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Old ships and Ship-building days of Medford.


Chapter 7:

Storms and Shipwrecks.1

ALTHOUGH almost all of the ships have ultimately passed away by wreck on sea or shore, there remain but few detailed accounts of their tragic end. Usually a brief statement, ‘sailed’ on such a date ‘and never heard from,’ or ‘went ashore on Pratas shoal and all hands lost’ is all that tells of their fate. Sometimes, however, there are left more extended accounts. Among them is that of the California.2 On January 18, 1857, occurred a terrific blizzard accompanied by a driving snowstorm which crippled the railroads. The channel in Boston harbor was kept open by vessels running up and down, as the arrival of the ‘America’ was expected. Ice formed in the inner harbor at Gloucester, and when it started it carried away every vessel with which it came in contact. Among them was the California, which was driven completely across Massachusetts bay and cast ashore on Black ledge, near Cohasset.

Often they met mishap and, after injuring themselves or others, they were finally repaired. One of these was the Columbianna, built by Paul and J. O. Curtis. She was of six hundred and fifty tons—the largest vessel of that time. She was used in the ice trade, and at the close of 1839 was loading ice at Charlestown.

In ‘Storms and Shipwrecks in Boston Bay3 is the following:—

In December, 1839, there occurred one of the most disastrous storms on this coast up to this time. More than ninety vessels [p. 58] were lost and nearly two hundred dismasted, driven ashore and otherwise injured. The storms occurred at intervals of about a week.

In the third gale, which began December 27th and blew a hurricane until near sunrise of the 28th, the ship Columbianna was at Swett's wharf, Charlestown, partly loaded with ice, when she slipped her moorings, probably on account of the height of the tide, and was driven by the wind, bows on, against the old Charlestown bridge. She made a clean breach of the bridge and brought up against the wharf at the Warren bridge, completely demolishing the drawtender's house, although the drawtender and his family, who were in bed at the time, escaped without injury. The ship was in charge of the mate, who, finding that the vessel was adrift, took the wheel and steered her, and she would probably have gone through the Warren bridge had he not luffed her in time.

Loss of property in the three storms was nearly $1,000,000.


Passing of the Ringleader.

The Ringleader was one of the fastest of the California clipper ships. Built by Hayden & Cudworth for Howes & Crowell of Boston in 1853, she was used in the California trade while the gold rush lasted. After the gold rush was over, the clipper ships of the extreme type ceased to be built. For a time they were used in the trade with the Orient, in the tea trade to Europe and America. As tea deteriorates very fast at sea, the early American ships, on account of their speed, had the business all to themselves for a time. But the British soon constructed tea clippers which averaged nearly or quite as fast and could be operated at a lower cost. The American merchant vessels had been the pioneers in developing the commerce with various continents in the first part of the century and skimmed the cream of the trade, one after another, from these countries.

So, after the California gold rush was over, the foreign commerce in American ships had noticeably begun to decline, even before the Civil War and the advent of steam navigation, as more profitable investments could be found for capital, and the cost of operation was less [p. 59] for the foreign shipping. The clippers were often hard pressed to find a cargo. Many of the ships were used in carrying guano and other undesirable trades and they often had to pick up what cargo they could find. The Ringleader was one of these. She had sailed from Hong Kong in May, 1863, bound for San Francisco with a load of about five hundred coolies. When a few days out she was caught in a typhoon. The dismay can be imagined when on May 9 the rapidly falling barometer and the ominous hush indicated something terrible was impending. Lifelines had been set up on each side of the deck. All sails had been furled and secured with studding sail tacks and long gaskets. Topgallant masts and yards had been sent down on deck and the tops cleared. Relieving tackles had been put on the tiller, scuppers cleared, and the pumps ready. Each man wore a belt to secure himself, if necessary, to the most convenient place. It was in every way similar to the experience of the steamship Nan-Shan, even to her cargo of coolies, so vividly described by Conrad in his story,‘Typhoon’:

An outburst of unchained fury, a vicious rush of the wind. . . . It was something formidable and swift, like the sudden smashing of a Vial of Wrath. It seemed to explode all around the ship with an overpowering concussion and a rush of great waters, as if an immense dam had been blown up to windward.

She was like a living creature thrown to the rage of the mob, hustled terribly, struck at, borne up, flung down, leaped upon.

The typhoon of this date was an unusually severe one and was followed by a tidal wave.

Nobody,—. . . who caught sight of a white line of foam coming on at such a height that he couldn't believe his eyes,— nobody knew the steepness of that sea and the awful depth of the hollow the hurricane had scooped behind that running wall of water. . . .

She pitched into the hollow straight down as if tumbling from a cliff. . . . Instead of recovering herself she hung head down while the souls of men on board cried aloud to her to rise.

[p. 60]

The coolies had been ordered below and the hatches battened down. They clung to every stanchion and wherever a hold could be found, hanging on for dear life. They swarmed on the companion ladder like ‘bees on a branch.’ There could not have been places of refuge for such a number, and at times there must have been

an inextricable confusion of heads and shoulders, naked soles kicking upwards, fists raised, tumbling backs, legs, pigtails, faces. . . . With a precipitated sound of trampling and shuffling of bare feet and with guttural cries, the vague mound piled up to port, detached itself from the ship's side, and shifted to starboard, sliding, inert and struggling, to a dull, brutal thump.

The western circumference of the typhoon reached to the mainland and moved with a circular motion, the direction of the wind being from the circumference toward the center, which was near Formosa. Consequently a vessel caught in any part of the storm had almost no chance of escape, and after making a hopeless attempt to weather Formosa, she went ashore.

The Boston Shipping List, August 1, 1863, has this item: ‘Ship Ringleader, of Boston, White, from Hong Kong for San Francisco, was totally lost May 9, on the S. W. end of the Island of Formosa. The crew and passengers were saved. Captain White arrived at S. F. 23 inst. in bark E. Banning.’ Also the following: ‘Aug. 22, 1863. Hong Kong, June 13. The officers and crew of the American ship Ringleader have reached Shanghai in safety, with the exception of two seamen who were drowned.’

There is an ominous silence concerning the cargo of coolies and the worst can be imagined.


Wreck of the Phantom.

The Phantom was probably the fastest clipper ship built in Medford, with the exception of the Herald of the Morning. She was designed for the California service just after the discovery of gold had made the prices of necessities in California very high, and speed was the first [p. 61] requisite. She had experienced the usual share of disasters at different times in her voyages around the Horn.

This item appears in the Boston Shipping List of February, 1854: ‘Ship Phantom of Boston, Hallet, fr. Callao via Rio Janeiro for N. Y., went ashore morning of the 16th in a snow storm, on Flying Knoll, near Sandy Hook. She had a bad list to leeward.’

The following notice is found in the Boston Courier of May 26, 1853:

Ship Phantom, Hallet, hence to San Francisco, experienced very heavy weather Feb. 27 to Mch. 17. Lost overboard two sailors and carried away head and three feet of the stem below the bowsprit, stove in cabin windows, started 10 channels, and disabled 12 or 15 men by washing them under the spars—the sea making a complete breach over the vessel a greater portion of the time.

Mar. 24, lat. 29-30 S. lon. 105 W. experienced a hurricane and carried away Swingle & Hunt's patent steering apparatus.

On July 12, 1862, the Phantom, under the command of Captain Henry Jackson Sargent, Jr., was wrecked on Pratas shoal in thick, heavy weather. No blame was attached to Captain Sargent, and all hands were saved in the boats, although not all escaped a plundering by Chinese pirates. The Phantom carried $500,000 in specie and this was saved, largely through the resourcefulness of the commander, who received great credit for his courage and judgment.

At this time the China sea was infested with piratical junks and all ships sailing to that part of the world were armed with guns and small arms to repel attacks. With a fair wind and good headway, a large ship had little to fear, as she could run them down like cockle shells, as their armament was rarely of sufficient weight to make any impression on her. But in a calm, or in case of disaster, a fleet of these junks would bear down upon a vessel and overpower her by weight of numbers. The Chinese and Malays have no fear of death, and though [p. 62] half of them may perish, the rest will continue while there is a chance of success.

The Boston Shipping List of September 20, 1862, has the following:

Ship Phantom of Boston, Sargent, fm. San Francisco (May 30) for Hong Kong was lost July 13, on Pilot reef, Pratas shoal. The third mate and three seamen have arrived at Hong Kong. A British gunboat had gone to rescue the remainder of the crew. The Phantom was a good 1 1/2 ship of 1174 tons, built at Medford in 1852, and was owned by D. G. and W. B. Bacon of this city. Further accounts state that the Phantom had $500,000 on board.

Captain Sargent took the specie in his boat but had not been heard from at last advices.

In the shipping news of November 22, 1862, is the following: ‘One of the boats containing the second mate and six men, part of the crew of the ship Phantom, before reported lost, was picked up by pirates about 30 miles S. of Swatow, and taken inland as captives. Some Hong Kong Chinese merchants, hearing of the capture, ransomed the men for $20 or $30. They were taken to Swatow and ar. at Hong Kong Aug. 27.’

Later accounts reduced the amount of specie carried by the Phantom considerably, according to the following account:—

‘Nov. 18, 1862. Ship Phantom lost on Pratas rocks, had about $6,000 in merchandise and $50,576 in treasure. Upon the cargo about $5,500 was insured in San Francisco and $46,000 in eastern and foreign offices.’

Her commander, Capt. Henry Jackson Sargent, Jr., belonged to the Gloucester family which has produced many eminent writers and artists. He was twenty-nine years of age at this time and soon after took command of the clipper barque Emily C. Starr at Nagasaki, with a cargo of lumber, and she was never heard from.

In the marine news of that time is the following item: ‘2/7, 63, bark Emily C. Starr of Camden, N. J., Sargent, [p. 63] from Nagasaki Oct. 15, had not arrived at Shanghae Nov. 24 and there was little doubt that she had foundered. Ship Camden at Shanghae from Puget sound reports having passed a vessel of about 400 tons bottom up, with drift lumber close by, near the Loochoo group, and as the bark was known to have had a large quantity of lumber on board it was believed that this was the wreck of the missing vessel.’


1 the names of Medford-built ships are italicized.

2 See Chapter IV.

3 Fitz Henry Smith, Jr.

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