IRON MEN AND WOODEN SHIPS
Whether fishing the storm-tossed waters of the Atlantic, dodging pirates in the Caribbean, or battling the British Navy in both the Revolution and the War of 1812, the stalwart men of Manchester who went to sea were constantly at risk. This is their story – the story of Iron Men on Wooden Ships!
In the early days of settlement, fishing was the most important local enterprise. Most of the early fishing was done close to shore but as the country expanded dramatically following the Revolution, fishermen had to venture further and further out to sea to meet the demand. This in turn led to the construction of larger vessels, many in the nearby boatyards of Essex.
This drawing appeared in the Reverend D.F. Lamson’s history of Manchester, published in 1895. It shows Foster’s Wharf, one of several Manchester Town Landings. Three types of fishing craft are shown: a Chebacco Boat in the left foreground, and to the right, a Grand Banker and a Jigger. On shore are rows of fish flakes, racks where split and salted cod are drying for future consumption.
Here we see a somewhat more modest craft – the “wheel-barrow” boat built and used by an inventive local fisherman named Edward Woodbury Heath. He started fishing at age 14 and continued in the industry for 54 years. This wonderful photo was taken on January 3, 1855 and the launching site is the cove at Black Beach.
As local fishermen, now aboard larger boats, began to sail to the Grand Banks and the Gulf of Maine, the risks involved rose dramatically. From 1745 to 1774, for example, no less than ninety Manchester fishermen perished at sea and the death toll continued well into the next century. Since few seamen during the Age of Sail could swim, simply falling overboard was almost always fatal.
Yet, the industry continued, for the very purpose of the first English settlement on Cape Ann “was to worship God and catch fish!”
Reverend Lamson’s town history offers this tale of luck – good and bad. On September 17, 1846, two local fishermen, Samuel Carter and Thomas Day were fishing aboard the “Troubadour” on the Grand Banks during a heavy sea. Suddenly a rogue wave surged across the ship, carrying both Carter and Day overboard. The next wave then proceeded to deposit Mr. Day back on deck, wet but still very much alive… Lamson makes no mention of the fate of the less fortunate Mr. Carter however.
Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes perhaps had Carter’s grieving family in mind when he wrote these words:
“Ah, many a lonely home is found
Along the Essex shore,
They cheered the Good man outward bound,
And see his face no more”.
And Mother Nature wasn’t the only cause for concern. In the early days of the fishing industry, many Native Americans were far less hospitable than Chief Masconomo and his fellow Agawams here on Cape Ann.
In August of 1747 for example, a schooner’s crew from Manchester put ashore on the coast of Maine to procure firewood and water. They were immediately set upon by a party of local Indians. A massacre ensured, the only survivor being a lad of twelve, Aaron Lee. Lee was held captive for three years before he managed to escape and after enduring incredible hardships, managed to find his way home to Manchester. Here Aaron Lee lived to a ripe old age, served as Town Clerk for many years, and according to Reverend Lamson, was much admired for his fine penmanship!
Lamson had a real knack for making the inconsequential seem terribly important!
Another boatload of Manchester seamen who were surprised by Indians in Maine included Captain Samuel Leach, known far and wide for his bravery and great strength. Leach has survived several hand to hand battles with Indians in the past, and had vowed never to be taken alive. On the beach that day in Casco Bay, he fought until his death.
No Manchester mariner deserves the appellation “Iron Man” more than Nathaniel Allen, known as “Sailmaker Allen”. A member of one of the town’s earliest and most distinguished families, Allen was a hero of the Revolutionary War, crossing the Delaware with Washington’s Army en route to the critical victories at both Trenton and Princeton in 1776. He was later captured and according to Reverend Lamson, turned over to some Indians who taught him the art of making birch bark canoes and baskets.
Upon his release, Allen returned to Manchester to pursue at life at sea. In October, 1780, he shipped out of Gloucester aboard the schooner AMERICA as one of five crewmen under the command of Isaac Elwell.
It was an easy passage to Point Pitre, Guadeloupe where they sold their cargo of fish and took aboard sugar, cotton, cocoa, coffee, rum and molasses for the voyage home. All went well until they reached the shallow waters of Georges Bank just southeast of Cape Cod. There on December 31, they encountered a ferocious winter gale, quickly losing the ship’s rudder and her spars. Forced to clear away all the rigging to simply stay afloat, they were left with no steerage and for the next TWO MONTHS were pushed further and further eastward across the Atlantic.
Their one week’s provisions long gone, Allen and his shipmates turned to the cargo of molasses and cocoa, supplemented by whatever fish they were able to catch. They even devoured the remaining rats on board. But their real need was water. Only one barrel remained and for three weeks it failed to rain a drop. The cook died of thirst and the others knew they were facing the same fate.
They continued to drift for an incredible 261 days. Few other vessels were to be seen until September 17, 1781, now off the coast of Cornwall, England, a British brig appeared and the desperate Americans were taken on board.
Allen and his shipmates were eventually released by the British off the entrance to New York Harbor. Given the brig’s only small boat with a sail, they spent the next two weeks rowing and sailing back to Cape Ann. They came ashore at Black Beach Cove in West Manchester and from there walked to their respective homes. It was reported that they were “so changed and emaciated that their friends hardly recognized them.”
Whether Nathaniel Allen ever returned to the sea is not known, but his adventure had little lasting effect on his health. He died in Manchester at the age 84.
While Nathaniel Allen was just one of the 137 Manchester men who served in the Continental Army, there were also many who fought the war aboard privateers – small, fast sailing vessels that attacked slower British merchantmen carrying supplies and munitions.
These acts of apparent piracy were authorized by the Continental Congress which issued what were called Letters of Marque. These gave ship owners, as private citizens, the right to attack and seize English vessels, sharing the proceeds from the eventual sale of the cargo with the government.
More than 600 Letters of Marque were issued to privately-owned Massachusetts vessels by Congress, another 1,000 more by the Commonwealth’s General Court. The impact of the lightly armed but fast sailing privateers was huge. During the Revolution, the value of prizes taken by the U.S. Navy was less than $6 million; that taken by privateers, $18 million!
The contributions of North Shore communities deserve special recognition. Some 154 privateers out of Salem took 445 prizes, more than half of those captured during the entire War of Independence. And as this broadside suggests, fortunes could and certainly were made during the course of the War!
Colonel John Lee was one of Manchester’s privateers, sailing aboard the schooner HAWK. In 1776, after success capturing a number of British vessels, the HAWK sailed into the port of Bilbao, Spain. The local government initially seized her as “acting without legitimate authority”.
Once Colonel Lee presented his Letter of Marque, however, a Spanish Court assured Lee that “his vessel and all those of his countrymen should be protected under their flag in all the ports of Spain” …. an early and important recognition of the new nation by a major European country
Sailing aboard the privateers was not without its hazards. Weather and British warships took their toll. One of the greatest losses suffered to Manchester occurred in July of 1776 when the privateer GLOUCESTER disappeared without a trace. The entire crew of 130 men were lost, including eighteen men from Manchester, among them the ship’s surgeon, the town’s beloved Dr. Joseph Whipple, who left a widow and seven children.
In 1778, ten more Manchester seamen were lost aboard the privateer BARRINGTON. Captain Jerimiah Hibbert died when his brig sank in a storm off Portland, and his brother Joseph, also a Master of a privateer, was killed during the battle of Penobscot Bay in Maine.
This was the largest American Naval expedition of the War, involving a task force of 44 ships and a ground force of more than 1,000 Colonial soldiers and militiamen. It resulted in the worst naval defeat in U.S. history until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 163 years later!
But Yankee audacity as well as heroism enabled other Manchester seamen not only to survive but triumph. Here are three of my favorite tales of Manchester’s Iron Men aboard Wooden Ships!
William Pert was skipper of a merchantman carrying a cargo of provisions and fine liquor when his ship was overtaken by a British warship off Boston. A prize crew was put aboard to sail the captured vessel to Halifax, a British stronghold and a haven for displaced American Tories during the Revolution. The British officers soon discovered the cache of fine booze on board and began to partake.
As night fell, they asked Captain Pert to assume command of the vessel while they stayed below to sample the various wines and brandy. Taking the helm, Pert promptly brought the ship about and quietly sailed her back to Boston.
When the sun arose, the bewildered and besotted Brits found themselves under the guns of a fort protecting Boston harbor and were promptly taken prisoner.
A somewhat similar story involves Manchester’s William Tuck. While in command of a privateer, Captain Tuck was overtaken by a British warship. Again a prize crew was put on board and sailed Tuck’s ship to Nova Scotia. Legend has it that during the voyage, Captain Tuck, known for his “gift of gab” so ingratiated himself with the British officers that upon reaching Halifax, they invited him to join them ashore for dinner.
With no officers on board and the British prize crew in the rigging attending to the sails, Tuck’s resourceful first mate Daniel Leach and his shipmates managed to smash open the arms chest and seize control of the vessel.
When the British officers, accompanied by their American guest, returned from dinner – undoubtedly none the worse for wear – they were greeted on deck by Leach who declared them his prisoners and handed command back to Captain Tuck who happily weighed anchor and sailed back to Boston!
In addition to his gift for gab” William Tuck proved a man of many other talents. Following the War, he served as Customs Collector for the Gloucester District, was a Justice of the Peace, and even practiced medicine. He was quite active in the bedroom as well, having four wives and siring 23 children. When William Tuck died in 1825 at the ripe old age of 86, the town of Manchester named Tuck’s Point in his honor!
Captains Tuck and Pert weren’t the only resourceful Manchester mariners to outwit the enemy during the Revolution. Our hero this time is 21-year old David Kitfield. Kitfield and two companions were captured at sea and imprisoned in England. The trio somehow managed to escape and posing as English seamen secured berths aboard a merchant ship bound for Jamaica.
Armed with swords they had purchased prior to sailing, the three –while on the same watch – took control of the deck, locking the British officers below. Then, with a promise of a share in any prize money, they convinced the rest of the crew to join their ranks. The next day, they pulled alongside an American privateer who escorted them proudly back to Salem.
According to an account published in the Salem Register, “The British captain cried bitterly, and said how he would not care so much if it hadn’t been his first time as captain.”
Kind of makes you wonder how Great Britain could boast that they were the Monarchs of the Sea!
Even though the War of Independence officially came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Great Britain continued to harass American shipping, stopping and searching neutral vessels on the pretext of arresting deserters. Many an American seaman was taken off his ship, or shanghaied on shore and impressed into the British Navy.
In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson, in retaliation declared an embargo which closed American ports and prohibited foreign commerce. Unfortunately the results were far more disastrous to American economy than that of Great Britain. Especially hard hit was New England whose livelihood in good measure depended upon the sea.
Manchester petitioned the Great and General Court in Boston to share its case with Congress.
“Our home is the ocean, read the petition, “our wealth we draw from the deep, and by dangers and suffering …we support ourselves. While our fish are perishing in our store, our vessels rotting at the wharves, we look with sorrow and dismay upon the poverty which must be our lot unless government in its wisdom should speedily prove relief.”
This heartfelt and eloquent plea fell on deaf ears and exports, and the heart and soul of coastal economy dropped dramatically in value.
With no relief coming from Congress, many New Englanders simply choose to ignore the Embargo and continued trading aboard. One such merchant was William Ome of Salem, owner of the MONK. She had been built in Maine in 1805, just two years before the Embargo Act of 1807. Her first Master was John Woodbury Allen, later of Manchester, who sailed her to various European ports including Copenhagen where he had his portrait painted.
We’re not sure when Allen left the employ of Mr. Ome, but do know that a Jonathan Felt was the MONK’s Master in 1809 and had the dubious distinction of having his ship seized by a Federal gunboat and her cargo was confiscated as penalty for violation of the Embargo Act.
Then, as a further indignity, on August 23, 1812, within sight of Cape Ann, the MONK was again captured, this time by a British Warship which, as we see here, towed her back to Halifax as a Prize of War.
Poor Captain Felt, returning from Brazil with a cargo of hides had no idea that President James Madison had declared war with Great Brittan just two months earlier.
The MONK’s first captain, John Woodbury Allen, moved to Manchester in 1810 and purchased this property at 18 Sea Street. His new home had been built in 1701, and was reportedly once a popular tavern, situated on what was then the main road to Gloucester. We know nothing more about Captain Allen other than he died in 1822, at the age of 65.
The MONK herself remained in the public consciousness of Manchester for many years, her image serving as the official symbol of the Manchester Historical Society until 1995.
Back to the War of 1812 and the negative effects of the Embargo Act. The pinch was felt on a very local level by Ebenezer Tappan who ran a general store on Central Street in Manchester. Needing to replenish his stock he decided to send his schooner, the NANCY, on a risky voyage to Boston, which at the time was blockaded by British warships.
Early one evening, the NANCY, slipped out of Manchester harbor under the command of Captain Jerry Danforth. With Nathan Carter, and Tappan’s son Benjamin on board, the NANCY clung close to shore, snuck by the enemy blockade, and slipped into Boston under cover of night. Taking on a cargo of flour, sugar, lumber, and molasses they headed homeward.
All went well until they passed close to Bakers Island. The early morning fog lifted and a British warship loomed ahead. A shot was fired, but the NANCY sailed on. The enemy then launched two barges filled with musket-bearing marines.
Rather than have the chase end in unprotected Manchester, Captain Danforth beached the NANCY in Beverly and the three men fled to high ground. The British tried to re-launch Tappan’s ship, but failing that, took some of the cargo, stripped the sails and set her on fire. Militia from both Beverly and Manchester arrived on the scene, fired some shots at the departing British, and extinguished the blaze.
Many Manchester mariners now fought the British, not aboard privateers, but rather as sailors in the relatively new United States Navy. One was Lambert Flowers, a seaman aboard the 38-gun U.S. Frigate CHESAPEAKE under the command of Captain James Lawrence who had achieved much notoriety fighting pirates off the Barbary Coast in 1804.
Seaman Flowers had quite a reputation as well. Reverend Lamson describes him as “a man of herculean build and great strength and courage” and recalls the time Flowers picked up a massive cast iron cannon and single-handily carried it across the gun deck!
On June 1st, 1813, Captain Lawrence sailed the CHESAPEAKE out of Boston harbor and was immediately attacked by the HMS SHANNON, also bearing 38-guns. For over an hour the CHESAPEAKE fired away, hitting the SHANNON 158 times. Unfortunately, the British, with a far more disciplined and seasoned crew, struck the American ship 362 times. During the battle, seaman Flowers is said to have boarded the enemy ship, but finding himself unsupported, made his way back to the CHESAPEAKE where he was subsequently wounded.
He survived, but Captain Lawrence was not so lucky. He and nearly all his fellow officers were killed. Just before he died however, Lawrence uttered the famous words, “Don’t Give up the Ship”, which became a rallying cry for the U.S. Navy.
The captured CHESAPEAKE was sailed back to Halifax and incorporated into the British Navy. Seaman Flowers recovered from his wounds and served as a boatswain in the Navy for many years.
Other Manchester seamen served under the command of “The Hero of Lake Erie”, Commander Oliver Hazard Perry, whose battle flag was emblazoned with the dying words of Captain Lawrence. Perry’s own immortal phrase was “We have met the enemy and they are ours!”
Unfortunately, a number of the American sailors fighting on Lakes Erie and Champlain were captured and sent to prisons in Canada and England. None was more dreaded than the infamous Dartmoor Prison built on the moors of Devon. At one time it held 6,000 prisoners, including Major Henry Story, Captain Isaac Lee, Benjamin Leach and Ezekiel Leach, all of Manchester.
Of all the important naval battles of the War, none is closer to home than the epic engagement of the British warship Guerriere and the USS Constitution in early August, 1812. This battle is especially significant to the Manchester Historical Museum, because of this model in our collection and the story that goes with it.
But first, let’s return to the battle itself. Under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, the Constitution was back in New England waters after four years as flagship of the American Mediterranean Squadron.
Leaving Boston Harbor on August 18, she sailed eastward and recaptured an American privateer from the British sloop Avenger. She then came upon another privateer which reported being pursued by a British warship, the Guerriere.
The next morning the two combatants came upon each either and readied for battle. The ships were evenly matched; The Guerriere, formerly a French ship now under the command of Royal Navy Captain James Richard Dacres, had a crew of 272 and carried 49 guns; the Constitution had 50 guns and a much larger crew, but the British were more seasoned.
Captain Hull wisely decided to attack the Guerriere with his big guns alone, and not attempt to close and board his adversary. Thanks to superb ship handling and the celebrated skill of the Yankee gunners, the battle was short and sweet. In less than an hour, the British ship, dismasted and burning, lay dead in the water. Captain Dacres, wounded in the assault, struck his colors and surrendered.
Casualties aboard the Constitution totaled 14 men; aboard the Guerriere, 79 seamen were killed.
In the heat of battle, one young Yankee seaman watched in wonder as a cannon ball bounced off his ship’s stout oak planks and shouted “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” And thus the USS Constitution will live in history as Old Ironsides.
One of the skilled gunners aboard Old Ironsides was a Richard E. Dunn. During the course of battle he was severely wounded, suffering a compound fracture of the tibia. Dunn was carried below where the ship’s surgeon proceeded to cut his leg off below the knee. According to one naval historian, the very last shot fired by the British, was in fact, the one that mangled Dunn’s leg.
Shipmate Moses Smith, who kept a journal of the battle, described Dunn’s ordeal: “Dick Dunn bore his amputation with a fortitude I shall always remember. “You are a hard set of butchers”, was all he said as his torn and bleeding limb was severed from his body”. And remember, this was before the days of anesthesia.
Dunn must have been well liked because another shipmate took a piece of the Constitution’s taffrail which had been shot off in battle, and crafted a crude model of Old Ironsides’ hull somewhat like this, which he presented to his friend, while Dunn was recovering in a Naval hospital.
Richard Dunn spent the next 58 years in both the active Navy and at shipyards, including the Naval yard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
How his model ended up in the Manchester Historical Museum is the next chapter of the story. Dunn himself was not a Manchester resident, but he had a niece who was. Her name was Julia Curriea.
Her husband, Charles Morris Curriea ,was fascinated by the story of “Uncle Dunn” and upon Dunn’s death, bought the model from the estate. Curriea then proceeded to add the masts and rigging himself, had the full model installed in its present case, and enlisted an artist friend to paint the background scene of Boston harbor as it appeared in 1812.
In 1925, at the bequest of the late Julia Curriea, the model was given to the Museum where it is now on view. For a look at Dick Dunn’s wooden peg leg, you have to visit the Portsmouth Naval Museum in New Hampshire where it now resides. This is it!
We’ll now board the privateer GENERAL ARMSTRONG during one of final naval battles of the War of 1812. Sailing out of New York, under the command of Captain Chester Read she carried a crew of 90 seamen, including the First Officer John Allen of Manchester. Allen was the grandson of Deacon John Allen whose family operated a popular tavern at the corner of North and Washington Streets in 1750.
On September 15, 1814, the GENERAL ARMSTRONG, having crossed the Atlantic, sailed into the neutral harbor of Fayal in the Azores. There she encountered three British warships preparing to sail to New Orleans to support land forces about to engage General Andrew Jackson in the critical battle of New Orleans.
The British squadron included the PLANTAGENET, the ROTA, and the CARNATION. Their combined armament consisted of 136 guns, with a total compliment of some 400 sailors and marines, a formidable foe indeed! By contrast, the General Armstrong mounted just nine guns, but one was a massive 40 pounder known as a “Long Tom.”
Wary of what might happen, the American ship had anchored in shallow water, close to shore. Ignoring the rules of war which decreed that vessels of every nationality were safe in a neutral port, the British attempted to seize the GENERAL ARMSTRONG after dark, sending 14 longboats filled with armed men.
The Americans responded with all guns blazing, driving the would-be boarding party ashore. During the battle, Captain Read was seriously wounded and turned command over to his First Officer, John Allen!
The CARNATION, being of the shallowest draft, then approached within range of the privateer to block her escape to sea. At midnight, another flotilla of longboats was launched and rowed toward the GENERAL ARMSTRONG. Under heavy fire from the American guns, the enemy pulled alongside and attempted to board.
They were immediately repelled, the American crew having draped their ship with netting which entangled the boarding party, making them easy targets in the moonlight.
At daybreak, Portuguese officials at Fayal ordered a stop to the hostilities, but the British Squadron Commander would have none of it. In fact, he cried that he would take the privateer and the “dammed Yankees” and if anyone tried to stop him he would sack the town!
The wounded Americans were sent ashore and the battled waged on. The CARNATION closed for a broadside attack, but the privateer responded with devastatingly accurate gunfire from her Long Tom cannon, cutting down the British foremast and holing her below the waterline. As the two other enemy warships came to her aid, the Americans, realizing they had done their best, scuttled their ship and rowed safely to shore gaining asylum with the Portuguese authorities.
In what Naval historians consider one of the bloodiest and most significant sea battles of the War, the British lost close to 120 men, with another 80 wounded. Only two Americans were killed, and seven others wounded.
Prior to abandoning ship, the Americans removed the figure head of GENERAL ARMSTRONG and carried it ashore. Today, it is proudly displayed in the Naval Academy’s Museum in Annapolis!
Manchester’s John Allen went on to command several of his own vessels, but tragically, in 1823, he was murdered by pirates in the Caribbean. His exploits in the War of 1812 however, were well remembered in Essex County for generations and he stands as a shining example of the brave seamen who fought so ably against the world’s’ mightiest naval power.
With the end of the War in 1815 and the British fleet long gone, relative calm prevailed long the North Shore as famed artist Fitz Henry Lane captured in this painting of Manchester Harbor. But such calm did last for long as a new hazard suddenly surfaced, one which drew the attention of some of Boston’s most distinguished scientists and scholars! In August, 1817, a “sea serpent”, some 90 feet long, with a “head the size of a horse” and a girth as big around as “half a barrel” was reported seen in Gloucester Harbor.
Similar reports soon followed, coming not only from mariners and fishermen, but also from observers on shore. All these witnesses were judged to be sober, industrious and of sound mind!
A committee was appointed in Boston to “collect evidence in regard to the existence and appearance of a Sea Serpent”. After interviewing every known witness, the Committee published an illustrated, 50-page report concluding that the “testimony was sufficient to place the existence of the animal beyond a doubt”.
Perhaps Manchester’s own Joseph Lee, a local fishermen, was among those interviewed. Here we see Lee’s own account of having an encounter with a sea serpent, complete with his pencil drawing of the creature. This is his description of the encounter.
On the 15th day of August 1817, I had the pleasure of seeing the Sea Serpent. I was on board the Schooner Hazard, laying to anchor off Little Island between the town of Manchester and Cape Ann when I first saw him. To have a better view I went into the boat and was within seventy yards of him before I turned back on board of the schooner again. He was about one hundred feet in length as nie as I could judge. His bigness I could not ascertain. I saw him twenty minutes.
This wonderful document is framed and can be seen at the Manchester Historical Museum.
We now return to the real world of sailing ships and making money. With the war over and the Embargo now lifted, overseas commerce expanded rapidly. By 1830, here in little Manchester there were 50 Masters of merchant ships that sailed out of New York, Salem and Boston, now a bustling city of 61,000 people.
One of Manchester’s most prominent merchant sea captains was Thomas Leach. Born in 1807, he was the son of this noted mariner, also named Thomas. At the tender age of 9, young Tom went to sea with his father as the cabin boy, learning every aspect of the trade including one important life lesson which he never forgot.
It was a bitterly cold day many years ago off the Grand Banks when young Tom Leach came topsides wearing a pair of wool mittens. “Tom”, his father is reported to have said, “What are those things on your hands?” The mittens were shown. “Well, ain’t those nice things for a sailor? Don’t you ever let me see you with anything on your hands again”, the irate father said, throwing the mittens over the side.
During his half-century afloat, no matter what the weather, Thomas Leach always sailed barehanded!
By 1832, he was ready for has first command, taking the helm of the Boston brig Oregon and his 51-year career as a merchant captain had begun.
Thomas Leach completed 20 voyages to Russia, three to China, and many more trips to ports around the world including India. In the Museum’s collection are several of his log books. Leach’s entry on December 18, 1856 while on a voyage from Boston to Calcutta reports all “calm with fresh fine breezes and pleasant weather.”
Note Leach’s fine hand-writing…a lost art indeed!
Highly regarded by his peers, he was elected a member of the prestigious Boston Marine Society in 1848 as shown in this handsome certificate. He was also a great spinner of yarns and loved to tell how he escaped a blood-thirsty bunch of Malay pirates who attempted to board his ship. Lining the crew at the rail each armed with a cutlass, he rolled out his cannon and challenged the pirates to board. Not surprisingly, they fled before the cannon could be fired.
In 1871, now age 67, Leach retired from the sea moved ashore to become Warden of the Port of Boston, a most important position. He finally retired in 1886 and died in the home of his birth the same year.
The final Iron Man we’ll meet today is quite fittingly our very own Captain Richard Trask, whose Union Street home is now the headquarters of the Manchester Historical Museum. Born in Salem in 1788, he was raised in a foster home here in Manchester. He learned seamanship at an early age from his adopted father, a fisherman named Lee 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 was reported to have “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.
At age 18 Richard was offered a second-mate’s berth. His career continued to prosper and in 1822 he was given his first command as skipper of the ship ADRIAN owned by the Boston merchant house of Loring & Cunningham.
The next chapter in the Captain’s life began a year later when upon the death of his first wife, he married Abigail Hooper, a 35-year old spinster who had recently built a house at 10 Union Street where she lived and ran a thriving general store and made and sold ladies’ bonnets.
By now, Trask was sailing in behalf of the famous Boston trading house of Enoch Train & Company serving as Master, combining the responsibilities of captain and merchant. He traded mostly in the Baltic ports and Russia where he became a personal friend of the Royal family.
Outward cargoes were generally Havana sugar or American cotton. Once sold, the proceeds were re-invested in Russian hemp, sail cloth and goose feathers – the latter much sought after as writing instruments back in America.
You had to be a tough task-master to run a “taut ship” and certainly Captain Trask was up to the challenge. In this book by Basil Lubbock, the author describes an incident aboard one of Trask’s early commands, the Saratoga.
“Captain Trask was one 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, then ordered the second mate, to draw a line across the deck, pulled out his revolvers and told the crew that he would shoot the first to cross the line.”
Looking down the barrels of the Captain’s pistols none of the mutineers dared cross the line and all 18 were put into irons and chained to the deck of Trask’s cabin.
In 1839 Captain Trask became a one-quarter owner and skipper of Enoch Train’s brand new packet, the St. Petersburg, the largest ship ever built in Massachusetts at the time.
Built at the Waterford & Ewell Boatyard in Medford, the St. Petersburg was a real beauty. With her handsome square stern, painted ports, and rich mahogany fittings below, 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.
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 an intense storm off the coast of England and driven aground. Thankfully, no lives were lost but the cargo was ruined and ship badly damaged. While waiting for the repairs – estimated at $35,000 – Captain Trask commissioned an unknown British artist to paint this dramatic oil now in display at our museum.
In 1845, the St. Petersburg completed one final voyage with Trask in command, returning with refugees from Ireland escaping the potato famine. He retired to his Manchester home but sadly not for long. Captain Richard Trask passed away at the age of only 59, apparently succumbing to cholera contracted during one of his earlier 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.
With the introduction of transatlantic steamships in the 1860’s the Great Age of Sail came to a close. But the memories of the Manchester fishermen, naval heroes and merchant sea captains who sailed the Seven Seas during that era will never be forgotten.
Richard Trask, Nathaniel Allen, Samuel Leach, John Lee, William Pert, Daniel Leach, William Tuck, David Kitfield, Jerry Danforth, Lambert Flowers, Richard Dunn, John Allen, Thomas Leach, and all the other Iron Men of Manchester….
We greet you, we salute you, we thank you!
Sail on brave men, sail on.