Saturday, September 03, 2005


Ghost of the Sound -- old shipwreck tells Greenwich's tales

_________________________________________________________________ News
By Michael Dinan
September 1, 2005

It was a cold, pitch-black night on the windswept Long Island Sound 75 years ago.

The captain of the freighter Thames, Roger Sherman, was smoking a pipe on deck and chatting with his pilot, Leonard Hancort. The 560-ton wooden vessel steamed eastward, about two miles off Great Captains Island, carrying a load of sugar destined never to reach New Bedford, Mass.

At 7:50 p.m., the two men saw fumes eddying around the base of the smokestack. Within a minute the deck burst into flame.

"We were driven off like rats in five minutes," Sherman, a Stratford resident, said five days later.

By then -- April 29, 1930 -- 16 of Sherman's 24 men were lost to the Sound, burned and drowned amid swamped lifeboats, screams and white-hot flames. The western edge of Tod's Point lay just 100 yards away, but the first person to see the burning steamer from the mainland -- the Tod family caretaker's wife, Arne Larson -- could do little but alert the Sound Beach Fire Department and watch in horror.

So goes the harrowing story of what Greenwich boaters call the "Sugarboat," named for her hot-burning cargo, in a series of articles published in the Greenwich News & Graphic, the forerunner of the Greenwich Time.

The tale has obtained the status of maritime folklore in Greenwich. Marked today by a buoy that warns boaters at low tide as much as it recalls the tragedy, the vessel itself is eroded by sea water and slowly sinking into the Sound's floor.

"At real low tide, with a full moon, a little bit of it still pops out of the water," said Craig Whitcomb, operations manager for the Greenwich Parks and Recreation Department's marine division.

That ghost has haunted generations of young sailors, says Joe Powers, 74, historian of the Old Greenwich Yacht Club.

"My daughters used to hear the story around the fire at camp," Powers recalled.

A retired chemist and history buff, Powers gathered much of his information for a written account of the Sugarboat by interviewing the late Frank Flower, a member of the Sound Beach Volunteer Fire Department who was on the scene in 1930.

The Sugarboat, originally called the City of Gloucester, was built in 1884 as a 142-foot passenger ship, Powers said.

"She plied the waters of Boston Harbor for many years," Powers writes in the account. "In 1927, she was sold to the Thames Company, converted to a freighter and renamed the Thames."

On its last voyage, the vessel's cargo included 100 tons of sugar and other bulk items, such as 20 bales of wood shavings and 25 barrels of oil stored several feet from the boiler room.

According to Sugarboat survivor Louis S. Hubbell, the blaze was likely ignited by a cigarette butt tossed into the boiler room. Hubbell clung to an upended lifeboat with several other men, according to the Greenwich News & Graphic.

"The rough seas caused the boat to upset, and other deckhands, (Hubbell) said, clung to the overturned lifeboat until their fingers became numb," the newspaper reports. "He tells of the horror and feeling he experienced, as one by one the deckhands lost their grip on the boat and disappeared out of sight."

Many of the corpses were never found.

"Over the next several days," Powers writes, "bodies washed up along the shore."

Powers says the Sugarboat's original crew consisted of 26, not 24, men: officers, engineers, oilers and "shenangoes," or daily dock workers. He also says the boat was heading for New London, not Massachusetts.

Historians debate the point.

The boat actually may have been running sugar to Byram bootleggers, according to the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich's 1990 book, "Greenwich: An Illustrated History."
According to the book, which was co-published by the historical society and Greenwich Time, Greenwich was said to boast more speakeasies than any town in Connecticut before Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Former Greenwich Police Chief Thomas M. Gleason disputed that in an interview for Greenwich Library's Oral History Project. However, Gleason did talk about following a trail of congealed mash, disposed through the sewer system, back to a whiskey still in Byram.
"It was usually a sugar trail that led to bootleggers," according to the book.

Whatever its intended destination, even the wrecked Sugarboat could cause further damage.
According to former Norwalk resident Bob Bachand, a retired children's dentist and avid scuba diver, two boats struck the submerged boiler and sank, Bachand writes in his book, "Scuba Northeast, Volume II,". Both boats hit the wreck at night, before a buoy marked the Sugarboat's location, Bachand said.

Richard Taracka, a 21-year veteran of the police department, said he started diving down to the Sugarboat when he was an eighth-grader at Western Middle School. Police divers used the wreck for practice sessions, Taracka said, hiding objects underwater for officers to find during training.

"We really had to dig to find anything because it was pretty well broken up," Taracka said. "Just a pile of beams, really, stacked on top of each other."

Had the Sugarboat's crew been able to swim as well as Taracka, many more may have survived.
Only one crewman wore a lifejacket, Powers said.

"Townspeople in Greenwich could see the glow from the burning hulk from estates at Willowmere and at the end of Indian Head Road," Powers writes. "They could render no assistance because there was no rescue boats or communication equipment available in 1930.

The next day, three Old Greenwich volunteer firemen rowed out in a leaky boat to examine the still smoldering wreck. They found no signs of life."


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