Wreck of the Hinckley
R. Dewey Peters
Written in 2000
I guess I should tell something about the Hinckley. There are details recorded in the morgue of the Watertown Times with dates, etc., which are a reliable source of information but there are a lot of tales passed around locally by word of mouth that have been pretty badly distorted over the years and some were distorted at birth.
I was just a kid not even old enough to be a Boy Scout at the time the Hinckley came ashore, but I had been around the lakeshore since before I started school so I think I was a pretty accurate observer and I was there watching for the two weeks between the day she came in until the morning she broke up. And I was one of the principal participants in the great coal rush to salvage the cargo which came ashore with the currents. It was 1929 just before the big stock market crash but the people of South Jefferson appreciated nice clean anthracite, free for the picking, and their kids seemed to enjoy picking it up and filling their buckets. A burlap bagful could feed a stove for the better part of a week.
The winter of 1929 and 1930 was a severe one with the lake freezing far off shore and the ice piling up along the shore and settling toward the bottom farther with each succeeding storm. It engulfed the wreckage of the Hinckley, lying in fifteen to twenty feet of water, encapsulated it, and in the spring when the floes moved along the shore, the wreckage was dragged along.
In the spring, we saw the big boiler and firebox against the flat rock and half out of water in Gravely Bay a quarter of a mile down the shore from the site of the grounding. When we went out to the site where the hull had rested in the fall, there was no trace of wreckage. We searched along the shore to where the boiler was, but detected only parts such as donkey engines and winches. We didn't have fish finders and depth sounders. We could only look for objects on the bottom when the water was still and the sun was right. We found the location of deck machinery and cargo jacks and big chain falls in shallow water and some of these we fished out and took ashore.
We didn't have scuba gear or wet suits or goggles and we kids were not good at diving more than four feet. At the end of that summer, no one knew where the hull and the bulk of the wreckage lay. The following summer, there seemed to be no great change in the location of things we had spotted on the bottom. The boiler was still where it had come to rest after the first winter and it lay there in that position until World War II when some enterprising soul came down with a cutting torch and trucked it away for scrap iron to be used in the war effort.
Dad and I used to fish every day that we could get the boat off the rack which allowed us to move it over the rocks to the water. One day the wind was northerly and when we were fishing the Bullard shore; it freshened before we could get enough fish in the fishbox for supper. We didn't have an ice box, and fish don't keep well in summer, so all the fish we consumed were fresh. We knew of a stone bed on the bottom in 18 or 20 feet of water off the cedars out from Melvin Steven's vacant lot down the shore a little over a hundred yards from our rack. The area was sheltered from that northerly wind and seemed like a good spot to try before going in.
Dad was running the boat engine and I was up on the bow trying to spot the rock bed while he sighted on his landmarks, Suddenly I saw something protruding up from the bottom perhaps ten or twelve feet below the surface and there were some timbers showing. I yelled and told Dad what I had seen, He managed to bring the boat about and we passed over the spot again. He saw what I had seen and recognized the old upright steam engine and the upper blade of the propeller and some hull timbers which were high enough to be visible. We maneuvered some more and dropped the anchor (in those days, a big flat stone in a rope harness). We dropped a couple of night crawlers and before the baits got ten feet down we had panfish, For the next half hour, we caught perch and rock bass and black bass until we didn't dare put more in the box. We didn't get many black bass because the panfish would get to the bait first, but they were definitely down there.
We went ashore and shared the catch with my aunt's family who had the place next door. The men made a pact to keep the wreck's location a secret and us kids were threatened with dire consequences if we breathed a word to anyone. In those days the area was not frequented by guideboats and small boat fishermen were seldom around except on weekends when the weather was good.
It was the second year that the wreckage had lain there and the fish population had developed to a concentration the men had never seen before. If we wanted bass. we didn't go there because the perch and rock bass could get to the hooks first. But if we wanted to fill the fishbox, the place was a certain bet. If a boat came in sight, we left before they got suspicious, People who fished the area on weekends had a habit of spotting Dad's old Tyler skiff with the little Johnson hanging on a bracket on it's pointed stern, and getting as close to him as possible. We kept the place confidential for two or three years until a few locals caught on and they usually agreed with a little persuasion to keep quiet.
The wreck has shifted some over the years, having been moved several hundred feet and the timbers are pretty much gone now. A couple of years ago the Cargans fished out the four-blade, seven-foot cast iron propeller and part of the shaft which had broken away from the engine. They stuck it up by the town road. My cousin and brother and I got one of the three hundred pound anchors when we were teenagers and still have it. We found the second anchor but it was attached to the chain and the chain was caught in the rocks. We got several hundred feet of chain but every time we had to make a cut, we lost 15 feet or more because we had to cut it at the surface with a hacksaw and drop the fastened end back to the bottom. We got two- and three-ton chainfalls. and big jacks and pulley blocks. I even had one of the telephones used to talk with the engine room.
© 2003, R. Dewey Peters