The Wreck and Rescue of an Immigrant Ship

On the Water - Exhibition Theme: Dangerous Waters

The British bark Ayrshire ran aground off Squan Beach, New Jersey, in January 1850. But the passengers and crew had reason for hope: Congress had begun funding the construction of life-saving stations along the coast of New York and New Jersey two years before.

The sea was too rough to launch a surfboat, and the local wreckmaster decided to use his station’s life-car instead. Hauled between the shore and the wreck on ropes, the enclosed boat made 60 trips to the wreck over two days and rescued all but one of Ayrshire’s 166 passengers and 36 crew.


Sailing from Famine

Many of the passengers on the Ayrshire’s final voyage were likely Irish laborers, farmers, and families fleeing famine in Ireland. Almost one million people between 1846 and 1851 died because of the failures of the potato crop and poor distribution of what remained. Hundreds of thousands more sailed for the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia.


Courtesy of Doris A. Martin

After the Wreck

The Irish immigrants aboard the Ayrshire included 50-year-old John Woods, some of his siblings, his 30-year-old wife Lydia, and their three sons—a 2-year-old and infant twins. The family came ashore in the Francis Life-Car. Some settled in New York, while John, Lydia, and their children continued on to Canada, where they established a farm north of Toronto.


The Ayrshire Wreck

The passengers and crew of the bark Ayrshire came ashore in the Francis Life-Car, January 12, 1850. Ships traveling the busy sea lanes leading to New York frequently came to grief on the shores of Long Island and New Jersey. In the 1840s, an average of three vessels a month wrecked in these coastal waters.


Gift of Joseph Francis

The Francis Life-Car

The life-car overhead rescued the passengers and crew of the stranded bark Ayrshire. It was the first such car ever used in an emergency. Developed by inventor Joseph Francis and manufactured by the Novelty Iron Works in Brooklyn, it was installed at the new Squan Beach, New Jersey, life-saving station in 1849. Boat-shaped and buoyant, the iron life-car was hauled between the stranded vessel and the beach on stout ropes.

Life-car interior

Two to four people were sealed inside for each ride from ship to shore.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1851

Building Iron Boats

The hydraulic press was used at the Novelty Iron Works to shape metallic-boat parts.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1851

Chadwick Beach Life Saving Station

When the first federal life-saving stations were built along the New Jersey coast in 1849, they were equipped with galvanized iron surfboats. This station, at Chadwick Beach, was established around 1850. Each station was also given an experimental “life-car”—an enclosed boat designed to be hauled by ropes to and from stranded vessels. Life-cars made by Joseph Francis’s works rescued at least 1,400 people on the New Jersey coast alone by the end of 1853.

Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office