George Cains, Jerome Butler, and Captain William McLeod.



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