Joshua James Miraculously Rescues the Crew of the Gertrude Abbott

Captain Joshua James was a celebrated commander of life-saving crews credited with saving more than 600 lives during his long career.

Joshua James

Joshua James

He began saving lives at the age of 15, when he joined the Massachusetts Humane Society, until his death while on duty at the age of 75.

Joshua James was born on Nov. 22, 1826 in Hull, Mass., the son of Esther Dill and William James. His father owned a fleet of vessels that hauled paving stones to Boston. When Joshua was 10 years old he watched his mother and baby sister perish in the wreck of the schooner Hepzibah.

Five years later he jumped into a surfboat manned by volunteers from the Massachusetts Humane Society to try to rescue the crew of a ship being battered by a storm.

He was 61 when he made a rescue considered miraculous. A hurricane struck New England on Nov. 25, 1888. Joshua James climbed Telegraph Hill and saw five schooners and a coal barge anchored off Nantasket. Fearing the storm would wreck them, he ordered his volunteers to patrol the beach.

In the afternoon they rescued the crew of the Cox and Green. Over the next 36 hours, Joshua James and his 28 volunteers would save 28 lives.

Sumner Kimball, who organized the United States Life-Saving Service, wrote a book about Joshua James that described the next, near-miraculous rescue of the Gertrude Abbott.

It had now become quite dark, but another three-masted schooner, the Gertrude Abbott, could be dimly discerned upon the rocks an eighth of a mile farther up the beach, and to this point Captain James and his men laboriously transferred their boat and apparatus.

This wreck gave them a far more serious problem to deal with. A brief survey of the situation showed that the vessel lay too far from shore for the use of the breeches-buoy apparatus, and that to attempt a rescue with the lifeboat under the present appalling conditions of wind and sea was an undertaking which, to all appearances, invited certain death.

Captain James warned his crew that the chances were they would never return from an attempt to save the shipwrecked men, but asked who were willing to go with him and make the effort. Without a moment’s hesitation every man offered himself, and they ran the boat into the water and started for the wreck.

In the meantime the people, by tearing down fences, had gathered material for a great bonfire on Souther’s Hill, which lit up the scene in spite of the storm, greatly assisting the boat’s crew in their desperate struggle, and carrying renewed hope to the despairing fellows on board the wreck. The boat was repeatedly filled as the huge waves swept over it, disputing every inch of the way and often forcing it back into imminent peril of being dashed to pieces not he rocks. Two men were constantly occupied in bailing.

At length the powerful strokes of the crew brought the boat under the schooner’s bow, a line was thrown aboard and made fast by the sailors, and as the boat rose high on the crest of a wave one of them dropped into the outstretched arms below. This was repeated until all of the eight men were successively taken into the boat.

Joshua James and Crew

Joshua James and Crew (he’s in blue)

But the hardest part of the struggle was yet before them, and the danger of which Captain James had warned his men now became terribly apparent. To reach the shore with their heavy load through the riot of waves raging between was a task which called not only for all their strength and endurance, but also the utmost skill and self-possession. As they approached the shore the crowd which had gathered there expected momentarily to see the frail craft tossed upon the rocks and crushed like an eggshell. The men, however, stuck desperately to their posts, and watched for a chance to make a landing, although repeatedly drenched by the overwhelming seas.

When within two hundred yards of the beach the boat struck a submerged boulder, filled and rolled one side under water. The occupants quickly shifted to the other side, which righted the boat, but one man had been thrown overboard, whom, fortunately, his comrades caught and hauled in before the sea could sweep him beyond reach.

Captain James admonished the men to stick to the boat as long as possible. It struck the rocks a number of times, the crew just managing to keep it headed for the shore with the few oars that were left, so that the sea might heave it in. Finally a monster wave lifted it high in the air and dashed it upon the rocks, completely wrecked. By fortunate chance, however, all the men got ashore, half wading and half dragged by the eager hands of the spectators who rushed into the surf as far as possible to assist them.

The next year Joshua James was appointed keeper of the Point Allerton Life-Saving Station, though he was 62 years old. The mandatory age of retirement – 45 – was waived for him. He continued saving lives for another 13 years.

He died on March 19, 1902. A northeast gale was blowing, and he decided to drill his crew with a new self-bailing surfboat. For an hour they managed the boat in the roiling sea. They grounded the boat and he jumped out, looked at the sea and said, “The tide is ebbing.” Then he fell on the wet sand, dead of a heart attack.

Every May 23, the Hull Life-Saving Museum and the Point Allerton Station (which houses the Hull Life-Saving Museum) honor Joshua James at his gravesite.

With thanks to Joshua James, life-saver by Sumner Kimball. 





  1. Susan Murphy Capobianco

    June 20, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    What an amazing man he was!

  2. Daniel C. Purdy

    June 20, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Another wonderful story of an uncommon person. You should do a story about Marcus Hanna of Maine who was the only person to win both a Medal of Honor (Civil War) and the Gold Lifesaving Medal (Keeper of Portland Head Light). His Grand-nieces and nephews are now getting quite old.

  3. New England Historical Society

    June 21, 2014 at 9:34 am

    ^What a great suggestion! We’ll look into it.

  4. Daniel C. Purdy

    June 21, 2014 at 11:23 am

    There is a Coast Guard Ship in Portland namedfor him.

  5. Pingback: New England’s Beloved Shipwreck, the Schooner Nancy - New England Historical Society

  6. Laura Eisener

    February 27, 2020 at 4:17 pm

    Fascinating story! I enjoy New England Historical Society so much!

    I do have to wonder about this “riot of warts” – I first thought the word was meant to be wharves but then decided it was waves.

    • Leslie Landrigan

      March 15, 2020 at 1:08 pm

      LOL–you’re right! It should have read ‘waves.’ Warts would have been one strange storm.

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