On this day in 1907, the steamship Larchmont collided with the coal schooner Harry Knowlton in the worst maritime disaster in Rhode Island’s history.
Between 150 and 200 lives were lost according to newspaper reports at the time. The exact number of deaths has been the subject of much speculation as the passenger list was lost with the ship. Only 17 survived, including the captain and other members of the crew.
The Larchmont was a wooden, paddlewheel steamship, 252 feet long by 37 feet wide, that had a history fraught with disaster long before the fateful night of February 11th, 1907. The ship, which had three decks, two masts and a chimney, was built in 1885 at a construction yard in Bath, Maine for the International Steamship Line. It was launched under the name Cumberland, but after a collision in Boston Harbor, the ship was abandoned and bought in 1902 by the Joy Steamship Line. Rechristened the Larchmont, it was used to shuttle passengers and cargo between Providence and New York. Between 1902 and 1907, the ship experienced two fires, another stranding, a collision, and was even the location of an unsolved homicide. John O’Hara, a Providence engineer, was shot and robbed while aboard.
At 7pm on February 11th, 1907 the Larchmont left South Water Pier in Providence with 52 crew and more than 100 passengers bound for New York. She was running a half an hour late and facing deteriorating weather with wind gusts of 40-50 miles an hour, waves up to 20 feet and reduced visibility.
Once the ship cleared the Pt. Judith Lighthouse, the 27-year-old first-time Captain, George W. McVey, turned in for the night, leaving the Pilot, John Anson, in command. As blizzard conditions raged, most of the passengers retired to their cabin. The air temperature fell below zero and empty decks became coated in ice.
At approximately 10pm, the Larchmont exited Narragansett Bay and turned west into the Block Island Sound. At approximately 10:45, the Harry Knowlton, a three-masted schooner loaded with 400 tons of coal bound for Boston, rammed the passenger ship and severed her main steam line. According to eye-witness reports, the Larchmont sunk between ten and 20 minutes, only three nautical miles from Watch Hill.
According to The New York Times, “The schooner came on with a speed that almost seemed to equal the gale that had been pushing her toward Boston. Even before another warning signal could be sounded on the steamer’s whistle, the schooner crashed into the port side of the Larchmont.”
Frank T. Haley, the captain of the Harry Knowlton, and his crew of six made it onto a lifeboat and survived. They beached near the Quonochontaug Life-Saving Station in Charlestown where they spent several days recovering from frostbite and hypothermia.
Unaware of the Larchmont’s perilous situation, the crew of the Harry Knowlton did not report the collision. Because of this, no one was aware of the disaster until 6am the next morning when the first lifeboat from the Larchmont came ashore at the North Lighthouse on Block Island.
Other lifeboats followed, washing ashore with both living and dead victims of the disaster. All survivors were severely frostbitten and suffered from hypothermia, exhaustion and shock. Though 19 made it to shore alive, two died shortly afterwards.
Many Block Island fishing boats set off to look for survivors.The fishing boat Elsie spotted a floating fragment of the hurricane deck with 15 people clinging to it but only eight were still alive. Risking their own safety— sustaining either frostbite or respiratory damage—every crew member of the Elsie received gold medals from the Carnegie Hero Fund for their rescue effort to bring survivors back to shore.
For days, the frozen bodies from the Larchmont came ashore on Block Island. In the weeks following the disaster, newspapers like the New York Times and Boston Globe carried accounts of the sinking and of the subsequent trial. The captains of both vessels blamed one another for the tragedy. Captain McVey claimed he was the last to leave his sinking ship. Other survivors claimed the captain and his crew were in the very first lifeboat and left the passengers to fend for themselves.
After a weeks-long investigation by the Steamboat-Inspection Service of the Department of Commerce and Labor, the pilot Anson, who went down with the ship, was blamed for steering the Larchmont in the wrong direction when approaching the Harry Knowlton.
In August 1964, scuba divers located the final resting place of the Larchmont off Watch Hill in 130 ft. of water.