Our Amazing History: Hamptons Shipwrecks Brought Holiday Gifts from the Sea

Shipwrecks vintage print representing the John Milton

This is the season when presents arrive. They arrive as packages in the mail, tied with a bow. They arrive around the Christmas tree, having come down the chimney.

Here in the Hamptons, in the old days, they’d also arrive from the sea, carried aboard wayward oceangoing schooners that shipwrecked violently on the sandy beaches or rocks, often in a storm, to split open and spill a virtual supermarket of cargo for the locals to pick up and take home. Rules were in place to supposedly prevent you from doing that. But if a ship came at night or in a storm, or blizzard, who was to know? In any case, hundreds of ships offered up these gifts. Locals, fishermen and farmers, and merchants in these parts, appreciated this fact, even if the cargo included barrels of excrement from seabirds and bats known as guano, which came ashore from the shipwrecked John Milton in 1858 at Ditch Plains. Guano made great fertilizer.

Here are some of the shipwrecks that blessed the East End with bountiful gifts during the holiday season in the 1880s and ’90s, according to Ship Ashore! A Record of Maritime Disasters Off Montauk and Eastern Long Island, 1640–1955.

On Dec. 22, 1884, the 905-ton brig Charlie Hickman out of New Brunswick, Canada came ashore on a fog-covered bar not far from the Moriches Life Saving Station carrying a load of coal, around 8 p.m. In the darkness, the men manning the station fired a cannon that sent a heavy line into the mast of this crippled ship, then by breeches buoy rescued 15 of the 16-man crew safely. One crewman, a boy, fell overboard and was washed out to sea.

On Dec. 18, 1887, at 12:30 a.m., the two-masted schooner Lewis A. King came ashore on the sand a mile and a half southwest of Montauk Point, bearing a cargo of dates and pipe clay. The crew came off without assistance in the morning, the captain telling people he had lost his bearings. A man from the Scott Wrecking Company soon arrived and offered to pull the ship off, but the captain said he was asking too much. Eventually, the ship broke up and released its huge cargo of bagged dates, which the locals rounded up. Date pudding was a popular dessert for months and months.

The Baltimore freight and passenger steamer George Appold came ashore on the ocean beach a mile east of the lighthouse during the night of Jan. 9, 1889. A wrecking company arrived and determined the ship could not be pulled off. Two weeks later, it broke up, releasing hundreds of pairs of shoes, bolts of calico, many, many hats, stockings and underwear down the beach, all rounded up by the locals and carted off by horse and wagon. The calico, said to be a hideous color, was sewn into dresses that women wore but hated for years. All the copper-toed shoes and boots got matched up. A month later, an official came and invited the locals to bring the leftovers in to be auctioned off. Many did. They got to keep half the money raised.

The schooner Elsie Fay bound for Boston from the West Indies came ashore just east of Ditch Plains in Montauk on Feb. 17, 1893. The crew was rescued but the ship shortly broke up, releasing its cargo of thousands of coconuts that soon, bobbing in the surf, came ashore to the west. This led to coconut soup, coconut cake and coconut pie for many months.

The Fannie J. Bartlett wrecked on the ocean beach in Napeague carrying 1,250 tons of coal on Jan. 15, 1894. The locals knew what to do. The nameplate from this ship was removed as the ship broke up, then nailed to a pole next to a makeshift platform in Napeague where Long Island Rail Road trains would stop when flagged down by anyone wishing to send goods to the city. The railroad also inaccurately named stations South Hampton, Easthampton and Bridge Hampton over the years.

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