Marblehead’s Lost at Sea Monument in rough shape, report finds

The “Lost at Sea” monument, one of Marblehead’s most iconic and important memorials, requires about $10,500 worth of conservation and restoration work.

The 15-foot-high obelisk sits atop Old Burial Hill.  A recent conditions assessment of grave markers, tombs and monuments in the historic cemetery places the marble-and-granite memorial’s restoration among the highest priorities packaged in the 2022 report. 

“Broken grave markers generally are the highest priority in a historic cemetery, but in Old Buril Hill, [the Lost at Sea] monument requires urgent attention,” Ivan Myjer from the Arlington-based Building and Monuments Conservation writes in the report’s executive summary.

For 174 years, the monument has honored the“multiple [fisher]men who have no other marker.”  The report attributed the monument’s ailing condition to the following two reasons: The brick interior around which the monument’s marble slabs are built as well as its location on the burial grounds. 

“The two factors make it especially vulnerable to accelerated weathering. The monument’s exposure at the top of the hill has resulted in greater erosion on the windward side,” the report reads. “There is a thick layer of biological growths on the marble. Cracks have developed at the band and gaps are opening at the joints between the marble slabs – particularly where the slabs are let into reveals.” 

The assessment plan calls for the following corrective measures: 

  • Clean the monument to remove biological growths.
  • Remove failing sealants
  • Re-point open joints with a soft lime mortar
  • Grout gaps where slabs are let into horizontal units with a soft lime mortar Repair losses at the top of the band with a hydraulic lime-based repair mortar
  • Grout all cracks and fissures with a soft lime mortar

One would be hard-pressed to find a more consequential and tragic day for Marblehead than Sept. 19, 1846. The events that transpired on this day were the impetus behind erecting the Lost at Sea monument. 

“One of the most terrible gales ever known took place on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland,” writes Samuel Roads in “The Histories and Traditions of Marblehead.” “Ten vessels belonging in Marblehead, containing 65 men and boys, were lost.”

On that mid-September day, a dark sky crept in around 9 a.m., and by 3 p.m., a hurricane arrived with violence and fury, according to Pam Peterson, a Marblehead Historical Commission member and the former Marblehead Museum executive director.

“Each vessel was at the mercy of the sea. The men on board couldn’t help themselves, and they couldn’t help each other,” writes Peterson.

A calmness settled in around midnight as the hurricane swirled away. When day broke, Marbleheaders’ worse fear laid before their eyes.

Peterson cited a Marblehead Messenger story printed on the 50th anniversary of Great Gale of 1846: “Wreckage was everywhere, whole fields of it, telling more than we had dared to fear, the fearful havoc  that had been done by the gale we had come through so, fortunately.” 

Most every Marbleheader in this close-knit, fishing town, Peterson writes, was affected by the tradgedy. In but nine hours, the storm produced 43 widows and 155 fatherless children.

J.O.J Frost, the Marblehead resident who painted the town’s history at the turn of the century, immortalized the events that transpired from the Great Gale of 1846 in an ominous painting that captures the tragedy in a horrific but understated detail. It’s a centerpiece in the Marblehead Museum ’s J.O.J Frost collection.

.J.O.J Frost’s painting depicting the tragedy that unfolded during the Great Gale of 1846.

Roads characterized the Great Gale of 1846 as the “death-blow” to Marblehead’s fishing industry. It never fully recovered.

“Gradually, as the years have passed, one vessel after another has dropped from the rolls of ‘Bankers,’” wrote Roads in the late 19th century. “Only one remains as a silent reminder of the greatness of the industry in former years.”

Two years after the gale swept through, the Marblehead Seamen’s Charitable Society erected the “Seamen’s Monument” – now called the Lost at Sea monument – atop Old Burial Hill. Roads noted it could be seen 15 miles at sea.

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