The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 15

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TWO other ships built in 1853 deserve notice here, though they were not constructed for the California trade. They were Donald McKay's Great Republic and the famous packet ship Dreadnought.

For some time Mr. McKay had contemplated building a ship for the Australian trade, but failing to find any one to join in the undertaking, and stimulated by the success of the Sovereign of the Seas, he resolved to build her for himself. This vessel was the Great Republic, the largest extreme clipper ship ever built. She attracted universal attention from the fact of her being by far the largest merchant ship constructed up to that time, and also, among those interested in shipping, on account of the excellence of her construction and her majestic beauty.

This vessel was 4555 tons register, and measured: length 335 feet, breadth 53 feet, depth 38 feet. She had four decks, the upper or spar deck being flush with the covering board and protected by a rail on turned oak stanchions. She carried a fifteen horse-power engine on deck to hoist the yards and to work the pumps, this being the first time an engine was put aboard a sailing ship for these purposes. She had four masts with Forbes's rig[1] on the fore-, main-, and mizenmasts, the after- or spankermast being barque-rigged.

October 4, 1853, was a proud day for Boston. Business was suspended, and the schools were closed in order that every one might have an opportunity to see the launch of the Great Republic. People flocked from far and near. It was estimated that thirty thousand persons crossed by ferry to East Boston, while Chelsea Bridge, the Navy Yard at Charlestown, and the wharves at the north end of the city were thronged by at least as many more. The shipping at the Navy Yard was gayly dressed with bunting, and the harbor was filled with steamers and pleasure boats crowded with people. It was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky, bright sunshine, and a gentle westerly breeze.

All the staging used in the construction of the ship had been removed, leaving her in full view as she rested upon the ways. Her long black hull had no ornament except a beautifully carved eagle's head where the sweep of her raking stem and the sharp lines of her bow intersected, and across her handsome stern the American eagle with extended wings, under which her name and port of hail were carved in plain block letters. She had the same graceful sheer, finely formed midship section, and beautifully moulded ends that had been seen in this yard in the Stag-Hound, Flying Cloud, Bald Eagle, Westward Ho, Flying Fish, and Sovereign of the Seas, only on a much larger scale; indeed, from end to end she looked the out-and-out clipper. Spars were erected at the mast partners, and from the main she carried a long coach-whip pennant and a large white flag with the arms of the United States in the centre; from the other three spars she flew large United States ensigns, and from a staff on her bowsprit, the Union Jack.

The sun gleamed and sparkled upon her smooth, bright yellow-metal sheathing, when at twelve o'clock the signal was given and the shores fell, to the wild chorus of topmauls, so well known in every Atlantic port fifty years ago. She moved slowly at first; then, gathering way, fairly leaped into the sea, amid smoke and fire from the burning ways, the roar of artillery, the music of bands, and the cheers of the vast multitude. So swiftly did she leave the ways that two anchors and the powerful steamer R. B. Forbes barely succeeded in bringing her up, close to Chelsea Bridge. The Great Republic was named by Captain Alden Gifford, who performed the ceremony by breaking a bottle of Cochituate water over her bow as she began to move along the ways. This was an innovation that created much comment at the time, and was permitted by Mr. McKay in deference to the wishes of Deacon Moses Grant and a number of energetic Boston women who were pushing the temperance movement and desired to advertise their wares.

During the afternoon she was towed under the shears at the Navy Yard to receive her masts, yards, and rigging, and the work of fitting them was done under the supervision of Lauchlan McKay, her captain. As no vessel before or since ever had such enormous spars, their dimensions are interesting enough to be given in full:

Masts Diameters
Fore 44 130 36
Top 24 76 12
Topgallant 18 28 0
Royal 15 22 0
Skysail 11 19 Pole 12
Main 44 131 36
Top 24 76 12
Topgallant 18 28 0
Royal 44 130 36
Skysail 11 19 Pole 12
Mizen 40 122 33
Top 22 69 10
Topgallant 16 22 0
Royal 10 19 0
Skysail 8 15 Pole 8
Yards Yardarms
Fore 26 110 6
Lower topsail 24 90 5
Upper topsail 19 76
Topgallant 15 62 4
Royal 12 51
Skysail 9 40 3
Main 28 120 6
Lower topsail 24 92 5
Upper topsail 19 76 4
Topgallant 15 62 4
Royal 12 51
Skysail 9 40 3
Crossjack 24 90 5
Lower mizentopsail 19 76
Upper mizentopsail 15 62 4
Topgallant 12 51
Royal 9 40 3
Skysail 6 29 2

The spankermast, nowadays called the jigger, was 26 inches in diameter, 110 feet long, including 14 feet head, and the topmast was 40 feet long divided at 15 and 10 feet above the cap, for the gaff-topsail and gaff-topgallantsail. The spanker boom was 40 feet long, including 2 feet end, and the gaff 34 feet, including 8 feet end. The bowsprit was 44 inches in diameter and 30 feet out-board; the jib-boom 23 inches in diameter, and 18 feet outside of the cap, and the flying jibboom was 14 feet long including 6 feet end. Her fore and main rigging and fore- and maintopmast backstays were 12½ inch, four-stranded Russian hemp rope, wormed, and served over the eye and over the ends to the leading trucks. The mizen rigging and mizentopmast rigging were of eight-inch rope.

It was Mr. McKay's intention to put the Great Republic into the Australian trade in competition with the British clippers that were then coming out, and when her rigging and outfit were completed, she was towed to New York by the R. B. Forbes and placed in the hands of Grinnell, Minturn & Co., who began loading her for Liverpool at the foot of Dover Street, East River. Thousands of people came to see this splendid ship, including the Governor of New York, members of the Legislature, and other prominent citizens. The season was favorable for a rapid passage across the Atlantic, and it was confidently predicted that the Great Republic would make a record run to Liverpool.

She was nearly ready for sea with all her sails bent below the royals, when, on the night of December 26, 1853, a fire broke out in Front Street, one block from where the vessel lay, and nearly in line with her as the wind was then blowing. At a little past midnight the watchman called the second mate, as sparks were flying across and falling in all directions about the ship. All hands were at once called and stationed with buckets of water in various parts of the ship; men were sent into the fore-, main-, and mizentops, and whips were rove to send up buckets of water. Soon the foresail burst into flames, and one by one the topsails and topgallantsails took fire. Every effort was made to cut the sails from the yards, but the men were driven back exhausted, and the firemen, who by this time had arrived with their engines, refused to work on board or near the ship for fear of falling blocks and gear.

Captain McKay, and Captain Ellis, representing the underwriters, had a hurried consultation, and it was decided, in order to save the hull, to cut away the masts. The fore- and foretopmast stays and rigging were cut and the mast went over the side into the dock; the topmast in falling broke short off 'and came down, end on, through three decks. The main- and mizenmasts were next cut away, and in falling, crushed boats, deckhouses, and rails, and disabled the steam-engine. At this time the decks were a mass of burning yards, masts, sails, and rigging. The firemen now got to work, and toward morning succeeded in putting out the fire on deck.

The firemen had left, and it was supposed that the hull and cargo were safe, when suddenly smoke was discovered coming from the hold, and it was found that the burning foretopmast in falling through the decks had set fire to the cargo. This fire had gained such headway that it was beyond control; the ship was therefore scutted in three places and sunk ten feet when she took the bottom. Every means was used to extinguish the fire, but she burned for two days until the flames reached the water's edge. After the fire had burned itself out a coffer-dam was built and the wreck floated by means of steam pumps. It was found that a portion of her cargo of grain had swollen to such an extent as to start the knees and beams of the lower hold, and that the hull was otherwise badly strained and buckled. She was therefore condemned and abandoned to the underwriters. The ships Joseph Walker and White Squall were also destroyed in this fire.

The wreck of the Great Republic was subsequently sold by the underwriters to Captain N. B. Palmer and taken to Greenpoint, Long Island, to be rebuilt by Sneeden & Whitlock, and she eventually became the property of A. A. Low & Brother. The rebuilding occupied more than a year, and when the Great Republic again appeared, much of the original beauty of her hull had been restored. The spardeck had not been replaced, but her freeboard was nearly the same, as the height of the bulwarks was only a little below the former upper deck, and the same sheer line had been preserved. Forward, the eagle's head which had been destroyed was replaced by a carved billet head and scrool, and her bow was still exceedingly handsome. A great change had been wrought aloft; her sail plan had been cut down and all of her spars greatly reduced in length—the fore and mainmasts 17 feet, the fore and mainyards 20 feet, and all other spars in proportion. She still carried four masts, but her rig had been changed to Howes's double topsail yards.

As rebuilt the Great Republic registered 3357 tons, and was still the largest merchant ship of her time,
The Great Republic p242.jpg

The " Great Republic "

but her reduced rig required only one half the number of hands to handle it—fifty able seamen and fifteen ordinary seamen and boys. It was for this purpose that her sail plan had been cut down, as freights were beginning to slacken and the tide of economy was setting in. It is to be regretted that she could not have made a few voyages under her original rig, as her performance in strong winds under the reduced rig left little room for doubt that she would have proved, what Mr. McKay intended her to be, the swiftest sailing ship ever built.

The Great Republic sailed on her first voyage, February 21, 1855, commanded by Captain Limeburner, and made the run from Sandy Hook to Land's End in thirteen days. On her arrival at London, three days later, she was obliged to lie in the Thames, as no dock was large enough to take her. She was subsequently chartered by the French Government as a troop ship during the Crimean War, and carried 1600 British soldiers from Liverpool to Marseilles. During the Civil War, she was chartered by the United States Government as a troop ship, and was one of the transports in Butler's expedition to Ship Island.

The burning of the Great Republic was a severe blow to Donald McKay, from which he never fully recovered, but he soon began to bring out Australian clippers, some of which proved quite as famous as the ships he had previously constructed.

The well-known packet ship Dreadnought also came out in 1853. She was built by Currier & Townsend at Newburyport, and was 1413 tons register; length 210 feet, breadth 40 feet, depth 26 feet. This ship was owned by Governor E. D. Morgan, Francis B. Cutting, David Ogden, and others, of New York, who subscribed to build her for Captain Samuel Samuels. He superintended her construction and under his able command she made some remarkably quick voyages between New York and Liverpool, sailing in David Ogden's Red Cross Line, with the Victory, Racer, and Highflyer.

Captain Samuels was born in Philadelphia in 1823 and went to sea when he was eleven years old, and a narrative of his adventures afloat and on shore is contained in his interesting memoirs entitled. From the Forecastle to the Cabin, published in 1887. He was a most amiable and entertaining companion, full of good humor and penetrating wit. He also cherished a belief in the uplifting influence of an enterprising press agent, and perhaps no merchant ship of modern times has been better advertised than the Dreadnought. She sailed on her first voyage from New York for Liverpool, December 15, 1853, and from that date until her arrival at New York, January 28, 1855, had made eight passages between New York and Liverpool, the average time of her eastern passages being 21 days 15 hours, and her western passages 24 days 12 hours from dock to dock.

Captain Samuels commanded the Dreadnought for ten years, and during that time she made from seventy to eighty passages across the Atlantic, and must have had ample opportunity to make fast voyages and day's runs. The following abstracts from the logs of her best passages are therefore of interest: She sailed from New York for Liverpool, November 20, 1854; passed Sandy Hook at 6.30 p.m. and ran to noon, November 21st, 120 miles; 22d, 57 miles; 23d, 225 miles; 24th, 300 miles; 25th, 175 miles; 26th, 125 miles; 27th, 250 miles; 28th, 263 miles; 29th, 240 miles; 30th, 270 miles; December 1st, 242 miles; 2d, 222 miles; 3d, 212 miles; 4th, 320 miles. Total 3071 miles. The log records:

At noon on the 4th took a pilot off Point Lynas; was detained eight hours for want of water on the bar; arrived in the Mersey at 10 p.m.; thus making the passage in 14 days 4 hours, apparent time. Deducting eight hours for detention by tide at the bar, and also deducting the difference of longitude, 4 hours and 45 minutes, gives the mean or true time of passage, 13 days 11 hours and 15 minutes. Average speed for the passage, 9½ miles per hour. On this passage, the Dreadnought was off Cape Clear, Ireland, in 12 days 12 hours from Sandy Hook.

She sailed from New York, May 4, 1855, and arrived at Liverpool May 20th; passage recorded as 15 days 12 hours.

She sailed from Sandy Hook, January 24, 1856 (time not given), and ran to noon, January 25th, 345 miles; 26th, 312 miles; 27th, 252 miles; 28th, 223 miles; 29th, violent gale, drifted 90 miles west-southwest; 30th, 115 miles; 31st, 212 miles; February 1st, 228 miles; 2d, 208 miles; 3d, 185 miles; 4th, 238 miles; 5th, 252 miles; 6th, 244 miles; 7th, 212 miles; 8th, off Point Lynas. Hove-to until daylight for pilot and tide. Total distance run 3116 miles in 14 days, or an average of 222 miles per day. The Dreadnought sailed from New York, February 27, 1859; at 3 p.m. discharged pilot, and ran to noon, February 28th, 200 miles; wind south to west-northwest, brisk breezes. March 1st, 293 miles; west-northwest fresh breezes. 2d, 262 miles; north-west to north-northwest brisk gales and snow-squalls. 3d, 208 miles; north-northwest to north heavy gales and snow-squalls. 4th, 178 miles; north-northeast to north heavy gales and snow-squalls. 5th, 218 miles; north to north-northeast heavy gales and snow-squalls. 6th, 133 miles; north-east to south light breezes. 7th, 282 miles; south-southeast brisk breezes and clear. 8th, 313 miles; south-southwest to south fresh breezes and clear. 9th, 268 miles; south to southeast brisk gales. 10th, 205 miles; southeast to southwest brisk breezes and squally. 11th, 308 miles; south to southwest strong breeze and squally. 12th, 150 miles; southwest, thick weather. Distance sailed from Sandy Hook to the Northwest Lightship, 3018 miles; passage 13 days 8 hours, mean time.

It was during this passage that the Dreadnought is supposed to have made the run from Sandy Hook to Queenstown in 9 days 17 hours, but an analysis of the abstract log shows that 9 days 21 hours after discharging her pilot to the eastward of Sandy Hook she was not within 400 miles of Queenstown.

How this mythical tale originated, is difficult to imagine, but it has been passed along from one scribe to another these many years, until at last it has reached the dignity of an "historical fact," having recently been embalmed in an encyclopedia. Curiously enough, Captain Samuels appears to be
The Dreadnought p246.jpg

The "Dreadnought"

almost the only person who has written about the Dreadnought who does not refer to this fable. In his memoirs, he makes no mention of it.

The best passage to the westward made by the Dreadnought was in 1854, when she ran from the Rock Light, Liverpool, to Sandy Hook in 19 days. While it cannot be said that the Dreadnought ever made the fastest passage of a sailing vessel between New York and Liverpool, as the records in this respect are held by the Red Jacket, Captain Asa Eldridge, from Sandy Hook to the Rock Light, in 13 days 1 hour, in 1854, and by the Andrew Jackson, Captain John Williams, from Rock Light to Sandy Hook in 15 days, in 1860, still the uniform speed of the Dreadnought's many voyages entitles her to a high place among the celebrated packet ships of the past.

The Dreadnought was a strikingly handsome and well-designed, though by no means a sharp ship. Her masts, yards, sails, ironwork, blocks, and standing and running rigging were of the best material and were always carefully looked after. She was a ship that would stand almost any amount of driving in heavy weather, and her fast passages were in a measure due to this excellent quality, though mainly to the unceasing vigilance and splendid seamanship of her commander. She was wrecked in 1869 while under the command of Captain P. N. Mayhew; her crew were rescued after being adrift fourteen days in the boats, but the noble old packet ship went to pieces among the rugged cliffs and crags and roaring breakers of Cape Horn.

  1. Forbes's rig was invented by Captain R. B. Forbes, and was first put on the topsail schooner Midas in 1841, afterwards on the auxiliaries Edith, Massachusetts, and Meteor; ships, R. B. Forbes, Lintin, Flying Childers, Aurora, Cornelius Grinnell, and probably others. In this rig the topmast was fidded abaft the lowermast head, and the lower topsail yard hoisted on the lowermast head from the eyes of the lower rigging to the cap. The lower topsail had two reefs with reef-tackles, buntlines, and clewlines, as in the single topsail rig. The upper topsail hoisted on the topmast and had the same gear as the lower topsail. Sometimes the topmast was fidded before the lower masthead, and then the lower topsail yard hoisted on the doubling of the topmast. This rig was an improvement upon the single topsail rig, but was eventually superseded by Howes's rig, which was invented by Captain Frederic Howes, of Brewster, Massachusetts, who in 1853 first put it on the ship Climax, of Boston, which he commanded. Captain Howes took out a United States patent for his rig in 1854. In this rig, the lower topsail yard is slung by a truss at the lower mast cap; indeed, Howes's rig is the double topsail rig of the present day, though one does not often hear the name of Captain Howes in connection with it.