S.S. City of Columbus

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A brief history of the Savannah Line and the SS City of Columbus.

Formed in 1872, the Ocean Steamship Company of Savannah Georgia took over the operation of the Empire line of steamships, owned by the Georgia Central Railroad. Service was provided between the cotton export port of Savannah Georgia and the northern manufacturing export ports of New York and Boston. Cotton was sent north and manufactured goods South. Rail connections at both ends of the line provided freight and passenger service to the interior of the country and the West. Passengers traveled in either directions for both business and pleasure. As popularity of the line increased a need was identified to increase both passenger and freight capacity. In response to this demand the Ocean Steamship Company, more popularly known as the Savannah Line began building new ships.  The sister ships “City of Macon” and “City of Savannah” were launched from the John Roach and Son shipyard in Chester Pennsylvania in the fall of 1877. Both ships proved to be a major improvement in comparison to the older vessels in the fleet, some of which were retired after the City of Macon and City of Savannah came on the line.  So pleased were the managers of the Savannah Line with the two new steamships, a few months after their delivery the Savannah line ordered two more ships from the same yard. The somewhat larger sister ships “City of Columbus” and “Gate City” were ordered in February of 1878 and launched into the Delaware River June and July of the same year.

The City of Columbus sailed on her maiden voyage from New York on August 28th 1878; she arrived in Savannah to a tumultuous welcome on September 2nd. The beautifully appointed ship was 275’ long and displaced 2,200 gross tons. A two cylinder compound engine developing 1500 horsepower powered the ship at a speed of 15 knots. Four circular tube type boilers provided steam. The hull was constructed of iron and the superstructure of wood. The ship was also fitted with two masts and rigged with sails as was common on steamships of the era. City of Columbus served faithfully on the Savannah to New York route until 1882, when the Nickerson Company of Boston purchased the ship along with her sister the Gate City. The Nickerson Company organized the Boston and Savannah Steamship Company in 1882 and the two recently purchased sister ships became the company’s flagships. Weekly sailings between the two ports were scheduled. Cotton was transported North to the great textile mills of New England and manufactured goods such as clothing, shoes and furniture as well as canned fish went South.  The City of Columbus proved popular with the merchants of Boston as well as the traveling public from northern New England.


Although it was clear, a stiff North West wind was blowing making it seem much colder than the 30 degrees registered on the thermometer as eighty seven passengers boarded the City of Columbus on the afternoon of January 17th, 1884. As the ship departed Nickerson’s wharf in Boston bound for Savannah, many on board were anticipating the pleasant climate of the south as an escape from the bitter mid winter cold of New England.

Under the command of Captain Schuyler E. Wright of Dartmouth Massachusetts, the City of Columbus settled into its normal routine for a southbound voyage. As the ship skirted the outside of Cape Cod many passengers after finishing the evening meal stayed up to socialize in the main salon or the smoking room.

Later that evening after traversing Nantucket sound westbound the ship turned southwest into Vineyard sound, the last leg of confined waters before venturing into the open ocean for the remainder of the journey to Savannah. Approaching Tarpaulin Light on Naushon Island Captain Wright gave the order to second officer Augustus Harding, “When Tarpaulin Light bears North, go West Southwest.” Harding who had come on watch at 2 am after relieving first officer Fuller. Captain Wright stepped into his cabin, which was directly aft of the pilothouse. Resting in the doorway to his cabin, which opened into the pilothouse, captain Wright had every reason to believe the ship was bound safely down Vineyard Sound.

Sometime later at approximately 3:15 am the lookout spotted a buoy on the starboard bow in a position where one should not have been. Second mate Harding issued an order immediately to steer the ship to starboard. Captain Wright alerted by the actions in the pilothouse stepped forward and ordered “hard aport!” bringing the ship still further to starboard and out of harms way. Captain Wright immediately recognized that the ship was perilously close to the rocks on Devils Bridge, a rocky shoal extending out into Vineyard Sound from the South West tip of Martha’s Vineyard at Gay Head. The Gay Head lighthouse was plainly visible on the top of the cliffs to the South East. A moment later the ship struck bottom on Devils Bridge. Believing the ship only slightly damaged if at all Captain Wright ordered the engines reversed in an attempt to back the ship off the rocky shoal. This proved to be a fatal mistake. The City of Columbus was doomed, with her bottom badly punctured by the rocks in several places she sank rather quickly, coming to rest with her bow, smokestack and masts out of the water.

Very little time was available to send any type of distress message. The fires went out in the boilers very quickly so the whistle could not be sounded. As the ship sank she listed very sharply over to port and then righted herself as she settled to the bottom. Two of the ships lifeboats were launched, both swamping in the process. The first boat escaped with only five people in it and the second drifted away empty, one passenger a Nova Scotia sea captain named Vance swam to the unoccupied life boat and climbed aboard. Captain Vance was rescued later that day by the navy tug Speedwell steaming down Vineyard Sound. The majority of the passengers and crew did the only thing possible to try and save themselves, that being climbing into the rigging and waiting in the freezing spray for some form of rescue to appear.


As the sun began to rise on the morning of January 18th, the wreck was spotted from shore at Gay Head Lighthouse. The Massachusetts Humane Society Gay Head Lifesaving station was quickly alerted. The Gay Head station was in charge of Chief Simon Johnson of the Gay Head Indian tribe, and manned by a crew of volunteers, mostly whalers home from long voyages overseas. Two boat crews from the Gay Head station managed to reach the wreck that morning, a third boat was overturned and smashed to pieces in an attempt to reach the wreck. All of the rescue craft had to be launched from the beach in high surf conditions and rowed out to the wreck site. The Humane Society crew rescued a total of 21 people. More help arrived on the scene around midday in the form of the Revenue Cutter Samuel Dexter. The Dexter had happened upon the scene around 12:30 in the afternoon as they were steaming into Vineyard Sound on their way home to Woods Hole Massachusetts from an offshore patrol. Losing no time in swinging into action, the Dexter maneuvered as close to the wreck as they dared where Captain Gabrielson anchored his ship. Immediately a boat was launched in charge of Lt. Rhodes. As the Dexter’s boat made for the wreck it became apparent that it would be impossible for the boat to come directly alongside the masts where the remaining survivors were located due to the large seas breaking over the wreck. Lt. Rhodes with no regard for his own life dove into the icy waters and repeatedly swam to the masts of the City of Columbus helping rescuing a total of eight people.  

The newspapers as well as the illustrated press carried the news of the disaster in dramatic fashion. Facts concerning the disaster as well as how many persons were rescued and lost varied between publications. Several days elapsed before an accurate account of the disaster including a list of those lost and saved came to light.

In the end the loss of the City of Columbus was New England’s worst maritime disaster to date. A total of 104 people either drowned or froze to death in the rigging, only 29 were saved.

The hero’s of the day were the Humane Society lifeboat crews and the crew of the Revenue Cutter Dexter, in particular Lt. John Rhodes. Those partaking in the rescue efforts were recognized for their efforts by a vote of a joint resolution in the 48th Congress.  Additional recognition came from the state of Connecticut, the city of Newport Rhode Island, the Massachusetts Humane Society, and local civic groups.

A board of inquiry was held by the Steamboat Inspection Service into the circumstances surrounding the disaster. In the end after hearing the testimony of all available witnesses, Captain Wright was found at fault. His license as master and pilot was revoked.

The Boston and Savannah Steamship Line found itself in dire financial straits by early 1887. At this point the remains of the company was taken over by the Ocean Steamship Company, including its fleet of ships. The Gate City reverting back to her original owners. The Ocean Steamship Company through the beginning of World War II continued Service to Boston and New York.


Over the years two local rumors persisted regarding the City of Columbus. The first being that the ship was completely buried in the soft sand on Devils Bridge. The second was that the ship was completely salvaged a few years after she sank.

Our gut feeling was that neither of these rumors were true. We felt that more than likely the truth regarding the whereabouts of the City of Columbus lay somewhere between these two rumors and whatever we might find on Devils Bridge.

Research revealed that the Boston Towboat Company purchased the wreck in 1886 for the sum of $600.00. They managed to salvage the boilers, propeller shaft, propeller and parts of the engine. The rest was left behind to the sands of time.

After reviewing all the historical records and accounts available on the disaster, we examined the physical shape of Devils Bridge itself. Combining all of this information we set out in search of the wreck on Sunday June 11th, 2000. Upon arriving at the location where we suspected the wreck to be, we dropped the anchor and waited for the tide to begin to slacken. Tidal currents can run up to 3 knots on Devils Bridge so any diving operations must be accomplished during the periods of slack water. As this time approached the first dive team of Charlie Warzecha and Eric Takakjian suited up in preparation to dive. The dive plan was for both divers to proceed to the end of the anchor line and clip off their wreck reels. Eric would go to the right and Charlie to the left. Each diver would swim to the end of the line on their reels and return. If nothing was found the boats anchor would be repositioned either further inshore or offshore depending on what was found during the dives. As it turned out repositioning the anchor would prove to be unnecessary. The divers hit the water as planned and began to execute the dive plan. Eric went right and swam the length of his line and returned to the anchor without seeing any wreckage. Charlie went left and after proceeding about 20’ ended up swimming into the starboard bow of the City of Columbus! Research had paid off big time. Eric joined Charlie shortly thereafter and then both divers returned to the boat to report the news that the City of Columbus had been found after 116 years at the bottom of Vineyard Sound!

The other divers aboard the Quest, including Lori Takakjian, Dennis Sevene, Dave and Pat Morton, Tom and Kathy Murray, Tom Mulloy and Steven Scheuer quickly suited up and descended to explore the wreck. The City of Columbus lies on a sloping bottom on the North side of Devils Bridge with the bow to the west and uphill from the stern. Large house size boulders completely surround the wreck site. Wreckage covers a large area of the bottom; the lower portion of the ships hull is mostly buried in the sand. Hull plating and frames from the ships side have fallen outward on both sides. Portions of the ships compound engine rise 15’ off the seabed. Foundations for the line shaft bearings also rise up out of the sand to a height of approximately 4-5’. Portions of hull plating and framing are exposed in some places, particularly in the stern. Water depths at the site range from 30 to 50’, visibility is usually excellent due to the bottom composition of white sand and rocks. Fish and marine life in general are abundant, stripped bass, fluke, scup and black sea bass are common sights in the summer months. In exploring the wreck over the past few years we have found that parts of the site will cover and uncover as the sand is displaced or filled in due primarily to the wave action of winter storms.

While conducting our initial survey of the wreck site we came across an object lying in the sand off the starboard quarter of the wreck that seemed quite out of place. At first we were unable to identify it, the object was largely buried in the sand. The following season a considerable amount of sand had been scoured away from the object and it became immediately apparent, that it was a radial airplane engine. Not being knowledgeable in aircraft components, we consulted our friend John Fish who is very knowledgeable in such matters. It turns out this particular engine is a 14 cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-1830-86 Radial aircraft engine from a F4F Wildcat fighter plane. Wildcats were carrier-based aircraft used throughout World War II and quite popular with pilots. This particular Wildcat crashed while on a training mission over Martha’s Vineyard.


Andy Lizak
John Fish
The crew of the Quest

Photo Credits:
Thomas Mulloy
The Mariners Museum
Peabody Essex Museum
USCG Historians Office

Disaster on Devils Bridge, Hough, The Marine Historical Association.
The Savannah Line, Mueller, Steamship Historical Society of America.

No photographs or images may be reproduced without permission.

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serving Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New England since 1997