Captain Crosby: Success At Sea, Felled By Fire


Every family in Marstons Mills had at least one member at sea, and many were never seen again. One of the most tragic was Capt. Benjamin Franklin Crosby (1846-1900), whom Trayser records as from Marstons Mills. Captain Crosby died in a fire aboard a ship in Baltimore harbor.


Capt. Crosby married Lydia, the daughter of Dr. Henry E. McCollum, 17 years the village physician, with his office on River Road above the fulling mill. While at sea, Captain Crosby’s family lived in the doctor’s home.


Benjamin was born in the Nickersons’ Original Settlement (“Oregon”) of Cotuit in 1846. By the time he was 28 he had become a master mariner, captain of the 126 ton schooner Amelia, for which he and his partners paid $3,250. The ship was employed in the coastal trade, carrying heavy cargoes between the ports of the eastern seaboard. On 10 June 1877 it was hauling a full load of coal from the Jersey coal terminal Port Johnson to Weymouth when it ran into a thick fog, and ran aground at Gay Head.


Six months later, a mid-winter storm off Cape Cod caught his new ship, the 244 ton schooner Frank Walter loaded with coal, and swept away their only boat. But they made it into New London, and limped into Hyannis. Capt. Crosby, exhausted by exposure and a severe cold, got his friend Capt. Bennett Dottridge to take the ship on to Boston.


Undaunted, in the next 11 months, Crosby made 21 round trips between New York and Boston with full loads of coal, valued at $6,550. He kept up this pace for five years, until 1882 when he turned the ship over to Capt. Charles M. Brown of Yarmouth, who lost the ship off the Cape in 1884 with a full load of coal.


Capt. Crosby had already taken command of a larger (682 tons) new three-masted schooner Annie J. Pardee, built in Bath, Maine in 1882. From Georgetown DC he hauled coal that came down the canal from the Allegheny coal fields. After dark on Oct. 8 1884 he was headed into Boston off Peaked Hill Bar off Provincetown when he collided with another three-masted schooner Mary B. Wellington, commanded by his friend Washington Robbins, outbound for New York with a cargo of salt. Both ships made it back to port. The friends cross-sued each other in a case that is still carried in the law books. The first trial went to Crosby, but was dismissed on appeal.


What fun it must have been when Crosby took his two daughters Millie, 10, and Jennie 8 aboard in July 1888. Annie J. Pardee kept hauling ice and coal under other masters until 1892 when she was driven onto Cornfield Shoal off Saybrook CT, when four of her crew drowned.


About 1888, after profitable cargoes, Crosby retired from the sea, went into oystering and fishing, ran a fish store in Cotuit, then opened a dry goods store on the corner of School and Main Streets. After the store burned down in 1892 he went back to sea, this time commanding the new 433 ton schooner Joseph Luther, built in New London in 1891.


His fatal voyage was to Annapolis in 1900, reported in the New York Times, and Tribune. Waiting for return cargo in Baltimore harbor, he spent a night aboard the schooner J. W. Linnell swapping tales with its captain, his old friend Seth Handy, anchored near the Lazaretto lighthouse at the harbor entrance. They turned in late, but Capt. Handy awoke choking on smoke from a fire that started in the mate’s cabin.


He called to Crosby, “Hurry, Ben, for God’s sake, the ship’s afire”. Crosby answered, “All right, I’m coming.”, but did not appear, going back to get his gold watch and $143. Handy couldn’t reach Crosby’s cabin thru the flames and smoke. So on deck he broke the small cabin window with a capstan bar, and tried to pull him out, but Crosby was overcome by smoke and fell back into the cabin to his death. Handy made another rush thru the flames to the cabin door, but was dragged back by the firemen who had arrived on the fire boat.


Handy’s repairs to his ship cost $2000, and Crosby’s ship survived the loss of her master less than a year. The Joseph Luther became the subject of a maritime ballad. In January 1901 she was being towed by the steam tug Knickerbocker out of the Kennebec River with a cargo of ice when the towline parted, and she drifted onto Whaleback Rock, where she was pounded to pieces. The Hunnewell Life Saving station rescued her crew, but heard the howl of the ship’s cat. Surfman Gussie Hodkins went back and rescued the cat, as celebrated in Charlie Ipcan’s lyrics:

Grabbed the cat beside the rail,

He stuffed her deep inside his coat,

And returned to tell the tale.” (from Ken Textor. “The Rescue” in Down East magazine May 2002).


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