By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
For close to three centuries, experienced pilots have guided seagoing vessels through the treacherous waters of the Delaware River and Bay. In the very early days, merchant vessels often relied on Native American pilots from the area of the Delaware capes. By the mid-18th century, however, piloting had become established as a trade; initiates had to undertake training and apprenticeship for four years, and then pass an examination, in order to be admitted to the pilots’ ranks.
Piloting could be highly dangerous in those waters, where currents were unpredictable and storms could sweep in with little warning. Delaware Bay contained numerous shoals and constricted channels, while the unbroken ocean shore south of Cape Henlopen gave no refuge for larger vessels until the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, 130 miles away. For that reason, pilot boats were often called upon to rescue mariners who had been caught in storms and the winter ice.
Despite the dangers that they faced, pilots had to scramble to make a living for their families. By the late 18th century, the pilots of Delaware Bay generally sailed in schooners that were large enough to enable them to cruise into the Atlantic in search of incoming vessels that might require their services. But the time between jobs still meant that the pilots often had a difficult time bringing in enough cash for their families.
In 1792, the pilots felt they had organized sufficiently as a group to be able to withhold their labor in a strike for higher fees. The Philadelphia merchants attempted to break the strike by advertising in the local newspapers for scabs, while the Port Wardens revoked the licenses of the strikers. But the menace to shipping was too great and the organized pilots soon got a raise.
Almost a century later, in 1881, a bill was passed in the Pennsylvania Assembly that severely watered down an earlier law (1866) dealing with the remuneration of Delaware pilots. Philadelphia pilot Lester D. Schellenger wrote a letter of protest to the Harrisburg Patriot that appeared June 7, 1881. It was subtitled: “The Pilot Bill a Scheme to Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Poorer” and complained that the new law would compel pilots to pay one-third of their “hard earnings to support the steam tugs owned by wealthy houses and extensive associations.”
Schellenger pointed out: “The law of 1866 allowed us pay at the rate of three dollars a day, after twenty-four hours when detained at the Breakwater waiting orders and full pilotage if the vessel went to another port than Philadelphia. This bill allows us nothing for detention, no matter how long that may be and then only half pilotage in case she goes to another port. Is this just? Should we be compelled to remain on the vessel without pay when we could be out cruising and trying to get other vessels?
Lester D. Schellenger belonged to a large family of pilots and sea captains. For several generations, family members in Lewes, Del., and Cape May, N.J., as well as in Philadelphia, had followed the trade. Several men in the family were lost at sea, including Lester’s brother William in 1839 and his brother Henry F. (Harry) in 1872.
Charles and Elizabeth Schellenger
Here we take a look at Charles D. Schellenger (either a brother or a cousin of Lester), who drowned off the Delaware capes in 1889. Charles worked from the pilot schooner Enoch Turley, which sank with all hands lost during a hard gale in April of that year. He is commemorated on a stone in the Gloria Dei churchyard along with his widow, Elizabeth Schellenger, who died in 1907, and is buried at the site.
Charles was born around 1831 in Philadelphia and probably lived as a child in the Southwark district. He apprenticed as a pilot while still in his teens. For most of the 1850s, he resided in Delaware, where he married Elizabeth Rowland. Elizabeth’s father, David J. Rowland, was also a pilot; her mother, Catharine M. West Rowland (died 1860), came from a family of pilots.
The Rowlands lived in the seaside community of Rehoboth, Del., when Elizabeth was a small girl in the 1830s. Later, they moved a few miles north to Lewes, which lies just above Cape Henlopen on the Delaware Bay. Their house is now open to the public from May through October as a maritime museum and the headquarters of the Lewes Historical Society. The museum has a coffee urn in its collection that was made for Charles D. Schellenger by friends. It also has a model of the pilot boat Enoch Turley, on which Schellenger lost his life. The building is commonly known as the Cannonball House; it was a casualty of the British naval bombardment of Lewes in 1813, and a cannonball is still embedded in its foundations. Elizabeth’s stepmother, Susan King Rowland, died on the premises in 1917, when a can of stove polish exploded in her kitchen.
While living in Lewes, the Schellengers had five children: the twins Henry F. and Henrietta F. (born 1852), David R. (1855, died in 1857), Charles Jr. (1857), and William (1860). During the Civil War, Charles and Elizabeth and their young family moved to Philadelphia, where they rented a house on Wharton St., west of Front St. In July 1863, Charles registered for the draft to serve in the Union Army. Two years later, in June 1865, tragedy struck when their eight-year-old son, Charlie, died of scarlet fever, which was epidemic among small children in those years. He was buried in the churchyard at Gloria Dei.
In the 1870s, the family lived at various addresses close to the Philadelphia southern waterfront. Their teenage son, Henry F. (Harry), followed the family trade and apprenticed as a pilot boy during the early years of the decade. Around 1880, they moved to a recently built brick house at 140 Mary St. (today League St.), which is still standing.
“Skimmed the water like a bird”
The pilot boat Enoch Turley was a small schooner, 70 feet in length, with 12 berths in her cabin, and two masts. She was named in honor of a Philadelphian who was esteemed as a sea captain in the early 19th century and died suddenly at age 39 in 1823. His son (born 1810), also named Enoch Turley, carried on as a sea captain, was appointed harbormaster for the port of Philadelphia (1856), and later served as president of the Society for the Relief of Poor Shipmasters.
The Enoch Turley was built in Baltimore and launched on the Delaware in 1842. The Philadelphia Public Ledger (Nov. 25, 1842) reported, “The new pilot boat ‘Enoch Turley,’ Capt. William Baker, was tried yesterday afternoon for the first time. She is a beautiful craft; was full dress with every rag she could carry, and skimmed the water like a bird. A large party were on board of her, who were elegantly entertained by the captain.”
In the spring of 1843, the Turley was entered in a race with another pilot boat, the John G. Whilder. The racecourse was to be from Philadelphia all the way to the breakwater at the Delaware capes. In late November of that year, however, the Turley was blown ashore in a heavy wind off Indian River Inlet. It was feared that she was a total wreck, but with some difficulty, she was raised and her keel was rebuilt.
Back in service, in September 1844, the Enoch Turley engaged in a race with the pilot boat Herald. The Public Ledger reported on Sept. 12 that the boats “left Southwark this morning,
crowded with ladies, for a race and excursion, the stake being a sumptuous repast for all hands, to be paid for by the losing boat. Result not yet known.”
Throughout the 1840s, the Enoch Turley continued to carry pleasure-seekers on excursions as far as Newport, R.I. However, the hard-working schooner also performed a number of crucial rescues of disabled vessels. U.S. Coast Guard records mention, for example, that the Turley helped to tow the coast survey brig Washington following the hurricane of Sept. 8, 1846. In November 1846, the pilot boat rescued the brig Carleton, which had become disabled in a storm off the capes, and towed her to Reedy Island in the Delaware. In September 1847, she aided in the rescue of the Flora del Mar.
The Turley was rebuilt in Wilmington in 1862, and continued her heroic life-saving work through out the next two decades. Several weeks after the Turley disappeared at sea, the Delaware Gazette & State Journal (May 2, 1889) reminisced: “She has always been considered an able and safe boat and a favorite among Delaware pilots all through her long and useful career.”
Able though she might have been, some evidently thought that the Enoch Turley was hexed. On May 22, 1889, The Philadelphia Inquirer commented: “The old boat was looked up on as particularly unlucky for the last three years, as she has been ashore several times and otherwise in trouble, and on that account the pilots were a little afraid of her.”
But the pilot boat’s owners discounted any talk of unluckiness. One of the owners, Capt. Harry Long, a pilot himself, told The Inquirer (April 13, 1889) that, although very old, “the Turley was well found and capable of standing any type of weather. She weathered the great gale of November 1888 in gallant style.”
The year 1888 was indeed grueling for the Delaware Bay pilots and their crafts. The United States Life Saving Service’s annual report for 1889 recounted their heroic actions during the extreme cold and blizzard conditions in March and April of the previous year. The Enoch Turley played a role in the rescues, but encountered her own perils. Before dawn on March 5, one of her pilots, John West, fell into the icy water as he was climbing onto the deck of the steamship Indiana. He remained in the water for half an hour, until he was found floating half a mile away unconscious. A few days later, it was reported, he had almost recovered.
A week later, on the morning of March 12, a tremendous storm and blizzard roared into Delaware Bay. Two dozen vessels were wrecked, and crew members and passengers were swept into the sea. The Enoch Turley became snagged on a shoal near the Lewes breakwater, where she lost her masts. But the boat and her men emerged relatively unscathed due to a timely rescue operation.
The Life Saving Service’s report (p. 238) stated that the Turley “had dragged ashore at 8 o’clock in the morning and was lying about seventy-five yards off the beach, with the heavy seas washing over her. The life-savers succeeded in firing a line to her, and after some difficulty, occasioned by the vessel’s crew being so benumbed with cold that they could not readily handle the gear, the whip and hawser were got in working order and all hands, numbering seven, were safely landed, one at a time, in the breeches-buoy. The rescue was a timely one, as the men were nearly used up from the severe exposure to which they had been subjected for several hours.”
On Nov. 26, 1888, while cruising off the capes, the Turley encountered the “great gale” that Long spoke of, coupled with a heavy snowstorm. She was blown far south, but was able to find harbor at Fortress Monroe, Va., at the mouth of the Chesapeake, without serious damage.
Swept away in the gale
Just over four months later, a far more powerful gale struck the coast. This one led to the demise of the Enoch Turley and the death of Charles D. Schellenger and nine other men who were aboard her. The storm began on Saturday, April 6, and continued into Sunday.
The damage was considerable. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that in the aftermath of the storm, Rehoboth, the former home of Elizabeth Schellenger, looked like “the ruins of some ancient city.” The boardwalk had washed away, and the pavilion that used to stand at the foot of Rehoboth Avenue had blown down. Several vessels had grounded, including the three-masted schooner Carrie A. Buckham.
As usual in such circumstances, the Enoch Turley went to sea in search of vessels that might need assistance in the storm. It appears, however, that the pilot boat was blown toward the south—just as happened the previous November. The pilot boat Edwards sighted her off Fenwick Island light (about 60 miles south of the cape). And the Inquirer later reported, “The last seen of the missing vessel was on the night of Saturday, April 6, when the bark Wyho passed her and reported her as scudding for Hampton Roads.”
A search was made for the missing vessel, but nothing definitive was found of her. The captain of a schooner from Wilmington reported that on April 13 he had spotted a damaged boat that he was “pretty sure” was the Turley. On April 19, a dispatch in the Wilmington Evening Journal said that a sunken vessel had been discovered off Cape Charles and “in all probability the wreck was that of the Turley, as she was steering in that direction when she was last seen.” Contradictory reports of other wrecks that “might have been the Turley” continued to appear for a couple of weeks more.
Finally, on April 26, the Turley’s co-owner Capt. Harry Long was quoted in the Inquirer as stating: “I think it may be assumed that the Turley has gone down, and the chance of any one of the crew being picked up is a very remote one. It is true that a sailing vessel bound south may have them on board, but it is cruel to raise false hopes. My opinion is that the Turley has gone down with all hands.”
Besides Schellenger, the dead included pilots John S. Kelly, Morgan Saunders, Henry M. Parker, and James A. Orton. Also lost were crew members E.W. Donaldson (or Danielson), Fred Greenwood, Juber Havilon (the cook), Alfred Allen (a Black man), and an English boy, Charles Young.
A fund was taken up for the widows and children. Agent Young of the Pennsylvania Pilots Association pointed out that families were severely hurt by the loss of their breadwinners. He added that in fact, “there were two or three of the lost pilots whose earnings were the entire support of the family” (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 27, 1889).
“Graceful as a waterfowl”
The legend persists even today that on stormy nights over the Atlantic, the ghostly shape of the Enoch Turley can be seen, trying to make its way back to the breakwater and safety. But rather than leave our readers on that gloomy note, we will recount the adventures of a happier day, when the Turley was in her prime.
An account in the Philadelphia Press (Aug. 28, 1866) described a voyage on the pilot boat: “On the morning of the 16th instant, the pilot-boat Enoch Turley road at anchor a short distance from the beach at Cape May. Graceful as a waterfowl she rose upon each wave like a thing of life, and those who saw her from the shore predicted a safe and pleasant trip to the pleasure-party about to embark on her for the waters of the Chesapeake. Taking their seats in her life-boats, the excursionists plunged out through the heavy breakers, and soon were on board the little craft.
“She is one of the five pilot-boats owned by the pilots of Delaware Bay, men who at all seasons of the year, without regard to storm or weather, cruise off the mouth of the bay to furnish a pilot to every vessel seeking the port of Philadelphia. A more hardy, industrious, temperate, and worthy set of men do not live than these pilots.
“Up goes the anchor, and away goes the Enoch Turley before a favoring wind. In an hour the Cape May lighthouse has disappeared, and all trace of the point from whence the party started has vanished. Before us stands Cape Henlopen, a long ridge of sand …”
After touring Chesapeake Bay and viewing deserted rebel fortifications and half-sunken hulks from the Civil War, the correspondent wrote: “Wind changing in our favor carried us flying before it down the bay and out to sea, and the Enoch Turley proved her speed and excellent sea-going qualities by returning us to the starting point in sixteen hours from the time we left Fortress Monroe. Noble little craft, and nobler men who commanded her! Are not her and their virtues forever inscribed on our memories?”