The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 9

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CHAPTER IX


CALIFORNIA CLIPPERS OF 1850 AND THEIR COMMANDERS—MAURY'S WIND AND CURRENT CHARTS


AT the time of the discovery of gold in California, American ship-builders were well prepared for the work that lay before them. The clippers already built furnished valuable experience, for they had attracted much attention, and their models and construction were almost as well known to shipbuilders throughout the country as to those from whose yards they had been launched. It was found that the clippers were much easier in a sea-way than the old type of vessel; they labored and strained less, and in consequence delivered their cargoes in better condition. When driven into a heavy head sea, they would bury their long, sharp bows in a smother of foam and drench the decks fore and aft with flying spray; but at a speed that would have swamped the full-bodied, wall-sided ships and made them groan in every knee, timber, and beam.

The superiority of the clippers in speed was even more marked in the average length and regularity of their voyages than in their record passages; they could be depended on not to make long passages; with their sharp lines and lofty canvas they were able to cross belts of calm and light winds much more quickly than the low rigged, full-bodied ships, while in strong head winds there was no comparison, as the sharper ships would work out to windward in weather that held the old type of vessels like a barrier, until the wind hauled fair or moderated. In a word, the clippers could go and find strong or favorable winds while the full-bodied ships were compelled to wait for them.

It must be admitted that some remarkably fast passages were made by the old full-built American vessels. We have seen Captain Waterman's record with the Natchez, and other cases of this kind might be cited; but they prove nothing beyond the fact that with a fair wind and enough of it, other things being equal, a well-handled, full-modelled ship is about as fast as a clipper; also that single passages except as between vessels sailing together, are not the most reliable tests of speed. A number of passages by the same vessel, or a record of best days' runs, afford a more accurate means of arriving at a just estimate of speed.

The first California clippers, thirteen in number, were launched during the year 1850, the Celestial, 860 tons, built by William H. Webb and owned by Bucklin & Crane, of New York, being the first to leave the ways. She was soon followed by the Mandarin, 776 tons, built by Smith & Dimon for Goodhue & Co., of New York, and the Surprise, 1361 tons, owned by A, A. Low & Brother; Game-Cock, 1392 tons, owned by Daniel C. Bacon, Boston, and the barque Race Horse, 512 tons, owned by Goddard & Co., Boston, all built by Samuel Hall at East Boston. The Witchcraft, 1310 tons, was built at Chelsea by Paul Curtis, for S. Rogers & W. D. Pickman, of Salem; the John Bertram, 1080 tons, by R. E. Jackson at East Boston, for Glidden & Williams, of Boston; the Governor Morton, 1318 tons, by James M. Hood at Somerset, for Handy & Everett, of New York; the Sea Serpent, 1337 tons, by George Raynes at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for Grinnell, Minturn & Co., of New York; the Eclipse, 1223 tons, by J. Williams & Son at Williamsburg, for T. Wardle & Co., of New York; the Seaman, 546 tons, by Bell & Co., at Baltimore, for Funck & Meincke, of New York; the White Squall, 1118 tons, by Jacob Bell, for W. Piatt & Son, of Philadelphia, and the Stag-Hound, 1535 tons, by Donald McKay at East Boston, for Sampson & Tappan and George B. Upton, of Boston.

The Celestial was a remarkably good-looking ship and much sharper than any vessel built by Mr. Webb up to that time. She carried long, slender spars, with plenty of canvas, and proved a very fast and able ship.

The Mandarin, also a fine-looking ship, was intended by her builders to be an improved Sea Witch, and although she made some excellent passages, she never came up to the older vessel in point of speed; the Sea Witch was her builders' masterpiece, and they, like many others, found her a difficult ship to improve upon.

The Surprise was one of the most successful clipper ships ever constructed, and proved a mine of wealth for her owners. She was fully rigged on the stocks, with all her gear rove off, and was
The Surprise - 136b.jpg

The "Surprise"

launched with her three skysail yards across and colors flying, which attracted a multitude of people. They rather expected to see her capsize, and were no doubt highly delighted to find that nothing unusual happened as she glided swiftly down the ways, or at that critical instant when her hull was still partly supported on the land and partly on the waves, or when she swung to her anchors on even keel, with the beautiful skyline of Boston of half a century ago outlined in the distance.

Mr. Hall was a master ship-builder and had figured the weights, displacement, and stability of his ship with the same exactness with which an astronomer foretells the transit of a planet; yet with all the anxiety incident to experiments of this kind, he had found time for plans of a less serious nature. He had a pavilion erected in order that the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of the men who had built this beautiful ship might look with comfort upon the crowning scene of their kinsmen's labors, and after the ship was safely afloat, all were invited to a luxurious lunch served upon long tables in the mould loft, which was gaily decorated with flags. There the master foreman of the yard presided, while Mr. Hall entertained personal friends, whom he had asked to see the launch, at his own hospitable home.

The Surprise measured: length 190 feet, breadth 39 feet, depth 22 feet with 30 inches dead-rise at half floor. Her main-yard was 78 feet long from boom-iron to boom-iron, and her mainmast was 84 feet from heel to cap, with other spars in proportion. She was beautifully fitted throughout, was painted black from the water-line up, and carried a finely carved and gilded flying eagle for a figurehead, while her stern was ornamented with the arms of New York. She was manned by a crew of 30 able seamen, 6 ordinary seamen, 4 boys, 2 boatswains, a carpenter, a sailmaker, 2 cooks, a steward, and 4 mates, and was commanded by Captain Philip Dumaresq, who had gained a high reputation while in command of the Antelope, Akbar, and Great Britain.

Captain Dumaresq was born at Swan Island, near Richmond, on the Kennebec River. His father had settled there on an estate which came to him through his mother, who before her marriage was the beautiful Rebecca Gardiner, of Gardiner, Maine, and a daughter of the Rev. John Sylvester Gardiner, the first rector of Trinity Church, Boston. Unlike most American boys, who used to go to sea, young Dumaresq had no special desire for a life upon the ocean, but was sent on a voyage to China by his parents, under the advice of a physician, on account of his delicate health. He soon grew robust, and at the age of twenty-two took command of a vessel, afterwards becoming one of the most celebrated and widely known of all the American clipper ship captains.

When the Surprise arrived at New York to load for San Francisco, the New York Herald declared that she was the handsomest ship ever seen in the port, and a large number of persons gathered to see her placed at her loading berth by the steamer R. B. Forbes, which had towed her round from Boston. The R. B. Forbes at that time, so to speak, was a well-known character about Massachusetts Bay, and no marine function seemed quite complete without her presence. She was generally on hand at launches, regattas, and Fourth of July celebrations, with a jolly party of Boston underwriters and their friends on board, accompanied by a band of music and well-filled hampers of refreshments. Her hull was painted a brilliant red up to the bulwarks, which were black, while the deck fittings, houses, and the inside of the bulwarks were a bright green. Altogether, with a rainbow of bunting over her mastheads, the brass band in full blast, and champagne corks flying about her deck, she contributed liberally to the gayety of many festive occasions. She was also usually the first to introduce a new-born ship to the end of a manila hawser, and for several years she towed most of the eastern-built clippers to their loading berths at Boston or New York.

But these were only the odd jobs at which she put in her time when not engaged in her more serious work of salvage operations, for she was the best equipped and most powerful wrecking steamer on the Atlantic coast, and saved much valuable property abandoned to the Boston Underwriters, for whom she was built by Otis Tafts at East Boston in 1845. She was 300 tons register, and was one of the few vessels at that date constructed of iron and fitted with a screw propeller, her engines and boilers being designed by the renowned Ericsson. Her commander. Captain Morris, not only was a very able wreck master, but did a great deal by experiment and observation to solve the intricate problems relating to the deviation of the magnetic needle on board of iron vessels, and was one of the few reliable authorities of his day upon this important subject. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the R. B. Forbes was purchased by the United States Government, but before the end of the war she was wrecked and became a total loss near Hatteras Inlet. It is hardly necessary to mention that this vessel was named in honor of that noble seaman. Captain Robert Bennett Forbes, whose acts of kindness and humanity were so many that a book might well be devoted to a record of them.

The Witchcraft was a very beautiful ship, and was commanded by Captain William C. Rogers, a son of one of the owners, for whom she was built. Captain Rogers was born at Salem in 1823 and had made several voyages as supercargo on board of different ships to Calcutta and Canton. He was a man of unusual ability, and although he never sailed before the mast, or as officer of a ship, he had acquired a knowledge of seamanship and navigation which enabled him to become one of the most famous among the younger clipper ship captains. He was a rare example of a gentleman who went to sea for the pure love of it, who enjoyed dealing with the useful realities of life, and liked a real ship with real sailors on board of her, and a real voyage of commerce profitable to mankind, in preference to an aimless life of luxury and pleasure.

During the Civil War Captain Rogers was one of the twelve naval commanders appointed by Act of Congress, and he commanded the U. S. clipper barque William G. Anderson, which mounted six thirty-two pounders and a long rifled gun amidships, and carried a crew of one hundred and ten men. While in command of this vessel, Captain Rogers captured the Confederate privateer Beauregard, Captain Gilbert Hays, one hundred miles east-northeast of Abaco in the Bahamas, November 12, 1861. He also commanded the U. S. gunboat Iuka, and in her rendered valuable service to his country during the remainder of the war. He subsequently married a granddaughter of Nathaniel Bowditch, the illustrious navigator.

The John Bertram was an extremely sharp ship, and was the pioneer of Glidden & Williams's line of San Francisco clippers. She was named for Captain Bertram, one of Salem's most famous seamen and merchants, and was for several years commanded by Captain Landholm.

The Sea Serpent was the first clipper ship built by Mr. Raynes, and was a slender, rakish, handsome-looking craft, comparing favorably with the New York and Boston clippers of that year. She was commanded by Captain Williams Howland, a seaman of experience and ability, who was born at New Bedford in 1804. In 1833 he took command of the Horatio, then a new ship and afterwards famous, on her first voyage from New York to China, and remained in her for about ten years. He subsequently commanded the packet ships Ashburton, Henry Clay, Cornelius Grinnell, and the Constantine. Captain Howland was a gentleman of much dignity, who usually wore kid gloves when he came on deck and seldom gave his orders to any one but the officer of the watch. He had the reputation of being an Al seaman and navigator.

The White Squall was another handsome clipper, very similar in construction and design to the Samuel Russell and Oriental from the same yard. Although but little more than eleven hundred tons register, this ship cost when ready for sea with one year's stores and provisions on board the sum of $90,000, and her freight from New York to San Francisco on her first voyage amounted to $70,000. She was commanded by Captain Lockwood, and her measurements were: length 190 feet, breadth 35 feet 6 inches, and depth 21 feet.

The Stag-Hound, at the time of her launch was the largest merchant ship ever built, though during the nine years that the Cunard Company had been running mail steamers across the Atlantic, the tonnage of American packet ships had steadily increased. In 1846, as we have seen, Donald McKay had built the New World of 1404 tons, and in 1849 William H. Webb launched the Albert Gallatin of 1435 tons, so that the Stag-Hound, 1535 tons, was not a very much larger vessel; but she was of a decidedly different design, having less beam and seventeen feet more length than either of these packets. She attracted much attention and many persons came to see her while she was building. A throng estimated at from twelve to fifteen thousand gathered about the shipyard at noon on December 7, 1850, to witness her launch. The weather was bitterly cold, with drift ice in the harbor and snow:
The Stag-Hound 142b.jpg

The "Stag-Hound"

lying deep on the ground. It was feared that the launch might have to be postponed on account of the tallow freezing on the ways, but when she had settled in her cradle and everything was ready, a gang of men came from the forge bearing cans filled with boiling whale oil, which they poured upon the ways. When the word was given to knock away the dog shores, the vessel moved rapidly down the smoking ways and plunged into the gray, icy waters of the harbor, amid shouts and cheers from a shivering crowd, while the bells of Boston rang out mellow and clear, on the calm, frosty air, in welcome to the largest merchant ship afloat.

Launches were not then regarded as social functions, although some of the most prominent families in New York and Boston, who were interested in shipping, attended them, and a pavilion was usually erected where they might picnic comfortably and enjoy themselves. It was also not customary in those days for women to name ships, but the ceremony, which was simple and effective, was usually performed by the foreman of the yard from which the ship was launched. On this occasion, when the Stag-Hound began to move along the ways, the foreman had a black bottle of Medford rum somewhere about, which he seized by the neck and smashed across her forefoot, at the same time, in the excitement of the moment, shouting out, "Stag-Hound, your name's Stag-Hound!" and thus brought the ceremony to a close. This vessel measured: length 215 feet, breadth 40 feet, depth 21 feet, with 40 inches dead-rise at half floor. Her main-yard was 86 feet and her mainmast 88 feet in length. She was commanded on her first voyage by Captain Josiah Richardson, and carried a crew of 36 able seamen, 6 ordinary seamen, and 4 boys. When she arrived at New York in tow of the R. B. Forbes, to load for San Francisco, the ship fanciers of South Street were for once in their lives of one mind, and their opinion seems to have been that the Stag-Hound came pretty near being the perfection of the clipper ship type.

Each one of the clippers of 1850 proved a credit to the yard from which she was launched, and nearly all of them made the passage from New York or Boston to San Francisco in less than one hundred and ten days. This is an exceedingly good record, although the passage from New York has been made by two vessels, the Flying Cloud and the Andrew Jackson, in a few hours less than ninety days. In Appendix II. will be found the names of ships that made this passage in one hundred and ten days or less, with the dates of their arrivals at San Francisco, for the years 1850–1860. While this list includes almost all of the extreme clippers, still there were a number of ships that gave proof by their other records of being fast and ably commanded, and yet failed to come within the limit of one hundred and ten days.

As most persons are aware, foreign vessels have never been allowed to engage in the United States coasting trade, also that the voyage between Atlantic and Pacific ports of the United States, has always been regarded as a coasting voyage. The California clippers therefore had no foreign competitors to sail against, but the racing among themselves was sufficiently keen to satisfy the most enthusiastic lover of sport, while China and Australia voyages afforded opportunities for international rivalry.

The only clipper ship to make the voyage to San Francisco prior to 1850 was the Memnon, under Captain George Gordon, which arrived there July 28, 1849, after a record passage of one hundred and twenty days from New York. The first contest of clippers round Cape Horn took place in 1850, between the Houqua, Sea Witch, Samuel Russell, and Memnon, old rivals on China voyages, and the new clippers Celestial, Mandarin, and Race Horse. All of these vessels had their friends, and large sums of money were wagered on the result, the four older ships, especially the Sea Witch, having established high reputations for speed. The Samuel Russell was commanded by Captain Charles Low, previously of the Houqua, while the Houqua was now commanded by Captain McKenzie; Captain Gordon was again in the Memnon, and Captain George Fraser, who had sailed with Captain Waterman as chief mate, commanded the Sea Witch.

The Samuel Russell arrived at San Francisco May 6, 1850, after a passage of 109 days from New York, thus knocking 11 days off the record, and her friends, and backers felt confident that this passage could not be surpassed, at all events not by any of the clippers of that year. This opinion was in a measure confirmed when the Houqua arrived on July 23d, 120 days from New York, but on the following day the Sea Witch came romping up the bay, 97 days from Sandy Hook, reducing the record by another 12 days. This passage astonished every one, even her warmest admirers, and well it might, for it has never been equalled by a ship of her tonnage and not often excelled even by larger vessels. This performance of the Sea Witch was the more remarkable as she had rounded Cape Horn during the Antarctic midwinter.

The remainder of the fleet arrived in the following order: Memnon, September 27th, 123 days; Celestial, November 1st, 104 days; Race Horse, from Boston, November 24th, 109 days; and the Mandarin, November 29th, 126 days from New York. These were all fine passages, especially when we consider that none of the vessels was over 1100 tons register. The records show that from June 26 to July 28, 1850, seventeen vessels from New York and sixteen from Boston arrived at San Francisco, whose average passages were 159 days, so that even the Mandarin's passage of 126 days was very fast by comparison. We must remember also that none of these vessels had the advantage of using Maury's Wind and Current Charts, as at that time sufficient material had not been collected to perfect them.

Navigators of all nationalities are deeply indebted to Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, U. S. N., for it was his mind that first conceived the idea of exploring the winds and currents of the ocean. Lieutenant Maury was a Virginian by birth, and in 1825 at the age of nineteen, entered the United State Navy as a midshipman on board the frigate Brandywine. In 1830 he was appointed sailing master of the sloop of war Falmouth, and ordered to the Pacific station. At this time, being anxious to make a rapid passage round Cape Horn, he searched in vain for information relating to the winds and currents. His attention was thus directed to this subject, and it was upon this voyage that he conceived the design of his celebrated Wind and Current Charts. He also began at this time to write papers for the American Journal of Science which attracted much attention, and on his return he published a Treatise on Navigation which was made a text-book for the pupils of the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

In 1842 Lieutenant Maury was placed in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments at Washington, which afterwards became the National Observatory and Hydrographic Office. Here he devoted his attention to collecting and converting into systematic tables the valuable data contained in the old log-books of the United States warships, which he found stowed away as so much rubbish, and which had narrowly escaped being sold for junk. At the same time he presented a paper to the National Institute, recommending that all merchant ships be provided with charts of sailing directions, "on which should be daily registered all observable facts relating to the winds, currents, and other phenomena of importance and interest, for the foundation of a true theory of the winds."

A general use of these charts would have constituted one of the greatest exploring expeditions ever devised, but for a time it met with much opposition. Lieutenant Maury's first convert was Captain Jackson of the Baltimore ship D. C. Wright, trading to Rio Janeiro, who made rapid voyages with the aid of the Wind and Current Charts furnished by Lieutenant Maury. Soon there were many followers among American sea-captains, who gave their earnest co-operation and received great benefits in return, since all who kept Maury's Log, as it was called, were entitled to a copy of the Sailing Directions.

In 1856 the captains and officers of a fleet of no less than a thousand merchant ships, sailing under the United States flag upon every sea and ocean, were recording daily and almost hourly observations of the winds and currents. Under the British flag were to be counted the whole Navy of Great Britain and over one hundred merchantmen; under the flag of Holland, two hundred and twenty-five merchant ships and those of the Royal Navy. Besides these there were the ships of France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Chile, Bremen, and Hamburg, all co-operating and assisting this great scientist in his noble work.

Maury's Physical Geography of the Sea (1853), the first work of the kind which appeared, ran through twenty editions and was translated into French, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, and Italian. This book treats of the clouds, winds, and currents of the ocean in a scientific yet attractive manner, dispelling the last of the sea myths which for ages had been the delight of poets and the terror of sailors, and in their stead relating a story of scientific discovery of greater wonder and beauty than any fable.

Maury's researches had, however, a very practical side to them. Hunt's Merchants' Magazine for
Matthew Fontaine Maury

May, 1854, states that on the outward passages alone from New York to California, Australia, and Rio Janeiro, American ships, through the use of Maury's Sailing Directions, were saving in time the sum of $2,250,000 per annum, and it is probable that could an estimate have been made of the saving in time to all of the ships using the Sailing Directions, the total amount must have considerably exceeded $10,000,000 per annum.

It should be remembered that this result had been accomplished without expenditure of money, beyond the moderate salaries of Maury and his staff of assistants, and the insignificant cost of printing the blank log-books, charts, and sailing directions.

Sea-captains of all nations regarded Lieutenant Maury as a wise counsellor and faithful friend, while France, Holland, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Portugal, and Sardinia, all either conferred upon him orders of knighthood or struck medals in his honor.

In 1861, Lieutenant Maury resigned the office of Chief Superintendent of the National Observatory and Hydrographic Office, deeming it his duty as a Virginian to take the side of his State at the outbreak of the Civil War. Upon this occasion he received letters of invitation from the Grand Duke Constantine offering him residence in Russia and every facility for continuing his scientific researches. A similar offer was made by Prince Napoleon on behalf of France, and also by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria. In 1866 a pecuniary testimonial was presented to Lieutenant Maury at Willis's Rooms, London, where he was entertained by English naval officers and scientific men of the highest distinction, Sir John Parkington being chairman. England, France, Russia, and Holland contributed 3000 guineas, a substantial token of their esteem and gratitude for his labors in the service of mankind.

On one occasion Secretary of the Navy, Graham, wrote to Lieutenant Maury as follows:

"Indeed, I doubt whether the triumphs of navigation and the knowledge of the sea, achieved under your superintendence of the Observatory, will not contribute as much to an effective Naval Service and to the national fame as the brilliant trophies of our arms."

Maury died in 1873, in his sixty-seventh year, an American scientist whose life was devoted to discovering the secrets of the sea, and to the welfare of seamen, irrespective of rank or nationality. In lamenting his death, the Senate of Virginia closed its resolutions with this eulogy:

"An honor to Virginia, an honor to America, and an honor to civilization, and in gratefully recognizing this we do but honor ourselves."