Raynor Rock Smith was a famous wrecking master before the United States Life Saving Service was established, and was in charge at many ship disasters, the most notable being on January 2, 1837 when the ships "Bristol" and "Mexico," both from Liverpool and carrying Irish emigrants, were stranded in heavy weather. All aboard the "Bristol", to the number of eighty perished, and of the one hundred and sixteen on the "Mexico" all but eight were drowned or frozen to death. The "Bristol" was wrecked at the westerly end of Long Beach, opposite East Rockaway, and the barque "Mexico," 300 tons burden, came ashore at Long Beach on the more easterly part, opposite Christian Hook (Oceanside).
About sixty of the dead from the "Mexico," all stiffly frozen, were brought from the beach, piled crosswise on wooden sleds, and placed in the barn of John Lott, at Hicks Neck until a plot in Old Sand Hill Cemetery at Pearsall's (Lynbrook), donated for the purpose by Peter T. Hewlett of East Rockaway, could be made ready for the burials. Lumber for the burial cases was furnished by Oliver S. Denton of East Rockaway. The monument which stands at the end of the trench grave was purchased and prepared at Sing Sing, New York, and brought to East Rockaway by sloop.
Capt. Winslow, captain of the "Mexico," left Liverpool, England on October 23, 1836, on the 300 ton Barque "Mexico", with a crew of 12, and 112 passengers (mostly women and
children), all Irish emigrants. After 69 days of crossing the ocean in terrible weather, the "Mexico" arrived off Sandy Hook, and signaled for a pilot, and distress No one answered her call, and she was forced back out to the sea. The next morning (New Years Day), again she signaled for a pilot and distress, and again, no answer, and again she was forced back out to sea. The crew and passengers were restless, and hungry, for their provisions were long gone. The only food they had was one biscuit a day, hardly enough to sustain life. A blinding
blizzard and zero degree weather caused the "Mexico" to drift off course and run aground off Hempstead South (now Jones Beach). At impact, her rudder was broken off, Her main
mizzen mast snapped, and her hold ripped open causing water to rush in. The passengers were forced to the main deck with scarcey enough clothing to keep warm, let alone withstand
the freezing water of ocean spray. Some managed to attach their money to their bodies, in an attempt to save something. The temperature was below zero, and the waves were said to be as high as a house. Once the water hit the ship, it would instantly freeze. The spray coming over the top of the deck, soaking the now huddled together passengers, would freeze the instant it came in contact with their bodies. The women and children were crying in pain from the icy fate that awaited them. The oldest passenger was 52, and the youngest being less than two years old.
Raynor Rock Smith has been described as the most modest and unassuming man that ever lived. The unparalleled heroism he displayed in his efforts to save the lives of the
unfortunate passengers and crew of the barque "Mexico," at the risk of his own life, is a true example of that. He, commanding one of the bravest crews that ever manned a surf boat, was immortalized in the history and records of the great disasters of the Long Island coast. No shipwreck that ever happened on the south shores of Long Island has made such a deep and lasting impression upon the sympathies of the native population of Hempstead South as did this disaster to the passengers and crew of the "Mexico." The sorrow was sincere and universal.
The event of the wreck of the "Mexico" and "Bristol" is remembered with great distinctness. The bodies of the drowned and frozen being brought from the beach in sleds and placed in rows in John Lott's barn for the identification of friends and relatives, the funeral, consisting of fifty-two farm wagons carrying the boxes of bodies of the unclaimed dead will long be a part of Long island history. It was a sad sight. Everybody knew Raynor Rock Smith and all were familiar with the many brave and noble acts in the service of humanity accredited to him.
But in his superhuman efforts on behalf of the passengers and crew of the ill-fated "Mexico" his fame reached beyond his immediate neighborhood ; his effort; affected the state and the nation. Citizens of New York City saw this and hence this public recognition was offered.
Raynor Rock Smith and his crew, which included three of his sons, dragged their boat over the frozen bay from Freeport to the beach and then made their way to the Mexico, which was only about 300 yards from shore. He and his crew rescued the captain, his son, five passengers and a sailor before turning back.
When rescuers collected the rest of the passengers days later, no one had survived. Entire families were frozen together in a final icy embrace. One sailor died with his hands clasped in prayer. The dead -- 77 of the 116 who perished were recovered -- were laid out in a farmer's barn in Hicks Neck, now Baldwin, for the identification of friends and relatives. The gruesome sight drew thousands of onlookers.
On the 25th of March I837, less than three months after the "Mexico" calamity and less than two months after the entombment of the victims at Rockville Centre, a committee of gentlemen from the City New York composed William J. Hawes, Joseph Meeks, John Horspool, Lawrence Ackerman, William Kellogg and Benjamin Ringold, met Raynor Rock and his
friends by appointment at the hotel of Oliver Conklin in Hempstead for the purpose of presenting him a token of regard (a silver tankard) in commemoration of his services to humanity.
At four o'clock in the afternoon the committee from New York arrived, and the presentation took place in the hall of the hotel in presence of a large audience of New Yorkers, South Siders and many villagers.
While awaiting the arrival of the committee and at the personal request of a friend of Captain Charles Winslow and the audience, Mr. Smith recounted in detail the rescue of Captain Winslow from death. The story was intensely interesting, rehearsing minutely all that transpired for over half an hour while he struggled alternately in a tempestuous surf for his own life and in keeping the unconscious captain from drowning, and finally getting him on the beach and in working all night to revive him.
It was a plain, simple story of self-devotion to an unfortunate human being, told without adornment yet flowing with the enthusiasm and eloquence of nature.
On the arrival of the committee the meeting was called to order and organized by the appointment of John Simonson to the chair. The object the call was read, when William J. Hawes delivered the following address in presenting the cup:
Mr Chairman, Citizens of Hempstead, and turning to Mr. Smith said. We are a committee appointed by the citizens of the Fifth Ward of the city of New York to discharge the difficult task of expressing to you their admiration of your chivalrous attempt to rescue the passengers and crew of the barque "Mexico," lately stranded on the adjacent beach, and to ask your acceptance of a trifling token of their regard for your intrepidity.
You, sir, cannot have forgotten the terrors of that distressed wreck, nor is it possible for us not to remember how nobly you and your gallant associates adorned humanity
in your life struggle with the elements, and how well you redeemed our coast from the ignominy of inhospitality. Having awaited in vain for the recognition of your services in a more general and distinguished manner, we have felt that we owe it to our city, to the credit of our state and country, so far as in our power lies, to express to you the sentiments we entertain of your perilous adventure. We cannot forget the morning of that eventful day, when the weary "Mexico," with an insufficient and mutinous crew, doomed to avoidable destruction, poured out her signal gun of distress among the breakers of Long Island ; when mothers and sisters and rough sailors stretched imploring hands to the shore and screamed unavailing prayers to Him who rules the storm ; when, as if to turn into mockery the attempt to save the predestined ship, violence was given to the winds and fury to the waves, and builded between the vessel and the shore a wall of floating ice, which scarce even hope itself could struggle to surmount.
Who that saw the scene, the lingering death of a hundred martyrs to cold and hunger and hope disappointed, freezing in the sight of comfortable hearths, starving in the view of abundance, despairing in the midst of promise! I cannot attempt to paint a description of that day and night of horror!
It was amid the terriors or such a scene, when the boldest and skilfullest stood upon the beach in doubt and dismay and awe, that in risking everything but honor and the plaudits of the humane, your sole adventurous skiff struggled through the resisting ice and climbed the overwhelming mountains of surf and sought to bring salvation to the perishing wretches, who ought to have expected you rather as a fellow sufferer than a saviour. What heaven denied to their prayers it seemed willing to grant to your courage. Eight souls live to pray for the future reward of your exertions. The rest cold death claimed for his portion. The city knows the fact, the commercial and Christian world knows the fact, and the press the length and breadth of the country have heralded your heroism and hazardous endeavors. We propose a simple but more tangible and lasting testimonial that you and your children may contemplate with pride. Such conduct has in other countries gained for less daring heroes the reward of civic crowns and national honors. He who saved the life of a Roman was honored with a seat next to the Senate, and public assemblies, when he entered, rose to do him reverence. These rewards we cannot give you. But such as your fellow countrymen can give, of gratitude to one who has rendered honor to the state, such we bestow. These we yield, these we bring in tribute, that your children and the children of your brave boys may not complain that Americans cannot appreciate acts of devotion and danger, and that your distant posterity may have preserved among them a glorious example of their ancestor. We have caused a skillful artist to engrave upon silver a faint sketch of your achievement. Upon this
cup, which I now tender to your acceptance, is embossed the story of the ill-fated "Mexico" and the glory of Raynor Rock Smith. It is but a sketch, for the labors of the
artist, however successful can initiate only the prominent features of the scene. In tendering to you sir, this token of our regard, we do not expect greatly to 'add to your honor, nor to increase the esteem in which you must be held by every man who appreciates virtuous heroism. It is perhaps more as a relief to our own hearts than as a sufficient tribute to your merits that we bring our offering. Justice to ourselves requires us, nevertheless, to say it is not a mere impulse, not an emotion springing from the first impression produced by the performance of a good action, that has prompted this expression of our feelings. The memorial has been considered. The worthiness of your conduct has been weighed. It is from deliberate justice, as well as from glowing admiration, that our tribute springs.
Permit me now, in conclusion to express the gratification which I personally feel in being the organ of expression of the sentiments of our constituents. None can know
better than I know how well the tribute is bestowed. I have had the enjoyment of your acquaintance for many years and have witnessed more than one instance of your skill and courage. I have partaken of your hospitality in the islands of the sea and have bad good occasion to commend the staunchness of your surf boat. But there lives another worthy citizen who will commend more than I know how to do the intrepidity which is the theme of our present praise. Years since, at the imminent peril of your own life you rescued Captain Winslow from the surf and recalled him from the jaws of death back to grateful life. For him and for all the other lives you have saved to the republic we thank you. And we pray that your valuable life may long be spared, if not to act in future cases of distress, to teach and encourage your sons and grandsons how to earn esteem on earth and a worthy welcome into heaven.
To which Mr. Smith replied:
I thank you, I sincerely thank you for your gift. In return for it I can only say that should a similar wreck, or any other wreck, ever again occur on our shores, I shall endeavor to show that I deserve it. I shall preserve your gift. I shall value it above all price. It shall remain with me while I live, and when I die It shall not go out of my family if I can help it.
A simple entertainment was then had prepared by the friends of Mr. Smith, in which only about thirty participated. This highly commendable able act of private citizens in recognition of the humane and heroic act of Raynor Rock Smith had a salutary effect upon the community and led to the incorporation of the Life Saving Benevolent Association. This society has
been of incalculable service in life saving on the south shores of Long Island, not that it has increased the number of those heroic and humane people who have always been ready to hazard their own lives to relieve distress, but that such acts were through this Association given to the public.
In addition to the silve cup Capt. Rock Smith and his crew received a $350 reward from the Mexico's captain. Today, a monument in Rockville Centre commemorates the wreck of the Mexico and the brave men who risked their lives to save others.
Raynor Rock Smith's home was on Merrick Road just south of the present Cleveland Avenue School, slightly west of Meadowbrook Parkway. He was married first to Ruth Whaley for 12 years and had nine children, second to Elizabeth Dixon with whom he had 10. He was the son of Adam Smith and Elizabeth Raynor as well as the grandson of John Rock Smith and Hannah Murray.