On this day in 1907, the steamer Larchmont collided with the coal schooner Harry Knowlton in the worst maritime disaster in Rhode Island history.
Between 150 and 200 lives were lost according to newspaper reports from the time. The exact death toll has been the subject of much speculation as the passenger list was lost with the ship. Only 17 survived, including the captain and other crew members.
the Larchmont was a 252-foot-long by 37-foot-wide paddle-wheeled wooden steamer that had a rocky history long before the fateful night of February 11, 1907. The ship, which had three decks, two masts and a funnel, was built in 1885 at a shipyard in Bath, Maine for the International Steamship Line. It was launched under the name cumberland, but after a collision in the port of Boston, the ship was abandoned and bought in 1902 by the Joy Steamship Line. Renamed the Larchmont, it was used to transport passengers and cargo between Providence and New York. Between 1902 and 1907, the ship experienced two fires, another grounding, a collision, and was even the site of an unsolved homicide. John O’Hara, an engineer from Providence, was shot and robbed while on board.
At 7 p.m. on February 11, 1907, the Larchmont departed South Water Pier in Providence with 52 crew and over 100 passengers bound for New York. She was half an hour late and faced deteriorating weather with wind gusts of 40 to 50 miles per hour, waves up to 20 feet and reduced visibility.
Once the ship cleared the Pt. Judith Lighthouse, the 27-year-old first captain, George W. McVey, went for the night, leaving the pilot, John Anson, in command. As the blizzard raged, most passengers retreated to their cabins. The air temperature fell below zero and the empty decks became covered in ice.
Around 10 p.m., the Larchmont left Narragansett Bay and turned west into Block Island Sound. At around 10:45 a.m., the Harry Knowlton, a three-masted schooner loaded with 400 tons of coal bound for Boston, rammed the liner and severed her main steam line. According to eyewitness reports, the Larchmont sank between ten and 20 minutes, just three nautical miles from Watch Hill.
According to the New York Times, “The schooner came in with a speed that seemed to almost equal the gale that was pushing it toward Boston. Even before another warning signal could sound over the steamer’s whistle, the schooner crashed into the port side of the Larchmont.”
Frank T. Haley, Captain of the Harry Knowlton, and her crew of six got into a lifeboat and survived. They were stranded near Quonochontaug Lifeboat Station in Charlestown where they spent several days recovering from frostbite and hypothermia.
Ignoring the from Larchmont perilous situation, the crew of the Harry Knowlton did not report the collision. For this reason, no one was aware of the disaster until 6 a.m. the next morning when the first lifeboat from the Larchmont landed at Block Island North Lighthouse.
Other lifeboats followed, running aground with living and dead victims of the disaster. All survivors were severely frozen and suffered from hypothermia, exhaustion and shock. Although 19 reached the shore alive, two died soon after.
Many of Block Island’s fishing boats set out to search 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. At the risk of their own safety – by suffering frostbite or respiratory damage – each crew member of the Elsie received gold medals from the Carnegie Hero Fund for their rescue efforts to bring survivors ashore.
For days the frozen bodies of the Larchmont landed on Block Island. In the weeks following the disaster, newspapers such as the New York Times and boston globe accounts of the sinking and subsequent trial. The captains of both ships blamed each other for the tragedy. Captain McVey claimed he was the last to leave his sinking ship. Other survivors claimed that the captain and his crew were in the very first lifeboat and left the passengers to fend for themselves.
After a week-long investigation by the Department of Trade and Labor’s Steamship Inspection Service, pilot Anson, who sank with the ship, was charged with directing the Larchmont in the wrong direction when approaching the Harry Knowlton.
In August 1964, divers located the Larchmont’s final resting place off Watch Hill in 130 feet of water.