The Old Merchant Marine, A Chronicle of American Ships and Sailors
Ralph D. Paine
Part 3 out of 3
and carried back naval stores and other southern products.
Well-to-do fishermen owned trading vessels and sent out
their ventures, the sailors shifting from one forecastle to the
other. With a taste for an easier life than the stormy, freezing
Banks, the young Gloucesterman would sign on for a voyage to
Pernambuco or Havana and so be fired with ambition to become a
mate or master and take to deep water after a while. In this way
was maintained a school of seamanship which furnished the most
intelligent and efficient officers of the merchant marine. For
generations they were mostly recruited from the old fishing and
shipping ports of New England until the term "Yankee shipmaster"
had a meaning peculiarly its own.
Seafaring has undergone so many revolutionary changes and old
days and ways are so nearly obliterated that it is singular to
find the sailing vessel still employed in great numbers, even
though the gasolene motor is being installed to kick her along in
spells of calm weather. The Gloucester fishing schooner, perfect
of her type, stanch, fleet, and powerful, still drives homeward
from the Banks under a tall press of canvas, and her crew still
divide the earnings, share and share, as did their forefathers a
hundred and fifty years ago. But the old New England strain of
blood no longer predominates, and Portuguese, Scandinavians, and
Nova Scotia "Bluenoses" bunk with the lads of Gloucester stock.
Yet they are alike for courage, hardihood, and mastery of the
sea, and the traditions of the calling are undimmed.
There was a time before the Civil War when Congress jealously
protected the fisheries by means of a bounty system and
legislation aimed against our Canadian neighbors. The fishing
fleets were regarded as a source of national wealth and the
nursery of prime seamen for the navy and merchant marine. In 1858
the bounty system was abandoned, however, and the fishermen were
left to shift for themselves, earning small profits at peril of
their lives and preferring to follow the sea because they knew no
other profession. In spite of this loss of assistance from the
Government, the tonnage engaged in deep-sea fisheries was never
so great as in the second year of the Civil War. Four years later
the industry had shrunk one-half; and it has never recovered its
* In 1882, the tonnage amounted to 193,459; in 1866, to 89,336.
The coastwise merchant trade, on the other hand, has been
jealously guarded against competition and otherwise fostered ever
since 1789, when the first discriminatory tonnage tax was
enforced. The Embargo Act of 1808 prohibited domestic commerce to
foreign flags, and this edict was renewed in the American
Navigation Act of 1817. It remained a firmly established doctrine
of maritime policy until the Great War compelled its suspension
as an emergency measure. The theories of protection and free
trade have been bitterly debated for generations, but in this
instance the practice was eminently successful and the results
were vastly impressive. Deepwater shipping dwindled and died, but
the increase in coastwise sailing was consistent. It rose to five
million tons early in this century and makes the United States
still one of the foremost maritime powers in respect to saltwater
To speak of this deep-water shipping as trade coastwise is
misleading, in a way. The words convey an impression of dodging
from port to port for short distances, whereas many of the
voyages are longer than those of the foreign routes in European
waters. It is farther by sea from Boston to Philadelphia than
from Plymouth, England, to Bordeaux. A schooner making the run
from Portland to Savannah lays more knots over her stern than a
tramp bound out from England to Lisbon. It is a shorter voyage
from Cardiff to Algiers than an American skipper pricks off on
his chart when he takes his steamer from New York to New Orleans
or Galveston. This coastwise trade may lack the romance of the
old school of the square-rigged ship in the Roaring Forties, but
it has always been the more perilous and exacting. Its seamen
suffer hardships unknown elsewhere, for they have to endure
winters of intense cold and heavy gales and they are always in
risk of stranding or being driven ashore.
The story of these hardy men is interwoven, for the most part,
with the development of the schooner in size and power. This
graceful craft, so peculiar to its own coast and people, was
built for utility and possessed a simple beauty of its own when
under full sail. The schooners were at first very small because
it was believed that large fore-and-aft sails could not be
handled with safety. They were difficult to reef or lower in a
blow until it was discovered that three masts instead of two made
the task much easier. For many years the three-masted schooner
was the most popular kind of American merchant vessel. They
clustered in every Atlantic port and were built in the yards of
New England, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia,--built by the
mile, as the saying was, and sawed off in lengths to suit the
owners' pleasure. They carried the coal, ice, lumber of the whole
seaboard and were so economical of man-power that they earned
dividends where steamers or square-rigged ships would not have
paid for themselves.
As soon as a small steam-engine was employed to hoist the sails,
it became possible to launch much larger schooners and to operate
them at a marvelously low cost. Rapidly the four-master gained
favor, and then came the five- and six-masted vessels, gigantic
ships of their kind. Instead of the hundred-ton schooner of a
century ago, Hampton Roads and Boston Harbor saw these great
cargo carriers which could stow under hatches four and five
thousand tons of coal, and whose masts soared a hundred and fifty
feet above the deck. Square-rigged ships of the same capacity
would have required crews of a hundred men, but these schooners
were comfortably handled by a company of fifteen all told, only
ten of whom were in the forecastle. There was no need of sweating
and hauling at braces and halliards. The steam-winch undertook all
this toil. The tremendous sails, stretching a hundred feet from
boom to gaff could not have been managed otherwise. Even for
trimming sheets or setting topsails, it was necessary merely to
take a turn or two around the drum of the winch engine and turn
the steam valve. The big schooner was the last word in cheap,
efficient transportation by water. In her own sphere of activity
she was as notable an achievement as the Western Ocean packet or
the Cape Horn clipper.
The masters who sailed these extraordinary vessels also changed
and had to learn a new kind of seamanship. They must be very
competent men, for the tests of their skill and readiness were
really greater than those demanded of the deepwater skipper. They
drove these great schooners alongshore winter and summer; across
Nantucket Shoals and around Cape Cod, and their salvation
depended on shortening sail ahead of the gale. Let the wind once
blow and the sea get up, and it was almost impossible to strip
the canvas off an unwieldy six-master. The captain's chief fear
was of being blown offshore, of having his vessel run away with
him! Unlike the deep-water man, he preferred running in toward
the beach and letting go his anchors. There he would ride out the
storm and hoist sail when the weather moderated.
These were American shipmasters of the old breed, raised in
schooners as a rule, and adapting themselves to modern
conditions. They sailed for nominal wages and primage, or five
per cent of the gross freight paid the vessel. Before the Great
War in Europe, freights were low and the schooner skippers earned
scanty incomes. Then came a world shortage of tonnage and
immediately coastwise freights soared skyward. The big schooners
of the Palmer fleet began to reap fabulous dividends and their
masters shared in the unexpected opulence. Besides their primage
they owned shares in their vessels, a thirty-second or so, and
presently their settlement at the end of a voyage coastwise
amounted to an income of a thousand dollars a month. They earned
this money, and the managing owners cheerfully paid them, for
there had been lean years and uncomplaining service and the
sailor had proved himself worthy of his hire. So tempting was the
foreign war trade, that a fleet of them was sent across the
Atlantic until the American Government barred them from the war
zone as too easy a prey for submarine attack. They therefore
returned to the old coastwise route or loaded for South American
ports--singularly interesting ships because they were the last
bold venture of the old American maritime spirit, a challenge to
the Age of Steam.
No more of these huge, towering schooners have been built in the
last dozen years. Steam colliers and barges have won the fight
because time is now more valuable than cheapness of
transportation. The schooner might bowl down to Norfolk from
Boston or Portland in four days and be threshing about for two
weeks in head winds on the return voyage.
The small schooner appeared to be doomed somewhat earlier. She
had ceased to be profitable in competition with the larger, more
modern fore-and-after, but these battered, veteran craft died
hard. They harked back to a simpler age, to the era of the
stage-coach and the spinning-wheel, to the little shipyards that
were to be found on every bay and inlet of New England. They were
still owned and sailed by men who ashore were friends and
neighbors. Even now you may find during your summer wanderings
some stumpy, weatherworn two-master running on for shelter
overnight, which has plied up and down the coast for fifty or
sixty years, now leaking like a basket and too frail for winter
voyages. It was in a craft very much like this that your rude
ancestors went privateering against the British. Indeed, the
little schooner Polly, which fought briskly in the War of 1812,
is still afloat and loading cargoes in New England ports.
These little coasters, surviving long after the stately merchant
marine had vanished from blue water, have enjoyed a slant of
favoring fortune in recent years. They, too, have been in demand,
and once again there is money to spare for paint and cordage and
calking. They have been granted a new lease of life and may be
found moored at the wharfs, beached on the marine railways, or
anchored in the stream, eagerly awaiting their turn to refit. It
is a matter of vital concern that the freight on spruce boards
from Bangor to New York has increased to five dollars a thousand
feet. Many of these craft belong to grandfatherly skippers who
dared not venture past Cape Cod in December, lest the venerable
Matilda Emerson or the valetudinarian Joshua R. Coggswell should
open up and founder in a blow. During the winter storms these
skippers used to hug the kitchen stove in bleak farmhouses until
spring came and they could put to sea again. The rigor of
circumstances, however, forced others to seek for trade the whole
year through. In a recent winter fifty-seven schooners were lost
on the New England coast, most of which were unfit for anything
but summer breezes. As by a miracle, others have been able to
renew their youth, to replace spongy planking and rotten stems,
and to deck themselves out in white canvas and fresh paint!
The captains of these craft foregather in the ship-chandler's
shops, where the floor is strewn with sawdust, the armchairs are
capacious, and the environment harmonizes with the tales that are
told. It is an informal club of coastwise skippers and the old
energy begins to show itself once more. They move with a brisker
gait than when times were so hard and they went begging for
charters at any terms. A sinewy patriarch stumps to a window,
flourishes his arm at an ancient two-master, and booms out:
"That vessel of mine is as sound as a nut, I tell ye. She ain't
as big as some, but I'd like nothin' better than to fill her full
of suthin' for the west coast of Africy, same as the Horace M.
Bickford that cleared t'other day, stocked for SIXTY THOUSAND
"Huh, you'd get lost out o' sight of land, John," is the cruel
retort, "and that old shoe-box of yours 'ud be scared to death
without a harbor to run into every time the sun clouded over.
Expect to navigate to Africy with an alarm-clock and a
soundin'-lead, I presume."
"Mebbe I'd better let well enough alone," replies the old man.
"Africy don't seem as neighborly as Phippsburg and Machiasport.
I'll chance it as far as Philadelphy next voyage and I guess the
old woman can buy a new dress."
The activity and the reawakening of the old shipyards, their
slips all filled with the frames of wooden vessels for the
foreign trade, is like a revival of the old merchant marine, a
reincarnation of ghostly memories. In mellowed dignity the square
white houses beneath the New England elms recall to mind the
mariners who dwelt therein. It seems as if their shipyards also
belonged to the past; but the summer visitor finds a fresh
attraction in watching the new schooners rise from the stocks,
and the gay pageant of launching them, every mast ablaze with
bunting, draws crowds to the water-front. And as a business
venture, with somewhat of the tang of old-fashioned romance, the
casual stranger is now and then tempted to purchase a
sixty-fourth "piece" of a splendid Yankee four-master and keep in
touch with its roving fortunes. The shipping reports of the daily
newspaper prove more fascinating than the ticker tape, and the
tidings of a successful voyage thrill one with a sense of
personal gratification. For the sea has not lost its magic and
its mystery, and those who go down to it in ships must still
battle against elemental odds--still carry on the noble and
enduring traditions of the Old Merchant Marine.
As a rule, American historians like McMaster, Adams, and Rhodes
give too little space to the maritime achievements of the nation.
The gap has been partially filled by the following special works:
Winthrop L. Marvin, "The American Merchant Marine: Its History
and Romance from 1620 to 1902" (1902). This is the most nearly
complete volume of its kind by an author who knows the subject
and handles it with accuracy.
John R. Spears, "The Story of the American Merchant Marine"
(1910), "The American Slave Trade" (1901), "The Story of the New
England Whalers" (1908). Mr. Spears has sought original sources
for much of his material and his books are worth reading,
particularly his history of the slave-trade.
Ralph D. Paine, "The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: The Record
of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement" (1912). A history of
the most famous seaport of the Atlantic coast, drawn from
log-books and other manuscript collections. "The Book of Buried
Treasure: Being a True History of the Gold, Jewels, and Plate of
Pirates, Galleons, etc." (1911). Several chapters have to do with
certain picturesque pirates and seamen of the colonies.
Edgar S. Maclay, "A History of American Privateers" (1899). The
only book of its kind, and indispensable to those who wish to
learn the story of Yankee ships and sailors.
J. R. Hutchinson, "The Press Gang Afloat and Ashore" (1914). This
recent volume, written from an English point of view, illuminates
the system of conscription which caused the War of 1812.
Nothing can take the place, however, of the narratives of those
master mariners who made the old merchant marine famous:
Richard Henry Dana, Jr., "Two Years Before the Mast" (1840). The
latest edition, handsomely illustrated, (1915). The classic
narrative of American forecastle life in the sailing-ship era.
Captain Richard Cleveland, "Narrative of Voyages and Commercial
Enterprises" (1842). This is one of the fascinating
autobiographies of the old school of shipmasters who had the gift
Captain Amasa Delano, "Narrative of Voyages and Travels" (1817).
Another of the rare human documents of blue water. It describes
the most adventurous period of activity, a century ago.
Captain Arthur H. Clark, "The Clipper Ship Era" (1910). A
thrilling, spray-swept, true story. Far and away the best account
of the clipper, by a man who was an officer of one in his youth.
Robert Bennet Forbes, "Notes on Ships of the Past" (1888). Random
facts and memories of a famous Boston ship-owner. It is valuable
for its records of noteworthy passages.
Captain John D. Whidden, "Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Ship
Days" (1908). The entertaining reminiscences of a veteran
Captain A. W. Nelson, "Yankee Swanson: Chapters from a Life at
Sea" (1913). Another of the true romances, recommended for a
lively sense of humor and a faithful portrayal of life aboard a
There are many other personal narratives, some of them privately
printed and very old, which may be found in the libraries.
Typical of them is "A Journal of the Travels and Sufferings of
Daniel Saunders" (1794), in which a young sailor relates his
adventures after shipwreck on the coast of Arabia.
Among general works the following are valuable:
J. Grey Jewell, "Among Our Sailors" (1874). A plea for more
humane treatment of American seamen, with many instances on
shocking brutalities as reported to the author, who was a United
E. Keble Chatterton, "Sailing Ships: The Story of their
Development" (1909). An elaborate history of the development of
the sailing vessel from the earliest times to the modern steel
W. S. Lindsay, "History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient
Commerce," 4 vols. (1874-76). An English work, notably fair to
the American marine, and considered authoritative.
Douglas Owen, "Ocean Trade and Shipping" (1914). An English
economist explains the machinery of maritime trade and commerce.
William Wood, "All Afloat." In "The Chronicles of Canada Series."
Glasgow, Brook and Co., Toronto, 1914.
J. B. McMaster, "The Life and Times of Stephen Girard, Mariner
and Merchant," 2 vols. (1918).
The relation of governmental policy to the merchant marine is
discussed by various writers:
David A. Wells, "Our Merchant Marine: How It Rose, Increased,
Became Great, Declined, and Decayed" (1882). A political treatise
in defense of a protective policy.
William A. Bates, "American Marine: The Shipping Question in
History and Politics" (1892); "American Navigation: The Political
History of Its Rise and Ruin" (1902). These works are statistical
and highly technical, partly compiled from governmental reports,
and are also frankly controversial.
Henry Hall, "American Navigation, With Some Account of the Causes
of Its Former Prosperity and Present Decline" (1878).
Charles S. Hill, "History of American Shipping: Its Prestige,
Decline, and Prospect" (1883).
J. D. J. Kelley, "The Question of Ships: The Navy and the
Merchant Marine" (1884).
Arthur J. Maginnis, "The Atlantic Ferry: Its Ships, Men, and
A vast amount of information is to be found in the Congressional
Report of the Merchant Marine Commission, published in three
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