New Accessions and the Wreck of the City of Columbus

By Susan F. Witzell, Archivist

Bread and milk mug of Sarah Bryant Fay (Photo by Susan F. Witzell)

The archives received several very interesting artifacts this summer. From Dr. Elizabeth Gardner, great-granddaughter of Joseph Story Fay, we received a child’s “Bread and Milk Mug”, belonging to Sarah Bryant Fay. Sarah Bryant Fay (1855-1938) was the daughter of Joseph Story Fay. Later she was the patron of Michael Walsh, who developed the rambler rose, and her rose garden was known all over the country. The mug is a typical example of hand-painted English china of the early 19th century. It has blackberry flowers, vines and leaves. Mugs like this were popular items for small children, each child having their own mug for drinking milk or bread soaked in milk or other treats.

Sugar Bowl

Sugar bowl from the City of Columbus (Photo by Susan F. Witzell).

And from Ann Crowell Morrison, we received a beautiful white and gold sugar bowl. The bowl had been salvaged from the wreck of the steamer City of Columbus.

On January 17, 1884 the steamer City of Columbus left Boston for Savannah, Georgia. She steamed around Cape Cod and into Vineyard Sound. At approximately 3:45 AM she struck rocks on a ledge called Devil’s Bridge off Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard and immediately began to sink with her port side under water. A few officers and strong men were able to climb into the rigging of the two sail masts. Two lifeboats with crew and some passengers got away.

wreck of the City of Columbus

The wreck of the City of Columbus (Photo by Baldwin Coolidge, Courtesy Historic New England)

Most of the women and children and some of the male passengers were swept into the icy waters (the temperature was below freezing) to drown as the ship swung nearly upright again as she filled with water. By sunrise two Humane Society boats from Gay Head and Squibnocket, manned by Gay Head Wampanoag volunteers, were searching the water and rigging for survivors. They were able to save 21 people. Others who had climbed into the rigging had frozen to death in the frigid January night. 103 persons had died in the wreck.

Humane Society rescue boat

Humane Society rescue boat (Photo by Baldwin Coolidge, Courtesy Historic New England)

Like many shipwrecks the wreck of the City of Columbus was exploited by salvage hunters. The ship’s white and gold china service was taken by a number of people. Pieces ended up on Martha’s Vineyard and in Woods Hole. The Crowell family oral tradition said that some of Crowell men had taken salvage from the wreck but notes made later said that Azariah Crowell had bought china from the wreck. Nevertheless such items were prized as poignant mementoes of a tragic event.

Members of the museum staff, steering committee and many of our docents had made a trip to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on June 25th. One of the featured exhibits there was about shipwrecks near the Vineyard. The exhibit featured an identical sugar bowl as well as the quarterboard, a stateroom door and other salvaged material from the City of Columbus.

Archives Info

The Museum Archives are open for research year round on Tuesdays and Thursday from 9:00am to 1:00pm and by appointment. Appointments are encouraged.

To reach the archivist, Colleen Hurter, email