Egeria – A True Story of Shipwreck

By Dorothy McMahan

With excerpts from On Shipboard by Anne Starrett Craig

Information gathered by Dorothy McMahan and Chuck McMahan

Olivia Murray, a page regular with a family connection to the Waterford coast, brought this guest blog to my attention. The story is one of those wonderful accounts that can be so easily lost, or remain as a footnote in history unless someone, very often a family member, has the resolve to go out and do the hard digging. Mind you in this case it’s generations of family. I am indebted to the kindness and generosity of Dorothy and Chuck McMahan for what you are about to read. It offers a unique glimpse into one human story and how it impacts a family, just one of thousands associated with wrecks that have happened along the Waterford coastline in days past.

This is a true story that needs to be preserved in the annals for the descendants of Captain Henry A. Starrett. Our knowledge of the factual information of the story has been expanding over almost 150 years and over four generations. As I retell it here I will add the various chapters in the chronological order in which they unfolded, beginning with the oral history as I heard it in my childhood and beyond.

The best way to begin is by quoting from my grandmother Anne Starrett Craig’s booklet of her memories of life On Shipboard with her parents, Captain Henry and Ellen “Nellie” Starrett. This is basically the oral history with which I grew up living in the same household
with her in Belfast. We children heard many other stories of her childhood but this is the one we most vividly remember.

…While the ship {was in port}…my mother and I usually managed a visit to the small New England town which we called “home”, because there my mother’s relatives lived, with their latch-string always out to us. One autumn it was decided that we should spend the winter there, my father making the trip to Liverpool without us. My first taste of school and of a New England winter was a pleasant adventure to me. But my father’s adventure was the most disastrous of his life as a sea captain. In late November there came to us from the owners of our bark, “Egeria”, a telegram; “Cable dispatch. Egeria totally lost. Captain Safe at Waterford. No particulars.”

The particulars, which came to us later, were these–Off the Irish coast in storm and fog the vessel had been driven ashore in spite of all that could be done. The anchors would not hold. The shore was sheer rock. The ship at the last was thrown by each oncoming breaker against a high detached boulder—some of the men had already been washed overboard. My father saw only one possibility of escape –to jump onto that rock as the ship was dashed against it. He watched his chance, and succeeded in keeping his footing on the rock. The little group of men set up a cheer an one by one they followed his lead. But even then they found themselves far from safe—on an isolated rock, with the tide rising toward them and the fog still dense. If only the fog would lift!

And it did lift, and the vigilant coast guards, ever on the look-out for ship-wrecked sailors, saw these men in distress. They shot them a line, and soon were able to bring them all safe to shore. Not long afterward the tide had completely covered the rock on which the men had stood. My father reached home just in season to join the large family gathering about the Christmas tree. And the next fall saw us sailing again, on a long voyage this time, bound around Cape Horn for San Francisco. We were all going, including my small brother.
On Shipboard
Anne Starrett Craig
Published by Courier-Gazette, For Farnsworth Museum, Rockland, ME 1961

It would be well to digress here and relate a few facts about those “relatives” Anne mentions. The “small New England town” is Belfast. The “relatives” were the Peirce family, a prominent Belfast family in those days. Nellie Starrett’s sister, Maria, was the wife of Hiram Peirce. Their house stood approximately where the present Belfast Area High School is now located. There were several other Peirce families in the neighborhood. I have always understood that the Christmas gathering in Anne’s memories took place in the large brick house on High Street opposite the end of John Street.

It was with Hiram and Maria that Anne and her mother were staying through this winter of 1871. Hiram was quite an entrepreneur with several business operations in the town. Possibly the most innovative was an electrical generating plant at the mouth of Goose River in East Belfast. Evidence of this is still visible from Searsport Avenue, and the property between the shore and the road is presently owned by Central Maine Power Co. Hiram also owned a mill on Goose River on Swan Lake Avenue. The present Mill Lane is a connecting road between Searsport Avenue and Swan Lake Avenue and would have been a link between the two businesses.

Shipyards at Belfast, Maine 1905. Accessed from Wikipedia public domain

Before we leave the Peirce family it is important for the family story to understand that the family name Peirce, spelled E before I is pronounced to rhyme with ‘nurse’ or ‘purse’. Far be it for me to commit the error of pronouncing it otherwise. However in the present time, it has been changed in many places to the more common Pierce. It seems to be erroneously so in Grove Cemetery Interment records. One landmark that holds true to the original is the Peirce School on Church Street, founded by the estate of one Lena Peirce and named for her.

Moving forward, we leave the 1800s and jump into the electronic age of the 1990s. My five years of work with the Starrett papers at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport yielded new insight into many of the stories I had grown up with. My computer spot was in the stacks looking down over the library offices and if I stretched my neck I could catch a glimpse of Captain Starrett’s model of the Frank N. Thayer. Finding bits of information often had me laughing loudly enough to catch the attention of those below. Imagine my delight at finding ‘bird seed’ among the stores put on board for one long voyage. Grandma Craig’s telling of her canary came to life. The loan of a fire pump to a coal-carrying vessel on fire in the Pacific was well documented as the loan was repaid later in port. The news was that the vessel had survived the fire and made it to port.

The Model of the Frank N Theyer: Image courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum, PMM Image # 2008.1.

But the most rewarding of all came when I discovered papers regarding the wreck of the Egeria. Up until then, we had only known that it was near Waterford, on the Irish coast. Here was a copy of a letter from Captain Starrett to the owners dated Nov. 22, 1871, saying that he would be going back to Ballymacaw in the morning to arrange for the sale of the Egeria and cargo – a salvage operation. There was also an invoice for new clothing (a pretty complete wardrobe!) as well as other letters concerning drawings of the wreck. A flyer advertising a steamship offering passage from Cork to New York was a clue as to Captain Starrett’s return across the Atlantic.

Missing were the usual papers concerning the details of leaving a port and arriving at a new port. From these papers, it is possible to establish the dates of leaving and of entry. These would have been in the cabin on board so of course were lost with the sinking of the Egeria. No mention of what the cargo consisted of was present.

Sadly, also gone were Captain Starrett’s charts. These can be used to establish dates of departure and reach a destination. In those days charts were usually the property of the captain and represent a substantial outlay of funds.

So then we knew the destination of the voyage was Liverpool according to Anne’s writing, the date of the wreck, and the exact location. It might be presumed that they had not had time enough to reach Liverpool and be on a return voyage, given the usual time spent off-loading and loading new cargo, whatever that cargo might have been but not much more.

Enter once more the electronic era. My son Chuck and I searched and found a website maintained by a family who actually spent vacations in Ballymacaw in the very buildings of the Coastguard men who rescued the Egeria crew. We corresponded by e-mail, saw photos, and learned more about the area. They had access to the Coastguard records and we were able to match our knowledge with the dates and information in those records. It is a beautiful area but a truly forbidding coast – sheer rock as Anne says. All this was exciting and brought the story to life in a really wonderful way. But then the website was taken down and we were without answers once again.

Recently Chuck has once again made contact with the originator of the website through Facebook. He has learned more about Ballymacaw. Through her, he found the following news item from the Irish Times of Nov. 22, 1871.

An excerpt from the Irish Times of the tragic loss of five lives and the rescue of many more. Sourced from Olivia Murray.

At last! So many questions were answered. The cargo was flour which may be how the inlet came to be known colloquially as “Flour Hole.” She inward bound for Liverpool and departed from Boston in September, about two months crossing the North Atlantic. One has to wonder what happened to the eight other men who survived. Were they able to find other berths? And who notified the families of the men washed overboard? But for us, it puts to rest so many questions we had wondered about over the years.

The Flour Hole, Ballymacaw, Waterford. Photo Chuck McMahan
Olivia’s cousin Jimmy Nolan gave us an intimate guide to the Flour Hole. Photo Chuck McMahan
We imagine this is the rock that the crew lept to and were rescued from. Photo Chuck McMahan

To return to Anne’s booklet – she closes this story with the sentence “We were all going including my small brother.” The “small brother” obviously arrived during the winter or spring. The women in our family have been known to speculate that Nellie, having given birth in a ship’s cabin once, did not care to repeat the experience. Anne was born in Singapore harbor in April 1865. Her brother, Francis (Frank), was born in Belfast in May 1872, in a comfortable house with friends and family to offer help.

But what if that decision had not been made in the autumn of 1871? If Nellie and Anne had been on board the Egeria, would they have been able to jump to the rock? Would Henry have jumped himself? Would the men have jumped if their Captain had not shown that it was possible? So many unanswered questions! However, if the answers to any of the above had been “no,” I would not be writing and you would not be reading this story.

What we do know is that Captain Starrett spent the early months of 1872 raising money to buy shares in another vessel. It was customary in those days for a captain to own at least a small part of the vessel. Without easy communication between ports on opposite sides of the oceans, it was an incentive for a captain to share in the profits or losses that the vessel might incur. He needed to make good business decisions on his own.

However, he was able to raise the funds and the voyage Anne speaks of was on the Frank N. Thayer. They were six months from leaving New York on September 9, 1872 (per the date on the ‘Crew List’) to arrival in San Francisco on March 3, 1873 (per ‘Inward Pilotage’ receipt).

The model that Captain Starrett built is of the Frank N. Thayer which is presently in the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. The family oral history says that both Nellie and Anne helped to create parts of the rigging and the tiny American flag that used to fly from the masthead.

The late Elizabeth “Libby” Mills, sister of  (Right) Dorothy “Dot” McMahan.   The two grew up in the house in Belfast with their brother Edward..  Libby just finished a lifelong project of transcribing and publishing her Great-grandmother Nellie’s journal from Nellie’s first two years at sea, known as Nellie’s Diary.  Limited private publication.  More information on that project is here Photo Marti Stone
Dorothy (Dot) with the oldest and youngest of her seven grandchildren, Rebecca McMahan-Leyva, and Robin McMahan. Photo Marti Stone

Over the years I have tried to picture Henry’s homecoming and “the family gathering around the Christmas tree.” Was it a total surprise or did they have enough communication to know that he was on his way? Who got the first and biggest hug? There must have been both tears and laughter with the sheer relief that he was safely home. We know that there were to be twelve more years of voyages with his beloved family aboard before his retirement from the sea in 1884 to settle in Belfast in the house where my mother and then my siblings and I grew up and where we heard all these stories and more from our grandmother, Anne Starrett Craig.

Dorothy (Dot) McMahan Photo: Marti Stone

My thanks again to Dorothy and Chuck for allowing us this truly unique glimpse into their family archive and putting flesh on the bones as it were of a shipwreck and a coastal placename. Thanks also to Olivia Murray for the assistance. I am open to publishing guest blogs from time to time – once they help to promote and preserve the maritime and fishing history of the community.

Post Publication edit. This story was published on the 5th of September on the occasion of Dorothy’s 98th Birthday. Despite her ill health her son Chuck said she was thrilled to see the story published. Dorothy later passed away on the 25th of September. But her story of the Egeria lives on here now, as will her memory for all her loved ones. Thanks to Chuck and Dorothy for sharing this, and Rest in Peace Dorothy.

9 Replies to “Egeria – A True Story of Shipwreck”

  1. I want to thank Olivia and Andrew for their help in making this post a reality. This is a special day for Dot as she turns 98 years old on September 8th (that’s denoted as 9/8 in the U.S. where the date format is MM/DD/YY) and this is our present to her in having her recognized for writing and arranging this piece.

    Thank you for all your efforts in keeping maritime history alive, a true common passion.

  2. Wonderful story. My Great grandfather survived being shipwrecked on the same stretch of coast in similar circumstances. The tenacity and courage of those men under immense trial is something we don’t see often nowadays. Thank you and have a wonderful birthday!

    1. Hi Chuck, so sorry to hear this, I was thrilled to have the story, preserved now on the page for posterity, and for anyone interested in this story. Rest in Peace Dorothy. My sympathies

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