Right down off Rockland’s Atlantic Avenue down by South End Beach, the Cobb Shipyard was in operation building large schooners starting as far back as 1845. In 1889, the yard became Cobb, Butler & Co., when A.W. Butler joined the firm. It closed in 1921.

One of the first vessels produced by Cobb and Butler was the 1890 three-mast, square rigged schooner Nathan F. Cobb. Sliding off the ways into Rockland Harbor, the schooner’s image was captured by Rockland resident Ida Crie.

Ida Crie’s photo of the 1890 launching of the Nathan F. Cobb in Rockland. From the Ida Crie Collection, courtesy of Rockland Historical Society.

The vessel went right into merchant service, carrying lumber and cargo anywhere needed. It made news in June 1892 when it was reported there was trouble onboard. While under tow out of Mobile Bay to begin a voyage to New York, one of the mates named Henry Shaffer had jumped overboard, apparently to avoid a beating. It was later learned another mate named J. Trott had used a belaying pin, nearly killing a sailor in an earlier confrontation, and Shaffer had been afraid he would be next.

Quite a way into the tow, the towboat captain was informed by Capt. Cookson of the Nathan F. Cobb that he had lost a crewman overboard. Trying to make it to a nearby lighthouse, the exhausted Shaffer was finally rescued, nearly 5 miles from where he had jumped. Both Cookson and Trott were already facing charges for abuse as well as having marooned men a year earlier in Louisiana. It is not clear what came of any legal proceedings.

In December 1896, the Nathan F. Cobb departed Brunswick, Georgia, for New York with a load of timber and crossties. Winter weather in the Atlantic can be difficult and this proved true for the schooner. Gale force winds shredded the sails and heavy seas were shipped, bad enough that they capsized the vessel on its beam, the cook and a sailor were lost overboard. The crew were able to right the schooner by desperately removing the main and mizzen masts.

Helpless, the hulk drifted in the stormy seas and the crew clung onto what they could. For four days the weather stayed bad, and the vessel drifted 375 miles southward. On the morning of Dec. 5, 1896, the Nathan F. Cobb grounded on a near shore sandbar, roughly 1,000 feet off Ormond Beach, Florida.

The Nathan F Cobb, stuck off the shore of Ormond Beach, Fla., 1896. Public Domain

That morning Ormond Hotel manager J.D. Price (who had been its builder and original owner), spotted the stranded vessel out in the turbulent surf. He quickly gathered some of his employees for a rescue effort, including his 22-year-old bookkeeper Freed Waterhouse.

Superintendent Hiram B. Shaw, of the U.S. Life-Saving Service’s Seventh District, soon arrived and quickly telegraphed for permission for some life-saving equipment to be sent up by train from the Jupiter Inlet station, approximately 180 miles south of Ormond Beach.

In the meantime, initial rescue attempts proved futile as the small rescue boats could not get out beyond the breakers, and when they did, the current quickly pulled them away from the stranded vessel. It was finally decided that no rescue attempts would be made until low tide later that morning at 11 a.m.

At that point, an iron yawl — a small metal dinghy — was hauled down to the beach and launched into the swirling water. It was manned by Waterhouse, who was a native of Cape Elizabeth. He has been referred to as Freed or Freeman or Fred Waterhouse.

Through skilled seamanship, he and Tom Fagen managed to get the yawl to the second set of breakers. They were only a short distance from the vessel and a trailing float line that the stranded crew had let out from the schooner.

Reaching for the float line, they did not see a particularly large wave coming in. It struck, quickly filling the yawl with water. Fagen and Waterhouse abandoned the sinking craft and Fagen tried to make his way to shore, where volunteers dragged the half-drowned rescuer to safety.

Waterhouse swam to the flipped yawl and climbed on its hull. The men on shore began to haul the rope pulling the upended boat toward the beach. Another heavy wave washed Waterhouse off the craft, but also flipped it right side up, which allowed the struggling man the chance to climb aboard.

When another wave capsized the yawl, Waterhouse surfaced some distance from it. Observers said he appeared dazed, perhaps having struck his head. The man feebly clung to an oar. While rescuers tried to launch Shaw’s lifeboat, Waterhouse sank from sight. Despite an exhaustive search, Freed Waterhouse’s body was never recovered.

When rescuers launched Shaw’s boat from shore, the captain of the Nathan F. Cobb tied a rope to his waist and jumped into the water trying to reach it. In heavy seas, the man managed to reach the boat and cling to its stern as they rowed back to the beach.

With a line now connecting the rescuers to the stricken schooner, the men used a life preserver tied to the rope. One by one, the five remaining crew members of the Nathan F. Cobb were brought off the ship and pulled to safety. They were given a dry blanket, some hot coffee, and a shot of whiskey.

For the next several days, the vessel sat stranded on the shore as scores of witnesses stopped by to view the wreck. One of them happened to be Rockland resident Ida Crie, the very same photographer who had captured the schooner’s launch. She now snapped a photo of it aground at Ormond Beach. Crie and the three women in the photograph had bicycled out across the sand to see the schooner better.

Ida Crie’s photo of the 1896 wreckage of the Nathan F. Cobb on the shore at Ormond Beach, Fla. From the Ida Crie Collection, courtesy of Rockland Historical Society.

After news of the tragedy and rescue attempt came out, a large boulder was sent from Freed Waterhouse’s hometown of Cape Elizabeth. It had a bronze plaque commemorating the man’s selfless act of heroism. The rock and plaque were located in the sand near where the schooner had come ashore. But in the 1970s, the memorial was vandalized. Townspeople relocated it to the local fire station north of the Casa Del Mar on Route A1A, where it currently sits.

The Freed Waterhouse memorial stone from Maine with plaque. Courtesy of Ormond Beach Historical Society

Cobb Cottage, a structure built using materials salvaged from the ship, is part of Ormond Beach’s Historic Trail. William Fagen, relative of one of the rescuers, built the structure from remnants of the Nathan F. Cobb. It originally included a dogtrot, detached kitchen, and a wooden-plank front porch with a ship balustrade railing.

Cobb Cottage, erected from materials salvaged after Nathan F. Cobb shipwreck. Public Domain

Now a Florida heritage site, the Nathan Cobb house has a historic marker detailing its history.

Cobb Cottage sign newly installed at the structure. Courtesy of Ormond Beach Historical Society, 2021

The location of Nathan F. Cobb‘s wreck on Ormond Beach is designated by a simple metal sign to warn swimmers. It is anchored in or near the water’s edge depending on the tide. Occasionally the wreck shows up in the sands of Ormond Beach. In May 2004, a low tide and shifting sands uncovered some of the schooner — almost as if to remind everyone not to forget about what happened there.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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