The Rhode Island

Northport History Comes Home

Sunday, November 1st, 1846 – Captain John F. Udell and Captain Selah Bunce, both from Northport, are beginning their journey home from the Methodist Church in Centerport in the midst of a Nor’easter. A man on horseback quickly rides up along side them and tells them that a steamer, the Rhode Island, is flailing, with strong winds blowing it perilously close to the reef off Eaton’s Neck. The ship is carrying about 150 men, women and children, who came from Boston by train to Stonington, Connecticut, where they caught the steamer to continue on to New York City. Rhode Island had lost its rudder and Captain Stephen Manchester dropped anchor off the east side of “Cow Neck,” exposed to the harsh winds and waves.
The steamer’s lifeboat launched with five sturdy whalemen aboard but hadn’t been able to go more than 20 yards before the boat broke up and the men luckily swam back. Their next attempt to send for help was to place a note in a bottle which was carried ashore by a large water dog, who was successful. It’s interesting to note that Captain Manchester was one of the few survivors of the Lexington, which had burned and sunk six years prior, almost in the same spot where he now awaited rescue again. He was the ship’s pilot at that time. He and another man clung to a bale of cotton. Manchester was rescued, while the other man died of exposure. He was one of only four survivors. Perhaps remembering the bale of cotton which saved him from a watery grave, Manchester threw planks and boxes into the water for passengers to cling to in the event the ship sank.
Upon getting word from the rider, Captain John Udell organized a crew and called for a whaleboat which was carried from Centerport by horse and wagon. With Captain Selah Bunce at the helm, and after many failed attempts to reach the Rhode Island, Bunce was able to bring the first group of six women safely to shore. Bunce and the crew made repeated trips until all passengers, crew, and Captain Manchester were rescued.
The grateful passengers awarded Bunce with a gold medal which was inscribed: “Presented to Captain Selah Bunce by the passengers of the steamer Rhode Island for his intrepidity and courage. Who with his brave associates, Jn. F. Udell, Charles Conklin, Jn. E. Howard, Nathl. H. Kelsey, Wm. Spriggs, and Jacob Jarvis, manned the first boat and came to their rescue while lying in great peril among the breakers off the Long Island Shore, November 1, 1846.”
Two years later, Udell was stricken with cholera and died at the age of 26. Leaving behind a daughter, Alice, and his wife, Susan, who had to put the house on Bayview Avenue up for sale. Then, in 1852, Selah Bunce married Susan. When Bunce died, he directed that the gold medal be given to Alice, as he always felt his closest friend was the real hero of that day.
Alice Udell went on to marry Northport master builder, Charles T. Sammis. The medal was passed down through generations of the Sammis family, until recently, when 177 years later, the gold medal was donated to the Northport Historical Society by the 5 times great grandson of Captain Udell, Wade Sammis McConnell. We are so honored to be able to preserve this amazing piece of our heritage. During the month of November, the medal will be on display at the Society’s Museum along with a pop-up exhibit about the ships and sailors of Northport. Visit their website: for info on all their upcoming events and exhibits.