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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alan, I love reading your views of yesterday. It reminds me of YHS History class and more. Still a history wannabe here...I always find it fascinating!