The flatbed truck that pulled up to an oceanfront building in Southampton in February delivered a unique artifact from Long Island’s maritime history.
The building is the former Tiana Life-Saving Station, which later became Neptune Beach Club before being acquired by the town in 2014 to be restored as a museum about the history of lifesaving in Southampton. The unique piece of maritime history is the anchor believed to have come from the sailing ship Circassian, which was stranded off the beach at Mecox south of Bridgehampton during a storm on Dec. 11, 1876. While the crew and passengers survived the grounding, 28 men — including 10 from the nearby Shinnecock Indian Reservation — who had been hired to help salvage the cargo died after being caught aboard in a second storm on Dec. 29, 1876, that broke up the vessel.
The town plans to keep the anchor at the Tiana property, purchased for $3.2 million from tax revenue on real estate transactions funneled into the Community Preservation Fund. It’s a decision opposed by the Shinnecock Nation, which has a special connection to the Circassian saga.
The exterior of the station has been restored and the town is designing a plan for the interior. Eventually the building will feature a self-guided exhibit of the history of lifesaving in Southampton, town historian Julie Greene said. "With the pandemic, everything got slowed down," she explained. "There is no time frame for it opening."
The nearly 7,000-pound anchor arrived with little notice or fanfare on Feb. 11. Greene said it had been donated to the town not long before by marine surveyor Baron Rohl, who had displayed it at his father’s Babylon boathouse since acquiring it in 1980.
Greene and a handful of town officials gathered to be photographed with the anchor on the day it arrived.
"I had less than 24 hours’ notice that it was getting moved," Greene said. "I wasn’t sure the anchor was going to survive the move. It’s so huge, and when they lifted it I was afraid it would disintegrate."
Lost and found
After acquiring the anchor, Rohl researched it for 18 years before preparing a 12-page report documenting the artifact and making the case that it had to be from the British vessel. He said it was found in the 1970s by a Shinnecock fisherman in 42 feet of water five miles east of Shinnecock Inlet off Bridgehampton. It was acquired by Don Metcalf, who displayed it in the parking lot of his marina just inside Shinnecock Inlet. When the parking lot was about to be repaved in 1980, Rohl bought it for $400 and moved it to his father’s lot in Babylon. Now that property is being sold so he had to find a home for the anchor.
Rohl said he is "absolutely certain" that the anchor, which is 16 feet, 4.5 inches long, came from the Circassian. "Of all the shipwrecks lost or grounded between Shinnecock Inlet and Montauk Point between 1815 and 1900, there is only one that has not been eliminated due to the size of the vessel, type of construction of the anchor or location, the Circassian," Rohl concluded in his report. He studied 41 other shipwrecks that occurred in the area after 1815 and discounts them as being the source of the anchor for various reasons such as being too small to carry an anchor of that size or known to carry a different type of anchor. Rohl also said contemporary images of the Circassian anchor match the one he donated to Southampton.
In the 1990s Rohl had a poplar replica made of the stock, or cross piece at the top of the anchor, created by Doug Harned, owner of a Commack sawmill, the last on Long Island.
A second anchor deployed when the ship ran aground to keep its bow pointed into the waves has never been found, Rohl said.
Because the anchor carries special significance for the members of the Shinnecock Nation, tribal members have expressed interest in displaying the anchor alongside their monument, erected circa 1955, to those lost on the Circassian at the tribal cemetery, where the 10 men are also buried.
Talks between Rohl and the Shinnecock Nation two years ago faltered. Rohl said he offered to sell the anchor to the tribe but didn’t hear back from them; a tribal leader cited a lack of funds as preventing them from moving forward.
"There was definitely interest," said Tela Troge, the tribal attorney and member of the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society, which aims to protect Native American graves on and off the reservation.
Legacy of loss
Troge’s great-great-grandmother Charity Bunn was the sister of David Bunn, one of the 10 Shinnecocks killed on the wreck. Three Bunn family members and multiple members of the Walker and Cuffee families were among those who died.
"We were always told about it," Troge said. "My parents had stories about their parents, and their parents too, talking about the shipwreck. It was passed down through oral history. It was part of growing up Shinnecock."
"It’s so significant to the Shinnecock Nation," Troge said of the anchor.
The story has also been conveyed by tribal musicians, the ThunderBird Sisters (Rebecca Genia, Holly H. Thompson and Tina Tarrant), in their song "Circassian 1876," recorded in 2001.
"The anchor should be at the memorial site that we have at the Shinnecock cemetery," Troge explained. "I know that it wasn’t just Shinnecock men who were lost that day, but it was absolutely devastating for the tribe. It left a lot of Shinnecock grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters and children without these men who were providing their support in the middle of a very rough winter."
While the reservation is generally not open to the public, she said, visitors could see the anchor during the Shinnecocks’ annual powwow and the tribe could invite the public to its annual Dec. 30 memorial feast in honor of those who died. At other times, guided visits could be offered.
At the Tiana station, Greene said, the anchor will serve as a "tribute to everything that happened.
"There were lifesavers who were involved from many different stations. Tiana is newly restored and it’s on Dune Road where a lot of people will get to see it. I understand their position. But it’s part of Southampton’s history, and everybody should know the story."
The town historian added that she would be working with the tribe on preparing a historical interpretation marker for the anchor.
Caught between storms
The Circassian story had its beginning on July 18, 1856, when the 242-foot three-masted barque, which was also equipped with a steam engine, was launched in Belfast, Ireland. The engine and smokestack were removed in 1874 to reduce the cost of operating the vessel.
The iron-hulled square-rigger was sailing from Liverpool, England, to New York carrying 1,400 tons of cargo, including bricks, chemicals and hides, when on the evening of Dec. 11, 1876, it ran aground in a storm a few hundred feet west of the Mecox Life-Saving Station, south of Bridgehampton.
The crew fired distress flares, and Life-Saving Service Surfman Samuel H. Howell, who had been on patrol in the snow and sleet, fired his own flares to show the ship’s distress signals had been seen. Crowds gathered on the beach, bringing blankets, clothing, food and hot tea. When the weather improved the next day, the surfmen rescued the 49 passengers and crew in seven trips out to the stricken vessel.
As the seas calmed, a salvage company put the ship’s former captain, John Lewis, 16 crew members and a dozen local workers, including the 10 Shinnecocks, aboard to remove cargo and attempt to refloat the vessel. When another storm struck 18 days after the grounding, Lewis refused to send the workers ashore, according to accounts in New York City and local papers as well as such weekly newspapers as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News.
"We’ll float tonight or go to hell!" Lewis screamed before ordering the lifesaving crew’s line from the rigging to shore cut because he feared salvage workers would try to use it to get to the beach.
As the wind and waves grew in intensity, the next morning the lifesavers attempted to shoot out another line to the ship with a mortar, but the distance was too far in the hurricane-force conditions.
Those onboard hung onto the rigging. The Shinnecocks could be heard singing hymns and praying.
The ship broke up the next night. Four men — the first and second officers, the carpenter and a seaman employed by the salvage company — reached shore by clinging to a 5-foot-long cork fender from a lifeboat; one of them subsequently died. In all, 28 perished, including all of the Native Americans.
The Shinnecocks, who left behind nine widows and 27 children, were buried on the reservation and a monument erected. Their names are carved on the memorial: Lewis Walker, John Walker, David W. Bunn, J. Franklin Bunn, Russell Bunn, William Cuffee, Warren N. Cuffee, George W. Cuffee, James R. Lee, Oliver J. Kellis.
Fourteen of the dead were buried in the Old South End Cemetery in East Hampton. Lewis and three others were buried privately.
Theodore Roosevelt of Manhattan, father of the future 26th president, sent a check for $217 to the Hildreth’s, the general store in Southampton, to pay for supplies for the bereaved Native American families and provided other monetary support. Southampton residents also conducted a subscription drive to cover the cost of the burials for the Shinnecocks, according to the Sag Harbor Express.
"We’re still suffering today from the tragedy," Troge said. "We’re all very closely related. If you talk to any Shinnecock member, they can trace back to a relative who was lost."
Shipwrecks were common before Long Island was ringed with lighthouses and electronic navigation technology was developed. Because it generally fell to volunteers to respond to a ship aground, the deaths were staggering. The loss of vessels, cargo and lives brought demands from shipping interests and the public for the federal government to construct lighthouses and establish a rescue network. Congress responded in 1848 by appropriating $10,000 to build eight small lifesaving huts along the New Jersey coast to be run by volunteers.
The next year, Walter Restored Jones, the Cold Spring Harbor businessman and whaling company investor, led a group of New York philanthropists in organizing the Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York. Aided by $10,000 in federal funds, the association constructed 10 stations on Long Island — at Eatons Neck, Fishers Island, Amagansett, Bridgehampton, Quogue, Moriches, Mastic, Fire Island, Long Beach and Barren Island, in Jamaica Bay.
The association subsequently selected 14 additional sites on Long Island with operations of the volunteer effort overseen by the new U.S. Life-Saving Service. Congress in 1854 approved hiring paid keepers and in 1871 appropriated funds for paid crews at all stations along with new buildings and upgraded equipment. Eventually there were 32 stations around Long Island. The service continued to operate until 1915, when it was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Tiana Life-Saving Station is the second one at its current site on Dune Road. The original was built in the 1870s and replaced in 1912. The government closed the station in 1937, then reactivated it in 1942 during World War II. It was manned by an all-Black crew, commanded by Chief Petty Officer Cecil R. Forster, in a move toward integrating the armed forces by President Franklin D. Roosevelt; only one other station in the country, in Pea Island, North Carolina, had an all African-American crew. The Tiana station closed in 1946, replaced by the current Shinnecock Coast Guard Station.
— Bill Bleyer
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of Pea Island; it is in North Carolina.