This day in Nautical History: Cohasset’s most infamous shipwreck

Memorial commemorating the Shipwreck of the Brig St. John in Cohasset, MA:

October 7th, 1849 was the date of what is probably the most infamous shipwreck in New England history, that of the Brig St John. The ship was carrying immigrants from Galway, Ireland to Boston, crashed in a storm on the ledges off Cohasset. Above is a photo of the Celtic Cross memorial stone describing the shipwreck, which can be seen in Cohasset central cemetery today.

Occurring right off our local shores, this shipwreck epitomized the plight of Irish immigrants bold enough to make the journey to strive for a better life in America. Faced with the economic crisis and famine of the late 1840s back home, these brave folks ventured across the North Atlantic, and almost got here: They would likely have made it safely ashore if the strong Nor’East storm had not picked up and smashed their ship into the rocks.

Evidently, the ship was making the last leg of its journey, from Provincetown to Boston, when a fierce Nor’East storm picked up and pushed the ship off course into land along Scituate and Cohasset. An attempt to bring the ship into Cohasset Harbor and tie up along an anchored ship in the harbor failed as the heavy surf slammed the ship into the Grampus Ledge off Cohasset’s shore. This along with several other shipwrecks on these treacherous rocks prompted the construction of a permanent Minot Light in 1851.

A chart clip of outer Cohasset Harbor. Note the Grampuses in the upper left corner:

                 *NOAA nautical chart. See NOAA.gov for disclaimer.

The same area during a fall Nor’East storm. I took these photos from shore during a strong storm which occurred around this time last year (October 2011). Note the break around Minot Light in the distance. The St John may have been dealing with similar conditions when she met the ledge:

A photo I took from my boat of the approximate sight of the shipwreck. Here are the rocks near the Grampus Ledge (which is always submerged even at low tide)….if you are boating in this area watch out!

 

A full view of the text of the memorial of the shipwreck:

 

Henry David Thoreau Immortalized this incident in his short story “The Shipwreck” as he passed through Cohasset on his way from Concord to Cape Cod. He travelled by land as the ship he was supposed to have taken had been cancelled due to the heavy storm which ensnared the St John. While a bit morose, the essay delivers a beautifully vivid description- of both the physical landscape and the intangible landscape- that is, the reaction to and perception of this loss of life. The following is one of my favorite quotations from this essay, which I occasionally reflect on when walking along Cohasset’s shores and think about all they have witnessed over the centuries:

“Yet I saw that the inhabitants of the shore would be not a little affected by this event. They would watch there many days and nights for the sea to give up its dead, and their imaginations and sympathies would supply the place of mourners far away, who as yet knew not of the wreck. Many days after this, something white was seen floating on the water by one who was sauntering on the beach. It was approached in a boat, and found to be the body of a woman, which had risen in an upright position, whose white cap was blown back with the wind. I saw that the beauty of the shore itself was wrecked for many a lonely walker there, until he could perceive, at last, how its beauty was enhanced by wrecks like this, and it acquired thus a rarer and sublimer beauty still”. 

-Henry David Thoreau, The Shipwreck.

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