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.

Ship WILLIAM H. CONNER

Ship WILLIAM H. CONNER

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.