59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum


c. 1878

David Kahnweiler

New York

Cotton, cork

Gift of the estate of Mrs. Norman Benson

Seeking relief from the bitter Boston winter, 87 passengers boarded the steamer City of Columbus on January 17, 1884. They were headed for the warmth of Savannah, Georgia, under the care of Captain Schuyler Wright and his forty-four crew members. They never arrived. Instead, they became victims of the worst marine disaster New England had ever seen.

In the early morning hours of January 18, through a series of mistakes by the captain and crew, the ship hit the underwater rocks of Devil's Bridge, tearing a gash in the hull that allowed the seawater to come rushing in. When the alarm came, panicked passengers ran to the deck, only to be swept overboard by crashing waves. Others died in their cabins. The only survivors were the 29 men who climbed into the rigging and held on until help could arrive, eight hours later. All the women and children aboard died.

David Kahnweiler's improved patented life preservers were stowed aboard the ship, but they did not save any lives. No one could live for long in the frigid waters before dying of hypothermia.

At 5 a.m., Fred Poole, assistant keeper of the Gay Head Light, spotted a light from the wreck and summoned volunteer lifesavers, experienced Wampanoag boatmen. Beaten back by high waves, they persevered and finally reached the survivors. Joined by men from the revenue cutter Samuel Dexter, the rescuers could only save 29 of the 132 passengers and crew.

The tragic wreck of the City of Columbus drew reporters and sketch artists whose lurid stories captured the attention of the world. Bodies and wreckage washed up on Vineyard shores. Pieces of the ship, as well as furniture, cushions, and dishes, were collected and saved. Often inscribed with details of the wreck, these things serve as relics to remind us of the tragedy of human error and the bravery of rescuers who risked their lives for strangers.