Monday, February 28, 2011

Ten Hours Until Dawn - The Blizzard of ‘78

Last summer a distant cousin I never knew or met contacted me via my blog, having seen my Wilkinson family tree. We have been emailing, exchanging photos and Facebook messages, but had never met even though we live only an hour apart. It was great to find a missing branch of the Wilkinson family tree.  One of the tidbits of genealogical trivia I learned via my “new cousin” was that a Wilkinson cousin had died during the Blizzard of 1978.

This cousin’s name was Donald Wilkinson, and he was part of the crew of the pilot boat Can Do out of Gloucester harbor. The five men on board were attempting to rescue a Coast Guard cutter which was attempting to rescue an oil tanker, Global Hope, off Salem, Massachusetts. This was a disastrous chain of events, and the Can Do sank during the height of the storm. I had learned that a book named Ten Hours Until Dawn, by Michael J. Tougias, had been written about the incident. You can read this book online through Google Books, or pick up a copy at your local book store.

Last week I read that Michael Tougias was speaking on his book at the Cove Community Center in Beverly. This building is just blocks from Hospital Point, which overlooks the scene of the disaster.  The Can Do disappeared just off shore near Misery Island and Baker’s Island. I contacted several Wilkinson cousins, and my new cousin I had never met, and we all went to hear Tougias’s lecture.  At the lecture I picked up an autographed copy of Ten Hours Until Dawn, and another book he co-authored with Eric Schultz King Phillip’s War. Tougias is a prolific history writer of maritime and local history, and a very engaging speaker.

A whole row of Wilkinson cousins
at Tougias's lecture in Beverly 14 February 2011
Besides having a mini Wilkinson family reunion, I learned a lot about the Great Blizzard of 1978, and about the disaster at sea. I lived in central Massachusetts during the storm, so I only saw snow and didn’t witness the destructive two day coastal storm, which generated several days of destructive waves and tides along coastal New England. Many homes were lost, property damaged, and the coastline was permanently changed and damaged during this storm. It is amazing that more lives weren’t lost at sea that week.

I also learned several new bits of historical trivia. You can read the list of the over 5,000 names carved on the Gloucester Fisherman’s memorial online. Even if you haven’t any ancestors in Gloucester you probably remember the names carved under 1991- the men of the Andrea Gail who perished at sea during the Perfect Storm. But, did you know that only fishermen are listed here? You won’t find the names of the men lost from the Can Do in 1978, or any other Gloucester men, or women, lost during rescue missions, shipping, naval exercises or pleasure boating.

I never knew that the disaster that claimed Donald Wilkinson’s life took place right off Hospital Point. The Can Do was attempting to locate the Coast Guard cutter which foundered right off Manchester just offshore from the beach club right across the street from where my uncle Bob Wilkinson lived on Raymond Street. And Hospital Point Lighthouse was my parent’s favorite spot for “parking” before they were married. They were engaged to be married right there next to the lighthouse. Right next door is Lynch Park where they met on the beach in the 1950s. My father, John Wilkinson, loved that view, but he never knew that a cousin died there nine years after we removed from Beverly, Massachusetts.
Hospital Point Lighthouse
Beverly, Massachusetts

The five men lost from the Can Do February 7, 1978:
Frank E. Quirk II
Charles Bucko
Kenneth Fuller, Jr.
Norman David Curley
Donald R. Wilkinson


Generation 1.  Thomas Wilkinson "of London", born about 1690, died before 1739; married in August 1715 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Elizabeth Caverly, daughter of William Caverly and Mary Abbott, born about 1696 in Portsmouth. Two children.  Elizabeth remarried to Phillip Jewell on 27 November 1739.

Generation 2. James Wilkinson, born about 1730 in Berwick, Maine, died between 1796 and 1805 in Berwick; married to Hannah Mead, daughter of Thomas Mead and Hannah Stilson, born 9 August 1730 in Wakefield, New Hampshire, died before 1759.  Seven children.  James remarried to Mary Unknown, named in his will.

Generation 3. William Wilkinson, died after 1840 probably in South Berwick, Maine; married on 7 February 1788 in South Berwick to Mercy Nason, daughter of Richard Nason and Mary Thompson, born aobut 1764 in Kittery, Maine. Three sons.

Generation 4. Aaron Wilkinson, born 22 February 1802 in South Berwick, Maine, died 25 November 1879 in Peabody, Massachusetts; married on 23 June 1829 in Danvers to Mercy F. Wilson, daughter of Robert Wilson and Mary Southwick, born 17 June 1803 in Peabody, died 9 October 1883 in Peabody.  Eleven Children.

Generation 5. George Washington Wilkinson, born 10 February 1832 in Salem, Massachusetts, died 1865; married on 28 September 1856 in Danvers to Sally Richardson Peasley, daughter of John Peasley and Dorcas Osborn, born 25 January 1832 in South Danvers, died 24 December 1914 in Peabody. Two children.

Generation 6. Frank Augustus Wilkinson, born 1 December 1856 in Peabody, Massachusetts, died 1941; married on 24 November 1877 in Peabody to Laura E. Tucker, daughter of Charles E. Tucker and Emmeline A. Stone, born 13 Jan 1958 in South Danvers,  died 1940. Two children.

Generation 7. Charles Erastus Wilkinson, born 16 December 1880 in Peabody, Massachusetts, died 27 March 1921, married about 1911 to Annie May Robinson, daughter of Charles E. Robinson and Minnie Bertha Heald, born 10 March 1897 in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Charles was married first to Abigail Frances Ravel on 29 August 1906 in Beverly.

Generation 8. Sumner Kirkland Wilkinson, born 17 August 1918 in Salem, Massachusetts, died 31 January 1996; married on 29 May 1938 to Jane Lucille Cobb, daughter of Willis Lester Cobb and Grace Ellsworth Manning.  One son, Donald.

Generation 9.  Donald R. Wilkinson, b. 11 August 1941 in Massachusetts, declared dead 8 February 1978, married with children

UPDATE 14 August 2013
An email from Scott Ellis:

"So very glad you found a new part of your family tree. Just a point of technical fact for your blog.  The Pilot Boat Can Do was not heading out to rescue a USCG cutter.  They headed out in support of two USCG small boats, one a 41 foot patrol boat and a 44 foot motor life boat.  These units were attempting to reach the tanker Global Hope which was reporting a may day.  The Pilot boat became lost due to loss of radar and loran.  And was subsequently lost in the storm.  Thanks so much."


Ten Hours Until Dawn: The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do, by Michael J. Tougias, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005

Names on the Gloucester Fisherman’s Cenotaph:

King Phillip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict, by Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Tougias, Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 2000

Michael Tougias's website

Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Nice piece with several story lines. Enjoyed reading of familiar names and locations as well. Also, it must have been fun meeting a new cousin.

  2. Thanks for featuring this book - I look forward to reading it. At first I only saw the snow all around in Cambridge back in 1978; it was not until some time later that I heard about this incident.