The Pelican, photographed by Evangeline Pitts, 1951
Damaged open party boat Pelican sits behind clammer Ben Pitts, Pitts-Burke-Cullum Collection, Montauk Library Archives
The man clamming in the foreground of this photograph was known as Augustus Petitpas in his native Nova Scotia, and as Ben Pitts in the United States. The beached boat listing behind him in Lake Montauk was known as the Pelican, an open party boat that Long Island Rail Road passengers would eagerly jump aboard at Fort Pond Bay, hoping to return with gunny sacks filled with enough fish to eat for a week. The fare for a day on the water was just $4.50.
On September 1, 1951, as a squall and engine trouble and then panic set in, the Pelican capsized within sight of Montauk Point, claiming 37 lives, including that of the captain, Eddie Carroll, well liked and respected by local Montauk skippers.
Many of the fishermen were regular customers and good friends of Captain Carroll; among them were war veterans, a taxi driver, a mason, a mailman, a jeweler, a husband and wife, and a father and son. Only one wore a life jacket; he was one of the fishermen who survived.
The Pelican had had 56 people on board in a time before the Coast Guard limited the number of passengers on boats of its size. Captain Carroll’s brother, Howard Carroll, who ran the Jigger, said in an interview shortly after the incident that Montauk captains would welcome limits on the number of fishermen to be carried by party boats. “We often have to leave many people on the docks because we don’t want to overload the boats and people take it as a personal insult,” he told the Nassau Review. “At least 80 people were left on the docks Saturday afternoon.”
Montaukers were profoundly affected by the disaster. Joan Lycke distinctly remembers standing at the water pump at her family’s summer home in Ditch Plains when the fire whistle went off. “It just kept going on and on and on.” Jean Ruggles remembers standing on the north side of Montauk Point, which was cordoned off, and watching police trying to right the boat to get the bodies out until she was shooed away. “Everybody pitched in and got things done,” said Marshall Prado. “There was a lot of confusion in town – we barely had telephones.” Two of his customers later told him they could hear cries from the water as they walked the beach that day.
Fishermen, police, and what emergency responders existed in Montauk at the time rescued survivors and searched for bodies both in the water and in the cabin of the Pelican, with temporary morgues set up at the town dock and Duryea’s ice house.
Joan Lycke remembers relatives of those who were missing or dead walking around the harbor area wearing heavy rain jackets – “It was like they were in a daze,” she said. “The newspapers were all out here … It was an incredibly sad day.”
“Montauk became known as the place where the boat rolled over,” Marshall Prado said. “I remember the day that they put the boat on a truck and took it out of town.”
Like Augustus Petitpas, the clammer in the photograph, Prado comes from Nova Scotian stock – whose pioneer spirit he credited with helping many in Montauk scratch out a living, often by fishing as much as possible in the summer and perhaps doing carpentry in winter.
“You lived a very real life,” he said of the era of the tragedy of the Pelican, adding that he didn’t know one person at the time who hadn’t lost at least one family member in some way or another.
“The next day you had to go to work,” he said. And so did Augustus Petitpas.
by Virginia Garrison
Photograph © Montauk Library and Dell Cullum