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City of Salisbury

Find information on this shipwreck and dive site managed by the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources (BUAR).

BUAR classifies certain shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological resources as "Exempted Sites" for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to): commonly known location, previous salvage, recreational value, educational value, or lack of significant archaeological or historical value. Recreational diving activities on these sites, including casual artifact collection, do not require a BUAR permit. However, any major disruption of the site is prohibited. The intent of creating an exempted shipwreck site is to preserve such sites for the continued enjoyment of the recreational diving community, who is encouraged to protect these sites for the continued enjoyment of all.

Note: All dives are conducted at your own risk. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts accepts no responsibility for loss of any kind, including personal injury or property damage. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts assumes no liability for inaccuracies in dive information contained in these pages including site locations and dive conditions.

Vessel Details

Description: freighter, steel.
Dimensions: length 415 ft., width 54 ft., depth 30.3 ft.
Tonnage: gross 5,924.
Propulsion: steam, propeller.
Machinery: 1, triple expansion engine with cylinder diameters 24.25", 42.5", 74" and stroke of 51", 750 nominal horse power; electric turbine; 3 single ended steel boilers, 12 corrugated furnaces.
Cargo: tropical animals; 8,000 tons of jute, natural rubber, iron, tea, sugar, rice, bolts of silk, tapestries.

The Shipwreck

Date Sunk: April 22, 1938.
Cause: stranded.
Location: Graves Ledge.
Coordinates: latitude 42° 22' 26" N; longitude 70° 51' 35" W.
Loran: 13974.4 and 44283.3.

The weather was clear, Saturday, April 23, 1938, as Boston Pilot, Captain William H. Lewis guided the City of Salisbury toward the outer harbor. Bound for New York with a cargo estimated at nearly $2,000,000, the steamer was nearing completion of a 10,000-mile odyssey, which included stops in Calcutta, India, Ceylon, the Malay States and Halifax, Nova Scotia. It had been a hard passage. Before leaving Calcutta a Himalayan bear had escaped. Later, at sea, a king cobra cannibalized its mate and at Halifax twenty-five monkeys escaped. What else could go wrong?

As Captain Lewis made his approach to Boston Harbor a thick fog bank engulfed the vessel. Although navigating in limited visibility was no simple matter then, or now, Lewis was confident of his position. His Government charts showed plenty of water in the area northeast of Graves Ledge Light. Not long after, the steamer lurched to a sudden halt. The vessel had impaled itself on an uncharted pinnacle of rock, near the outer edge of Graves Ledge. Later, the Coast Guard would clear Captain Lewis of any wrong doing, finding that Government Chart #246 was incorrect. The chart showed 33 feet of water over which the steamer should have easily passed.

The freighter was in an awkward position. The pinnacle, on which the bow and stern hung, supported the ships midship section, which was designed to be completely supported by water. The ebb and flow of the tide combined with a ground swell put undue stresses on the hull. Shortly after the freighter grounded, all but a skeleton crew of 14 seamen and 4 officers were removed. The next day, strange noises were heard emanating from deep within the steamer's hull. Not long after noon, the vessel began to strain and heave. The New York Times reported that "as officers and men hurried to the afterdeck there was a crash from within the vessel, the forward portion rolled to starboard and, amid a swirl of the otherwise calm waters, disappeared from sight." The City of Salisbury had broken just forward of the stack. "The stern of the ship trembled and then rose high in the water, but settled back on the ledge." Meanwhile, the steamer's crew was rescued by a nearby tug, which tempting fate pulled up to the freighter's stern and plucked off members of the crew.

By midsummer the forward section had slipped into deep water and what remained atop the pinnacle was showing signs of stress. A crack had developed running along half of the ship. About two weeks before the stern broke up and slipped beneath the waves, author Edward Rowe Snow visited the wreck and wrote: "It was a weird sensation…the grinding and gnashing of the iron rods and broken timbers far down under the water could plainly be heard, and the steamer would shudder and jerk as the ground swell passed alongside." Although the stern survived the great Hurricane of September 21, 1938, it succumbed to an October Northeaster.

Dive Site Conditions

Depth in feet: maximum 90, minimum 20.

The vessel's bow eventually came to rest sitting like a "dunce cap" in 80 feet of water at the base of the pinnacle. Wreckage can be found on both sides of the ledge. Today the wreck has been reduced to little more than an underwater scrap heap.

Historical Background

Constructed: in 1924 at Sunderland, England by the Wear Shipyard of W. Gray & Co., Ltd. Construction details: 2 continuos steel decks; 42 ft. long forecastle, 150 ft. bridge deck, 89 ft. poop deck; cruiser stern; flat keel; cellular constructed double bottom; 7 bulkheads extend to the upper deck, 1 bulkhead extends to the second deck; bulkheads partly cemented.

Crew: 76; Master: Captain Oscar Harris.
Owners: Ellerman Lines, Ltd. (Hall Lines, Ltd.; Managers).
Home or Hailing Port: Liverpool, England.
Former Name(s) and date(s):
Official number: 147264. Country: Britain.
Other Comments: Cargo estimates between 1.5 and 2 million dollars, the richest cargo ever shipwrecked in Boston's Outer Harbor.


Most of the City of Salisbury's cargo of exotic animals, including 40 pythons, 40 cobras, 300 monkeys and 20 crates of rare birds, were removed prior to the vessel breaking in two. Shortly after the bow settled away, its cargo began to float out of the hold. Prevailing currents carried it toward Nantasket Beach and the South Shore. By August, a salvage crew from New York had removed much of what was in the after section of the ship. According to Snow, as late as 1963 divers were still removing cargo from her broken holds. Over the years her hull was extensively blasted and much of the steel removed for scrap.


Fishable Wrecks and Rockpiles; Coleman & Soares, 1989
Lloyds Registry of Shipping; 1937-38
New England's Legacy of Shipwrecks; Keatts, 1988
New England Shipwrecks; Luther, 1967
New York Times; April 23 - 25, 1938
Storms and Shipwrecks of New England; Edward R. Snow, 1943
The Fisherman; January 5, 1988
True Tales of Terrible Shipwrecks; Edward R. Snow, 1963
Wrecks Below; Luther, 1958

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