Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Enthusiasm for clipper ships sometimes leaves our local maritime heritage in a fog bank.

 My focus today is on clipper ship mythology, which I think has something in common with being a Boston Red Socks fan. When life’s facts don’t quite square with what we deeply believe should happen, we bury the results in a cloud of wishful thinking. I learned this truth the hard way when I started giving local history lectures thirty years ago. Armed with a freshly minted graduate degree in history, it never dawned on me that people would cling to their cherished view of the past even after I showed them my evidence to the contrary. It’s unfortunate how often there’s simply no evidence whatsoever to back up claims that a house once had an Indian tunnel or that it was a key stop on the underground railroad.

 Although I am now much older and wiser, I still find myself in the delicate position of trying to nudge people toward a more accurate understanding of the past. In Yarmouth for example, where the local sports teams are called the “Clippers,” it is amusingly awkward to point out that clipper ships were never part of the local maritime heritage. In the 19th century, Yarmouth’s shipbuilders were smart enough to foresee that clipper ships would be a bad investment. Realizing that clippers required huge crews and usually carried far less cargo in their slender hulls, the local shipbuilders did the math. They focused on sensible cargo carriers like “downeasters” with good speed and the potential for great profits. Unfortunately, the town’s clipper mythology was taken to a new level this summer when a rather odd-looking sculpture of a “clipper ship” abruptly came ashore on the lawn of Yarmouth High School. Instead of evoking the cloudlike beauty of a clipper ship’s sails, the statue’s rigging seems to have more in common with a Viking ship burial.
The San Joaquin appears in several history books as the Tam O’Shanter.
 I have encountered a different version of this problem in regard to Freeport’s maritime history. For more than a century the citizens of the town have enthusiastically kept alive the heritage of one of their own “downeasters”–the Tam O’Shanter. In fact the Freeport Historical Society recently put together a superb year long celebration of the Tam with an exhibition, lectures, concerts and performances. Often described as a “near clipper,” the Tam was fast, beautiful and highly profitable with a johnboat full of colorful stories and sea captains trailing in her wake. The Tam’s legend has loomed so large over the town’s maritime history that the ship has become the face of that heritage, crowding out nearly all of the others except for the heroic War of 1812 privateer, the Dash.

 Unfortunately, at some point in the last century some of the local residents showed more enthusiasm than accuracy in their recollections of great ship. The name Tam O’Shanter sometimes became the default when people were trying to label unidentified photographs of Freeport ships. For example, I found a picture of the John A. Briggs, the largest vessel ever launched in South Freeport, with the label “Tama Shanta” crossed out on the back of it. I want to thank Ned Allen, the curator of the Freeport Historical Society and also Dave Coffin, the great grandson of the Tam’s last captain, for helping to steer me straight regarding images of the Tam.

 Unfortunately, this wishful thinking about the Tam did not remain on the back of a few old photos. They worked their way into the very bones of the town’s history. An image of the Tam’s sister ship, the San Joaquin suddenly became the Tam O’Shanter when it was published in the town’s classic history, Three Centuries of Freeport. More recently, that same mistake was carried over into the Arcadia publication, Images of America: Freeport. In pointing this out, I’m not trying to be critical of these books that I regularly consult. I’m just emphasizing the perils of wishful thinking in local history.

 In today’s photograph we see the San Joaquin captured in 1876 just before its launch from the Soule shipyard in South Freeport. As the very next ship to be built by E.C. Soule after the launch of the Tam in 1875, it is not surprising that the two vessels were very similar. The major difference involves the position of the steering wheel. On the Tam it was located forward of the little deck house on the ship’s stern. In this photo of the San Joaquin the wheel is located aft of the little deck house.

 In the 1870’s and 1880’s both ships carried California grain and cargoes from Asia around Cape Horn to places like New York and Liverpool. It was on one of these difficult voyages that the San Joaquin rammed into an immense ice berg that was nearly ten miles long. Although the force of the collision toppled the forward mast and smashed the bow, the resourceful Captain Larabee jury rigged some repairs and coaxed the wounded ship back to Portland.

 I will return to stories about legendary Tam O’Shanter in future columns. In the meantime, I recommend that you stop by the Freeport Historical Society if you want to find out more about the town’s maritime history. A treasure trove of documents relating to voyages of the Tam and the San Joaquin have been archived from an extensive collection of Soule shipping papers donated by the late Margaret Soule.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Yarmouth’s shipyards which reached their peak in the 1870’s are now mostly buried under the interstate highway.

 Many years ago I asked a group of Yarmouth High School students if they could imagine what their town’s snug little harbor would look like if it did not have an interstate bridge crouching on top of it. Shrugging off my suggestions about Camden and Kennebunkport, the students concluded that they just couldn’t see it. Today’s photograph brings back to life key parts of the town’s heritage that ended up under that highway bridge. The photo is also a beautifully composed image. The willow tree on the left plays off against a whole series of diagonal lines that lead you to the buildings and ships in the background.

This rooftop view of Yarmouth’s waterfront was probably taken by Charles G. Gooding in the spring of 1874, looking south in the direction of what is now the Yankee Marina on the opposite shore. The date is significant because the 1870’s represented the high water mark of wooden shipbuilding in Yarmouth. Although the scene is eerily deserted, you can see two shipyards and six different vessels in various stages of construction.

Yarmouth's shipyards were at their peak in the 1870's.

In the foreground the Hutchins and Stubbs shipyard may not look very prosperous with its heaps of scrap lumber, but they actually set a record in 1874 by launching four ships. The historian William Rowe described those ships as “modest in size, but famous for the grace and beauty of their lines.” Given the very tight schedule to construct those ships and the fact that no workers are swarming around the newly laid keel in the center of the picture, the photograph was almost certainly taken on a Sunday morning. As soon as one ship was decked over and caulked, the yard would launch it and move the vessel to a finishing pier where the cabin joinery and other details could be completed. This freed up space on the ways to lay the keel of the next ship. The three masts above the tree line in the center of the picture very likely belong to the barkentine Hattie S. Jackson that Hutchins and Stubbs is known to have completed at Union Wharf in 1874.

Tucked into the lower right corner of the picture is a rough shed that housed the shipyard’s blacksmith shop and a boiler that was used to steam the long planks so they would bend into the shape of the vessel’s hull. On the wall of the shed facing Lafayette Street you can see advertising signs for products like health tonics and Florence sewing machines. Bob Collins, a colorful old timer on Yarmouth’s waterfront, once told me that the clump of willows on the left shaded a spring that was used by the shipyard workers.

Jutting across the middle of the Hutchins and Stubbs yard, you can see the long white keel of the bark Tewksbury L. Swett.. In 1889, during a voyage from New Zealand to Hong Kong, this vessel was hurled by a typhoon onto a reef. After much hardship the crew reached one of the Caroline Islands where they were robbed and held for ransom by a conniving local tribe. Captain William H. Gooding was eventually able to convince the chief that his tribe might face severe retribution if they harmed their captives. When he finally arrived home nearly a year later, he discovered that nearly everyone assumed he was dead and the insurance company was trying hard to convince his wife to accept that fact. Although this event was later overstated into “a narrow escape from cannibals,” it still demonstrates the extraordinary dangers faced by Yarmouth ships and sailors.

Returning again to our photograph, a row of commercial buildings on Central Wharf separates the Hutchins and Stubbs shipyard from Union Wharf where the ship C..F. Sargent is being built in the Blanchard shipyard. Although two of these buildings were originally constructed as warehouses, the Yarmouth ships of the 1860’s and 1870’s were so big that they were never intended to carry their cargoes of wheat and cotton back to the shallow Royal River where they were born. The oldest warehouse, built for the West India trade, ended up holding local products like hay and pottery for small coastal schooners. The little building on the right was Sawyer’s fish market which had a huge iron kettle for boiling lobsters. In the 1870’s a nickel would buy one of those lobsters!

In a future column I will return to the bold, innovative and somewhat ill-fated efforts of the Blanchards, Yarmouth’s most well known family of sea captains and shipbuilders. Several of their largest ships were lost before they could return a profit to the family. Others, like the C.F. Sargent which is under construction in this picture, had narrow escapes from disaster. A tsunami nearly destroyed the Sargent when she was loaded with guano and ready to sail from a Peruvian seaport. According to Rowe, the ship “rose on the crest of the wave and spun like a top on the sea.” Miraculously the staunchly built vessel survived to sail another day––much like her namesake the merchant Cyrus F. Sargent who was briefly detained for treasonous pro-Southern sympathies shortly after the Civil War broke out.

If you are intrigued by pictures and stories such as these, I encourage you to visit the Yarmouth Historical Society. You can find them in person on the top floor of the town library or you can visit them online at http://www.yarmouthmehistory.org/. Because they have some very exciting plans to relocate their museum and research facilities to the old Water District building on East Elm Street, I will soon share with you some wonderful photographs of what that area looked like a century ago.

The unique Cribstone Bridge to Bailey’s Island was born out of a blood feud but it is now a cherished symbol of Harpswell.

 Since it is summertime in Casco Bay, many readers of The Notes will travel over or under this famous Bailey’s Island landmark that has just survived three years of rehabilitation by the Department of Transportation. As a resident of Orr’s Island, I can attest that all three of the Rt. 24 bridges from Cook’s Corner to Bailey’s Island offer dangerously distracting views in opposite directions. To add to the fun, two of the bridges take sudden dips and curves as they follow the original line of ledges. Then the road suddenly rises up to leave a little headroom for fishing boats. In fact, you might want to hold off texting how pretty it is until you’ve cleared the SAD 75 school bus that’s probably on the bridge with you. 

 In 1821 the northern end of Orr’s Island was linked by a bridge and causeway to Great Island––more than a century before the cribstone bridge connected the southern end of Orr’s to Bailey’s Island in 1928. This delay was no accident. In a small town like Harpswell, costly proposals that involve major changes in how things get done are guaranteed to rile up a whole string of town meetings. Consider, for example, the recent dust ups over constructing an L.N.G. terminal and consolidating the town’s two schools. 
The unique design of the granite cleverly absorbs the force of ocean waves and
reduces the current flowing through the main channel.
 The first serious design for a bridge to Bailey’s Island was drawn up in 1880 by George L.Vose who was highly respected as a professor of civil engineering at Bowdoin. It was Vose who rejected the popular notion that the bridge had be constructed of local stone combined with sections perched on driven piles. He argued that piles could not be driven into the ledges that fringe Will’s Gut and that the local stone was unsuitable for the causeway because it was “too friable.” He went on to suggest that curving the bridge to follow the inner line of ledges would reduce the amount of granite needed for the causeway.

 Over the next forty years, the arguments for and against the bridge were so intense that the issue had to resolved in court several times. Harpswell historian Richard Wescott called it a blood feud. Understandably, the voters on Bailey’s Island were generally in favor of the bridge, while other folks argued it was simply too expensive for a small town to finance such a big project. Nevertheless, by the 1920’s popular support began to shift toward the bridge. Gasoline engines not only brought a flood of tourists, but they also made it possible for fishermen to put out to sea without having to carry a sailing rig through Will’s Gut. In addition, state and county financing for big transportation projects became available after 1920.

 In 1926 and 1927 the cribstone bridge was pieced together out of Pownal granite that was hauled to a landing on the Cousins River in Yarmouth (now the site of the Muddy Rudder restaurant). Frank Knight, who is 102, told me that he worked on this project and that the same vein of granite used for the bridge was also used to construct Yarmouth’s Catholic Church.

 The final design of the bridge closely followed Vose’s original plan, but it reduced the number of openings through the span from three to one. The distinctive criss-cross of granite slabs (the “cribstones”) allows the tide to swirl through the bridge instead of acting like a huge dam and sluiceway. This greatly reduces the impact of storm surges and also considerably weakens the intensity of the current that flows through the single narrow opening. In this way the unique design of the bridge works with nature instead of fighting every big green wave that rolls in from the North Atlantic. Personally, I also like the fact that not long after you cross the cribstone bridge, the highway comes to an abrupt end. In an age of endless choices and committees to discuss options, there is something refreshing and unambiguous about a road that simply stops in the ocean. When it comes to life on islands, the sea always gets the final word.