By Deborah Nowers, Library Research Volunteer
The Stephen Phillips Memorial Library is a hidden gem on Church Street. The library is a research non-circulating collection that includes information not easily found other places. The library is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 am to 1 pm with volunteer researchers who like to dig into the collections. It is best to call ahead, 207-548-2529 x212 or email email@example.com, to be sure we will be there and give us an idea of what you are seeking.
As you would expect, we have books! In addition to books on a variety of maritime subjects, the collection includes vital record books, genealogies and town histories from all over New England and Eastern Canada.
There are also extensive genealogical collections that include the research files of a number of prominent local researchers—the largest from Priscilla Alden Jones. The finding aid for the genealogical collections, include over 1200 family names in six collections. In addition thirty-eight family boxes have folders with surprises including family photographs, bible records, wedding invitations….whatever a family might have saved. There are finding aides for these boxes, but browsing is much more fun.
If you are interested in Searsport history, the collection includes census records, gravestone transcriptions, town records including town reports and tax records. Want to track how old your house is or who lived in it? We have answers!
We also have real bound copies of the Belfast Republican Journal beginning with its first issue in 1820. These are very fragile, so we provide microfilm copies of the paper. We feel it is our mission to preserve, and provide access, this historical perspective of life in Waldo County. One of our researchers is transcribing the shipping news from this paper, and we all benefit from his thorough combing of the paper’s contents.
Finally, we are a marine museum and the marine collections are a treasure trove for research. The largest collection is the Colcord Papers, 76 boxes full of letters, documents, logs and first person accounts from 1825 to 1903 related to the Colcords, a Searsport seafaring family. The sixteen boxes of the Witherle Collection include the accounts and papers of the Castine general store Hook & Witherle and its succeeding configurations from 1808 to 1875. The store supplied Castine residents and fishermen, acted as a chandlery and expanded to vessel management, international trade and shipbuilding. Records from these endeavors are included.
Want to research the career and fate of a sea captain or coastal or deep sea vessel, or the cargo and crew who shipped aboard a specific ship, our collection of vessel papers, logbooks and account books. Two notable researchers have made some inroads into the collection: Col. Frederick Frasier Black published the photographs and brief biographical sketches of Searsport Sea Captains and Robert Applebee researched vessels built in and sailed from Maine by town and region.
There is no charge to use the library and we welcome visitors, local and far flung, to do research in our pleasant reading room.
By John Golden
On September 8-9, 1900 (Saturday to Sunday), a category 4 hurricane (130-140 mph winds) struck the city of Galveston, Texas. There were 6,000 to 8,000 people killed. It was the worst hurricane to ever strike the United States mainland.
Galveston was cut off from the rest of the country. The highest elevation was 9 feet above sea level. The storm had a 15 foot storm surge which obliterated the city. There was no radio or television, only telephone and telegraph service, neither of which was working after the storm.
The Republican Journal was the local newspaper in the Belfast/ Searsport area and they first reported on the storm in the September 13, 1900 issue with the headline “Galveston Storm Swept” dateline Galveston, Texas, Sept. 10. The initial estimates were 600 to 1,500 lives lost. In a later update from the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Relief Train outside of Galveston, the estimate was changed to “not less than 5,000 and may reach 10,000”. The Journal reported that “on Sunday morning the streets were lined with wounded and half-clad people. Fifteen men, all that remained of a company of 100 soldiers at the beach barracks marched down the street this morning.” The streets on the bay front were fully under 3 feet of water. A third update in the same issue stated that “The loss of life will be upward of 5,000 and that $40,000,000 will no more than cover the damage to property.” It is interesting to note that there were at least 3 updates to the same column in the paper three days after the initial report was received.
The September 20 issue had no additional information about the storm but published a short article entitled “About Galveston.” The article discusses other like disasters in the Gulf specifically a storm in August of 1856 which submerged Last Island off of the southern Louisiana coast. About 200 lives were lost in that storm.
The September 27 issue also had no information about the storm except for a short paragraph about cremation. “The cremation of the victims of the flood at Galveston recalls the fact that during the yellow fever epidemic at New Orleans in 1857 it was found necessary to burn the dead. The deaths numbered for a time some three hundred a day, and internment was impossible.”
October 4 Issue: Short paragraph: “Miss Helen Gould notified the army officials in New York that she would send, at her expense, 50,000 rations to distressed families in Galveston and the hurricane swept district.”
There is also a collection of press dispatches entitled “Freaks of the Galveston Storm.” One dispatch tells of two women who rode a wooden bathtub out into the Gulf of Mexico and returned the following day on the incoming tide. Another story tells of a young boy found at his home after the water had subsided “trying to scrape with his bare hands graves in the sand for his father, mother and sisters.”
A dispatch from The Chicago Times-Herald ran as follows, “Ray Ayers, an 8-year-old boy, unwittingly rescued his sister’s two babies during the flood. He was floating on a raft in Galveston when he passed a box with the two children in it. He seized them, but the weight was too heavy for his raft, and so he placed them on two bales of hay on top of a floating shed. When he found his sister he learned that her children were lost, and when a searching party discovered them they were sleeping, unconscious of their danger.”
October 18 – Mentions that a letter will be published next week from a correspondent “Giving a full and vivid account of the Galveston disaster.”
October 25 – The Red Cross Work in Texas Dateline: October 6, 1900. A letter from a member of Miss Clara Barton’s staff. Conditions were far worse than anticipated and the author failed to write anything for a month due to the overwhelming aid work that needed to be done. She goes on to say that the devastation as described by “yellow” journalists was true. She describes funeral pyres with “bodies stacked like cord-wood, black and white together, irrespective of age, sex or previous condition; when ghouls in human shape prowled cutting off ears and fingers for the jewelry.” At one point the bodies were put on barges and dumped in the ocean only to come back with the tide while attracting large numbers of sharks. She spends some time describing what it must have been like to have “the Gulf of Mexico stealing up into your dooryard.” Galveston’s cemeteries were not spared the devastation. Vaults were stripped of their contents where the floating boxes went out to sea. The Galveston News contained a novel advertisement; “A gentleman desires information concerning a plush covered coffin, containing a corpse, which was found on his premises, on the open prairie, 21 miles distant.” Galveston was a giant pile of kindling wood and scattered bricks. Many were stripped of clothing by the raging wind. She describes a walk where “I counted the remains of nineteen sewing machines within the space of half a block; several pianos, children’s hobby-horses, desks and trunks, now rifled of their contents, shreds of lace curtains and splintered furniture.” She concludes with a description of the many fires at night “each the cremation of human bodies and ruined homes.”
Following this article, there was another article entitled “GALVESTON A MONTH AFTER THE STORM.” Dateline: October 12, 1900. The article, apparently by the same author as the October 6 article, discusses how the people of Galveston first coped with the disaster and now how they are dealing with it on a day to day basis. As the weather turned colder there was a great need for warm clothing. The climate of Galveston is not tropical and there is a need for blankets and outerwear. Most of the remaining population lives in tents or halls or remaining structures with friends and family.
“Clara Barton has submitted plans for a four room cottage that can house 12 people. She believes that she can obtain the materials for approximately $200,000 and that they can be erected at a cost of $50,000.” It was estimated that 4,000 dwellings and their contents were washed away. The author continues by listing the basic materials required for each new dwelling along with items such as bedding, cutlery, stoves, chairs, tables etc.
November 22 – Final hurricane article in the Republican Journal. Dateline: Galveston, Texas, October 5, 1900. The article related how the Red Cross and the City of Galveston took care of the many orphans of the storm. Biographies of the individuals taking care of the children were documented. The article continues with a mention of the upcoming Christmas Holiday and the toys that the children will be receiving. The article ends with a description of how the Red Cross is helping the farmers of the area and how Clara Barton gave one thousand dollars to strawberry growers of the region for plants.
The city eventually recovered and erected a seawall in the bay to protect it against further storms and storm surges.
By Jon B. Johansen
A number of years ago I was reading a book about the history of pilots on the East Coast of the United States and they mentioned the shipwreck of the packet MEXICO off Hempstead Beach, New York in January 1837. I headed to the Bangor Public Library and searched through issues of the “Bangor Whig & Courier,” for that month. There were several reports from the survivors, rescuers, but more importantly there was one from the pilots, who were blamed for the incident, explaining why they could not get out to the ships waiting to come into the Port of New York. Had the author taken the time to research this disaster in the local newspapers of the day he would have found, and could have written, a much more accurate account of the disaster.
The following is a very brief example of what can be found in old newspapers. This information was documented from the Hancock Gazette (Belfast) for 1827 and comprises more than 83 pages of maritime information when completed.
The first item you want to find is a column documenting the ships coming and going from that port and other ports around the country and world. This is usually termed Marine Diary, Marine Intelligence, Ship News or Shipping Intelligence. They will document a vessel’s arrival and departure, the date this occurred and the master. One problem is that usually only the last name of the master is listed and there can be numerous masters with the same last name. Sometimes a paper will include where the vessel hailed from, its cargo and the company involved. In later years the News also recorded launches, disasters, those spoken to at sea and notices to mariners.
Once in a while there are notes of new developments. In this paper the first I found was by Captain Thomas Brownell, of New York, who had devised a method for pumping ships at sea by using wind power. Later a small one line statement said, “A pleasure boat that will not sink, called a Life Boat, has been built at Providence.” You will quickly learn that sometimes you end up with more questions than you do answers.
People love to read about ship disasters and every year there were hundreds, coupled with a large number of lives lost in terrible tales of suffering. In mid-January news of the Camden schooner JANE, under the command of Capt. Horatio Eaton, had come ashore on Brier Island, dismasted and bottom up. The next week we learned that the Portland brig LIBERATOR, under the command of Capt. Pool, had been wrecked at Cuba in December. In February the schooner NANCY & HANNAH, of Frankfort, had sailed from Darien and in May she had not yet reported. This was her second voyage and her master was Capt. A. Child, of Frankfort. The Sedgwick fishing schooner LIBERTY, Capt. G. W. Cory, was returning when on 1 May they discovered a large brig showing a signal of distress. They attempted to launch their boat and lend assistance, but the conditions prevented any rescue attempt. At the end of April came the loss of the brig ROB ROY on a voyage from Belfast to Quebec on shoals of L’Islet. Two men, three women and 19 children lost their lives. In mid-May the schooner OLIVE BRANCH, Capt. Adams, of and from Bath, struck on the Devil’s Back. Capt. William Thomas of the brig WILLIAM of Portland, arrived in New York after surviving on a wreck for 29 days, the only survivor. Some stories are amazing, one being a man who fell overboard from a steamer on her way from Québec to Montréal. The steamer searched in vain and after a couple of hours continued on her way. When the boat arrived at her dock, the man was standing there, having swam ashore and traveling nine miles. It was reported that the schooner PROOF GLASS, of Boston, had gone on the rocks in the Marsh River, Frankfort mid-June. She bilged and had been raised by means of gondoloes and empty casks. In early October there was a report containing a number of disasters in the West Indies: from Maine was the brig BELUGA, Nason of Kennebunk, drove on a reef and was totally lost; and the schooner WARREN, Perkins of Kennebunk, was totally lost at Guazama, with the mate and all the crew. The schooner GARLAND, Capt. Welch, of Camden, was heading for St. John, New Brunswick, when she wrecked at the mouth of the Kennebec River.
Steamboats were in their infancy and had only been running along the coast of Maine for a few years. One of the steamboats running the Maine coast was PATENT, Capt. Cram. One of her stops was at Eastport, but a remark in May was humorous saying, “On her last trip to Eastport she came into the harbor but left without giving any notice of her arrival, leaving several passengers, who had been waiting two or three days for her arrival, at the Eagle Hotel. A little more attention on the part of the managers would be of service both to travelers and the steamboat line.” A month late there was mention of PATET having in tow a new steamboat just launched at Castine. The new vessel was heading to Boston to have her machinery installed. This is the 99-ton steamer HANCOCK, which survived only seven years. Another account tells of the first significant vessel on Moosehead Lake, named DESPATCH. She was launched at Haskeltown on 7 September. The article tells that she had been built by Isaac Cowan, Jr. of Sidney and was 36 feet on the keel with an 11 foot beam. What the article does not say was how she was powered.
Accounts of the sea serpent have captured the interest of many over the years. The first account was documented in June 1793 by Capt. Crabtree of Frenchman’s Bay. There were accounts of sea serpent sighting in 1827. One account came from Irish newspapers when QUÉBECK TRADE, off the South Islands of Arran, in February sent a boat to a drifting wreck when they saw a serpent lying coiled up on the deck. Capt. David Thurlow, Jr. of the schooner LYDIA of Deer Isle had an encounter with the sea serpent. They were off Mount Desert Rock when a serpent came up alongside his small boat. Thurlow had a harpoon on board and he struck the serpent with it.
Births, Marriage and Died
It may seem to be beyond the scope of a maritime researcher, but one will find people who have maritime ties. During 1827 under the heading of “Married” we find Capt. Paul R. Hazeltine and Miss Caroline Longfellow and Capt. James Young and Miss Sarah Jane McCrillis tying the knot.
Under “Died” there are numerous maritime connections. During the year we note the loss of Captain Nathaniel Eells, Capt. Zebedee Eells, Capt. John B. Perkins, Capt. Calvin Waterman, Capt. Eben Perkins, and Capt. Calvin Curtis. Then there are seamen lost or dying at sea. On board the schooner SUSSEX, it was learned that Asa Ficket jumped overboard. At the Magdalin Islands, Capt. Francis Antone and Mr. Thomas M’Daniel from the schooner RANGER of Lubec were drowned. Later in the year the passing of Aaron Goodwin of Parsonfield, who had served on board the BON HOMME RICHARD during her battle with the SERAPIS was listed.
Our Navy was still evolving in 1827. Many naval commanders had made a name for themselves during the War of 1812 and there were others working their way up through the ranks. One of these officers was Capt. John Percival of West Barnstable, MA, better known as “Mad Jack.” Early in January news reached readers of an outrage committed by the crew of the U. S. Naval schooner DOLPHIN, under the command of Lieut. Percival in the Sandwich Islands. Later Lieut. Percival was tried in the Circuit Court of the United States and acquitted.
The United States Navy was also cruising the Pacific Ocean protecting the country’s whaling fleet. The Sloop-of-War PEACOCK was cruising the islands, and this cruise was detailed in a letter. Returning from the Pacific was the frigate UNITED STATES, Commodore Isaac Hull., after more than three years at sea. She brought home the two only survivors from the mutiny on board the whale ship GLOBE of Nantucket.
There was a major conflict underway in the Mediterranean between Austria, Egypt, Greece and Turkey and trying to quell the issue were the British, French and Russians. The American people had heard about the suffering of the Greeks and had collected provisions, which were sent to them in a number of vessels. The British admiral, Lord Cochrane, who is said to be the person who influenced the fictional character Horatio Hornblower, was assisting the Greeks. In October a major engagement was fought with the complete destruction of the Egyptian and Turkish fleet by the British, French and Russian fleets under the command of Vice Admiral Codrington at Navarino. Of the 66 Turkish vessels only eight were still afloat at the end of the engagement and they had lost upwards of 3,000 men.
Crimes on the high seas during this period of time were common. The first reference to pirates came in January with the announcement of the up-coming execution of Merchant and Colson in Boston.
The schooner AMERICA, Capt. Darius Dickey, had left Cohasset, MA for Northport when on 22 July an attack and taken place on board the vessel. Crew member James Newcomb had gone forward to take down the foresail when he was attacked by John McDonnell with an ax. The captain was at the helm at the time and heard three very heavy thuds. He walked forward to see what it was and he was hit in the head with an ax. The captain got a hold of McDonnell’s legs and knocked him to the deck and tied him up. The vessel later arrived at Northport and the captain’s wounds were treated, but he did not think Newcomb would recover.
The major crime for this year was committed on board the brigantine CRAWFORD under the command of Captain Henry Brightman, on a voyage from Matanzas to New York. Among the eight passengers on board were four men who on 1 June attacked the crew and the other passengers. In the end only three men were left, the cook, a passenger and the mate. The mate was allowed to live so he could assist the mutineers in navigating the vessel to their destination in Europe. First they needed provisions and sailed for the Capes of Virginia where they were boarded by a pilot. The mate was ordered to put the boat over and as soon as she hit the water he sculled for shore. Once on shore he told officials what had happened on board the vessel and they headed out to CRAWFORD. As they neared the vessel they were informed that the ringleader Tardy had cut his throat. The three other mutineers, all Spanish, had made their way to shore, but were apprehended soon after. These men were tried, convicted and executed in Richmond, VA.
One of the major industries of the coast of Maine is its fisheries. Within the Marine List there are times when the vessels were listed as one a fishing voyage as well as how much they caught.
There were a number of other fishing references. In June a 50-foot whale was spotted off the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and after a pursuit of several hours was captured. A Col. Decatur said that he thought this was the sea serpent.
There was a reference in one issue saying that since 1819 fifteen cargoes of seal skins from the Antarctic region had arrived at Stonington, Connecticut. This is an interesting story and if you would like to read more about it get the book “Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer,” by John Spears. At the age of 19 Capt. Palmer sailed in a sloop from Stonington to the southern Atlantic Ocean and while looking for sealing grounds discovered islands just north of Antarctica. In fact, part of Antarctica is named for Palmer, who made several voyages there.
Do not forget to look through the advertisements as they might contain information not found elsewhere. Usually you will find advertisements for voyages, vessels for sale, marine services and auctions. One thing is usually the full name, or at least the first initial, of the master of a vessel, is used and that can be helpful.
When reading through these newspapers, most will be amazed at the amount of information they contain. The above just scratches the details found. However, there is no question there can be problems associated with newspaper articles. The most important would be that journalists at times were not known for their accuracy. Articles were put together quickly and sometimes they used unreliable sources. Fortunately, most errors are corrected in later issues or in another paper. Despite these the problems newspapers are an extremely valuable resource for the maritime historian.
Researched by Leo Shea, Ph.D.
Want insight into Lincoln Colcord? Into the man and his times? Into his able, vast nautical, literary, social and political experiences and opinions? The Penobscot Marine Museum has an extensive “Colcord Collection”, in which you can find a considerable amount of his correspondence, manuscripts, photographs – they even have his typewriter! The bulk of this article is based upon file PMM 29-460, acquisition LB2005.29, in the Penobscot Marine Museum archives.
Lincoln Ross Colcord (1883-1947) is perhaps best known for his prolific writing. He authored innumerable articles, short stories, poems, as well as some novels. He also was a literary critic and provided newspapers, magazines and publishers with a seemingly uncountable number of book reviews. He was instrumental in establishing and operating the Penobscot Marine Museum.
Lincoln Colcord was a very social person. He had an extensive network of friends and acquaintances. Writers, mariners, academics, actors, artists and politicians easily befriended him. He even knew a pre-revolution Russian Prince! Of course, he was close to many, many Mainers, both mariners and landlubbers alike.
Before launching into telling you about a particularly humanitarian marshalling of his social network, let me provide some 1944-1945 Searsport, Maine context.
World War II was beginning to wind down in Europe. The local weekly newspaper, The Republican Journal, was filled with articles about locals in the military service and advertisements for purchasing war bonds. On Wednesday, November 29, 1944, two Nazi spies were put ashore in Frenchman Bay, off of the German submarine U-1230. They landed at Hancock Point, about two miles from Ellsworth. The following Sunday, December 3, 1944, off Mount Desert Island, U-1230 sunk a Canadian ship bound for St. John, New Brunswick, killing 42 crew members. This sinking was later believed to be a diversion to assist the spies in avoiding the FBI, Army and Navy personnel swarming over the entire mid-Coast area. The spies made their way to New York City; their primary mission was to determine whether the US would use the a-bomb on Germany.
Searsport was especially important to the military. Mack Point served as a Port of Embarkation for ammunition and high explosives going to Europe during WWII. In fact, Searsport shipped 435,573 tons of ammunition and high explosives between December, 1941 and August, 1945 (http://usmm.org – see “Troops and Cargo Transported During World War II Under US Army Control”). Lincoln Colcord’s correspondence at the time occasionally noted the Liberty ships in Penobscot Bay, heavily laden with bombs, as well as the patrolling Navy destroyers, particularly when writing fellow mariners or his son.
Lewis H. Rich (1905-1988) was born in Searsport and lived there throughout his life. He was a very hardy, healthy man who was usually employed as an electrician and who supplemented his income by lobstering. At the time at hand, Mr. Rich was employed as a foreman on the dock at the Port of Embarkation. He also served as President of Local 1519 of the International Longshoreman’s Association. This union local consisted of roughly 600 Port of Embarkation workers.
Exactly a week after the two Nazi spies landed on Hancock Point, on Wednesday, December 6, 1944, Lewis Rich was approached by two Army officers seeking his assistance. You see, there were suspicions about strangers seen in and about a small house or shack that was located near the shore by Mr. Rich’s house. Not surprisingly, given the wartime circumstances, rumors about the strangers developed.
Army Captain H.B. Morris and a Lt. Collins travelled from Boston to investigate the suspicions. They asked Mr. Rich to assist them in locating the building. He immediately complied.
The Army officers located the place in question but found that its door was padlocked. Nevertheless, Capt. Morris believed that it was essential to gain entrance. They would have to break in. So, Capt. Morris took his Thompson submachine gun and slammed the butt of it onto the padlock to smash it open. That is when his “Tommy gun” discharged, about a foot from Lewis Rich’s arm. The .45 bullet shattered a bone in his arm and tore away about an inch of the main nerve running down the arm, which controls hand movement. Of course, Mr. Rich could have been killed.
The local physicians could only work on Mr. Rich’s wound, not the severed nerve. As a result of the nerve damage, his hand was immobile. He could not move his fingers. There was no feeling in the hand. And, he needed to wait until the wound healed before they could work on the nerve. Finally, on February 16, 1945, Dr. Henry Marble sewed the nerve together during a 2 ½ hour operation at the Massachusetts General Hospital. After the operation Mr. Rich’s wife, Rose (nee: Keegan – 1906-1981), a practical nurse, stayed in Boston with him, providing the constant attention he needed for his seven week recovery period.
A year after the shooting, Lewis Rich was still unable to use his hand and could barely bend his fingers. He could not work at the Port of Embarkation, nor at his electrical or lobstering businesses. He had paid all of the medical bills. He and his wife were in serious financial difficulty.
Lincoln Colcord was outraged about the shooting and Mr. Rich’s plight. He wanted to help. Beginning May 10, 1945, he contacted Congresswoman Margaret Chase Smith. He wanted her to intervene on Mr. Rich’s behalf. At the time, Congresswoman Smith represented Maine’s Second Congressional District, which included Searsport. Lincoln had other business with her as well, in her capacity as a member of the then House Naval Affairs Committee. It seemed highly unlikely that Lewis Rich would get anywhere on his own.
Lincoln Colcord became a marvelous and eloquent advocate for Mr. Rich. He saw Lewis as a war casualty who was not interested in pursuing a pension. He noted that the Army did not deny the incident. However, in August, 1945, the Army paid but $485 of Mr. Rich’s $615 medical expenses, and, denied any additional payment for the loss of his work wages, for his wife’s time in caring for him and her loss of work wages, as well as for any additional medical expenses subsequent to August, 1945. Interestingly, adjusted for inflation, a 1945 dollar is worth $13.19 in 2015 (http://dollartimes.com).
Lincoln continued to advocate for Mr. Rich. He pointed out that Lewis’s injury could be a lifelong disability. He provided Congresswoman Smith with a rationale for Mr. Rich receiving a one-time payment of $15,000 to fully settle matters and all of the medical documentation. He suggested that Capt. Morris should be court martialed. Congresswoman Smith agreed with Lincoln and began the frustrating, arduous process of trying to make the financial matters better for Mr. Rich. She told Lincoln in her letter of May 15, 1945, that “The Rich case is one of the most amazing that I have heard about…”. She began an inquiry with the Army about Capt. Morris. On July 18, 1945, she notified Lincoln about what disciplinary action was taken against Capt. Morris – he was reprimanded. Lincoln later discovered that Capt. Morris had been transferred from Boston to Chicago.
By February, 1946, Lewis’s physicians believed he needed another operation. Lewis could not afford it. Lincoln notified Congresswoman Smith, who introduced a bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 434, 80th Congress, 1st Session), seeking to provide Mr. Rich with a settlement sum of $15,000. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. On July 2, 1947, it was amended to the sum of $4000. H.R. 434 as amended was approved on July 30, 1947 (http://library.clerk.house.gov – see: “Calendars of the US House of Representatives and History of Legislation”). This was about four months before Lincoln Colcord died.
Did Lewis Rich ever regain the use of his hand?
How did Lewis Rich fare the rest of his life?
Why didn’t the Army officers take the time to get a tool, such as a crowbar?
Did anyone ever find the suspicious strangers?
Was the drastic reduction of the settlement sum a typical reflection of why President Harry S. Truman called the 80th Congress “the do nothing Congress”?
Just how would Lincoln Colcord have written this story for a magazine or newspaper?
By Cipperly Good, PMM Collections Manager
During the American Civil War, as the Confederates immobilized 40% of Union ships, shipowners chose to reregister under foreign flags gaining protection from a law prohibiting the sinking of foreign neutral vessels. After reconciliation, Congress debated whether to repeal a 1797 law, which stated that once reflagged, a vessel could not repatriate to the United States. The Jones Act of 1817 prohibited US domestic port-to-port trade by foreign-flagged vessels. Shipbuilders from Maine and elsewhere, seeing a profit to be made by rebuilding the American Merchant Marine from scratch, successfully lobbied their legislators to keep the 1797 law intact. The American Merchant Marine never fully recovered.
The letters and newspaper editorials of Searsport’s sea captains began noting the decline. They blamed the government, competency of the crew and economics. David Nickels wrote in 1872:
But a few years since we had the largest Merchant Marine in the world…Now Alas how fallen- But I must confess I feel very little interest in its enlargement. We can never compete with England whilst our duties and taxes are so high on all that enters into the construction and fitting of ships. I cannot expect to see much change for the better in my days of service…
Perhaps when we have female suffrage we may manage to have a better-regulated tariff. But I presume the majority will vote the republican ticket, And as the party goes for the protection of large Corporations, and monopolies, individual enterprise will not much benefit by any reforms which the female Suffagians may inaugurate…
In all my going to sea, I have never had so inefficient a ship’s company. I cannot get anything done, without being on hand all the time. I am ready to swear to the best of my knowledge and belief, that the material which enters into the construction of the young men of the present day, must be sadly diluted.
Despite the hope of Maine shipbuilders for an increase of business, in 1877 Searsport built the last of its ships, the WILLIAM H. CONNER. Henry Hall reported on Searsport’s shipbuilding as part of the 1880 census:
All the vessels built were owned there, and it is said that there never was a vessel built on contract in Searsport for outside owners. A few years ago, when coasters became unprofitable, builders and investors turned their attention to other forms of business, and the industry has nearly died out in consequence…Excellent shipyards exist, but their value is not rated above one-third what it used to be.
In his shipboard newspaper, The Ocean Chronicle, Edward Payson Nichols blames government policies. In his October 9, 1883 editorial, Nichols writes:
What is to be the future of the American ships, and what is become of the few that are now remaining? Government will swallow them up…
the moment [an American ship] strikes the water all the birds gather around for a taste of the carcass: the broker, ship-chandler, carpenter, sail-maker, butcher, blacksmith, and down swoops the American eagle to fill her rapacious maw, and fastens her talons on the choiced bits. What does Government do for ships?…
Nothing for, lots against.
With American shipbuilding holding tenaciously to wooden construction with the rest of the developed nations building in iron, Nichols addresses the free ship, or foreign-flagged vessel controversy, in his December 4, 1885 editorial:
We have been listening for the last twenty years to arguments in favor of, and against “free ships.” Our sympathy has mostly been against, but, when it is all looked over, what is our gain by excluding foreign built ships from carrying our flag? All the legislation in the world will never make wood compete with iron. Iron ships are now being built for less than 10 pounds a ton, which is as cheap as a wooden one can be made, and then the iron ship goes into the market and takes five shillings a ton more freight than the wooden one, which is often 15 percent, so the wooden vessel which just pays her bills, has to compete with the iron one which divides 15 percent of her freight…
The cry is, “We must protect our Merchant Marine,”- “Admitting ‘free ships’ would ruin our Coasting trade.”…There is not half of our coasters that pay more than bills, and depreciation; so the ones who really gain are those who have the bills, while the capital is not increased.
In his January 28, 1891 editorial, Nichols was still writing about the free ship debate:
Our Maine Senators, and Congressmen…prevent the building up of the U.S. Merchant Marine. It is a wonder they have been able to fight off the “free ship fallacy” and keep off intruders as long as they have…
what seems strange, is that there was not sound judgment enough to see that if there was nothing done to stimulate the building of ships, the ship might as well come in “free” as to employ the foreign ship and have none of our own…
Without aidfrom the government, the free ship will never do us more harm than it is now doing as belonging to another country, and as long as there is nothing done by the country, it will matter but little whether the ships hoist the Stars and Stripes, or some foreign flag, for the foreigner will get the money “all sa-mee.” There are a few fine ships belonging to the United States, but when the Stars and Stripes are hoisted at the peak, the ship is an honor to the flag, but the flag, no honor to the ship.
By 1902, Searsport fathers were discouraging their sons from entering the Merchant Marine. Lincoln Alden Colcord wrote to his son Lincoln Ross Colcord:
I think…that you would make a most perfect sailor, and perhaps your health would be better on the sea; but we all know that the day has gone by when sea-faring was a profession of a young boy to take up…
It is my hope now, that you will have a chance to get out the best there is in you.
Lincoln Ross Colcord’s response was to chronicle the American Merchant Marine through fictional sea stories based on his childhood in the China Trade, writing articles for the American Neptune and cofounding Penobscot Marine Museum.
Please visit the archives to read more primary sources about Searsport’s contributions to the American Merchant Marine. Select quotes were taken from original copies of the Ocean Chronicle, letters in the Nichols, Nickels, and Dow family papers, and the Colcord Collection. Photos of the captains mentioned in this article are also available through the online collections database: http://penobscotmarinemuseum.pastperfectonline.com.