On August 11, 1986, the hull of the HMS De Braak was raised off Cape Henlopen. The ship was reportedly carrying a great treasure when it sank in May 1798. Hoping the booty was tucked in the hull, salvage directors decided to bring it up. But there was no treasure. That’s not to say the artifacts are not valued. The ship was a time capsule of everyday items on a British Navy warship. Preserved for nearly 200 years in mud and silt, they represent a slice of 18th century life that makes historians swoon. De Braak is perhaps Delaware’s most famous shipwreck, but it is far from the only one. Here are a few others.
HMS De Braak
A Dutch ship seized by the British, De Braak sailed during the European wars between England, France and their allies in the late 18th century. De Braak rounded Cape Henlopen on May 25, 1798, and Captain James Drew told the pilot, “I’ve had good luck.” Drew’s luck ran out, however. In a fierce wind, the ship tipped like a toy boat. De Braak sank with 47 men, including Drew, who is now buried in the graveyard at St. Peter’s Church in Lewes. Three Spanish prisoners reportedly floated ashore on the captain’s sea chest. They flashed valuable coins in Lewes, which sparked tales of treasure. As time passed, more than 30 salvage attempts met with much publicity and great failure. Rumors surfaced of a witch who protected the ship with foul weather. When sonar located the wreck in 1984, it became the focus of a two-year salvage effort that produced 20,000 artifacts. The state, which purchased the items for $300,000, keeps most in storage due to a lack of exhibit space. Some say the treasure is still down there. Others say it was already retrieved. And stories about Drew’s ghost, which rises at night to look for his crew, and the Bad Weather Witch, linger on.
The Faithful Steward
The Faithful Steward left Londonderry, Ireland, on July 9, 1785, for Philadelphia with 249 passengers, mostly Irish immigrants, many related. On September 1, 1785, Captain Connolly McCausland threw a party to celebrate the journey’s end. He and the first mate imbibed so much that they passed out. The ship ran aground on the Mohoba Bank near Indian River Inlet. The force knocked two children to the deck, killing them instantly. Though the ship was fewer than 150 yards from shore, many passengers could not swim, and the waves threatened to sweep away those who could. Bodies washed up on the beach. Only 68 people survived the disaster. Of the 100 women and children on board, seven survived. Many perished within sight of survivors on the beach. Along with passengers, the Faithful Steward carried about 400 barrels of British pennies and halfpennies. It is thought that these are the coins that wash ashore near Delaware Seashore State Park, giving rise to the name Coin Beach.
The Merrimac, Severn and Thomas Tracy
The story behind the wrecks of two barges and a collier is more about serendipity than tragedy. On April 8, 1918, the tug Eastern left New York for Norfolk, Virginia, with three barges in tow, including the Merrimac and the Severn. Stormy seas forced the tug to seek shelter at the Delaware Breakwater. The tug, however, was too far south of Delaware Bay to gain the breakwater. Combating severe weather, it released the barges. The Merrimac and Severn, unable to hold their anchors, raced toward Rehoboth Beach. The Merrimac landed in front of St. Agnes by the Sea on Brooklyn Avenue, a home for nuns. The Severn skidded to a stop nearby, creating an instant but unwanted tourist attraction. A tug floated the Severn out to sea, but the Merrimac was stuck fast. Salvagers stripped away all but the hull. The ruins served as a magnet for another ship. In 1944, the Thomas Tracy was headed south from New England when it encountered the Great Hurricane of 1944. The storm forced the mighty collier toward shore, where it landed atop the remains of the Merrimac. As the Coast Guard conducted a rescue, waves rocked the giant ship, cracking the hull, which eventually split. Once again, wreckers took the ship down to the waterline. Intact in photographs, the beached ship has earned the title of Delaware’s Most Spectacular Shipwreck.
The Mohawk and the Lenape
The sister steamships, part of the Clyde Steamship Company, running from New York to Jacksonville, Florida, sank after burning. The Mohawk was 25 miles from Atlantic City on New Year’s Eve 1924 when fire was found in the after hold. Facing a snowstorm, Captain James Staples made for the capes. After midnight, many passengers went outside, choosing to face snow and sleet rather than smoke. The breakwater was full, so Mohawk headed toward Brandywine Shoal, flames shooting through its hold. About 12 miles from Lewes, the ship listed, flinging passengers to the deck. Rescuers halted efforts when seas got too rough. Panicked passengers jumped, yet the only casualties were two cats and a dog. The Mohawk drifted toward a shoal, where it was found January 4, still afire. It was left to sink. A buoy serves as a warning to boaters and as a tombstone. Ten months later, on November 17, the Lenape left for Jacksonville. Near 11 p.m., smoke streamed from the bulkhead vent. At 2 a.m., the ship, ablaze with 100 foot flames, approached the lightship Overfalls. Pilot Charles S. Morris boarded the Lenape and guided it toward the breakwater, where passengers and crew lowered lifeboats. When fire roared through the stern, terrified passengers reached for the ropes. The ship was towed to Broadkill Beach, where it remained until January 16, 1926. There was talk of using the ship as a breakwater to halt the erosion of the dune supporting Cape Henlopen Lighthouse. The Lenape was sold for scrap instead, and on April 13, 1926, the lighthouse tumbled into the sea. Like the shipwrecks offshore, it is gone but not forgotten.