Captain Thomas Williams
Captain Thomas Williams has seen more and more varied service than almost any man he meets. He has been keeper of the Buffalo Life-Saving Station since 1880, and rose to that position after a long apprenticeship afloat.
Born in Philadelphia, March 17, 1844, he is a son of John and Clara (Winifred) Williams, natives of the North of Ireland. The family came to New York, later, moving to Philadelphia, where they lived. Our subject went to sea at the age of twelve, and before he was a year older was at Calcutta in the Sepoy War, on his way to the siege of Delhi. He was eleven months in the British service, and ended it with a "close call" from jungle fever. He had gone out from Boston in the ship Masonic, and came back to New York in the Whirlwind from Calcutta. In 1858, when only fourteen, he enlisted in the United States Navy, and was for some time stationed off Aspinwall, Greytown and Vera Cruz. The War of the Rebellion found him fully prepared to enter it, and he went through the whole struggle, being under Farragut in Mobile Bay (in which squadrons were Admirals Dewey and Porter) as a member of the crew of the frigate Potomac under Captain Gibson. He was in the sloop-of-war St. Louis, one of the first vessels in the blockade, and was in the United States Navy something over six years. He came north on the same steamer, the Fort Morgan, that brought the captured Admiral Buchanan to New York.
Soon after his discharge from the Navy he located in Buffalo, and sailed on the lakes during the seasons of 1867-68, sailing before the mast, also as second mate and mate, respectively, of the schooner Hippogriffe under Captain Nobles.
It was about 1872, on the establishment of the Buffalo Life Saving Station, that Captain Williams became a surfman in the crew. He was placed under Capt. James M. Carroll, who was made the keeper, and on the latter's retirement, in 1880, was appointed his successor, retaining that position ever since. This long service in a position so trying shows the good stuff the Captain is made of, and he will no doubt hold the place as long as he is physically capable of performing the duties required. No one outside of the life-saving service has or can have much idea of the hardships connected with it, and the drudging labor it also involves. Captain Williams has seen his share of peril in the service, though Buffalo is not a specially stormy port. He has been to practically every wreck that could be reached from the station, and he has done an amount of watchful patrol duty that cannot be computed. These are days when the careless landsman is given to going out in a small boat and getting capsized in a squall. The lookout up aloft at the station is obliged to keep a sharp watch for such small disasters, both day and night in warm weather. More than sixty such accidents in which the crew at the station has saved life are recorded, and as many bodies of the drowned have been recovered. In addition to this, something like seventy people have been taken from the water in the inner harbor, after falling off the dock in the night on account of the darkness or from some other reason. The Captain came near drowning while on the way to the stranded steamer Avon, which went on the beach at the foot of Michigan Street about 1887. The life-saving crew went to the steamer in tow of the tug, Ash, Capt. Thomas Doyle, but the tug got a line in her wheel and came near foundering. On the way a big wave struck the lifeboat and washed Captain Williams overboard, but he was able to cling to the after part of the boat before she got out of reach. The weather was cold, and only a practical seaman could have saved himself.
Among the rescues of crews made by the Captain and his crew was that of the schooner Dan Doane, which went to pieces on the Erie basin breakwater in the fall of 1882. They also took the crew off the schooner Groton, with the breeches-buoy after firing the line on board from the shore. The Groton went ashore in the South Bay, but was released after wintering there. Many are the stranded vessels that the lifesavers have assisted, heavily-loaded excursion boats being among others. The station has now two English lifeboats, a regulation Dobbins boat and a lighter surf boat. The Captain lives comfortably at the cozy station, where he has a wife and two daughters, Clara Winifred and Martha Gertrude.
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.