By Doreen Leggett with research by Stephan Cohen
Before the Portland Gale swept in on Nov. 26, 1898, there was disagreement whether this would be a significant storm. Some chose to risk it, such as the captain of the ill-fated Portland with 192 passengers. Others took a more precautionary approach, such as Tony King’s captain. That decision meant King, a doryman from Provincetown, was available to help others when the storm hit.
Stephan Cohen knows King’s story because he has been doing research on three historic villages of Provincetown — Long Point, Race Point and Helltown, located at Herring Cove. “What I found really interesting was there were three villages that weren’t part of the main town proper,” Cohen said. “Naturally that led to an interest in the kind of fishing that was going on and the kind of boats that were going out.”
Copious research, supported by a small grant from the Provincetown Community Compact, is leading to a book with the provisional title, “Helltown: Provincetown’s ‘down-at-the-heels’ fishing village.” Within that book are vignettes like this one about tragedy and valor during the Portland Gale.
Cohen said many vessels had come into Provincetown Harbor for refuge, but close to 20 ended up being torn from their anchorage and driven ashore on the west end of the harbor. Others sank at their moorings.
With vessels colliding, schooners sinking and ships piling up like “bath toys,” said Cohen, a group of rescuers assembled on shore. King, who also fished for cod several miles offshore from the winter encampment of Helltown, was among them. The men had heard from those lucky enough to straggle ashore that there was a survivor in the rigging of the schooner F.H. Smith.
Ten volunteers, led by Captain Robert M. Lavender, dragged a seine boat from a repair shop on Commercial Street to the beach, said Cohen. The flat-bottomed boat was maneuvered into the surf, but the wind caught the steering oar which knocked Lavender overboard.
After the crew rescued him, Captain Charles Foster took over and they kept going. Two men bailed, the rest rowed.
“With eight stout and experienced rowers pulling manfully at the long sweeps the boat scarcely made headway against the hurricane wind and leaping sea,” reported a Boston Globe article entitled “Deeds of Heroism: Brave Men of Cape Cod Faced Death in the Gale.”
The oars were blown from the rowlocks time and time again, and repeatedly the crew were compelled to anchor to hold their ground when the gusts came fiercest, and up killock [anchor] and resume rowing during the ‘lulls.’
The men made it out to the two-masted schooner and the survivor William Forrest, the watchman, jumped from the rigging into the water. Those in the seine boat picked him up, but they were too tired to row back to where they began. They headed for the West End and the tide surge, said to be 10 feet, pushed their boat into town three hours later. “They were exhausted,” said Cohen. “The storm washed them way into town; they came to rest within a flooded neighborhood.” The rescuers received the Congressional Medal for bravery, along with a letter from the Secretary of the Treasury.
Provincetown got hit especially hard by the two-day storm that destroyed half of the town’s wharves and businesses. Lumber, wharf pilings and planks filled the west side of the harbor. “The whole mass writhed like snakes as if the surf tossed them,” according to an account in the Provincetown Advocate. On the heels of an economic downturn in 1890, which depressed fish prices, not everyone could rebuild.
Tony King and Charles Foster stayed in the fishing business. A 1910 Boston Globe article celebrated King for an accomplished 26-year fishing career.
Foster was also celebrated, but in the Yarmouth Register. The paper said he was a successful captain, “one of the most popular fishermen on the Cape.” He went on to establish Sandwich Cold Storage and manage the fishing department at Yarmouth Cold Storage.