Old ships and Ship-building days of Medford.

Chapter 6:

The California clipper Ship Era.1

THE New York builders took the lead in the changes designed to improve the speed of vessels after 1840. Mr. John W. Griffiths, a New York designer, advocated increasing the proportion of length to breadth and sharpening the body fore and aft, with long hollow water lines, and bringing the greatest breadth and center of buoyancy further aft. Another improvement he suggested was to round up the ends of the main transom, thereby relieving the quarters and thus making the after-body finer and the stern above the water-line much lighter and handsomer.2

Mr. Griffiths, in 1843, designed the ‘Rainbow’ on these lines, although she was not launched until 1845. The superiority of this type of ship was that with their sharp lines and lofty canvas they could point higher, and ‘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 and favorable winds while the full bodied ships were compelled to wait for them.’3

The Boston builders were more conservative, and while they acknowledged that the ‘Rainbow’ proved these ideas to be correct, they thought that on account [p. 2] of their increased sharpness and comparatively less cargo capacity these vessels would not be commercially practicable. And this would probably have been the case if the discovery of gold in California and the consequent high prices had not made the question of speed of greater importance.

The first vessel built in this part of the country on these ideas was the ‘Game Cock,’ built by Samuel Hall at East Boston in 1850, and the same year James O. Curtis of Medford built the Shooting Star, 900 tons, for Reed and Wade of Boston. She was one of twenty-six ships which made the passage twice from Boston or New York to San Francisco in less than 110 days average time (105 days from Boston and 115 days from New York, average 110 days).

The other Medford ships in this list are the Herald of the Morning, 99 days and 106 days (average 102, days) the Don Quixote, 106 days and 108 days (average 107 days), and the Ringleader, 107 days and 110 days (average 108 1/2 days). Although there was but one Medford ship, the Herald of the Morning, out of the eighteen that made the passage to San Francisco in less than 100 days, yet in proportion to the number built the Medford clipper ships made more fast records than the average. The Herald of the Morning made the trip in 99 days4 from New York. She was designed by Samuel A. Pook of Boston, who also designed the Ocean Telegraph, built by James O. Curtis in 1854. Other famous ships designed by Mr. Pook were the ‘Red Jacket’ and ‘Game Cock.’

Captain Clark mentions twenty-three Medford ships in a list of one hundred and seventy-three extreme type of clipper ships built between 1850 and 1857, and in a record of one hundred and twenty-eight passages made to San Francisco in 110 days or less between 1850 and 1860, from New York or Boston, seventeen were made by thirteen Medford ships as follows:— [p. 3]

ShipDaysPort of DepartureDate of Arrival
Shooting Star105BostonAug. 17, 1852
Courser108BostonApril 28, 1852
Phantom105BostonApril 21, 1853
Golden Eagle105BostonAug. 25, 1854
Don Quixote106BostonMarch 29, 1855
Ringleader107BostonFeb. 12, 1856
Ringleader110BostonFeb. 8, 1854
White Swallow110New YorkAug. 7, 1860
Herald of the Morning99New YorkMay 16, 1855
Herald of the Morning106BostonMay 7, 1854
Eagle Wing105BostonApril 5, 1854
Robin Hood107New YorkMarch 25, 1859
Ocean Telegraph109New YorkMarch 13, 1860
Electric Spark106BostonApril 9, 1856
Telegraph109BostonApril 9, 1855

He also divides this great race course into five sections, in which four other Medford ships made records, Ocean Express, John Wade, Syren and Living Age.

The first section was from Sandy Hook to the Equator. There were twenty-seven ships which made the passage in 20 days or less. The best record was 16 days. White Swallow made the run in 17 days.

The second section was from Cape St. Roque to 50° S. There were twenty-eight ships in all which made the passage in 20 days or less. The best record was 16 days. Ocean Express made the run in 18 days, Electric Spark in 19 days, John Wade and Ringleader in 20 days.

The third section was from 50° S. in the Atlantic to 50° S. in the Pacific. There were eighteen ships which made this run in 10 days or less. The best record was 6 days. Robin Hood made the passage in 7 days, Herald of the Morning in 8 days.

The fourth section was from 50° S. in the Pacific to the Equator. There were thirty-six ships which made the run in 20 days or less. The best record was 16 days. Courser, Don Quixote and Ocean Telegraph made the passage in 19 days, Golden Eagle, Syren, Shooting Star and Telegraph in 20 days.

The last section was from the Equator to San Francisco. Forty-eight ships in all made the run in 20 days [p. 4] or less. The best record was 14 days. Phantom made the passage in I 5 days, Golden Eagle in 9 days, Herald of the Morning, Living Age5 and Ocean Telegraph in 20 days.

Of the remainder of the twenty-three ships mentioned by Captain Clark the following passages are recorded from Boston or New York to San Francisco: Dauntless, 116 days; John Wade, 116 days; Kingfisher, 114 days; Fleetwing, 121 days; Norwester, 122 days; Morning Star, 146 days; Syren, 118 days.

Other ships of this period, but not in this list of extreme clipper type, which made fast voyages to San Francisco from Boston or New York were the National Eagle, 134 days; Wild Ranger, 122 and 127 days; Osborn Howes, 153 days; Good Hope, 143 days.

The Thatcher Magoun made the trip from San Francisco to New York in 94 days.6

Besides the California passages, the Whirlwind made the voyage from New York to Melbourne in 80 days.

The Ringleader made the same trip in 78 days, the best day's run being 336 knots.

The Shooting Star made the run from Canton to Boston in 86 days, and the Phantom made the passage from Callao to Rio Janeiro in 32 days, this being the quickest run ever made.

1 the names of Medford-built ships are italicized.

2 Captain Clark. ‘Clipper Ship Era.’

3 Captain Clark. ‘Clipper Ship Era.’

4 The record passage was made in 89 days, twice by the ‘Flying Cloud’ and once by the ‘Andrew Jackson.’

5 The Living Age was not an extreme clipper ship.

6 The record passage was 76 days made by the ‘Northern Light’ to Boston and the ‘Comet’ to New York.

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