Imagine it’s January of 1870. You are aboard an early-morning ferry crossing from New Jersey to New York City. You are chilled to the bone—yet again! New York has been in the grips of an icy cold spell for several weeks now. Day after day, a wicked northwest wind blows.
There is ice on the Hudson, but that’s no cause for concern. Just like on every other day of the deep freeze, the ferry chugs its way across the river, big paddle wheels crunching through the frozen mess. Hundreds of passengers are aboard this morning. Quite a few women with young children are among them.
The trouble starts with a stop. The ferry slows. The paddle wheels struggle. The whole vessel creaks to a halt. Is the ice just too thick? Did the pilot make some stupid mistake? Some of the other passengers groan in frustration, realizing that they’re going to be late for work, or meetings, or medical appointments.
Nearby is a tugboat, cruising along innocently. The tug thwacks into a hunk of ice so big that it gets knocked off course. Suddenly, that tug is headed directly for your ferry …
No detailed accounts of the first moments of this near disaster survive. Quite possibly, the impact knocks you and some fellow passengers off balance. Did gasps of fright fill the air? Did any of those babies skitter from a mother’s grasp?
The tug reverses engines, backing off. And now shock turns into terror. Just at the waterline of your ferry is a V-shaped gash. The icy waters of the Hudson are rushing right through. Moments later, the ferry lurches over, listing badly over to the side where that gaping hole keeps sucking in water.
Shrieks “went up from hundreds of throats. Women, with blanched faces, caught terror-stricken children in their arms, while men, crazed with fear, scaled the rails and upper decks to escape the plunging of the overthrown horses.
How many minutes do you and your fellow passengers have left in life—two, five, fifteen? Is there anything that can stop the Hudson from claiming this ferry and dragging her down into the icy depths?
Another tug approaches, this one called the Reliance. She belongs to a marine salvage company. On her deck, surveying the accident scene, stands a man who grew up sailing the waters of the Eastern Shore. Captain Thomas Albertson Scott is a native of Snow Hill, Md.
WHAT MAKES A LEADER? WHAT MAKES A HERO?
These are the questions that run through my mind when I think about what Captain Scott did that day. I’ve been thinking about him quite a bit lately. I’ve read a short biography. I’ve read a novel whose hero is modeled after Scott. I’ve read an essay by a local history buff whose genealogical digging places Scott on the outer branches of his own family tree.
That history buff, Vaughn Baker, is a former chairman of the board at the Edward H. Nabb Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University. He tipped me off to Captain Scott, and there is a fun backstory to his interest in the topic. Baker knew quite a bit about an ancestor named Captain Jimmy Scott, who lived on Assateague Island. Family legend said Jimmy had a brother who moved up around New York City and become an early undersea diver while working on building lighthouses and bridges.
Back in the 1980s, Baker was traveling north of New York City when he stumbled upon a historic marker about a diver named Thomas Scott. Back home, he did some digging based on what that marker said, but came up empty. He put the matter aside.
Fast forward 30 years. Baker is in the New York area again. He wants to find that historic marker, but can’t remember exactly where it was. He keeps hunting. From the passenger seat, his wife announces that she tired of this game and demands they stop for food. The Bakers pull into the waterfront area of New London, Connecticut. There, much to Baker’s surprise, they come across a restaurant called the Captain Thomas Scott Lobster Dock. On the wall is a portrait of Thomas Scott. Its caption refers to a “legend” that he was born in Maryland. It cites various marine construction and salvage projects that earned him a measure of fame during his lifetime. It mentions an old biography. The game is afoot once more.
NOT BAD FOR A LAD FROM SNOW HILL
The full title of that biography is Captain Thomas Schott, Master Diver: One Who Was Not Afraid and Who Spoke the Truth. The author is another Maryland native, Baltimore-born Francis Hopkinson Smith. Smith’s first career was in marine engineering. He’s the guy who was in charge of laying the foundation for the Statue of Liberty.
Later in life, Smith became quite a popular writer. His bestselling novel Caleb West is the one with a hero modeled after Captain Scott. That novel became a Broadway play, and that play became a Hollywood movie in the silent era. That’s a pretty impressive run of attention paid by the big wide world to a lad from Snow Hill with little schooling. By all indications, Thomas Scott got the bulk of his education working the water. He was captain of a little pungy at the tender age of 15.
Smith had gotten to know Captain Scott during that his time as a marine engineer. Their first project together was Race Rock Lighthouse in Long Island Sound. Race Rock is recognized today as a grand feat of engineering for its time. Laying the sprawling underwater foundation of masonry took seven long years.
Shortly after Smith agreed to sign on as the engineer who would get that lighthouse built, he realized that the job was beyond his capabilities. He describes himself as “young [and] inexperienced, with little money and with practically no plan.” But the desperation he felt about that project disappeared in an instant when Captain Thomas Scott walked into his office for a job interview. Have you ever met someone like that, who washed away your worries in an instant, by just showing up and carrying themselves in a certain way?
“No man or child could look Captain Thomas A. Scott in the face without instantly believing in him, and no act of his [later in] life would shake that belief.”
Smith’s admiration for Scott grew from there. While working side by side with the Worcester County native through that Race Rock Lighthouse project, Smith learned a little bit about Captain Scott’s background.
In 1866, there sailed out of a harbor on the Chesapeake, near the town of Snow Hill, Maryland, a craft carrying eight cords of wood all on deck. She was what was known as a “bay pungy,” drawing but four feet of water, with a mast forward and a boom swinging loose. The captain was Tommy Scott, a lad of fifteen—strong, well-built, and springy, with a look in his face of one who was not afraid, and who spoke the truth. The crew was a negro boy of twelve. These two supplied neighboring towns with wood in exchange for oysters and clams.
“Some years later a straight, clear-eyed young fellow, with a chest of iron, arms like cant hooks, and thighs lashed with whip-cord and steel, shipped as a common sailor aboard the schooner John Willetts. … He was seven years older than when he commanded the pungy, but the look on his face was still the same—the look of a man who was not afraid and who spoke the truth.”
Young Thomas Scott quickly climbed the ranks of the wider maritime world. Three years later he was captain of his own schooner, the Thomas Nelson. During one hair-raising return trip from Barbados, illness took the life of his navigator and left the rest of his crew bedridden. Without that navigator, Scott had no idea where he was going. Then a storm for the ages rolled through. The only healthy helper available was his inexperienced wife.
“The Atlantic was an unknown sea to Scott, but the wife and all he had in the world was aboard. Forty-eight hours the two stood on deck taking turns at the pumps and tiller. …”
The journey took 25 days.
“[The Thomas Nelson] dropped anchor in the Roanoke [at last]. Many a storm have these two ridden out together since that blind rush from … Barbados. Storms of poverty, of death, of sorrow—many a bright morning too, and welcoming harbor, have gladdened their eyes, but there were always four hands on the tiller, two big and strong and two warm and helping.”
BACK ON THAT SINKING FERRY
The couple ended up in the Coytesville neighborhood of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Scott walked away from the water briefly to open a general store, but returned soon enough to maritime life. He tackled a mix of salvage and construction jobs. He was working one such gig during that bone-chilling spell of 1870 when he spied that ferry in distress. By the time Scott ordered his Reliance to pull alongside the ferry, the scene was pure pandemonium. No one knew what to do. Passengers and crew were sprinting to and fro in panicked disarray. I am going to let Smith tell most of the story that follows, since he does such a great job of it.
“[Captain Scott] sprang forward, stooped down, ran his eye along the water-line, noted in a flash every shattered plank, climbed into the pilot-house of his own boat, and before the astonished pilot could catch his breath ran the nose of the Reliance along the rail of the ferry-boat and dropped upon the latter’s deck like a cat. If he had fallen from a passing cloud the effect could not have been more startling. Men crowded about him and caught his hands. Women sank on their knees and hugged their children, and a sudden peace and stillness possessed every soul on board.
Scott spied a man who had snatched a life-preserver and was now clinging to it. He decided that this was the moment to send a message to everyone about staying calm, and about looking out first for the women and children.
“Tearing [the] life-preserver from the man nearest him and throwing it overboard, he backed the coward ahead of him through the swaying mob, ordering the people to stand clear, and forcing the whole mass [of passengers] to the starboard side. The increased weight gradually righted the stricken boat until she regained a nearly even keel.
With a threat to throw overboard any man who stirred, he dropped into the engine-room, met the engineer [who was] halfway up the ladder [and trying to escape.] [Scott] compelled him to return, [then started to drag] mattresses from the crew’s bunks [and strip] off blankets, racks of clothes, overalls, cotton waste, and rags of carpet, cramming them into the great rent [in the side of the ferry], until the space of each broken plank was replaced, except one. Through and over this space the water still [flowed in], deluging the floors and swashing down between the gratings into the hold below.
“’Another mattress!” he cried, ‘Quick!’ But there were no more mattresses.
“’All gone? A blanket then—carpet—anything! Five minutes more and she’ll right herself. Quick, for God’s sake!’
“It was useless. Everything, even to the oil rags, had been used. ‘Your coat, then. Think of the babies, man; do you hear them?’ Coats and vests were off in an instant; the engineer on his knees bracing the shattered planking, Captain Scott forcing the garments into the splintered openings. It was useless. Little by little the water gained, bursting out first below, then [over on] one side, … [rushing] in again.
“Captain Scott stood a moment as if undecided, ran his eye searchingly over the engine-room, saw that for his needs it was empty, then deliberately tore down the top wall of caulking he had so carefully built up, and, before the engineer could protest, … forced his own body into the gap with his arm outside level with the drifting ice.
“An hour later the disabled ferryboat, with every soul on board [alive], was towed into the Hoboken slip. When they lifted the captain from the wreck he was unconscious and barely alive. The water had frozen his blood, and the floating ice had torn the flesh from his protruding arm from shoulder to wrist.
“When the color began to creep back to his cheeks, he opened his eyes, and said to the doctor who was winding the bandages: “Wuz any of them babies hurt? “
POSTSCRIPT: ‘CURSING LIKE A PIRATE’
A month passed before Captain Thomas Scott returned to a measure of his earlier health and strength. He returned to his work on the Reliance, but soon departed that job in anger. As things turned out, the powers that be at his salvage company decided to send a bill to the ferry company, demanding payment for the heroics of its employee.
This bill soon became the subject of dispute, with the parties involved landing in court. Captain Scott got called into the office of the president of the salvage company.
“‘Captain,’ said the official, we’re going to have some trouble getting our pay for that ferry job. Here’s an affidavit for you to swear to.’
“[Captain Scott] took the paper to the window and read it through without a comment, then laid it back on the president’s desk, picked up his hat, and moved to the door.
“‘Did you sign it?’”
“‘No!; I ain’t a-goin’ to.’
“‘[Be]cause I ain’t so durned mean as you be.’ Look at this [injured] arm [of mine]. Do you think I [would have gone] into that hellhole if it hadn’t been for them women cryin’ and the babies a-hollerin’? And you want ’em to pay for it. Damn ye!’ Then he walked out, cursing like a pirate.”
Soon thereafter, an unemployed Captain Thomas Scott showed up in the office of Francis Hopkinson Smith, responding to an ad seeking for someone to take charge of the dangerous construction work ahead at the proposed Race Rock Lighthouse. Smith adds one last more fun tidbit to this story. Years later, he reports, Scott dug out from an old trunk the ship’s log of the Reliance. He shared with Smith its comically brief summary of the events of Jan. 30, 1870:
“January 30, 1870. Left Jersey City 7 a. m. Ice running heavy. Captain Scott stopped leak in ferry-boat.”
Captain Thomas Scott was 42 years old on that day of these heroics. He lived a long and rather storied life after that, starting his own marine salvage company and winning a good bit of renown for his ability to clear shipwrecks and rescue their cargo where other companies had failed. The biography of him that Smith wrote came out in 1908, the year after Captain Thomas Albertson Scott died at the age of 77. Here is how that book ends:
“… in the thirty-seven years I knew and loved him, he has always been, and will always be, to those who had his confidence, one of nature’s noblemen – brave, modest capable, and tenderhearted. The record of his life must be of value to his fellow countrymen. Nor can I think of any other higher tribute to pay him than to repeat the refrain… one who was not afraid and spoke the truth, a description of Tommy Scott even at age 15.”
–written and posted by Jim Duffy on Feb. 24, 2021 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
NOTES AND LINKS
• Many thanks to Mr. Vaughn Baker for so generously reaching out to suggest this topic and then sharing his essay and pointing me toward other materials.
• The biography that Smith wrote about Captain Scott is available online and perhaps through used bookstores. The novel that Smith wrote with a character modeled after Captain Scott is also available.