The ram schooner Levin J Marvel under full sail. Photo courtey of Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

68 Years Later, Survivor of Deadly Bay Shipwreck Returns to Tell His Story

If asked to name the deadliest shipwrecks in Chesapeake Bay history, a person’s mind might jump to the 1800s or earlier, when ships were the most common way to transport goods and people long distances.

But the shipwreck that saw one of the Bay’s largest losses of life happened just 68 years ago, and a survivor is coming forward this month to recount the experience.

The Levin J Marvel, a schooner that took passengers out for pleasure cruises, was on a weeklong summer cruise in 1955 when Hurricane Connie, a Category Four storm, came up the Bay. The schooner sought shelter in Herring Bay, but it wasn’t enough to protect the people aboard.

John Ferguson, who will speak at Bayside History Museum, was just 16 when he survived the wreck. Photo courtesy of New Bay Books.

On Aug. 12, 1955, the hurricane’s gale-force winds broke the Marvel apart just a quarter-mile from shore. Of the 27 people on board, 14 died. 13 others, including four crew members, were rescued. Citizens of nearby North Beach and Chesapeake Bay went to great lengths to rescue the shipwrecked victims, even forming a human chain along the jetty at Fishing Creek amid ship debris, according to the Bayside History Museum.

One of those rescued was 16-year-old John Ferguson, who had boarded the Marvel for a summer vacation with his father. His father was among the 14 who didn’t make it.

The Marvel was a three-masted 125-foot ram schooner built in 1891. It was built with a shallow draft for hauling cargo through the C&D Canal and repurposed as a pleasure cruise boat in 1945. After it tragically wrecked, the Coast Guard investigation found lacked adequate lifesaving equipment, disregarded weather forecasts and suffered from wood rot. It had apparently never been certified for passenger service. Its sinking prompted regulatory changes in the oversight of small passenger vessels.

Author Kathy Bergren Smith recently published Deadly Gamble (New Bay Books), which looks at the deadly crash and all of its aftermath. Note: The book was one of our 2022 Gift Guide picks in December’s Chesapeake Bay Magazine. Smith will be giving talks about the wreck next week on both sides of the Bay Bridge.

First, at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, the lecture Deadly Gamble: The Wreck of Schooner Levin J. Marvel takes place Thursday, Jan. 12, 5:30-7 p.m. in the Van Lennep Auditorium. Visitors can register here. It will feature illustrations, the photos of A. Aubrey Bodine, and glimpses from a recovered diary on board.

The next night, Friday, Jan. 13, Bayside History Museum in North Beach will host a conversation between Smith and survivor John Ferguson, 5:30- 7:30 p.m. Attendees will have the chance to meet Ferguson, who was the second person to reach land after the wreck.

The event includes light refreshments and is sponsored by Bayside History Museum, the Calvert County Library and publisher New Bay Books. Reservations are encouraged; register here.

If you miss both of these upcoming events, you can also hear Smith Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. as part of the Annapolis Maritime Museum’s Winter Lecture Series. Tickets are $10 at the door; RSVP: amaritime.org.

-Meg Walburn Viviano