A portrait of a merchant captain hangs in the parlor of the Manchester Historical Museum. It depicts a large man of stout frame with bristled dark hair and attentive eyes that stare out from a weather worn face. Richard Trask was among many men of the sea living in Manchester, but one whose prominence among his peers made him a celebrated figure in the town’s history long after his lifetime.
Richard was born a fatherless son in Salem in 1788, a year after the Constitutional Convention established a new country. John Tink, the chief mate of an East Indian trading ship, had succumbed to disease in Havana at the age of twenty-one. He left behind a young grieving widow, Rebecca Trask Tink, to raise their infant son.
Soon afterwards, Rebecca suffered a nervous breakdown and was forced into confinement by her family. A young Richard lived in a Salem almshouse before he was sent to be raised by a foster family in Manchester. The Lee family would instill in the young boy a trade and passion that would define his life. Mrs. Lee became a second mother to Richard, who held her in high affection for the rest of his life.
Mr. Lee, a fisherman, would be responsible for inducting young Richard into the seafaring profession. In 1800, Lee brought twelve year-old Richard along with him to join a fishing fleet operating on the Grand Banks, marking the beginning of Richard’s lifelong career at sea.
Like many young men of the time, Richard received little formal education and was largely self-taught in his chosen trade. He spent his spare time in solitude, reading through books on navigation. In order to improve his literacy, Richard kept a pro-forma book and used the lid of his sea-chest to practice his writing.
After years at sea, Richard developed into a strong man and natural leader. He became well known for his “intelligence and sobriety” coupled with his command and penmanship. When he was eighteen, Richard was unexpectedly offered the post of second mate aboard another vessel after its owner heard a favorable report about him.
As he grew older, Richard’s thoughts turned towards settling down with a family of his own. In 1811, at the age of 23, Richard married Lucy Dennis, an Ipswich resident. They would have three children: Richard, Lucy (who died as a toddler) and Mary. The eldest son Richard perished as a young man fighting in the Seminole Wars in Florida. Mary became the wife of Samuel Crowell, a prominent sea captain in Manchester, and lived across the street from her father.
Richard continued to prosper as an able seaman, eventually earning enough to begin investing in his own ships. A milestone in Richard’s career came in 1822 when he was given command of his own vessel, the Adriatic, owned by Loring and Cunningham, a Boston merchant house. But that year was also marked by a personal tragedy when his wife died of an unknown cause. Now a widower, Richard looked to remarry so that his three young children would have a mother to raise them. Fortunately for him, such a person was close at hand.
Abigail Hooper was born on October 5, 1788, the daughter of Joseph Hooper, a Manchester merchant. She grew into a tall young woman with a hawkish nose and a fierce independent streak. When she was 26, Abigail sought to have her own business, a rarity of both time and place.
In 1823, Abigail purchased a schoolhouse on Union Street, which would be the foundation of her business. For the next ten years, she would own and operate a general store out of the front of the house, selling medicine, rum, condiments, bonnets and other necessary goods. Abigail soon gained a reputation as a shrewd and effective businesswoman. But as she remained unmarried into her mid-thirties, she also acquired the less-glamorous title of “spinster.”
How did Abigail know Richard Tink? They might well have known one another from childhood. Abigail grew up two doors down from Aaron Lee, the possible patriarch of Richard’s adoptive family, on Summer Street. It would also not be unusual in a small town such as Manchester that most of its residents would be familiar with one other.
Richard and Abigail married in 1823, a year after his first wife’s death. As part of their nuptial agreement, Richard recognized that Abigail’s house on Union Street, which was newly remodeled, was to remain under her name, as well as the possessions she had prior to her marriage. Eventually, Abigail had an room built on the upper floor to afford her husband some privacy, which was referred to as the “Captain’s Walk.” Their only child Charles was born in 1824.
Another family change came in 1826 when Richard successfully petitioned the state legislature to have his surname legally changed to “Trask,” the maiden name of his mother. It is surmised that Abigail was the driving force behind this move, an apparent reaction to many Manchester townspeople calling her home the “Tink House”. There may also have been sensitivity to the similarities of the name “Tink” with the word “stink.”
By 1839, Enoch Train, the junior partner in the merchant firm Samuel Train & Company, had cast his eye on the lucrative cotton trade and decided to build a ship that would cement his company’s place in the business. With input from Richard, who was an investor in the company, the craft was built in Medford, then a bustling shipbuilding hub in Massachusetts. It was named the St. Petersburg for the Russian capital at the time.
The St. Petersburg was an imposing and handsome vessel. She weighed in at 840 tons, measured 168 feet long and was 33 feet wide. The ship was crafted from mahogany and decorated with Russian cut glass and solid silver. The St. Petersburg‘s bow was later fitted with a figurehead of Tsar Nicholas I, a possible gesture of goodwill towards the land of her namesake.
Trask commanded the St. Petersburg on three separate trips to England and Russia, overseeing the transport of typical American goods into Russian harbors that were in high demand: tar, tallow, candles and quill pens. Richard’s time in Russia brought him into contact with members of the Imperial family and he established a warm friendship with them, especially the crown prince, the future Tsar Alexander II.
At home in Manchester, Abigail had the company of Charles and several young apprentices that Richard had taken into his care. One of them, Louisa Lord, came to Manchester from Ipswich as a charge to Abigail, who tutored young women in the community. Abigail bonded with Louisa over their shared faith and instilled in her a firm devotion to Christian ideals, including support for the temperance movement that was sweeping early 19th century America.
Louisa was also very close with Charles, whom she helped teach when he was young, and corresponded with him frequently when he attended Yale College. In turn, Charles refered to her affectionately as “sister.” However, Louisa was on less amiable terms with Captain Trask, disliking how he would often give out orders at home as if he were commanding his ship.
During their marriage, Richard and Abigail wrote to one another devoutly. Their letters showcase a mariner’s life at sea and in ports across the country and around the world, from Boston, Mobile, New Orleans, London and St. Petersburg. They frequently discussed Abigail’s life at home, the latest social conversation among neighbors, and the friends of the family who visited Abigail in Manchester. While most the letters are filled with great affection, familial strife is not absent. In one series of letters, Richard scolds his wife for apparently mishandling funds. But more often than not, Richard wrote about the loneliness he felt when separated from his home and family.
In the spring of 1840, the captain decided to bring his wife, 12 year old Charles and Louisa along with him on a delivery of cotton from Mobile to Liverpool. This was Abigail’s first such trip, an arduous forty-day journey to England. Beset with seasickness, annoyed with the rowdiness of the crew and being constantly worried over her son’s well-being on a bustling ship made this a less than pleasing experience for her. After a thirty-four day journey back to the States, Abigail never accompanied Richard overseas again, to his disappointment.
The St. Petersburg served Trask faithfully but as with any ship over a period of time, it ran afoul of the elements. During a winter storm in January 1843, she became stranded off the coast of England and had to be towed by ferry to Liverpool for repairs. With Enoch Train & Company starting to view their craft as no longer a profitable investment, the St. Petersburg’s days on the ocean were coming to an end.
And so too were those of her master. Trask made his final sail upon the St. Petersburg in 1845 but this time he was transporting cargo of a different kind: Irish refugees fleeing their homeland at the height of the Potato Famine. It is estimated that the St. Petersburg carried between 500-600 immigrants from Ireland to Boston during this Atlantic crossing. Afterwards, the ship was sold and the captain settled into retirement with his family in Manchester.
Trask spent the remainder of his life in the house on Union Street, spending his time in the “Captain’s Walk,” which gave him a commanding view of the ocean. At times, Richard would complain of loneliness and a feeling that members of his family had forgotten about him. His only comfort available to him this time, he believed, came from his personal Bible.
But Trask’s retirement would not last long. After returning to Manchester from his last voyage, Richard began showing signs of illness, possibly from contracting cholera. Trask would die at age fifty-nine in 1846, the same year his son Charles graduated from Yale. At the time of his passing, Richard was recognized as the wealthiest man in Manchester. In his honor, the ship flags of Boston harbor were flown at half-mast.
Abigail adorned herself in widow’s black for the rest of her life and continued to live on Union Street with Louisa Lord, who died in 1872 at age 62. When Abigail passed away in 1885 at 96 years of age, she was believed to have been the oldest woman in town and in the state at the time.
The St. Petersburg, unfortunately, was not gifted with such longevity. In 1858, just over a decade after her former master’s death, she was sailing off the coast of Bombay when she began to take on water. Soon afterwards, the crew decided to abandon the sinking ship, the end of what had once been Trask’s majestic craft.
Cole Caviston, March 2018
Abbot Jr., Gordon. “Jeffrey’s Creek: A Story of People, Places and Events in the Town That Came to Be Known as Manchester-By-The-Sea.” Gordon Abbot, Jr.
Huss, John. “The Sage of the St. Petersburg: Her Skipper, The Ship, Our Model.” March 2015.
Richard, Trask. Letters to Abigail Hooper Trask. 1840-1845. Manchester Historical Museum.
Tappan, W.H. “History of Essex County, Massachusetts.” 1888.
Virden, Chris – Resource for general archives and genealogical research of Trask, Tink, and Lee families.