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John Dwight

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, wood.
Dimensions: length 107.4 ft., width 27ft. 3in., depth 7.9 ft.
Tonnage: gross 151.78, other displacement - 275.
Propulsion: steam, 1 propeller.
Machinery: 250 horse power steam engine; coal fired boiler
Cargo: bootleg ale.

The Shipwreck

Date Sunk: April 6, 1923.
Cause: scuttled.
Location: Vineyard Sound, south of Nashawena Island.
Coordinates: latitude 41° 23' 26" N; longitude 70° 52' 36" W.

It was the "Roaring-20s"; the 18th Amendment was fours years old and prohibition was making the depression all the more depressing. This was the era of speakeasies, bathtub-gin and rum-running. Hooch-laden vessels from Canada would wait, just outside of U.S. Territorial waters, for the cover of darkness or fog when American craft would load the liquid cargo and run it into some deserted stretch of coastline to be sold at a healthy profit.

VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass., April 6 - "When a heavy fog which had prevailed for hours lifted today, the Cuttyhunk coast guards sighted a vessel about 150 feet long, apparently a steam trawler, flying what appeared to be distress signals. As they watched, the craft suddenly sank."

This was the story reported in the New York Times. It was assumed the crew-abandoned ship after a collision in the fog. The vessel's lifeboat davits were swung out, indicating the boats had been launched, but no word of its crew landing or of a collision was forthcoming.

John Dwight's demise has to this day, remained a mystery. Some weeks before the vessel sank, two captains, giving false names, showed up at Newport, Rhode Island, saying there had been a change in the steamers' ownership. Laid up for the winter, the John Dwight was previously employed in the salvage of coal from sunken barges. More men soon arrived bringing the crew to somewhere between 8 to 15 and the steamer was extensively overhauled. The vessel left Newport, giving as its destination New York, but instead it anchored in Buzzards Bay.

The Captain of the New Bedford to Cuttyhunk mailboat spotted the steamer at anchor and spoke with one of its captains. He claimed they were having engine problems but would be underway soon. The steamer Dorchester, en route to Boston through the Sound, reported seeing the steamer with its lifeboat davits empty and a boat with three men aboard rowing toward Naushon Island. An extensive search was conducted, but no one was found.

The mystery was compounded the next day when the bodies of the John Dwight's crew were found floating amongst bottles of bootleg ale in Vineyard Sound, an area which had been searched the day before. Seven were wearing lifejackets, while the eighth was found in one of the ship's boats. He had apparently made a valiant effort at survival, fashioning oarlocks and sweeps from material within the craft and was believed to have drowned in the few inches of water in its bilge when he was overcome by exhaustion. However, the two captains were not found among the dead.

One popular theory is that the captains and perhaps some of the crew scuttled the steamer and murdered its crew in order to swindle them out of the bootlegging profits. This theory is supported by the fact that when Navy divers inspected the steamer's remains, the seacocks were found to be open. Later, John Dwight's name boards and one of its boats were found on Naushon Island.

Dive Site Conditions

Depth in feet: maximum 85.
Visibility in feet: average 15.

Strong currents and poor visibility often make this a difficult dive.

Historical Background

Constructed: in 1896 at Tomkins Cove, New York by the Roderman & Company.
Construction details: 1 mast, 1 derrick.
Crew: 8.
Home or Hailing Port: New York, New York.
Former Name(s) and date(s): John Dwight (1896), U.S.S. Pawnee (May 6, 1898), John Dwight (July 25, 1922).
Official number: 77239. Country: U.S.A.


The first report of salvage operations is found in the May 2, 1923 New York Maritime Register; April 30th - preparations were being made in Vineyard Haven to find the wreck of the John Dwight. The salvage contract was on the "No Cure, No Pay" basis. The next Register update was found in the July 4, 1923 edition; June 27th - Navy divers from the minesweeper USS Falcon were preparing to begin diving operations on the wreck as soon as the weather permitted. Another source reported that once it was determined that the steamer was carrying a contraband cargo, it was flattened by dynamite in order to prevent salvage.


Merchant Vessels of the United States; 1897, 1898, 1918
Merchant Vessels of the United States, Vessels Lost Chapter; 1923
New England's Legacy of Shipwrecks; Keatts, 1988
New York Maritime Register; May 2 & April 30, 1923
New York Times; April 7 & 8, 1923
The Fisherman Magazine; December 1 & 8, 1988
Wrecks Below; Luther, 1958

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