A toolshed at a western Pennsylvania campground was an unlikely place to dig up remembrances of a decades-old shipwreck that killed seven New England fishermen.
But there they were: two black ship lamps, forgotten among the rusted tools Den Hickey was sifting through this spring, deciding what to throw out.
Gold-lettered writing covered the back of both lamps, but only one inscription was legible: ‘‘INCA. ... Lost at Sea January 13, 1944,’’ with the names of the men who died on board.
It is unknown whether these lamps are originally from the Gloucester-based Inca, a 72-foot dragger that sank without a trace off Virginia after being rammed by a steamer. And perhaps it is unlikely they were.
To Hickey, though, the lamps were, at the least, a tribute to the fallen fishermen, and he believes they belong to the surviving family members, if they want them.
‘All the fishermen that have died in Gloucester, you can write a story about any one of them.’
Nancy Kinghorn, whose father, Vincent Orlando, was lost on the Inca when she was 9, said she has no idea whether the lamps are somehow from the ship or who wrote on them, but she wants to know more about them.
Nearly 70 years later, Kinghorn’s memories of the wreck and her father are vivid, especially when the weather darkens over Gloucester Harbor, not far from where she lives. It took a long time, she said, to accept he was not coming back.
‘‘For years, I used to just say, ‘Oh, he’s going to come up the hill now, with a fish wrapped [in] a piece of newspaper. . . . He’s going to come home,’’ Kinghorn said.
The Inca left Gloucester for its final trip in December 1943, heading to winter fishing grounds off the mid-Atlantic. After seven days of fishing, its hold was full and the vessel headed to port in Phoebus, Va. But before it got there, it was gone, plowed under the bow of a steamer.
‘‘The steamer had swooped down upon the smaller craft in the dark hours before dawn, and apparently sent her to the bottom, leaving no immediate trace of wreckage or bodies,’’ the Gloucester Daily Times reported at the time.
Kinghorn, the youngest of 12 children, heard ‘‘ungodly screams’’ one day from her house. She rushed inside to see her mother screaming, pulling her own hair and scratching at her face. She’d just learned the bodies of two crewmen from the missing Inca had been found in another vessel’s nets, confirming the Inca’s fate.
The lamps that commemorate the Inca are painted black, about a foot tall, and marked with scrapes and rust, but otherwise in good shape. Their history can be traced back only as far as a day in the late 1980s when Hickey’s brother-in-law, Don Britton, left $30 at an untended yard sale in coastal New England and took the lamps, intrigued by their looks and lettering.
The lamps traveled with Britton to a family summer camp in Slippery Rock, Pa., where Britton meant to install them but never did. Last year, Britton sold the camp, complete with the lamps, to Hickey and moved to Florida.
Hickey pulled the lamps out while cleaning a shed last spring, and after seeing the lettering, had to know more about the Inca, including how a memento of the sinking of a Massachusetts boat off Virginia ended up in his toolshed. After some online research, he contacted the city of Gloucester through its website, thinking someone could put him in touch with the victims’ families.
‘‘I put myself in the position of one of the surviving family members, and I thought, if there is any significance to these and there is any relationship to the vessel and the crew, maybe they would be interested in having it,’’ he said.
Peter Asaro, for one, is not interested in the lamps. His father, Vito, died on the boat, and he believes the lamps were almost certainly not on the Inca. For Asaro, they would present an unwelcome reminder.
Asaro was 10 when the Inca sank. He was his father’s oldest son and remembers the pride his father took in him, and the uncommon strength he had from his work. He added that his father’s fate was not unique. More than 5,300 Gloucester fishermen have been lost at sea.