The Jennie Hall had sailed up the southeast coast from Trinidad with her captain, six crewman, over 500 tons of asphalt and a stowaway named Ben Mall. The crew believed stowaways like Mall were bad luck, and bad luck found them in the form of strong seas and high winds that tossed the vessel “like a toy.”
By midnight, the crew could hardly see through dense, icy rain, and mistook a light onshore for the Cape Henry lighthouse, even though they were still 10 miles south of the cape. The Jennie Hall ran aground early in the morning on December 21, 1900, and her crewmen scrambled up into the rigging to loosen the sails and avoid the waves crashing over the deck. Before the captain could climb up with his men, the sea swept him overboard and he was never seen alive again. The sailors could do nothing else but pray for help to come.
Every six miles on Virginia’s coast, a U.S. Lifesaving (USLSS) station housed surfmen who rescued those from ships in danger offshore. That night the surfmen arrived on the beach with a cart full of gear while the Jennie Hall threatened to break apart as the surf intensified in the storm. The sailors recognized them and cheered, not yet realizing the arduous rescue at hand.
The surfmen needed to set up a line from the shore to the ship to ferry a breeches buoy, a life-ring fitted with trousers, back and forth from the ship. Using a small line-throwing canon, the surfmen shot out a line of rope to the sailors, but it tangled in the rigging and had to be cut. The second line broke and the third fell out of the crew’s reach. Meanwhile, the winds threatened to knock the men from the rigging into the churning sea. The ship’s steward, a man called Percival, felt woozy and lashed himself to the mast before falling unconscious while the others retrieved the fourth line.
The wind picked up and waves pounded the Jennie Hall. As the crew set up the line on the ship, the stowaway and a crew member fell to their deaths in the icy water. By the time the buoy came, five men remained. Four men made it to shore safely, but Percival was still unconscious and tied to the mast. Someone would have to go out to get him.
Surfman John R. O’Neal volunteered to ride the buoy to the Jennie Hall to rescue the last man. After being dunked in the frigid sea on the way to the schooner, O’Neal couldn’t lift the “hefty ship’s cook” by himself and was forced to return to shore. The man in charge of the station, Keeper Barco, called for the men to go out in a small surfboat to make the rescue.
Keeper Barco and seven surfmen from the two nearest stations, Dam Neck Mills and Seatack, rowed out to the Jennie Hall amid wreckage and roiling seas, and Surfman O’Neal and Horatio Drinkwater boarded the ship. However, the men on the surfboat were in danger of capsizing as they waited for O’Neal and Drinkwater, so Barco ordered the boat back to shore. A massive wave swept over the surfboat and carried Surfman John W. Sparrow 50 feet away, but he grabbed the boat’s line and hauled himself back to the boat.
As the surfboat made its way to shore, Surfman O’Neal and Drinkwater were still on board the Jennie Hall. They climbed up to the rigging and dislodged Percival with considerable effort, and when the surfboat returned to the shore, the surfmen sent the buoy across the churning water. The men managed to hoist Percival into the buoy and return him to shore, reviving him on the beach.
The Jennie Hall was a total loss, but the surfmen’s acts of heroism to save five of the eight men on the ship earned them national distinctions. Surfman O’Neal of the Dam Neck Mills Life-Saving Station was awarded a gold medal for heroic services. A gold medal of honor was also bestowed upon Drinkwater and Barco. The surfmen who assisted with the surfboat, George W. Whitehurst, W.H. Partridge, John H. Carroll, Bennett M. Simmons and John W. Sparrow, were all awarded silver medals for their heroic service. Keeper Barco died of an illness before the medals were issued, but was awarded a gold medal posthumously 80 years and one day after the rescue.
Keeper Barco’s gold medal is on display at The Old Coast Guard Station, a maritime museum located at 24th Street on the Virginia Beach boardwalk.
This Saturday, Oct 4, from 1pm to 5pm, The Old Coast Guard Station Museum is hosting their 2014 Pig & Oyster Fest, with all you can eat Oysters and BBQ with live music from Seth Stainback and Roosterfoot. For more info or tickets, click here.