As I wind down this year-long project this month, I’m including some stories that aren’t quite “this week.” Here’s one worth telling.
Otis Wheeler and John Philbrick were the first two Mainers to earn medals from the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The pair braved a sub-zero gale, rescuing two teenagers stranded on a ledge off Cape Elizabeth. They performed their act of heroism 142 years ago last week, on Dec. 1, 1875.
Wheeler and Philbrick were the only two people living on Richmond Island that winter. Around 9 a.m., Wheeler looked out his window and saw a chilling sight. A man was standing on Watt’s Ledge off the the eastern end of the island.
Wheeler ran outside to find Philbrick. A northwestern gale was lashing the island. The temperature was below zero. After finding his friend, the two men rowed a wooden dory through whitecaps and freezing spray, toward the stranded man.
When they got close, they could see another man lying motionless on the ledge. They thought he was dead. The standing man was staggering on the ice-coated rocks in a vain attempt to keep warm. Nearby, a wrecked schooner-rigged fishing smack lay at a sharp angle on the ledge.
Somehow, Wheeler and Philbrick managed to land the dory on the ledge without staving it to pieces. They got the standing boy into the boat then went back to get the body of the second. They realized he was alive when he let out a faint moan.
Back in the dory, they rowed hard against the wind, shipping water with each rolling wave. After a quarter mile, they made it around the ledge to Broad Cove.
After landing on the island, they carried both youngsters into Wheeler’s house. They had to cut the boys boots off their frozen and swollen feet. They treated them for frostbite, putting their blistered and blackened feet and hands into cold water.
Wheeler then went back to the dory and rowed it a mile through the surf to the mainland. He walked to a store and bought liniment, cornmeal, coffee and a few other things. He asked the storekeeper to get word of what happened to Portland. Then he walked and rowed back to the island.
Wheeler and Philbrick took turns staying up with and nursing the young lads for the next 30 hours. During that time they learned the tale of how the boys ended up on the ledge.
They said they’d left Small Point in Phippsburg the day before, on their way to Boston. But they lost their way in heavy fog. Then, the furious gale had come up and dashed them on the rocks at about 9 p.m. That was at high tide, when the sea covers the ledge. They’d stood in knee-deep water for most of the night. It was a miracle they’d survived.
When word finally reached Portland, the federal revenue cutter Dallas steamed to Richmond Island. They took the boys back to town. Though doctors feared they’d have to amputate their limbs, they recovered.
But when questioned seperately by authorities, they boys’ story fell apart. The truth was, they’d stolen the boat from Falmouth Foreside. Then, in the night, they’d robbed at least one ship anchored in Portland Harbor. They were on their way to parts unknown when they wrecked.
The boys’ misdeeds aside, the crew of the Dallas relayed a written report of Wheeler and Philbrick’s heroism to the the U.S. Life-Saving Service in Washington, D.C. The service gave Wheeler and Philbrick silver medals for their unselfish deeds on June 23, 1876.
Though they were the first, 17 more Mainers won medals from the service for saving lives before the Coast Guard swallowed it in 1915. But, as far as I know, Wheeler and Philbrick were the only ones who ever apprehended thieves at the same time.
Note: I got this tale from the excellent book “Shipwrecks and Maritime Disasters of the Maine Coast” by Peter Dow Bachelder.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.