The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 7

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THE world has seldom witnessed so gigantic a migration of human beings, by land and sea, from every quarter of the globe, as that which poured into California in 1848 and the years following. San Francisco, from a drowsy Mexican trading station, composed of a cluster of some fifty mud huts, adobe dwellings, and hide houses, situated upon a magnificent bay with lofty mountains in the distance, occasionally enlivened by the visit of a New Bedford or Nantucket whale ship in need of wood and water, or a Boston hide droger which took away tallow, hides, and horns, suddenly became one of the great seaports of the world.

From April 1, 1847, to the same date in 1848, two ships, one barque and one brig arrived at San Francisco from Atlantic ports, and in the course of this year nine American whalers called in there. In 1849, 775 vessels cleared from Atlantic ports for San Francisco; 242 ships, 218 barques, 170 brigs, 132 schooners, and 12 steamers. New York sent 214 vessels, Boston 151, New Bedford 42, Baltimore 38, New Orleans 32, Philadelphia 31, Salem 23, Bath 19, Bangor 18, New London 17, Providence 11, Eastport 10, and Nantucket 8. Almost every seaport along the Atlantic coast, sent one or more vessels, and they all carried passengers. The schooner Eureka sailed from Cleveland, Ohio, for San Francisco via the River St. Lawrence, September 28, 1849, and carried fifty-three passengers, among whom were two families from Cleveland. Many of these vessels never reached California; some of them put into ports of refuge disabled and in distress; while others were never heard from. Most of the ships that did arrive at San Francisco made long, weary voyages, their passengers and crews suffering sore hardships and privations.

In the year 1849, 91,405 passengers landed at San Francisco from various ports of the world, of almost every nationality under the sun and representing some of the best and some of the worst types of men and women. The officers and crews, with hardly an exception, hurried to the mines, leaving their ships to take care of themselves; in some instances the crews did not even wait long enough to stow the sails and be paid off, so keen were they to join the wild race for gold. Many of these vessels never left the harbor; over one hundred were turned into store ships, while others were converted into hotels, hospitals, and prisons, or gradually perished by decay.

The first vessel, and one of the few of the California fleet of 1849, which escaped from San Francisco, was the ship South Carolina. This vessel sailed from New York, January 24, 1849, and returned via Valparaiso with a cargo of copper to Boston, where she arrived February 20, 1850, after a voyage out and home of some thirteen months.

A letter from San Francisco to the New York Herald, dated February 28, 1850, states that wages for seamen were then from $125 to $200 per month. There used to be a humorous yarn spun among seamen to the effect that during the "flush times," as those glorious days of the gold fever were called, sailors required a captain to produce a recommendation from his last crew before they would ship with him or sign articles. However this may be, it is a fact that as late as 1854, it was so difficult to induce crews to leave San Francisco that captains were frequently obliged to ship men out of jail, whether they were sailors or not, in order to get their ships to sea.

The gold mines exerted an irresistible attraction, and for a time the town was almost deserted, except for those passing through on their way to and from the mines. By degrees, however, it became apparent to some that more gold-dust was to be collected at San Francisco in business than by digging among the mountains, and with admirable energy they set about transforming this lawless camp into a prosperous trading city.

Prior to 1848, California had been for all practical purposes almost uninhabited, and now was utterly unable to provide for the needs of her vastly increased population. The newcomers produced plenty of gold, but nothing else, and they frequently found themselves on the brink of starvation. They were too busy with pick and shovel to contribute anything in the form of manufactures or supplies, so that the most ordinary articles of every-day use, to say nothing of comforts and luxuries, had to be brought from places thousands of miles distant. This precarious means of supply, together with the enormous and reckless purchasing power developed by the rapid production of gold from the mines, naturally created a speculative and artificial standard of values, and goods of every description sold for fabulous amounts: Beef, pork, and flour brought from $40 to $60 per barrel; tea, coffee, and sugar, $4 a pound; spirits, $10 to $40 a quart; playing-cards, $5 a pack; cowhide boots, $45 a pair; picks and shovels from $5 to $15 each; wooden and tin bowls from $2.50 to $7.50 each; laudanum, $1 a drop, and so on. These were by no means high prices for stevedores and laborers receiving from $20 to $30 a day, and miners who were making anywhere from $100 to $1000 a day washing dirt at the mines.

An idea of the amount of gold produced may be gained from the fact that the Pacific Mail Company, whose first steamship, the California, arrived at San Francisco via the Straits of Magellan, February 28, 1849, had by the end of 1852 shipped gold from that city to the value of $121,766,425.

The speculators and shippers of merchandise in the Eastern States were as deeply interested in the output of the mines of California as the gold diggers themselves. No one could predict how long this state of affairs would continue; with them speed meant everything; a week or even a day's delay might result in heavy losses, or what was to them the same thing, failure to reap large profits. They could not send their goods across the continent, and the Pacific Mail Company had all that it could attend to in conveying passengers and the mails across the Isthmus; so that the only means of transportation from the Atlantic States to San Francisco was round Cape Horn. Under these circumstances one can easily understand how the rates of freight advanced to extravagant figures, and created a demand under which the California clippers came into existence.

In these days of thrifty transportation by sea, when coal shovels have superseded watch-tackles, and ship-owners are expected to look cheerful with steamship rates at $14.00 a ton from New York to San Francisco, and $12.00 a ton from New York to Melbourne or Hong-kong, the rates of freight that the clipper ships earned from. New York to San Francisco seem almost incredible. In 1850 the Samuel Russell received $1.50 per cubic foot, or $60 per ton of 40 cubic feet. She registered 940 tons, and being a very sharp ship would probably carry not more than 1200 tons of California cargo. But even so, her freight would amount to $72,000, or a little more than her first cost ready for sea. The other clippers at first received the same rate, but by degrees, as they increased in tonnage and in number, the rates of freight declined to $50 per ton, and then to $40 where they remained for a considerable time.

The California clipper period covers the years 1850-1860, during the first four of which nearly all of these famous ships, numbering one hundred and sixty, were built. (See Appendix I.) Most of them were launched at or near New York and Boston, though some were built elsewhere, Richmond,
104-Clipper-Ship Builders Jacob A. Westervelt and Jacob Bell.jpg

Clipper-Ship Builders

Jacob A. Westervelt
Jacob Bell

Baltimore, Mystic, Medford, Newburyport, Portsmouth, Portland, Rockland, Bath, and other ports, contributing to the fleet. These splendid ships—the swiftest sailing vessels that the world has even seen or is likely ever to see—sailed their great ocean matches for the stake of commercial supremacy and the championship of the seas, over courses encircling the globe, and their records, made more than half a century ago, still stand unsurpassed.

After carrying their cargoes to California at the enormous rates we have given, these ships would return round Cape Horn in ballast for another cargo at the same rate, as they could well afford to do, or would cross the Pacific in ballast and load tea for London or New York. Many of them more than cleared their original cost in less than one year, during a voyage round the globe, after deducting all expenses.

The central points about which the great ship-owning interests collected were New York and Boston. Here, too, were the most famous shipyards. All along the harbor front at East Boston and the water-front of the East River from Pike Street to the foot of Tenth Street, New York, were to be seen splendid clipper ships in every stage of construction; and beside the ship-building yards, there were rigging-lofts, sail-lofts, the shops of boat-builders, block and pump-makers, painters, carvers, and gilders, iron, brass, and copper workers, mast and spar-makers, and ship stores of all kinds, where everything required on shipboard, from a palm and needle, a marlinspike or a ball of spun yarn, to anchors and chains, was to be found. The shipyards were great thriving hives of industry, where hundreds of sledge-hammers, top mauls, and caulking mallets, swung by the arms of skilful American mechanics, rung out a mighty chorus, and the fresh odor of rough-hewn timber, seething Carolina pitch, and Stockholm tar filled the air with healthful fragrance. They were unique and interesting localities, the like of which have never existed elsewhere—now long passed away and all but forgotten.

The principal shipping merchants in New York were William T. Coleman & Co., Wells & Emanuel, Sutton & Co., John I. Earl, and James Smith & Son, all of whom managed San Francisco lines and usually had one or more clippers on the berth, loading night and day for California. The old Piers 8, 9, and 10, along the East River, were scenes of great activity, and throngs of people visited them to see these ships. At all the seaports along the Atlantic coast, almost every one knew something and most persons knew a good deal about ships. They were a matter of great importance to the community, for as late as 1860, nearly all the large fortunes in the United States had been made in shipping.

The captains and officers of the California clippers were as a class men of integrity, energy, and skill, nearly all of them being of the best Pilgrim and Puritan stock of New England, and trained to the sea from boyhood. Many of them were the sons of merchants and professional men, well known and respected in the communities in which they lived. Their ships carried large crews, besides being fitted with every appliance for saving labor: fly-wheel
106-Clipper-Ship Builders William H. Webb and Samuel Hall.jpg

Clipper-Ship Builders

William H. Webb
Samuel Hall

pumps, gypsy winches, gun-metal roller bushes in the sheaves of the brace, reef tackle and halliard blocks, geared capstans, and plenty of the best stores and provisions, with spare spars, sails, blocks, and rigging in abundance. The owners fitted out their vessels with rational economy and looked to their captains, whom they rewarded liberally, to see that nothing was wasted and that the ships performed their voyages quickly and well.

There was no allowance of food, as on British ships, on board the American clippers; a barrel of beef, pork, bread, or flour was supposed to last about so many days, according to the ship's company; a little more or less did not matter. The water was in charge of the carpenter, and was usually carried in an iron tank which rested on the keelson abaft the mainmast and came up to the main deck. This tank was in the form of a cylinder, and held from three to four thousand gallons; some of the larger ships carried their water in two of these tanks. Each morning at sea, water equal to one gallon for every person on board was pumped out of the tank and placed in a scuttlebutt on deck; the carpenter then made a report of the number of gallons remaining in the tank to the chief officer, who entered it in the log-book. During the day the crew took the water they needed from the scuttle-butt, the cook and steward what they required for the galley and aft; and while there was no stint, woe to the man who wasted fresh water at sea in those days, for if he managed to escape the just wrath of the officers, his shipmates were pretty sure to take care of him. The salt beef and pork were kept in a harness cask abaft the mainmast, and when a fresh barrel of provisions was to be opened, the harness cask was scrubbed and scalded out with boiling water, and so was always sweet and clean. The cooks and stewards were almost invariably negroes, and it is to be regretted that there are not more like them at the present time—especially the cooks. "Plenty of work, plenty to eat, and good pay," is what sailor-men used to say of American clippers, the sort of ships on board of which good seamen liked to sail.

The forecastle on board the old type of vessels was in the forepeak, below the main deck, a damp, ill-ventilated hole, but in the California clippers it was in a large house on deck between the fore and main-masts, divided fore and aft amidships by a bulkhead, so that each watch had a separate forecastle, well ventilated and with plenty of light. There was nothing to prevent a crew from being comfortable enough; it depended entirely upon themselves. Indeed, there were no ships afloat at that period where the crews were so well paid and cared for as on board the American clippers. Seamen who knew their duties and were willing to perform them fared far better than on board the ships of any other nationality.

Perhaps, the most marked difference between American merchant ships and those of other nations was in regard to the use of wine and spirits. On board British ships grog was served out regularly to the men before the mast, and the captain and officers were allowed wine money. Nothing of this sort was permitted on American vessels. Robert Minturn, of the firm of Grinnell, Minturn & Co., in his evidence before a parliamentary committee in 1848, stated that teetotalism not only was encouraged by American ship-owners, but actually earned a bonus from underwriters, who offered a return of ten per cent of the insurance premium upon voyages performed without the consumption of spirits. On board the packet ships and other vessels which carried passengers, there was always wine on the captain's table, but the captain and officers rarely made use of it. The sailors were allowed plenty of hot coffee, night or day, in heavy weather, but grog was unknown on board American merchant ships.

In those days, after a New York clipper had finished loading, it was the custom for her to drop down the East River and anchor off Battery Park, then a fashionable resort, where she would remain for a few hours to take her crew on board and usually to ship from five to ten tons of gunpowder, a part of her cargo that was stowed in the main hatch, to be easily handled in case of fire. Towboats were not as plentiful in New York harbor as at present, and unless the wind was ahead or calm, the clippers seldom made use of them, for with a leading breeze these ships would sail to and from Sandy Hook much faster than they could be towed. One of the clippers getting under way off Battery Park was a beautiful sight, and an event in which a large part of the community was interested.

The people who gathered at Battery Park to see a clipper ship get under way, came partly to hear the sailors sing their sea songs, or chanties, which were an important part of sea life in those days, giving a zest and cheeriness on shipboard, which nothing else could supply. It used to be said that a good chanty man was worth four men in a watch, and this was true, for when a crew knocked off chantying, there was something wrong—the ship seemed lifeless. These songs originated early in the nineteenth century, with the negro stevedores at Mobile and New Orleans, who sung them while screwing cotton bales into the holds of the American packet ships; this was where the packet sailors learned them. The words had a certain uncouth, fantastic meaning, evidently the product of undeveloped intelligence, but there was a wild, inspiring ring in the melodies, and, after a number of years, they became unconsciously influenced by the pungent, briny odor and surging roar and rhythm of the ocean, and howling gales at sea. Landsmen have tried in vain to imitate them; the result being no more like genuine sea songs than skimmed milk is like Jamaica rum.

There were a great many Whitehall boats kept at the lower end of the Park, and the Battery boatmen were fine oarsmen. Bill Decker, Tom Daw, Steve Roberts, and Andy Fay being famous scullers. There were some smart four and six-oared crews among them which used to swoop down and pick up the valuable prizes offered by the Boston city fathers for competition each Fourth of July on the Charles River, but the convivial life which the gay Battery boatmen led did not improve their rowing, and in 1856 they were defeated by the famous Neptune crew, of St. John, N. B., in a match rowed on the Charles River for the stake of $5000, and later were quite eclipsed by the even more famous Ward crew of Newburgh.

The time when these men really had to work, was on the sailing day of a California clipper. A busy scene it was, as they put the crew and their dunnage on board, one or two lots at a time, accompanied by a boarding-house runner, the sailormen being in various stages of exalted inebriation. The helpless in body and mind are hauled over the side in bowlines and stowed away in their berths to regain the use of their limbs and senses. These men have been drugged and robbed of their three months' advance wages and most of their clothing. In a few hours they will come to, and find themselves at sea on board of a ship whose name they never heard, with no idea to what part of the globe they are bound. A receipt is given for each man by the mate, who considers himself fortunate if he can muster two thirds of his crew able to stand up and heave on a capstan bar or pull on a rope. The probable condition of the crew is so well known and expected that a gang of longshoremen is on board to lend a hand in getting the ship under way. The more provident of the seamen bring well-stocked sea chests; the less thoughtful find moderate-sized canvas bags quite large enough to hold their possessions; one mariner carries his outfit for the Cape Horn voyage tied up in a nice bandanna handkerchief, the parting gift of a Cherry Street damsel—who keeps the change. Jack is in a jovial, tipsy humor, and appears to be well satisfied with his investment.

This is an anxious day for the mate, for, while he receives his instructions from the captain in a general way, yet every detail of getting the ship to sea is in his hands; and though he seems careless and unconcerned, his nerves are on edge and every sense alert; his eyes are all over the ship. He is sizing up each man in his crew and getting his gauge; when he strikes a chord of sympathy, he strikes hard, and when his keen instinct detects a note of discord, he strikes still harder, lifting his men along with a curse here, a joke there, and ever tightening his firm but not unkindly grasp of authority. The mate is not hunting for trouble—all that he wants is for his men to do their work and show him enough respect so that it will not become his unpleasant duty to hammer them into shape. He knows that this is his day, and that it is the decisive day of the voyage, for before the ship passes out by Sandy Hook his moral victory will be lost or won, with no appeal to Admiralty Boards or Courts of Justice. He knows, too, that a score of other mates and their captains are looking on with keen interest to see how he handles his crew, and their opinion is of far greater value to him than the decrees of Senates; so he intends to lay himself out and give them something worth looking at.

There is a crisp northeasterly breeze, and the blue waters of the bay dance and frolic in the sweet June sunshine. The crew are all on board, with the captain and pilot in consultation on the quarterdeck; it is nearly high water, and the tide will soon run ebb. The mate takes charge of the topgallant forecastle, with the third mate and the boatswain
112-Clipper-Ship Captains Robert H. Waterman and N. B. Palmer.jpg

Clipper-Ship Captains

Robert H. Waterman
N. B. Palmer

to assist him, while the second mate, with the fourth mate and boatswain's mate work the main deck and stand by to look after the chain as it comes in over the windlass.

As the crew muster on the forecastle they appear to be a motley gang, mostly British and Scandinavian, with a sprinkling of Spaniards, Portuguese, and Italians, and one or two Americans. Some wear thick, coarse, red, blue, or gray flannel shirts, others blue dungaree jumpers, or cotton shirts of various colors; their trousers are in a variety of drabs, blues, grays, and browns, supported by leather belts or braces; they wear stiff or soft felt hats or woollen caps of many colors. But no clothes that were ever invented could disguise these men; their bronzed, weather-beaten faces and sun-baked, tattooed arms, with every swing of their bodies, betray them as sailormen, and good ones too, above the average even in those days. They would no more submit to being put into uniforms or to the cut-and-dried discipline of a man-of-war, than they would think of eating their food at a table with knives and forks.

They are all pretty full of alcohol, but the sailor instinct is so strong in them that they do their work as well, some of them perhaps better, than if they were sober. There is no romance about them or about any part of their lives; they are simply common, every-day sailors, and will never be anything else, unless they happen to encounter some inspired writer of fiction; then it is difficult to say what may become of them. Some of them have much good in their natures, others are saturated with evil, and all need to be handled with tact and judgment, for too much severity, or on the other hand any want of firmness, may lead to trouble, which means the free use of knives, belaying pins, and knuckle-dusters.

Now the flood-tide begins to slacken, and as the ship swings to the wind, the order is passed along from aft to man the windlass and heave short. We hear the mate sing out in a pleasant, cheery voice:

"Now, then, boys, heave away on the windlass breaks; strike a light, it's duller than an old graveyard." And the chantyman, in an advanced stage of hilarious intoxication, gay as a skylark, sails into song:

"In eighteen hundred and forty-six,
I found myself in the hell of a fix,
A-working on the railway, the railway, the railway.
Oh, poor Paddy works on the railway.

"In eighteen hundred and forty-seven.
When Dan O'Connolly went to heaven.
He worked upon the railway, the railway, the railway.
Poor Paddy works on the railway, the railway.

"In eighteen hundred and forty-eight,
I found myself bound for the Golden Gate,
A-working on the railway, the railway.
Oh, poor Paddy works on the railway, the railway.

""In eighteen hundred and forty-nine,
I passed my time in the Black Ball Line,
A-working on the railway, the railway,
I weary on the railway,
Poor Paddy works on the railway, the railway."

And so on to the end of the century, or till the mate sings out, "Vast heaving," lifts his hand, and reports to the captain: "The anchor's apeak, sir." "Very good, sir, loose sails fore and aft." "Aye, aye, sir." "Aloft there some of you and loose sails. One hand stop in the tops and crosstrees to overhaul the gear." "Aye, aye, sir. Royals and skysails?" "Yes, royals and skysails; leave the staysails fast." "Lay out there, four or five of you, and loose the head sails." "Here, you fellow in the green-spotted shirt, lay down out of that; there's men enough up there now to eat those sails." "Mr. Sampson, take some of your men aft and look after the main and mizzen; put a hand at the wheel; as he goes along let him clear the ensign halliards; while you 're waiting lay that accommodation ladder in on deck; leave the spanker fast." "On the foretopsail yard, there, if you cut that gasket, I 'll split your damned skull; cast it adrift, you lubber." "Boatswain, get your watch tackles along to the topsail sheets." "Aye, aye, sir." "Here, some of you gentlemen's sons in disguise, get that fishdavit out; hook on the pendant; overhaul the tackle down ready for hooking on." "Mainskysail yard there, don't make those gaskets up, my boy; fetch them in along the yard, and make fast to the tye."

By this time the sails are loose and the gaskets made up; courses, topsails, topgallantsails, royals, and skysails flutter in their gear, and the clipper feels the breath of life. "Sheet home the topsails." "Aye, aye, sir." "Boatswain, look out for those clew-lines at the main; ease down handsomely as the sheets come home." "Foretop there, overhaul your buntlines, look alive!" "Belay your port maintopsail sheet; clap a watch tackle on the starboard sheet and rouse her home." "Maintop there, lay down on the main-yard and light the foot of that sail over the stay." "That 's well, belay starboard." "Well the mizzentopsail sheets, belay." "Now then, my bullies, lead out your topsail halliards fore and aft and masthead her." "Aye, aye, sir." By this time the mate has put some ginger into the crew and longshoremen, and they walk away with the three topsail halliards:

"Away, way, way, yar.
We'll kill Paddy Doyle for his boots."

"Now then, long pulls, my sons." "Here, you chantyman, haul off your boots, jump on that maindeck capstan and strike a light; the best in your locker." "Aye, aye, sir." And the three topsailyards go aloft with a ringing chanty that can be heard up in Beaver Street:

"Then up aloft that yard must go,
Whiskey for my Johnny.
Oh, whiskey is the life of man,
Whiskey, Johnny.
I thought I heard the old man say,
Whiskey for my Johnny.
We are bound away this very day,
Whiskey, Johnny.
A dollar a day is a white man's pay,
Whiskey for my Johnny.
Oh, whiskey killed my sister Sue,
Whiskey, Johnny,
And whiskey killed the old man, too,
Whiskey for my Johnny.
Whiskey's gone, what shall I do?
Whiskey, Johnny,
Oh, whiskey's gone, and I'll go too,

Whiskey for my Johnny,"

"Belay your maintopsail halliards." "Aye, aye, sir." And so the canvas is set fore and aft, topsails, topgallantsails, royals, and skysails, flat as boards, the inner and outer jibs are run up and the sheets hauled to windward; the main- and after-yards are braced sharp to the wind, the foretopsail is laid to the mast, and the clipper looks like some great seabird ready for flight. The anchor is hove up to:

"I wish I was in Slewer's Hall,
Lowlands, lowlands, hurra, my boys,
A-drinking luck to the old Black Ball,
My dollar and a half a day."

And while some of the hands bring the anchor to the rail with cat and fish tackle, and:

"A Yankee sloop came down the river,
Hah, hah, rolling John,
Oh, what do you think that sloop had in her?
Hah, hah, rolling John,
Monkey's hide and bullock's liver,
Hah, hah, rolling John,"

the rest of the crew fill away the foreyard, draw away the head sheets, and check in the after yards. As the ship pays off, and gathers way in the slack water, the longshoremen and runners tumble over the side into the Whitehall boats, the crowd at Battery Park gives three parting cheers, the ensign is dipped, and the clipper is on her way to Cape Horn.