Prologue Magazine

Prologue: Selected Articles

Winter 1987, Vol. 19, No. 4

The Wreck of the Metropolis
By Dennis R. Means

Peering through a thick blanket of fog on the morning of January 31, 1878, local fishermen were the first to spot the grounded vessel. There was no time to lose; the steamer would break up fast! Acting quickly, they pulled half a dozen survivors from the sea and dispatched a rider to notify the lifesavers.

Because of the great distance between stations, Surfman William Perry had marched up and down the water-covered beach for several hours through the stormy night and still failed to catch a glimpse of the stricken vessel. He had passed the wreck site on his return patrol about 4:30 a.m.— several hours before the disabled steamer made her run up on the beach or could even be discerned from the shore through the rain.1

When the rider, a Mr. Brock, arrived at the lifesaving station about 10 a.m., Keeper John G. Chappell and his men readied themselves for action. Brock informed him that a vessel was fast breaking up, too fast to get the 750-pound surfboat down the beach to be serviceable. Instead, the keeper strapped the medicine chest to his back and headed for the wreck immediately. His crew of six followed along dragging the beach-cart. Filled with mortar, shot, lines, breeches-buoy apparatus, and a Merriman suit, the cart presented a formidable 1,000 pounds to drag across four and a half miles of soft beach where its broad five-inch-wide tires sank four inches into the sand at every step.2 (Horses were not kept by stations until 1880.)3 During the preceding twenty-four hours, each surfman had already patrolled from twelve to thirty-two miles through the dangerous sweeping storm tides.4 Had a Mr. Dunton with his horse and cart not come to their aid, it is unlikely that the crewmen could have arrived at the wreck site either in time or fit to assist anyone.5

After reaching the shore nearest the Metropolis, Keeper Chappell set about the effective application of restoratives to a number of survivors who had already swum ashore. His crew and apparatus arrived about noon. The steamer lay head-in one hundred yards offshore and, thus, presented a small target for the mortar. Nevertheless, the second shot was true and landed across the port fore-topsail yardarm. But the man who took the line "was no seaman," according to Surfman Piggott Gillikin, and the line was not dropped under the stays and therefore chafed in two before the whip-line could be drawn out to the vessel. Having run out of his own powder, Chappell improvised with some quick-burning black powder that had been secured from Mr. Brock, who lived nearby. But two additional shots failed when each time the shot-line parted from the ball upon firing.6

Keeper Chappell then donned the Merriman life-saving dress and made two valiant attempts to carry a line out to the vessel. When he was unable to get past the breakers, those on board the vessel who had looked on in horror began to jump overboard and take their chances at swimming ashore. For three hours keeper and crew struggled to save them in the surf while battling a treacherous undertow; all were badly bruised by the mass of bobbing timbers about them. As Gillikin noted, "all worked as hard at it as possible . . . until it was all over."7 One hundred and sixty lives were drawn out of the water on that dismal morning.

See also this related article: A Heavy Sea Running: The Formation of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1846 - 1878


1 House Committee on Commerce, Letter From the Secretary of the Treasury Transmitting Report of Life-Saving Service in reference to the loss of the steamer Metropolis, 45th Cong., 2d sess., 1878, H. Ex. Doc. 58, pp. 2, 9.

2 Ibid., pp. 2, 7-8.

3 LSS, Annual Report 1879, p. 74; LSS, Annual Report 1880, pp. 41-42. For a delightful horse story see Julian Denton Smith, "Beach Horses," Long Island Forum (Nov. 1969): 206-209.

4 House Committee on Commerce, Letter . . . in reference to the loss of the steamer Metropolis, 45th Cong., 2d sess., H. Ex. Doc. 58, pp. 2-3, 9. Several surfmen died while on patrol and from exposure and disease contracted in the line of duty between 1876 and 1914; see [U.S.L.S.S.], List of Persons Who Have Died . . . in the line of dtity in the Life-Saving Service since the origin of the present system, as shown by the records of the Treasury Department (1914). See also "The Life-Saving Service," Good Company 6 (Nov. 1880): 252-253; J.H. Merryman, "United States Life-Saving Service," Scribner's Monthly 19 (Jan. 1880): 324-325.

5 House Committee on Commerce, Letter . . . in reference to the loss of the steamer Metropolis, 45th Cong., 2d sess., H. Ex. Doc. 58, pp. 2-3, 9, 16.

6 Ibid., pp. 3-4, 8-10, 12, 14.

7 Ibid., pp. 4-5, 8-10, 12, 15-16, 18.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.