Spitfire


Peabody Essex Museum

Maine shipyards turned out about sixty of the over 400 clippers built to satisfy the need for speed generated by events in the mid-nineteenth century. The 1849 California Gold Rush, the 1851 Australian Gold Rush, and Britain’s use of American vessels as tea carriers beginning in1849 fostered so great a demand for fast ships that merchants in New York and Boston turned to smaller ship building areas like Maine. Then as now, Maine ships had a reputation for high quality and relatively low costs.


Photo by Forest Taber

Red Jacket, built in Rockland in 1853, is Maine’s best known clipper. But up the Penobscot River in the little town of Frankfort (now Winterport) three clippers were built. In the same year that Boston designer Samuel Harte Pook’s Red Jacket was launched, his smaller clipper Spitfire was built for two Boston owners, Thomas Gray and Manning and Stanwood, in Frankfort’s Dunham Yard. James Arey is listed as the master builder.

Skippered by John W. Arey (probably the builder’s son who may have been primarily responsible for the vessel), Spitfire sailed on October 24, 1853 from Boston to San Francisco–her first ocean voyage. On the 7th of November a major gale sprung her fore and main top masts and bowsprit and damaged other rigging as well. She had to put into Rio de Janeiro for new spars, 34 days out of Boston. Sailing on December 16 for San Francisco, she arrived on February 20, 1854, after a 65 day passage. Despite losing even more time due to a severe southerly gale and 600 miles of calms and light winds, this was the second fastest passage on this route for a laden vessel, surpassed only by the clipper Witchcraft in 1851, and tied in 1880 by the big down easter Storm King built in Richmond, Maine in 1874.


Peabody Essex Museum

Returning to Boston via Callao, where she picked up a cargo of guano, she sailed again for San Francisco in November 1854, still under Captain Arey. She made the passage in 119 days. She then sailed for China and departed Foochow in July 1855, making the passage in 133 days. En route, she passed the clipper Wild Pigeon (which had sailed thirteen days earlier), beating her by two days.

Her next reported passage was from Canton to Deal (off the mouth of the Thames) under the command of a Captain Jackson, making it in 122 days in the summer and fall of 1856. She sailed back to China under Captain Arey, then returned to England, making the passage from Foochow to Plymouth in 113 days, arriving in February 1858. On her next trip she carried passengers to Victoria, Australia, arriving in February 1859.

Back in England, Spitfire apparently underwent repair work, for the next listing is of her sailing is on December 21 from Boston to San Francisco. She made the trip in 108 days under Captain Samuel R. Leach, sailing under the flag of Boston’s Glidden and Williams, her first agent, who advertised the voyage with a rather restrained advertising card. She arrived in San Francisco at the same time as the clipper Black Hawk–107 days out of New York.

With a load of wheat and flour she sailed next for Liverpool. After discharging, she sailed to New York with a cargo of coal and salt, arriving November 11, 1861. It was for her next voyage to San Francisco that the spectacular advertising card, produced for Coleman’s California Line, was created. The card depicted a dragon spitting fire and boasted of Spitfire’s record. Departing on January 27, 1862, she arrived in San Francisco in June of that year. This 127 day voyage was her slowest San Francisco run. She sailed again for Liverpool, stopping at Callao for a load of guano, and arrived in January 1863.

In April of 1863 Spitfire was sold to a British owner, as was much of the American merchant fleet; the British flag insured immunity to Confederate raiders. She continues to appear in Lloyds’ register until 1874, when presumably she was scrapped.

The announcement of a half model of Spitfire coming up for auction generated some excitement at the museum. Only a few half models of Maine built vessels are known to exist. There are two of Red Jacket: Pook’s builder’s model is at the Peabody Essex museum, and his duplicate display model is at the Smithsonian. There is at least one other known Pook half model and several sets of lines. This model came from a Boston collector, which made sense as Spitfire was both Boston designed and owned. Being a relatively obscure clipper added to the model’s probable authenticity.


Photo by Forest Taber

On examining the model, it was apparent that it had been “cleaned” at some point in its life. Its simplicity was consistent with it being a builder’s model or a duplicate model carved by Pook for an owner. The hull shape was similar to Pook’s other vessels: the relatively full ends and flat bottom, fairly flat sides, round counter stern which Pook had pioneered, and full deck line forward. The name plate was lettered with the simple letter punches used to mark tools by nineteenth century carpenters.

Samuel Harte (Hartt) Pook was the son of naval constructor Samuel Moore Pook and must have grown up talking ships. After graduating from the Portsmouth Academy in 1842, at age 14, he apprenticed at the Charlestown Navy Yard where his father was the ship building superintendent. He had a role in the design and building of financier Robert Bennett Forbes’s iron tugboat R.B. Forbes and set up as an independent designer in 1850. His first clipper was Boston’s first: the clipper Surprise, built in 1850 at the Samuel Hall yard in East Boston. By the time he carved the half models for Spitfire and Red Jacket, he had eight clippers to his credit and went on to design sixteen in all. During the Civil War he designed a number of Union vessels, the best known of which was the ironclad Galena built in Mystic, Connecticut in 1862. In 1865 he became an Assistant Naval Constructor. He was promoted to Naval Constructor in 1871 and retired in 1889.


Photo by Forest Taber

The model plaque lists construction at the Dunham yard in Frankfort. This yard was established about 1850 by the Dunham brothers of Yarmouth. An 1853 Boston newspaper lists James Arey & Son as Spitfire’s builder. James Arey is first listed as a builder on a schooner in Frankfort (now Winterport) in 1819, and then as the master builder of a schooner the following year. He next appears as the builder of a schooner in 1823. He does not start to appear again until 1850; Arey likely built numerous vessels in the 1830-1850 period, but during this time most records were destroyed in various fires. What may well have happened is that John was the “son” in Arey & Son and the de facto master builder for Spitfire, then went aboard as captain. Master builders did not necessarily own the land where a ship was built; however, they were responsible for the ship and signed off on the initial registration.

From 1850-1860 Frankfort/ Winterport had a small shipbuilding boom: 39 vessels were launched. The Dunhams must have had a connection to England as several large vessels went directly to British owners. Besides Spitfire, two other clippers were built in this period. The clipper Flying Arrow of 1852 was built on speculation, sailed to Boston, then bought by Manning & Stanwood, which is probably how they discovered the Frankfort builders. Pook’s first experience with Maine builders was with George Thomas of Rockland who built his clipper Defiance in 1852, the year before Red Jacket.

The museum already owns a full research model of Spitfire built by outstanding local model builder Earl Morrill. Morrill based his work on the best research material he could find. Unfortunately he never saw this builder’s model.

Generous friends of the museum made the Spitfire purchase possible. Its acquisition helps the museum tell the Maine ship building story. It’s a story that continues today, as potential owners come to Maine for high quality, well priced work.