The Sinking of Metis

Original content by: Amanda Keenan

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About This Artifact

Today, when we think about traveling, we typically envision using cars or airplanes.  In the 19th century, it was difficult to build and maintain good roads and bridges over New England's rocky terrain and many rivers.  This meant that the easiest and fastest way to travel was often by train or steamboat.  Hundreds of vessels of all types cluttered the New England coast as people and cargo moved from place to place, just as our highways are busy today.  And, just as car accidents are common today, steamboat wrecks and accidents often occurred in their time.

The steamship Metis left New York City at 5:15pm on August 29, 1872 for an overnight trip to Providence, RI.  The ship was filled with cargo, as well as 146 passengers and approximately 40 crew members.  The weather was rainy and the waters were rough, but the steamship powered through the Long Island Sound.  At 3:30am, the Metis passed four miles south of Watch Hill, RI when the crew saw the lights of the schooner Nettie Cushingand kept their course to avoid it.  However, a few minutes later, the schooner changed course and struck the Metis on her port side.

Captain Burton, commander of the Metis, sent men from his crew below deck to inspect the damage while he waited to see if the Nettie Cushing was hurt.  The Nettie Cushing's headsails were damaged, but she was able to limp home.  Unfortunately, the Metis was not as lucky.  For a combination of reasons, the Metis' crew did not realize that she was sinking until 3:45am, when an engineer ran into the pilot house and announced that they were leaking badly.  The captain decided to try and run his ship aground at Watch Hill, now five miles away, before she sank.  The water rose, crippling the ship, and the Metis was forced to stop, still miles from the shore.  Life preservers were povided for all passengers and crew, and four lifeboats were launched.  The remaining passengers and crew huddled on top of the hurricane deck.  This section of the ship ultimately detached and started floating towards the shore.

Visitors and townspeople of Watch Hill saw the wreck shortly after dawn, and ran to the beach to offer assistance.  The volunteer crew of the Life-Saving Service and local fishermen took two rowboats out into the surf to rescue victims.  Their heroic acts saved 32 lives, and were recognized the next year when the United States government awarded these men medals of honor.  Other vessels also assisted with the rescue mission, including the U.S Revenue Cutter Moccasin.

Since the records regarding the total number of passengers initially on board the Metis were lost in the disaster, we do not know exactly how many people perished.  At least 50 men, women and children lost their lives, and perhaps many others.  The Metis tragedy became national news, and for several months, reports about the wreck and the victims filled the pages of Harper's Weekly, The New York Times, Godey's Lady's Book, and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

This stereographic image is a testament to the public's fascination with disasters.  The beach was littered with debris, and people traveled to the scene to view the wreckage for themselves.  Some people even took pieces of the wreckage to save as souvenirs. 

Questions for Further Thought

  1. If the Metis disaster was national news, why do we not remember it? What current events do you think will be nationally remembered? Which ones will be forgotten?
  2. Do people today seem as fascinated with disaster as they used to be? If so, how do we learn about tragedies, and how do we support the victims? If not, why?
  3. Why do you think these artifacts found their way to Mystic Seaport? What happened to other relics from the Metis? Why do you think the families donated them?