Searsport Sea Captains React to the Fall of the American Merchant Marine

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:

The Fowler-True-Ross House

By Deborah Nowers

fowler-houseThe Fowler-True-Ross House sits prominently on Main Street and is a major building of the Penobscot Marine Museum. The docents who work in the house asked the library researchers for information related to the ownership of the house and whether there were objects in the collection that belonged to the residents. The collection includes a folder on the house that lists the ownership from a title search at the Registry of Deeds, but little on who they were.

Being a genealogist, I sought to identify the family groups who had lived in the house. I began with a time line begun by another volunteer listing the deed transfers and the individuals involved. Slowly I filled in the families. Using the resources in the library and internet sources, the families came into focus.

The land on which the house is situated was part of a large tract of land owned by Gen. Henry Knox. He had acquired much of the Waldo Patent, originally the property of Brigadier General Samuel Waldo, by marrying Waldo’s granddaughter, Lucy Flucker. A map in the Maine Historical Society includes a notation that the tract contained “576,000 acres equal to 30 miles square.”

General Knox then divided the land and sold parcels. In 1799, Robert Lord Sargent of Islesboro purchased the land where the Fowler-True-Ross house stands which was then in Prospect. He is enumerated in the 1800 U.S. Census in Prospect and in 1801 sold the parcel to Ephraim Colson, Sr.

Ephraim Colson’s family is outlined in a folder in the collection of Priscilla A. Jones, a well-known local genealogist whose papers are housed in the PMM library. It is unclear if Ephraim and his wife Phebe lived on the property. It seems likely as his five oldest children are recorded as born in Prospect between 1797 and 1804.

Fowler PlotThe house’s first namesake, Miles Fowler, purchased the property in 1815 and it remained in his family for 152 years, through four generations. Miles Fowler, a sea captain, had married Jane True in 1813. Their four children—Rufus Warren, Martha Jane, Cyrus True and Emily—grew up there. The PMM publication, Searsport Sea Captains reports he was captain on seven vessels from 1817 to 1840. He served in the War of 1812 as a private from September 2 to 21, 1814. In 1837, he was appointed Postmaster for West Prospect—now Searsport.

It appears from the deeds that the property was mortgaged in 1839 and redeemed in 1840, and sometime in the early 1840s Miles and Jane separated. In 1843, the property was purchased in trust for Jane Fowler and she subsequently purchased it for $1. She continued to live there and is enumerated in the 1850 Census in what had become Searsport with her son, Cyrus True; he was no longer using the Fowler last name. Miles was living in Bangor with a new wife and daughter.

At Jane’s death in 1857, the house passed to her three surviving children, Rufus Warren, Cyrus and Martha Jane. Rufus Warren Fowler’s wife Nancy then purchased it from the siblings. After her death in 1862, Rufus Warren became the owner. Like his father, he was a sea captain, also included in Searsport Sea Captains.

Only two of his children survived Rufus Warren, and at his death in 1873, Rufus Warren, Jr. and his brother Frederick inherited the house. Rufus Warren, Jr. purchased it and presumably lived there with his wife Abbie and children. The house was purchased in 1896, by his uncle Cyrus True. It then passed to Lucy (Merrithew) Ross, the wife of Cyrus’ nephew Andrew M. Ross, the son of Martha Jane (Fowler) and Andrew J. Ross. Father and son were sea captains.

Their daughter Rebecca M. Ross, a teacher, inherited the house in 1937 and sold it to the Museum in 1967.

The Museum collections contain a number of objects connected to the Fowler, True and Ross families. Miles’s eyeglasses, Martha Jane (Fowler) Ross’s portrait shows her wearing a broach that is also part of the collection. Her brother Cyrus True is represented with a half model, a trunk and a compass. There are photographs of Rufus Warren Fowler, Jr. and Andrew M. Ross as well as a collection of navigation instruments owned by Andrew M. Ross.

Fowler Descendants

Teaching with Small Boats Alliance

Searsport District High School students build a Shellback dinghy at PMM

Searsport District High School students build a Shellback dinghy at PMM

The sea connects all things. As we observed Columbus Day this past week, I traveled down to Mystic Seaport to attend the Teaching with Small Boats Alliance conference. However we feel about this holiday, we can agree that the Europeans came to America by ship. Whether it was the Viking and Basque fishermen looking for a new fishing spot or European navies looking for mast trees, a ship on the ocean brought them to the North American continent, and the Gulf of Maine in particular. Having found the riches of the continent, a trans-Atlantic and eventually a global trade was born. The best way to transport goods to market is by the sea. A single vessel can carry more of a load than any land-based mode of transport. Searsport and Maine in general provided the bulk of the United States’ deepwater sailors and officers in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the majority of the last wooden merchant sailing Downeasters and multi-masted schooners were built in our state’s coastal communities. Young children in Maine grew up learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics as they built boats and navigated them across vast oceans. Today our children are learning those skills in the classroom isolated from their real world applications and many students are failing those subjects.

The Penobscot Marine Museum is reaching out to those students failing in the traditional classroom.  Studies of information retention put reading and verbal instruction as the least effective way of retaining information, yet that is how we teach in traditional classroom settings.  Museums with their exhibits and living history demonstrations where students can hear and see the information has a 50% retention rate.  The highest rate of retention is actually doing a task.  The Penobscot Marine Museum has partnered with the Searsport District High School and local boat-builder Greg Rössel in developing a hands-on science and math curriculum geared for optimum  retention.  The SDHS teachers have developed science and math curriculum tied to building the Shellback dinghy. A select group of SDHS students during the spring semester take a class at the Penobscot Marine Museum with Greg Rössel.  While few of the students will pursue a career in boatbuilding, they come away with an understanding of trigonometry, physics, algebra, geometry and their own skills.  Wanting to know more and connect with similar programs, the Museum sent me as a representative of this partnership to the Teaching with Small Boats Alliance conference.

Searsport District High School Students working on a Shellback dinghy at PMM

Searsport District High School Students working on a Shellback dinghy at PMM

The Teaching with Small Boats Alliance (TWSBA) is a network of maritime schools, boat-building shops, museums and community groups whose vision is to give young people an awareness of and resulting pride in their learning through the hands-on study of the maritime arts, its history and its   relationship to success in math and science.  TWSBA’s mission is to   improve the effectiveness of these organizations through a sharing of ‘best practices’ that promote the values of scholarship, craftsmanship, ingenuity,   self-discipline and a true sense of accomplishment.  The conference this   year focused on organizational development, program development and curriculum   development.  It is all too easy to feel isolated when pursuing   non-traditional models in schools and museums; it is such a relief to meet   with sister institutions from across the United States that have implemented   similar programs and who are willing to share their successes and   failures.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel when so many are   willing to share their resources.  There were sessions on the   nitty-gritty issues of insurance, fundraising, human relations, and   leadership which, while not that fun, are necessary to   fulfill our programmatic mission to inspire, educate and recreate.    Other sessions discussed how to get passionate adult volunteers to provide   necessary, but otherwise costly, assistance in the boat shop and providing   one-on-one tutorials in boat-building with the students.  Representatives   from the United States’ nineteen maritime primary and high schools provided   insights in how to “marinize” the Common Core standards, reflecting how the   sea connects all things and all subjects.  Our location on Penobscot   Bay provides students with an open-air classroom in history, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc.

Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe

Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe at TWSBA conference

Of course all talk and no hands-on activities is an anathema to this   group.  I brought down the Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe built by members of the Penobscot and Western Abenaki nations during the summer of 2006 on the Museum grounds.   Between 2005 and 2010, native apprentices learned the art of birchbark canoe-building on our campus and demonstrated the process to our visitors.  The canoe was a project of note in the Indigenous Programs presentation at the TWSBA conference. Attendees spent three afternoons admiring their   workmanship and taking it out for a paddle in the Mystic  River.    In addition to paddling our canoe, I took a row in the four-man St. Ayles Skiff and one-man Bevin’s Skiff built by other student organizations.

Native apprentices build a Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe at PMM

Native apprentices build a Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe at PMM

I returned from the conference inspired to do more hands-on learning projects.  If you are interested in this way of learning, please visit   the Teaching With Small Boats Alliance website at   .  Once you too are inspired, contact the Museum about volunteering with our area students at 207-548-2529 or .

Rowing the St. Ayle's Skiff

Rowing the St. Ayle’s Skiff

For Those in Peril: The Waterspout vs. the TROVATORE

Without the aid of NOAA weather radio or hurricane and storm tracking software, sailors had to rely on their weather eye and sound judgment to head for shore or batten down the hatches for a storm.  Shown here is the watercolor of the TROVATORE which wrecked when a waterspout hit it in the Mediterranean.

Oliver Park, First Mate of the TROVATORE

Oliver Park, Second Mate of the TROVATORE

Oliver Park relates the story: “When I came on deck I found a severe squall a-coming…  When the squall passed, which it did almost instantly, there was not a breath of air stirring. When it stopped, it stopped all at once. Voices sounded like hollering in a barrel. We staid [sic] in that state for a few moments. Then … a downpour of wind and water struck us. The last I saw was yards flying in all directions. Then I was submerged in water, and knew that the vessel was blown over on her side. The water was coming over me in such torrents that I thought the vessel was upside down and I was under her. But I happened to be on the upper side, and having to catch my breath I found I got a little air, and I hung on. Almost instantly the downpour of water stopped, and it stopped all at once.

A waterspout is like a tornado that picks up houses, only on the ocean it sucks up water into a big balloon-shaped body of water on a neck. When that neck hits something the water in the balloon comes down.  At the moment when that deluge of water poured over me, it was pitch dark, so I couldn’t see a thing, but in all probability the neck of the waterspout hit the vessel, and the water in the balloon-shaped part came down on us. When that downpour of water stopped so suddenly, the darkness grew less, and I could dimly see the state we were in. The masts were in the water, and the broad side of the vessel was up. I managed to climb up on the broadside, which was badly stove in.

Captain James Blanchard, master of the bark TROVATORE

Captain James Blanchard, master of the bark TROVATORE

[Emma Blanchard (wife of Captain James Blanchard) was stuck below was hollering]… She wanted to know if she couldn’t come out. Captain told her yes. I threw a rope down to where she was. Captain slid down on the skylight. She reached out and he took her by the hand. But he could not save her, for at that very moment, as we could tell by the sound, she died with her hand clasped in his. Instantly the vessel pitched forward, going down. I started and ran, and jumped right off the keel.



In the Water

The next thing I knew, I was being tumbled and jumbled upside down, going down in the suction of the vessel. But being a good swimmer from childhood, I knew what to do when I was in the water…In my aimless swimming I finally chanced to face west where a glimmer of light sky showed the breaking of the storm; and between me and that light streak I saw a dark object bobbing up and down. I …found it to be one of the main deck hatches about three feet wide and six feet long. …I found it would partially bear me up by lying lengthwise on it, concave side up, with my hand paddling at the side, stomach down.

I floated around on that for an indefinite period of time until I accidently ran afoul of another exactly like it. I got that other hatch and I wiggled around, and worked around and got under that other hatch crosswise. When I had the two of them, I could sit up instead of lying down, with only my legs in the water, but I didn’t have any rope to fasten them together, so I had to hold one against the other.

In the meantime the clouds had all rolled away, and a bright moon had come out. In the morning, I kept up a hollering all the time….[eventually] I heard the sound of a fog horn. Then I knew someone had heard my voice and was answering with a fog horn…. When the boat came up to me I reached out and caught the gunwale of the boat. But at that point the reaction set in and I had no control of my muscles. The men reached out and hauled me into the boat. I was so benumbed and bewildered I couldn’t speak.

It proved to be an Italian vessel…, they took me to the ship, where the other sailors rigged up a boswain’s [sic] chair which they put me in and hauled me aboard the vessel….and put me in a bunk.

One of only three survivors of the waterspout disaster, Oliver Park shipped back to New York aboard an American brig. His mother had heard the report that the TROVATORE had been lost, and only one officer and two sailors saved. Captain Greene Park, a captain with whom Oliver had served in the past, had reassured her and the whole neighborhood that “if swimming had anything to do with it I was the officer saved, for I was like a duck in water.”

For Those in Peril: Shipwreck Affects Four Searsport Families

Captain’s sons who wanted to go to sea learned on ships commanded by their father’s friends and colleagues.  It was a sad day when a ship went down with young men aboard.  The story of the wreck of the ELIZABETH is one of  loss for four Searsport families. Her master, Captain John Herbert Colcord, was travelling with his wife and two children, who were saved, although he died. Also drowned were James Edwin Herriman, 17-year-old son of Captain James Herriman, and Nathan Philip Pendleton, son of Captain Nathan Pendleton. Earlier, James Locke Pendleton, son of Captain James Gilmore Pendleton, was killed falling from the ELIZABETH’s rigging.  The Colcords had a long history of trading in San Francisco Harbor, and when the ship went down, Captain Colcord’s loss was felt in his hometown of Searsport and that of San Francisco.  A set of resolutions of regret for the untimely death of the Captain, and expressing the high esteem in which he was held, was drawn up by the principal merchants of San Francisco, engrossed and framed, and after being exhibited in the old Merchants’ Exchange, was presented to his widow.


Memorial Citation for Captain Herbert Colcord of the ELIZABETH

Resolutions of Regret for Captain J. Herbert Colcord of the ELIZABETH

Chief officer W.C. Barclay gave the following account of the loss:

We arrived off San Francisco… Feb. 21, 1891.  Despite the offer of two tugs to tow the ship through the Golden Gate, Captain Colcord proceeded under sail until 2 pm, when she was nearly through the Golden Gate, and the wind shifted, heading her off.  The tug ALERT, which had followed the ship in, offered to tow us for $50, which offer Captain Colcord accepted …  As soon as the tug started ahead, the hawser parted and the ship commenced to drift in towards the shore…The tug came up again and wanted us to take his hawser on our quarter to tow the ship off stern first, as the Captain thought we were setting in shore.  As the ship was paying off all right, Captain Colcord ordered the tug to pass the hawser over the bow and go ahead, which was done and proceeded towards the city….The ship at this time was drifting steadily to leeward, there being a strong and increasing breeze and the tug being unable to make any headway.  At about 4pm the ship struck heavily on Four Fathom Bank or Potato Patch, the tug still towing and whistling for assistance.  Soon after striking, the hawser broke or was cut away.  Part of the ship’s keel floated alongside and the ship commenced to leak badly….The tug RELIANCE now came to us and the ALERT went away.  Captain Colcord ordered the second cutter launched to carry his wife and two children to the tug, but she swamped under …with three men in her, they being picked up by the tug.  The dingie was then launched with mate Barclay and two men…Captain Colcord persuaded his family to get in the boat.  They were taken on board the RELIANCE and the dingie again returned to the ship.  By this time the ACTIVE had passed her hawser to the ship, she having worked over the bank…Captain Colcord decided to get the ship into the harbor and beach her, if a suitable place could be found.  The RELIANCE made fast to the ACTIVE and towed ahead of her but the ship drifted steadily leeward all the time, the wind having increased to a heavy gale.  Captain Colcord ordered…the long boat turned over…Mr. Barclay went forward and seeing the ship was close in to the breakers, launched the boat at once, put three men in her and ordered the second mate and boatswain not to allow the boat to leave the ship until he returned with the master.  Mr. Barclay then went aft to get the Captain, who had been injured in the side…but…the ship’s stern struck and she swung around broadside to the beach, with heavy seas breaking over her, it being about 7 pm…Captain Colcord was told that the boat was ready and that it was time to leave the ship.  He at first demurred, saying he was too much hurt to help himself, but he was finally persuaded to make an attempt.  While Mr. Barclay and one of the crew were assisting him along the main deck, a heavy sea came on board and injured him so that he died.  Mr. Barclay then went forward and found that the boat with 13 men in her had left the ship and could not return, leaving 9 on board.  We secured ourselves as well as possible forward.  About 8 pm the masts commenced to come down and the ship to break up, driving us out on the bowsprit.  A heavy sea washed us overboard and only Mr. Barclay succeeded in reaching the shore alive.  Four of the men from the longboat also got ashore.  The tugs had disappeared in the darkness.”



Of the 29 persons on board, 18 were lost.