On a stormy October morning in 1849, strong winds blew the brig St. John and its 120 Irish immigrant passengers into Grampus Ledge off the Cohasset coast.
Rocks rapidly tore through the ship, cutting away its masts as passengers were swept into the strong surf.
More than 99 people died.
While the tale of the St. John is well-documented, there are fewer details of many of the other 250-plus wrecks off the coast of Hull, Cohasset and Scituate, historians said.
That is why staff at maritime museums in the three towns work to preserve the history by displaying artifacts recovered from the wrecks, model ships and tools used by lifesavers who braved storms to rescue seafarers.
“The shipwreck history is almost completely invisible,” said Victoria Stevens, curator at the Hull Lifesaving Museum. “You can look out at the beautiful ocean and have no idea what’s below the water.”
Most wrecks occurred in the 19th century, when the shipping channel into Boston Harbor was narrow and passed close to many ledges. Ships were predominantly powered by sail and at the mercy of the wind, which frequently blew them into rocks, Stevens said.
“The St. John broke apart in 20 minutes,” said Paul Fiori, a Cohasset resident who wrote about the wreck in his book, “On Grampus Ledge.” “The water was rising below deck and people were drowning or jumping overboard.”
By the 1900s, wrecks were rare because navigation equipment improved, steam replaced wind power and a safer channel was dredged, historians said.
“We’re trying to recapture the feel of the time,” said David Wadsworth, a historian at the Cohasset Historical Society. “We’re providing insight into what things were like a century-and-a-half ago.”