December 21, 1900
The night is cold and dark, and Captain Lawson of the Jennie Hall was tired of his continuing bad luck.. Throughout the trek from Trinidad, his ship had hit storm after storm. His crew of seven men, plus one stowaway discovered shortly after leaving port, had battled rough seas to get them to this point, and he was glad to finally see the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
He ordered his crew to maneuver the ship towards the Bay, looking forward to having the worst of his journey behind him. As they sailed closer to the Bay, Lawson scanned the horizon and suddenly felt a twist in his gut. Too late he tried to yell our orders to turn, but before he could warn his crew the boat lurched forward. Sailers and cargo all went flying as the Jennie Hall ran aground against the coast of Virginia.
As their ship fell apart below them, the crew desperately climbed into the rigging to escape the deadly seas consuming their vessel. In the darkness, Captain Lawson was grabbed by a wave and washed overboard into the churning chaos below. The remaining crew could only cling to the rigging and pray for daylight to come soon.
Dam Neck Mills Station
As the first light of dawn crept onto the beach, Surfmen from the local Lifesaving Stations were beginning their daily patrols. A surfman from the Dam Neck Mills Station was the first to spot the wreckage of the Jennie Hall. Within 20 minutes, the Surfmen had assembled their equipment and were firing the Lyle gun towards the men still hanging on desperately in the rigging.
In the hours that the Jennie Hall crew had been clinging to life, two of crew had lost consciousness and dropped from the rigging. The remaining men, though throughly exhausted, were able to secure the line sent from the Lyle Gun to what remained of the Jennie Hall‘s mast. Using the Breech Buoy, four crewman were brought safely to shore. Upon the fourth crewman’s arrival, he informed Surfman and Station Keeper Bailey T Barco that one man was still aboard the Jennie Hall, unconscious.
Surfman John Sparrow courageously volunteered to go across the water to the Jennie Hall in the Breech Buoy to save the last crew member. Upon arriving at the wreckage, Sparrow realized that he could not maneuver the final crew member into the breech buoy himself. Sparrow returned to shore with his update, and Keeper Barco made the decision to use the surfboat to rescue the stranded man.
Keeper Barco, along with Surfmen Sparrow, Drinkwater, and O’Neal, launched the surfboat off the shore and towards the wreckage. On their way to rescue the last man, a large wave crashed against the small surfboat, washing Surfman Sparrow overboard and into the sea. Keeper Barco and Surfmen Drinkwater and O’Neal worked quickly to bring Sparrow back into the surfboat, saving him from the rough waters.
Once Sparrow was safely back aboard, the small team continued on the the wreckage. Once there, Surfman Drinkwater and O’Neal boarded what remained of the Jennie Hall. Together, the two surfmen secured the last crew member into the breech buoy as Barco and Sparrow returned to shore in the surfboat. After rescuing the final crew member, Drinkwater and O’Neal then used the breech buoy to return safely to shore.
Composite of USLSS Members from the Museum Collection
Of the 8 men aboard the Jennie Hall at the time of her wreck, 5 were saved thanks to the heroic actions of the Surfman stationed at the Dam Neck Mills Station. Keeper Barco and Surfmen Drinkwater and O’Neal were awarded the Gold Life-Saving Metal to honor their bravery. Surfman Sparrow and others were also awarded the Silver Life-Saving Metal for their heroic acts.