Nearly 170 years ago, lifesaving efforts by Nantucket residents averted a worse maritime disaster by rescuing 226 shipwrecked emigres from Ireland. This summer, Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum brings to life the 1851 voyage of the passenger ship British Queen, its demise, and how Nantucketers saved the lives of all on board.
The crew and passengers of the full-masted sailing ship British Queen expected the worst after being stranded off Nantucket on December, 17, 1851. Blown off course in its journey from Dublin to New York City, the ship had gone aground during a snowy blizzard, in icy shallow water 12 miles from Nantucket Harbor.
Captain Christopher Conway ordered his ship’s sails to be cut and stowed away to stabilize the ship in the roaring wind; seawater washed over the ship and began filling the passenger hold. The more than 200 Irish souls on board, immigrants fleeing famine and journeying in hopes of better lives in America, had endured a 3,000-mile trip during an unexpected two months at sea and were now facing probable death. Drenched and cold, they huddled together in groups to ward off the life-threatening elements.
Thankfully, a fire-watchmen in a Nantucket church tower spotted the ship in distress. Almost 36 hours after the British Queen was grounded, seasoned mariners on the island were able to launch a harrowing rescue effort, which saved the lives of all on board, including families with children and the ship’s crew. In the end, just two already-ill passengers had died during the British Queen’s stranding, before the Nantucket lifesavers arrived.
Opening this Saturday, May 25 and continuing through the 2019 season, the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum will tell the dramatic story of The British Queen. Located on 158 Polpis Road, this museum preserves and shares the memory of the brave islanders who time and time again risked their lives to save shipwrecked mariners.
During the 19th Century, hundreds of ships passed by Nantucket Island each day, all navigating without the benefit of modern nautical technology. Unpredictable storms, dense fog, and strong currents often caught even the most experienced sailors off-guard. Treacherous shoals and inclement weather led to more than 700 shipwrecks in the surrounding waters of Nantucket, causing the area to be dubbed “a graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Accounts of the dramatic rescue tell about the touch-and-go transfer of passengers from the British Queen by harnessing them in ropes and lowering them onto boats from Nantucket—a group of two schooners and a paddlewheel steamboat put into service as rescue craft. The height of Nantucket’s days as a whaling port had passed, but many expert seamen still lived on the island and were part of seafaring ventures including the salvaging of wrecked ships.
Once aboard the Nantucket vessels, the passengers from the British Queen were taken to the island’s Straight Wharf, where townspeople welcomed them with dry clothes, food, and shelter in heated churches, public buildings, and private homes. After a six days on the island, most of the British Queen passengers continued their trip to New York on Christmas Day, 1851, aboard the Telegraph, the same paddlewheel steamer that had been part of their rescue. A few stayed behind, reportedly appreciative of the warm welcome given to them on Nantucket and happy to settle there instead of venturing further.
Today, descendants of both the British Queen passengers and rescuers are among Nantucket residents. Prominent among descendants of survivors is the Mooney family, descended from passengers Robert Mooney and his bride Julia. Parents of seven children, the couple became prosperous farmers on the island. Their grandson served as sheriff on the island, and their great-grandson Robert F. Mooney, who died in 2016, became a prominent local lawyer, historian, and author who was elected to the state legislature and whose children currently live on Nantucket. He also served on the board of Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum.
One of the only known physical remnants of the wreck, the quarterboard from the British Queen, is owned by the Mooney family and is part of this summer’s exhibit, along with first-hand accounts of the shipwreck, contemporary newspaper reports, and stories of the Irish immigrant experience from their homeland and streets of Dublin to their landing on Nantucket’s Straight Wharf.
In addition to this season’s featured exhibit, the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum also displays permanent exhibits that are devoted to the history of Nantucket lifesaving, famous shipwrecks and rescues, life-saving equipment, the daily routine at a life-saving station, and the workings of the modern-day United States Coast Guard. Their collection of more than 5,000 artifacts includes a period surfboat, beach carts, vintage photographs, and a Fresnel lens from Brant Point Lighthouse and Great Point Lighthouse.
The museum also hosts fun family events such as An Evening of Shipwreck Stories & Sea Shanties on June 19, Pirates & Mermaids Sail with Nanpuppets aboard the Lynx, a Maritime Speaker series, maritime music events, and Family Days on June 24, July 10, and August 14. Starting on July 9, weekly programs for children are held every Tuesday morning through the summer. For dates and details on these events, visit eganmaritime.org/events
Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, just over three miles from Nantucket Town at 158 Polpis Road, opens for the 2019 season this Saturday, May 25 at 10 am. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm and Sundays from noon to 5 pm. The museum can be reached by car, bike, taxi, Egan Maritime’s Shipwreck Shuttle or via Nantucket’s public bus system The Wave – Polpis Route. Admission is $10 for adults; $7 for seniors and students; and $5 for ages 6-17. Children under six are admitted free. The museum participates in the Blue Star program offering active members of the military and their families free admission.
Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum is the oldest of its kind in the U.S. and part of the Egan Maritime Institute.