Captain Trask and the St. Petersburg

THE SAGA OF THE ST. PETERSBURG
Her Skipper and the Ship

The year is 1788 and an expectant mother named Rebecca Trask Tink anxiously awaits in Salem the return of her 21-year old husband John who is chief mate aboard a merchant ship trading in the West Indies. Her anxiety is well founded for the death rate among local fishermen and merchant seamen during the 18th and 19th centuries was appalling.

The bad news Rebecca fears arrives. Her husband John has died of illness in Havana leaving her widowed with a newborn son. The poor woman is so distraught she suffers a mental breakdown and is unable to raise the child. Her parents have no desire to take on the task so the baby – Richard Tink – is sent to Manchester to be raised in the foster home of a generous and loving family named Lee. There were many different Lee families in Manchester at this time, but we are unable to identify just who were the caring foster parents.

Interestingly enough, Richard’s birth mother, Rebecca Trask Tink, eventually moved from Salem to Manchester herself, but we don’t know where she lived or to what degree if any, she had contact with the Lee family and her son.

We do know however, that Mr. Lee, Richard’s adoptive father was a local fisherman who first took the boy to sea at age 12 aboard a schooner fishing the Grand Banks.

Like many young men of that era, Richard had little formal schooling but while at sea taught himself the fundamentals of navigation and it is reported, ” kept a pro-forma log-book, and practiced writing on the lid of his sea-chest and thus formed a hand that was notable for clearness and elegance.”

Soon he qualified to serve as a chief mate, and in 1811 at the age of 23 felt successful enough to embark on a new voyage, that of marriage to Lucy Dennis. Over the next four years three children were born, Richard Jr., Lucy and Mary.

Charles-Trask

Richard’s career continued to prosper and around 1822 he was given his first command as skipper of the ship ADRIAN owned by the Boston merchant house of Loring & Cunningham. This very successful firm, located at Rowe’s Wharf, sent many of their ships to the Baltic ports and to Russia, an enterprise Richard would capitalize on in the years to come.

The next chapter in the Captain’s life begins a year later, in 1823. His wife Lucy suddenly dies leaving Richard to care for their three children, none yet teen agers. The Captain is no fool. Surely, there is a marriageable woman residing in Manchester who would entertain a proposal from a prosperous local sea captain even if it meant raising his three young children!

And indeed there was! Abigail Hooper, daughter of Joseph Hooper and Abigail Crafts was a 35-year old spinster who had operated a very successful general store on North Street for many years. Abby had recently built a house at 10 Union Street and re-established her shop on the premises. Here she sold dry goods, tea, coffee, condiments, clothing including ladies’ bonnets which she designed and made herself, and according to her well-kept ledgers, lots and lots of wine and spirits!

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She was quite a remarkable woman. In addition to running her shop, Abby treated the sick with homeopathic medicines and acted as an attorney by drawing up wills and deeds. Tall, straight and slender with a commanding air, she could certainly hold her own in any marriage, including one with the formidable Captain Richard Tink!

So in 1823, the two were married, but not before Abby got Richard to sign a document stating that the new house and all its contents would forever remain in her name! And that wasn’t all! Apparently sensitive to the possible confusion between the names “ Tink” and “Stink”, strong-willed Abby then persuaded the
Captain to apply to the state legislature to have his name changed to Trask, his mother’s maiden name. On June 20, 1826 the general court decreed that “Richard Tink of Manchester, master mariner, may take the name of Richard Trask and that his wife may take the name of Abigail Hooper Trask.”

The couple had one child, son Charles, born in 1824. One of the treasures we have in the museum’s collection is this little water color portrait painted on ivory of Captain Trask.

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You will notice that some of the paint has worn away over time. On the back is this inscription, written and signed by Abby. “This likeness of Mr. Trask was painted in 1825 in Marseilles and it was defaced by Chs. (Charles) kissing it when he was a babe.” Apparently whenever the Captain was away at sea, Abby would take the portrait up to little Charlie’s bedroom so he could give Daddy a good night kiss.

In 1825, Captain Trask had accumulated the means to purchase his own vessel, the brig EDWARD which he intended to sail to Russia on behalf of the famous Boston trading house of Enoch Train & Company. Unfortunately the EDWARD was lost off the Bahamas, but other vessels were soon acquired by Enoch Train with Trask serving as Master, combining the responsibilities of captain and merchant.

Outward cargoes were generally Havana sugar or American cotton. Once sold in Russia, the proceeds were re-invested in Russian hemp, sail cloth and goose feathers – the latter much sought after as writing instruments back in America. Trask also brought home samples of the latest fashions from London for Abigail’s shop, as well.

While in command of a ship named the Saratoga, according to Basil Lubbock: “Captain Trask was another of those iron-nerved skippers who could deal with a tough crew. On one occasion he left Havre with a foc’s’le full of French convicts just out of jail. One was openly mutinous. Trask immediately put him in irons. At this the rest came aft, bent on making trouble. Trask ordered his son, the second mate, to draw a line across the deck, pulled out his revolver and told the crew that he would shoot the first to cross the line.”

(This reference to a son is certainly not Charles who never pursued a maritime career. So it has to be Trask’s son Richard by his first marriage).

In any event, looking down the barrel of the Captain’s revolver none of the mutineers dared cross the line and all 18 were put into irons and chained to the deck of Trask’s cabin. Lubbock concludes his account by envisioning Trask “fast asleep on the cabin settee, wholly indifferent to the scowling faces and wriggling forms of the 18 mutineers on the floor.”

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We have good reason to believe that the settee mentioned is in fact this one in our collection which family members say was built especially for and used by Trask aboard his ships. It is a massive piece of furniture, but it had to be – Captain Richard Trask weighed close to 300 pounds!

In 1839 Captain Trask joined the Enoch Train Company as a one-quarter owner and skipper of a brand new packet, the St. Petersburg, the largest ship ever built in Massachusetts at the time. His share of the cost was $15,000 as shown in this Bill of Sale.

 

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She was built at the Waterford & Ewell Boatyard in Medford, weighed 840 tons and was 168 feet overall with a beam of 33 feet. At this time as many as 350 men were working in the many Medford shipyards. And by the time the boat building industry had run its course, 568 ships had been launched in Medford and towed down the Mystic River at high tide to the wharves in Boston.

It was customary for the town to give the local school a half-holiday to celebrate the completion of a new ship and one lucky youngster recalls the day the St. Petersburg was launched in 1839.

St.-Petersburg

“How beautiful the brightly painted ship, with her graceful outlines, appeared to me, and with what a thrill I saw the last block knocked away, and the slowly increasing movement of the mighty mass! I can still see the hundred stalwart men on the shore manning the great hawsers, checking and guiding the vessel as she swings into the stream on her way to Boston.”

The St. Petersburg was indeed a beauty. With her handsome square stern, painted ports, rich mahogany fittings below and her officer’s service of Russian cut glass and solid silver, she won attention and admiration wherever she went. Upon her arrival at port, crowds would often gather to board the St. Petersburg and marvel at her grand furnishings and appointments. In his book, Basil Lubbock describes Trask as “one of those princely owner-skippers with the grand manner. Wherever he went he entertained largely and it is even stated that as soon as he had arranged for his return cargo he would leave the ship in charge of his first officer and return via London by steamer.”

The St. Petersburg had been named to honor the various members of the Imperial family of Russia who had become personal friends of Captain Trask during his various voyages to that country. As a further tribute to his Russian friends, Trask arranged for the figurehead of the St. Petersburg to be a bust of Czar Nicholas the 1st of Russia. The Captain would sometimes return with gifts, including this French lithograph showing a view of St. Petersburg, as well a diamond ring from Czar Alexander II. One day young Charlie Trask, seen here in silhouette at age 8, got hold of the ring and scratched his initials on a window pane outside his bedroom. They are still visible at the Trask House today!

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In the Spring of 1840, Captain Trask persuaded Abigail to accompany him to England aboard his fine new ship. The St. Petersburg lay in Mobile being loaded with cotton when her passengers, Abigail, 12-year-old Charlie and Abby’s life-long female companion, Louisa Lord, arrived from Boston to board for the transatlantic crossing. This was Abigail’s first such voyage and not a happy one. Louisa Lord, who was almost a daughter to Abigail, kept a daily diary of the trip, including this entry on May 20, just their second day at sea.

“Mrs. T. suffered some with seasickness all day. She is very weak, debilitated by her stay in Mobile. Some of the sailors came on board very drunk, and brought their kegs and jugs of rum and whisky with them which the mate took from them and threw overboard.”

Throughout the voyage – 40 days to Liverpool, 34 days returning – poor Abigail was sick nearly every day and not surprisingly, never set foot on a ship again.

With Richard Trask in command the St. Petersburg made three voyages to Liverpool, and three to Russia. As large and handsome as she was, the St. Petersburg was neither a lucky ship nor as profitable as Enoch Train & Company had envisioned. On January 13, 1843, she was struck by a sudden and intense storm off the coast of England and driven aground. Thankfully, no lives were lost but the cargo was ruined and the eventual repairs proved both time-consuming and costly.

Four days after the wreck Richard wrote a long letter to Abigail describing the ordeal.

Charles-Trask-letter-about-St-Petersburg

My Dear Wife:

“I believe that every soul aboard had made up his mind we would never see the light of another day. But God is merciful and kind to us in delivering us from the jaws of death and brought us safe to land again.

“Oh my dear, this has been a trying time for me, but God has saved my life and I desire to praise him for his goodness to me.”

While waiting for the repairs – estimated at $35,000 – Captain Trask commissioned an unknown British artist to paint this dramatic oil which is now on display at our museum.

St.-Petersburg-painting

In 1845, the St. Petersburg completed one final voyage with Trask in command returning with refugees from Ireland escaping the potato famine.

While we don’t know how many of these immigrants the St. Petersburg could carry, it was not uncommon for as many as five to six hundred to be crowded below decks on the larger packets.

Following that voyage, Captain Trask retired from the sea but not from the business, remaining an active investor in Enoch Train & Company’s “Line” of Boston to Liverpool packets. He returned home to live in Manchester but was apparently never comfortable in his surroundings. In addition to running her shop, Abigail had for many years been taking young ladies into her home, teaching them the domestic arts. It was clearly a woman’s world.

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So to provide her husband some solitude, Abigail had a small room built in the attic – seen here just left of the chimney -where Richard could retreat and look out over the village to the harbor and his beloved ocean beyond.

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In 1846, Captain Richard Trask passed away at the age of only 59, apparently succumbing to cholera contracted during one of his final voyages. At his death all the ships in Boston harbor flew their flags at half-mast in his honor. And here in Manchester, it was generally agreed that the town had lost its largest citizen, both in terms of wealth and size.

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Abigail lived to be 96, the oldest resident in Manchester at the time of her death and unquestionably one of the town’s most respected citizens. Both Abigail and Richard Trask are buried in the Union Cemetery on School Street, their plot well-marked by this impressive memorial.

As for the St. Petersburg, she apparently was sold by Enoch Train & Company and her bad luck continued. In 1856, returning to the States from Bombay, India, she began to sink and was abandoned at sea.