Many years ago Bass River was a small, but busy, commercial port. In 1802 there were 21 vessels, some ranging between Boston and the West Indies, others fishing locally. In the early 20th Century, a sailing packet still kept a regular schedule between South Yarmouth and New Jersey. Coastal vessels used the roadstead off Bass River to wait for favorable winds before passing into the Atlantic around the southern tip of Monomoy Island. At times over 100 sailing ships might ride at anchor offshore.
This traffic supported and depended on a variety of ancillary businesses: warehouses, lumber yards, and boat yards. Many of these ships lost things overboard, among other things - anchors, supporting another business: anchor dragging.
In 1941, former anchor dragger Wilfred W. Fuller recalled the business. There were a lot of ways to lose an anchor:
He explained how to fish for anchors:
Many anchors were lost off shore from Bass River and in Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds when coasting-vessels had to anchor in gales of wind. These were lost in various ways. In letting anchors go, the chains would break or unshackle, or the end of the chain would become unfastened. Sometimes in heavy gales the anchors would drag and, to save the vessel from danger of shipwreck, they would slip the chains and thus lose both anchors and chains.
There are not many people today who know how anchors were caught. Two vessels were used and about 400 fathom of ¾ inch manila rope was attached between the two. The rope was watersoaked until it would sink to the bottom, with a sixty-pound lead on it near each vessel as a sinker. The two vessels would be about one-third of a mile apart and drag that 400 fathom of line on the bottom.
In calm weather, the vessels were laid broadside to the tide and, if the wind was favorable, the sails were also used. The anchor fluke or stock would catch the line and stop the vessels. By crossing over the vessels, the one that came in ahead would grapple the other’s line. Then, with both lines and crews on one vessel, the line would be hauled in until near the anchor. A heavy lead messenger was sent down on both lines to prevent the rope from slipping off the anchor.
When the anchor was too heavy for the ¾ inch rope, a large hawser was used to raise it. The big rope was put in the yawl to re-sweep the anchor. A larger lead messenger was sent down. With three turns around the wooden windlass and long handspikes to turn it, the anchor was finally brought to the bow. A heavy tackle from the masthead was used to hoist the anchor on board the vessel. If there was chain, then that was pulled in, - sometimes but a little and sometimes 90 fathom.
Other objects like wrecks, rocks and sandridges would stop the lines and cause much trouble and hard work. Often it was necessary to cut the lines to get them free from a wreck.
The trade required specialized vessels and men:
In 1865, two small schooners – 48 feet long – were being built from the same model at Nyack, N.Y. for the anchor-dragging business. One of these was the “Floretta C.” for Capt. Isaiah Covil, the other the “Isabel Fuller” for Capt. William B. Fuller. There were also other vessels that went dragging for lost anchors during the years when sailing vessels were numerous and often losing their anchors and chains.
Nyack is a town on the west shore of the Hudson River, not far above New York.
Here's a picture from about 1900 with a pair of anchor draggers in the foreground, anchored off of West Dennis a few feet south of the current Route 28 bridge (Braginton-Smith and Oliver identify these as anchor-draggers):
The article by Jack Braginton-Smith and Duncan Oliver has a copy of this photo and describes the two vessels in the foreground as anchor draggers (There actually are two very similar vessels in the foreground: a careful look shows two bowsprits and four masts). Click on the picture to see an enlarged version. The state of the bridge, and the presence of the packet in the background, suggest to me that this picture dates to a few years on either side of 1900. This copy of the photo is provided through the courtesy of the Dennis Historical Society. William Quinn also identifies these two vessels as anchor draggers (The Saltworks of Historical Cape Cod, page 127).
William Quinn describes the vessels in the middle distance as anchor draggers in this picture:
This picture looks like it's from the same period as the one above. Here's a close up of Quinn's anchor draggers:
On the far right is a sunken hulk. Quinn shows an earlier picture of this same spot before the hull had deteriorated. Quinn doesn't explain why he thinks these are anchor draggers.
Capt. William B. Fuller went anchor-dragging forty years, probably longer than anyone in the business. For partners, he had many. With him at one time were two brothers and a brother-in-law. These four strong men, - Captains Loring, Warren and William Fuller and Vinney Crowell, - constituted a crew for whom no anchors or chains were too heavy to be raised from the bottom of the sea. When they were on the ends of the windlass and handspikes, the heavy ropes and tackles would strain until the anchors were lifted from their beds in the sand.
Other men in partnership with Capt. William Fuller were Capt. Isaiah Covil, Capt. William Chase, Capt. William H. Hurst and Wilfred W. Fuller. These anchor-draggers went to New York, Delaware and Chesapeake Bays and some winters to Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga.
I'm going to guess that Capt. William Fuller was Wilfred Fuller's dad. I can find an internet report of a Wilfred W. Fuller getting married in South Yarmouth in December 1893. If this is our man, and if he was 21 to 25 in 1893, he would have been a 14 year-old sometime in the 1880s:
At the age of 14, I shipped as able seaman and cook on the Sloop Addie Watts, with my father, Capt. William Fuller. Capt. William H. Hurst accompanied us in the Sloop Mary Emma.We worked six months outside of Sandy Hook, N.J. sweeping for anchors over bars and channels to the entrance to the port of New York city. We caught, in that six months, 99 anchors, varying in size from 25 lbs. to 7800 lbs. In one day, we brought in 7 anchors.
He largest anchor weighed 7837 lbs. I was caught just outside the ship channel, near the whistling buoy, in 90 ft. of water. The two palms of the anchor were buried deep in the sand. Our heavy deck-tackle could not pull it out, so we hove the vessel down until the bowsprit almost touched the water and waited for the flood-tide. When the tide came in, the anchor was lifted from its sandy bed but, by the time it had reached the top of the water, the waves were too rough to hoist it on board, so one sloop towed the other into Coney Island Harbor just before dark. With the bow of the “Addie Watts” so far down, fishermen from other vessels came aboard to see what we had under the water. They offered to do the hard work if we would tell them what to do. When the anchor was finally landed on deck, it reached across midships 16 ft. It was a Dutch anchor and not worth half as much as the Rodger Patent. However, James Baker of Boston, dealer in Anchors and Chains, paid us $155. for it.
So anchor dealers provided one market for anchor draggers. I wonder why they were unable to find a buyer in New York? Braginton-Smith and Oliver also explain that anchor draggers contracted with vessel operators to recover their lost anchors.
One day that year we caught an old cannon in the Romer Channel. It had been lost many years. After a while, the cannon became so hot that my father was afraid it might explode and damage the sloop or kill us. We sold it to the grocer at Atlantic Highlands and it was placed in front of the grocery store.
My father used to tell of an iron safe they caught and how they thought it might be full of gold or other valuables – maybe Captain Kidd’s lost treasure! Not one of the partners would sell his share before the safe was opened for any amount of money. With big mauls they broke open the safe and found, to their great surprise and disappointment, that it was full of old iron! It had doubtless been used as ballast on a steamer and in a heavy sea had gone overboard.
Sometimes we caught can buoys that had been sunk, - the chain, balance-ball and stone mooring. In these buoys we often found live fish and mussels that were good for food; also starfish, grass and shells which grow at the bottom of the sea. The stone moorings would weigh 1000 lbs. We sold these for $5. or used them to moor our vessels off Bass River, with a heavy chain attached. We then felt safe to leave the craft and go home for the night. When getting under way we slipped from the windlass the chain connected with the buoy and, on our return, picked up the buoy and fastened the chain to the windlass.
Fuller's account appeared in his essay “In and Out of Bass River” in Yesterday’s Tide, edited by Florence W. Baker in 1941. I've reorganized the paragraphs to meet my topical needs. The account of the port of Bass River is from Yarmouth's Proud Packets by Haynes R. Mahoney, published by the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth. Burt Derick of the Dennis Historical Society supplied the photo. Jack Braginton-Smith and Duncan Oliver wrote a shore article on anchor dragging ("Anchor Dragging - lost Anchors" in the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth's new book Capturing Cape Cod History). William P. Quinn's pictures are from his The Saltworks of Historic Cape Cod, 1993.
Edits citing William Quinn, April 15, 2010.