Chapter 14



One stormy autumn evening as we drew our chairs to the fire our friend became particularly animated in his descriptions. "I was born in 1809," he observed. "The brightest days of Nantucket within my recollection were between the years 1820 and 1845. The busiest one day that I remember was in November, 1827, when seventy-two vessels passed Brant Point Light, outward bound, some to the Pacific on a three-years’ whaling voyage, some to the coast of Chili for seals, thence to China for teas, others oil-laden to London, to Havre, to the Hague, and to almost every port on the Atlantic coast and West Indies. You who see the port in its decadence can have little idea of the scene of activity it then presented. A thousand workmen hurried down to the docks of a morning. The sound of hammer and adze began at sunrise, and ceased only at sunset. The multitudinous din of the docks continued often the night through. I love to stand now on the wharves where the huge, oil-blackened hulls of the whalers once swung, and recall the scene. Heavy timbered three-storied warehouses filled the


 In Olde Massachusetts

heads of the wharves, beside which half a hundred vessels would lie, discharging or taking in cargo. Overhead were the sail-lofts, with the riggers and sailmakers busy sewing the white canvas or shaping spars. Then there were the blacksmiths’ shops, where the ironwork for the ships and the tools used in fishing were made; and the coopers’ shops, that turned out their hundreds of butts and casks per day, and the huge rope-walks, seven in number, where men spun, walking to and fro, all the cordage used in ship-building and for repairs. It was indeed a busy scene.

"We built our own ships, too, in those times. Brant Point was. lined with ship-yards, and there were shipways, where we took up ships for repairs. Some famous vessels we turned out stout, oak-bowed whalers, clipper ships, and fleet schooners that would run down to Havana and be back with a cargo of fruit in less than no time. There was the Rose, built in 1803, one of the fastest sailers afloat. Coming down the China Sea in one of her voyages (in charge of the mate, the captain having died in China), she was taken by a British frigate and carried to Mauritius, and afterwards used by John Bull for a despatch boat, or in any capacity where speed was a requisite. Then came the Charles Carroll, built by myself and partners, and our ship Lexington, in 1836. Next the Nantucket, built by H. G. 0. Dunham, of live oak and copper-fastened



Ships and Sailors of Nantucket 

a crack ship, as was the Joseph Starbuck, turned out of our yards in 1838.

"The Bedford, however, was Nantucket’s bravest ship. I have the last receipt for her cabin work, given William Rotch in 177g. She made several voyages and then went out of commission, laid up by the war of the Revolution. Seven years she lay with her bowsprit up in what is now J. B. Macy’s store. By and by, in 1782, the Ship Maria, Captain Mooers, just off the stocks at Scituate, came in to refit. As she did so, Mr. Rotch got news from London that the preliminary articles of peace would soon be signed, and at the same time learned that a cargo of oil delivered in London at that time would ‘make a strike.’ The Maria wasn’t ready, so he hauled down the Bedford, loaded her, put Captain Mooers in command, and she sailed for London, and arrived there February 7, 1780, with 488 butts of oil in her hold, as this manifest in my hand states. Well, the pith of the story is, that this ship was the first to fly the American flag in England. It appears by a letter from William Rotch, Jr., that she arrived in the Downs February 23, the day of the signing of the preliminary treaty of peace between the United States, France, and England, and hearing of this displayed in London the first United States flag. The colors caused the Admiralty no little vexation and debate as to whether she should be admitted or not. In London the Bedford and her flag made the sensation of the day, and



 In Olde Massachusetts

scores of people visited the ship to inspect the new piece of bunting.

"The dim interiors of those old warehouses often recur to me as I walk the wharves. Always fragrant, always mysterious from the strange store of old-world treasures and commodities they held. Cassia and sandalwood, liquorice, spices of India and Ceylon, tea-chests covered with strange hieroglyphics, puncheons of Jamaica, rare old Madeira in butts, fabrics of Persia and India, boxes of pure white spermaceti, Arabian coffee, bales of whalebone and cotton a boy might have learned of the products of the whole earth by studying our world in miniature. And what a multitude of clerks, factors, and stevedores was necessary to the handling of this great body of merchandise for Nantucket was a great distributing as well as receiving port then the products that came to us in exchange for our seal oil and bone being reshipped to all our domestic ports and also abroad. The trade created a special model of swift and graceful vessels called coasters, two or three of which were always to be seen lying in the docks taking in cargo. But those old days are gone," concluded my friend with a sigh. "This picture that we old people see as we walk about the wharves will never be visible again to the outward sense."

"I have some quaint fancies while looking into my sea-coal fire," he observed on another occasion. "About




Ships and Sailors of Nantucket 

ships, now I love to think of them as having an individuality like men. Some are prosperous, you know, and some never earn their owners a penny. Some achieve fame, others have it thrust upon them; some are continually meeting squalls and hurricanes, and others float on as uneventfully as some human lives.

"I have known many famous ships in my day, and have heard gossip of others. One of General Grant’s gifts from the people of San Francisco was a cane turned from the portion of the rudder post of the old ship John Jay, which was dismantled and her hulk burned in San Antonio creek some years since. This vessel is said to have conveyed Franklin to France in 1776 as ambassador from the United States.

"At Monterey again one may see at low tide the timbers of a sunken ship —the wreck of the brig Natalie, the very ship on which Napoleon the Great made his escape from the Island of Elba, just before the final collapse of his empire at Waterloo. The Natalie brought to California in 1834 the colony of Huyas from their home in Mexico, to be settled on the frontiers of Sonoma County. They grew homesick, however, on arriving in sight of their new home, and forced the Captain to return with them to Monterey, where the Natalie was wrecked as she was entering the harbor.

"Within the Golden Gate at San Francisco, I saw in the year 1852 a thousand ships, few of which ever



 In Olde Massachusetts

went to sea again. They were mostly old vessels, chartered in the East to bring flour to hungry miners, and were either condemned on arriving at San Francisco, or left to decay, or to be broken up for firewood and old metal. Perhaps you will relish a little gossip about them. There was the Cadmus brought Lafayette to this country in 1824; the General Jackson and Balance, two ships taken by James De Wolfe’s privateer, True-Blooded Yankee, in the war of 1814. The latter ship was near 100 years old. Both were built in Calcutta of teak timber, and the Balance had the same masts in her which were put in in Calcutta almost a century before. There was, too, the celebrated Lady Amherst, an English whaler of repute, belonging to Samuel Enderby & Sons of London, which in six consecutive voyages, with an average time of thirty-four months each, obtained 16,000 barrels of sperm oil —a catch never equaled by any ship from our own ports. There also entered the port Thomas H. Perkins’s splendid clipper Nile of Boston from China, laden with silks, teas, and frankincense (sandalwood), seeking a market first among the Peruvians. There were also the Martha, a London packet from Nantucket in 1809; Montano, a French packet from New York in 1824; the Henry Astor, one of John Jacob Astor’s famed Northwest fur traders to China; the Deucalion, Hibernian, and Ontario of the Liverpool packets, the Niantic, Goodhue & Co.’s China ship from New York,




Ships and Sailors of Nantucket

which was moved up into the center of the city, and was for a long time a famous hotel; the Friendship of Salem, once cut off by the Malays, to chastise whom our Government sent out the frigate Potomac under Commodore Downes in 1832 the Morrison, one of Stephen Girard’s famous tea ships; the Palladium, one of Thorndike’s ships of Boston, with scores of others, thrown aside in the scramble for gold.

"A great many old ships went to form the stone blockade of Charleston, S. C., in 1862 when the Anglo-rebel privateers made fearful havoc. Among the interesting old ships was the Barclay, built in 1794 for William Rotch & Sons by George Claghorn, the same who built the frigate Constitution. The Barclay was gallantly cut out of Callao from under the guns of the Spanish fortifications in 1813 by Commodore David Porter, then commanding the frigate Essex, with our famous Farragut at that time a midshipman under him. After an eventful career she was broken up at New Bedford in 1864. Also the ship Canada, famous in her day when in the Liverpool trade for making her passage from New York to Liverpool in from thirteen to sixteen days, and delivering General Jackson’s messages in Liverpool as promptly as steamers do others in these days. This ship was seized by the Brazilian Government while ashore near Pernambuco in 1856, and has since been paid for, costing that Government $100,000.

"Among ships none were fleeter or more graceful



 Ships and Sailors of Nantucket

than the American clippers. With their sharp trim hulls and top-hamper spread and swelling to the breeze, they were the most beautiful of ocean racers, the pride and joy of the merchant’s heart. The clippers originated in Baltimore in the war of 1812 having been constructed first as privateers. After the war they were put in the Rio Janeiro and Valparaiso trade from that city. The ships Corinthian and Ann McKim were the most famous of this fleet, the latter once making the passage from Valparaiso to Baltimore in fifty-eight days. The Corinthian was broken up at Stonington, Conn., in 1847, and the McKim at San Francisco in 1853. In 1842 Warren Delano came from China and

built the ship Memnon in Smith & Diamond’s yard, New York, who were famous shipbuilders in that day. She was the best ship I ever saw in every particular, and after sailing the sea for twelve years was lost in 1854 with a cargo of 2,0O0,0OO pounds of tea for London, for which she was to have had $70,000 freight.

"Very soon the English began to build clippers, and then there was international rivalry and racing. Large space in the newspapers of the day was devoted to accounts of the voyages of the splendid clippers that plied between New York and London, New York and San Francisco, New York and China, and England and China. The Sea Witch, Capt. Robert Waterman, made the shortest China passage seventy-four days

— from Hong Kong to New York, beating his own



Ships and Sailors of Nantucket

previous time in the ship Natchez by four days. The Flying Cloud, built by Donald McKay, at East Boston in 1851, made the passage from Sandy Hook light to San Francisco in eighty-nine days twenty-one hours the shortest on record. On his return, however, Captain Cressy beat his own record, reaching San Francisco in eighty-nine days nineteen hours.

"In May, 1856, five English clippers started from China for a race to London. The affair excited great interest on both sides of the Atlantic. The ships engaged were the Ariel, 853 tons, the Fiery Cross, 689 tons, the Taeping, 767 tons, the Taitsing, 815 tons, and the Sirica, 708 tons. They were laden with the first of the season’s teas, and an additional freight of ten shillings per ton was promised the first ship arriving in dock, hence the competition.

"The Sirica, Ariel, and Tae ping passed Foochow Bar for London on the same day, May 30. The Fiery Cross sailed the day before, and the Taitsing the day after. The next heard of them was at Angier, Straits of Sunda, as follows: ‘Fiery Cross passed through on the 19th of June, the others on the 22d all within a few hours of each other, running the distance from Foochow 2,780 miles in twenty-three days.’ The next was this bit of ship news from London: ‘Yesterday, September 21, 1856, Lloyd’s agent telegraphed the arrival of three of the ships in the Downs. They are expected at Blackwell to-day. Up to late



 In Olde Massachusetts

last evening no news had been received of the Fiery Cross or the Taitsing.’ The distance, 14,060 miles, was run in ninety-nine days, an average of 141 miles a day, and the vessels ran almost neck and neck the whole passage."