Books by willis j. Abbot

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Such is the technical description of the changes which years of peril and of war wrought in the model of the American sailing ship. How the vessel herself, under full sail, looked when seen through the eyes of one who was a sailor, with the education of a writer and the temperament of a poet, is well told in these lines from "Two Years Before the Mast":

"Notwithstanding all that has been said about the beauty of a ship under full sail, there are very few who have ever seen a ship literally under all her sail. A ship never has all her sail upon her except when she has a light, steady breeze very nearly, but not quite, dead aft, and so regular that it can be trusted and is likely to last for some time. Then, with all her sails, light and heavy, and studding-sails on each side alow and aloft, she is the most glorious moving object in the world. Such a sight very few, even some who have been at sea a good deal, have ever beheld; for from the deck of your own vessel you can not see her as you would a separate object.

"One night, while we were in the tropics, I went out to the end of the flying jib-boom upon some duty; and, having finished it, turned around and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship as at a separate vessel; and there rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas spreading far out beyond the hull and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night, into the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark-blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out wide and high--the two lower studding-sails stretching on either side far beyond the deck; the topmost studding-sails like wings to the topsails; the topgallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and highest of all the little sky-sail, the apex of the pyramid, seeming actually to touch the stars and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculptured marble they could not have been more motionless--not a ripple on the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail, so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said (for he, too, rough old man-of-war's man that he was, had been gazing at the show), half to himself, still looking at the marble sails: 'How quietly they do their work!'"

The building of packet ships began in 1814, when some semblance of peace and order appeared upon the ocean, and continued until almost the time of the Civil War, when steamships had already begun to cut away the business of the old packets, and the Confederate cruisers were not needed to complete the work. But in their day these were grand examples of marine architecture. The first of the American transatlantic lines was the Black Ball line, so called from the black sphere on the white pennant which its ships displayed. This line was founded in 1815, by Isaac Wright & Company, with four ships sailing the first of every month, and making the outward run in about twenty-three days, the homeward voyage in about forty. These records were often beaten by ships of this and other lines. From thirteen to fifteen days to Liverpool was not an unknown record, but was rare enough to cause comment.

It was in this era that the increase in the size of ships began--an increase which is still going on without any sign of check. Before the War of 1812 men circumnavigated the world in vessels that would look small now carrying brick on the Tappan Zee. The performances of our frigates in 1812 first called the attention of builders to the possibilities of the bigger ship. The early packets were ships of from 400 to 500 tons each. As business grew larger ones were built--stout ships of 900 to 1100 tons, double-decked, with a poop-deck aft and a top-gallant forecastle forward. The first three-decker was the "Guy Mannering," 1419 tons, built in 1849 by William H. Webb, of New York, who later founded the college and home for ship-builders that stands on the wooded hills north of the Harlem River. In 1841, Clark & Sewall, of Bath, Me.--an historic house--built the "Rappahannock," 179.6 feet long, with a tonnage of 1133 tons. For a time she was thought to be as much of a "white elephant" as the "Great Eastern" afterwards proved to be. People flocked to study her lines on the ways and see her launched. They said only a Rothschild could afford to own her, and indeed when she appeared in the Mississippi--being built for the cotton trade--freights to Liverpool instantly fell off. But thereafter the size of ships--both packet and clippers--steadily and rapidly increased. Glancing down the long table of ships and their records prepared for the United States census, we find such notations as these.

Ship "Flying Cloud," built 1851; tonnage 1782; 374 miles in one day; from New York to San Francisco in 89 days 18 hours; in one day she made 433-1/2 miles, but reducing this to exactly 24 hours, she made 427-1/2 miles.

Ship "Comet," built 1851; tonnage 1836; beautiful model and good ship; made 332 knots in 24 hours, and 1512 knots in 120 consecutive hours.

"Sovereign of the Seas," built 1852; tonnage 2421; ran 6,245 miles in 22 days; 436 miles in one day; for four days her average was 398 miles.

"Lightning," built 1854; tonnage 2084; ran 436 miles in 24 hours, drawing 22 feet; from England to Calcutta with troops, in 87 days, beating other sailing vessels by from 16 to 40 days; from Boston to Liverpool in 13 days 20 hours.

"James Baines," built 1854, tonnage 2515; from Boston to Liverpool in 12 days 6 hours.

Three of these ships came from the historic yards of Donald McKay, at New York, one of the most famous of American ship-builders. The figures show the steady gain in size and speed that characterized the work of American ship-builders in those days. Then the United States was in truth a maritime nation. Every boy knew the sizes and records of the great ships, and each magnificent clipper had its eager partisans. Foreign trade was active. Merchants made great profit on cargoes from China, and speed was a prime element in the value of a ship. In 1840 the discovery of gold in California added a new demand for ocean shipping; the voyage around the Horn, already common enough for whalemen and men engaged in Asiatic trade, was taken by tens of thousands of adventurers. Then came the news of gold in Australia, and again demands were clamorous for more swift American ships. All nations of Europe were buyers at our shipyards, and our builders began seriously to consider whether the supply of timber would hold out. The yards of Maine and Massachusetts sent far afield for white oak knees and pine planking. Southern forests were drawn upon, and even the stately pines of Puget Sound were felled to make masts for a Yankee ship.

**Transcriber's notes: Page 4: Removed extraneous ' after "Corsairs" Page 41: changed atempt to attempt



Even as recently as twenty years ago, the water front of a great seaport like New York, viewed from the harbor, showed a towering forest of tall and tapering masts, reaching high up above the roofs of the water-side buildings, crossed with slender spars hung with snowy canvas, and braced with a web of taut cordage. Across the street that passed the foot of the slips, reached out the great bowsprits or jibbooms, springing from fine-drawn bows where, above a keen cut-water, the figurehead--pride of the ship--nestled in confident strength. Neptune with his trident, Venus rising from the sea, admirals of every age and nationality, favorite heroes like Wellington and Andrew Jackson were carved, with varying skill, from stout oak, and set up to guide their vessels through tumultuous seas.


To-day, alas, the towering masts, the trim yards, the web of cordage, the quaint figureheads, are gone or going fast. The docks, once so populous, seem deserted--not because maritime trade has fallen off, but because one steamship does the work that twenty stout clippers once were needed for. The clipper bow with figurehead and reaching jib-boom are gone, for the modern steamship has its bow bluff, its stem perpendicular, the "City of Rome" being the last great steamship to adhere to the old model. It is not improbable, however, that in this respect we shall see a return to old models, for the straight stem--an American invention, by the way--is held to be more dangerous in case of collisions. Many of the old-time sailing ships have been shorn of their towering masts, robbed of their canvas, and made into ignoble barges which, loaded with coal, are towed along by some fuming, fussing tugboat--as Samson shorn of his locks was made to bear the burdens of the Philistines. This transformation from sail to steam has robbed the ocean of much of its picturesqueness, and seafaring life of much of its charm, as well as of many of its dangers.

The greater size of vessels and their swifter trips under steam, have had the effect of depopulating the ocean, even in established trade routes. In the old days of ocean travel the meeting of a ship at sea was an event long to be remembered. The faint speck on the horizon, discernible only through the captain's glass, was hours in taking on the form of a ship. If a full-rigged ship, no handiwork of man could equal her impressiveness as she bore down before the wind, sail mounting on sail of billowing whiteness, until for the small hull cleaving the waves so swiftly, to carry all seemed nothing sort of marvelous. Always there was a hail and an interchange of names and ports; sometimes both vessels rounded to and boats passed and repassed. But now the courtesies of the sea have gone with its picturesqueness. Great ocean liners rushing through the deep, give each other as little heed as railway trains passing on parallel tracks. A twinkle of electric signals, or a fluttering of parti-colored flags, and each seeks its own horizon--the incident bounded by minutes where once it would have taken hours.

It would not be easy to say whether the sailor's lot has been lightened or not, by the substitution of steel for wood, of steam for sail. Perhaps the best evidence that the native-born American does not regard the change as wholly a blessing, is to be found in the fact that but few of them now follow the sea, and scarcely a vestige is left of the old New England seafaring population except in the fisheries--where sails are still the rule. Doubtless the explanation of this lies in the changed conditions of seafaring as a business. In the days which I have sketched in the first chapter, the boy of good habits and reasonable education who shipped before the mast, was fairly sure of prompt promotion to the quarter-deck, of a right to share in the profits of the voyage, and of finally owning his own ship. After 1860 all these conditions changed. Steamships, always costly to build, involved greater and greater investments as their size increased. Early in the history of steam navigation they became exclusively the property of corporations. Latterly the steamship lines have become adjuncts to great railway lines, and are conducted by the practiced stock manipulator--not by the veteran sea captain.

Richard J. Cleveland, a successful merchant navigator of the early days of the nineteenth century, when little more than a lad, undertook an enterprise, thus described by him in a letter from Havre:

"I have purchased a cutter-sloop of forty-three tons burden, on a credit of two years. This vessel was built at Dieppe and fitted out for a privateer; was taken by the English, and has been plying between Dover and Calais as a packet-boat. She has excellent accommodations and sails fast. I shall copper her, put her in ballast, trim with £1000 or £1500 sterling in cargo, and proceed to the Isle of France and Bourbon, where I expect to sell her, as well as the cargo, at a very handsome profit, and have no doubt of being well paid for my twelve months' work, calculating to be with you next August."

[Illustration: AN ARMED CUTTER]

In such enterprises the young American sailors were always engaging--braving equally the perils of the deep and not less treacherous reefs and shoals of business but always struggling to become their own masters to command their own ships, and if possible, to carry their own cargoes. The youth of a nation that had fought for political independence, fought themselves for economic independence.

To men of this sort the conditions bred by the steam-carrying trade were intolerable. To-day a great steamship may well cost $2,000,000. It must have the favor of railway companies for cargoes, must possess expensive wharves at each end of its route, must have an army of agents and solicitors ever engaged upon its business. The boy who ships before the mast on one of them, is less likely to rise to the position of owner, than the switchman is to become railroad president--the latter progress has been known, but of the former I can not find a trace. So comparatively few young Americans choose the sea for their workshop in this day of steam.

If this book were the story of the merchant marine of all lands and all peoples, a chapter on the development of the steamship would be, perhaps, the most important, and certainly the most considerable part of it. But with the adoption of steam for ocean carriage began the decline of American shipping, a decline hastened by the use of iron, and then steel, for hulls. Though we credit ourselves--not without some protest from England--with the invention of the steamboat, the adaptation of the screw to the propulsion of vessels, and the invention of triple-expansion engines, yet it was England that seized upon these inventions and with them won, and long held, the commercial mastery of the seas. To-day (1902) it seems that economic conditions have so changed that the shipyards of the United States will again compete for the business of the world. We are building ships as good--perhaps better--than can be constructed anywhere else, but thus far we have not been able to build them as cheap. Accordingly our builders have been restricted to the construction of warships, coasters, and yachts. National pride has naturally demanded that all vessels for the navy be built in American shipyards, and a federal law has long restricted the trade between ports of the United States to ships built here. The lake shipping, too--prodigious in numbers and activity--is purely American. But until within a few years the American flag had almost disappeared from vessels engaged in international trade. Americans in many instances are the owners of ships flying the British flag, for the United States laws deny American registry--which is to a ship what citizenship is to a man--to vessels built abroad. While the result of this attempt to protect American shipyards has been to drive our flag from the ocean, there are indications now that our shipyards are prepared to build as cheaply as others, and that the flag will again figure on the high seas.

Popular history has ascribed to Robert Fulton the honor of building and navigating the first steamboat. Like claims to priority in many other inventions, this one is strenuously contested. Two years before Fulton's "Clermont" appeared on the Hudson, John Stevens, of Hoboken, built a steamboat propelled by a screw, the model of which is still in the Stevens Polytechnic Institute. Earlier still, John Fitch, of Pennsylvania, had made a steamboat, and urged it upon Franklin, upon Washington, and upon the American Philosophical Society without success; tried it then with the Spanish minister, and was offered a subsidy by the King of Spain for the exclusive right to the invention. Being a patriotic American, Fitch refused. "My invention must be first for my own country and then for all the world," said he. But later, after failing to reap any profit from his discover and finding himself deprived even of the honor of first invention, he wrote bitterly in 1792:

"The strange ideas I had at that time of serving my country, without the least suspicion that my only reward would be contempt and opprobrious names! To refuse the offer of the Spanish nation was the act of a blockhead of which I should not be guilty again."

Indeed Fitch's fortune was hard. His invention was a work of the purest originality. He was unread, uneducated, and had never so much as heard of a steam-engine when the idea of propelling boats by steam came to him. After repeated rebuffs--the lot of every inventor--he at length secured from the State of New Jersey the right to navigate its waters for a term of years. With this a stock company was formed and the first boat built and rebuilt. At first it was propelled by a single paddle at the stem; then by a series of paddles attached to an endless chain on each side of the boat; afterwards by paddle-wheels, and finally by upright oars at the side. The first test made on the Delaware River in August, 1787--twenty years before Fulton--in the presence of many distinguished citizens, some of them members of the Federal Convention, which had adjourned for the purpose, was completely successful. The boiler burst before the afternoon was over, but not before the inventor had demonstrated the complete practicability of his invention.

For ten years, struggling the while against cruel poverty, John Fitch labored to perfect his steamboat, and to force it upon the public favor, but in vain. Never in the history of invention did a new device more fully meet the traditional "long-felt want." Here was a growing nation made up of a fringe of colonies strung along an extended coast. No roads were built. Dense forests blocked the way inland but were pierced by navigable streams, deep bays, and placid sounds. The steamboat was the one thing necessary to cement American unity and speed American progress; but a full quarter of a century passed after Fitch had steamed up and down the Delaware before the new system of propulsion became commercially useful. The inventor did not live to see that day, and was at least spared the pain of seeing a later pioneer get credit for a discovery he thought his own. In 1798 he died--of an overdose of morphine--leaving behind the bitter writing: "The day will come when some powerful man will get fame and riches from my invention; but nobody will ever believe that poor John Fitch can do anything worthy of attention."

In trying to make amends for the long injustice done to poor Fitch, modern history has come near to going beyond justice. It is undoubted that Fitch applied steam to the propulsion of a boat, long before Fulton, but that Fitch himself was the first inventor is not so certain. Blasco de Garay built a rude steamboat in Barcelona in 1543; in Germany one Papin built one a few years later, which bargemen destroyed lest their business be injured by it. Jonathan Hulls, of Liverpool, in 1737 built a stern-wheeler, rude engravings of which are still in existence, and Symington in 1801 built a thoroughly practical steamboat at Dundee. 'Tis a vexed question, and perhaps it is well enough to say that Fitch first scented the commercial possibilities of steam navigation, while Fulton actually developed them--the one "raised" the fox, while the other was in at the death.

To trace a great idea to the actual birth is apt to be obstructive to national pride. It is even said that the Chinese of centuries ago understood the value of the screw-propeller--for inventing which our adoptive citizen Ericsson stands in bronze on New York's Battery.

From the time of Robert Fulton, at any rate, dates the commercial usage of the steamboat. Others had done the pioneering--Fitch on the Delaware, James Rumsey on the Potomac, William Longstreet on the Savannah, Elijah Ormsley on the waters of Rhode Island, while Samuel Morey had actually traveled by steamboat from New Haven to New York. Fulton's craft was not materially better than any of these, but it happened to be launched on

----that tide in the affairs of men Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

But the flood of that tide did not come to Fulton without long waiting and painstaking preparation. He was the son of an Irish immigrant, and born in Pennsylvania in 1765. To inventive genius he added rather unusual gifts for drawing and painting; for a time followed the calling of a painter of miniatures and went to London to study under Benjamin West, whom all America of that day thought a genius scarcely second to Raphael or Titian. He was not, like poor Fitch, doomed to the narrowest poverty and shut out from the society of the men of light and learning of the day, for we find him, after his London experience, a member of the family of Joel Barlow, then our minister to France. By this time his ambition had forsaken art for mechanics, and he was deep in plans for diving boats, submarine torpedoes, and steamboats. Through various channels he succeeded in getting his plan for moving vessels with steam, before Napoleon--then First Consul--who ordered the Minister of Marine to treat with the inventor. The Minister in due time suggested that 10,000 francs be spent on experiments to be made in the Harbor of Brest. To this Napoleon assented, and sent Fulton to the Institute of France to be examined as to his fitness to conduct the tests. Now the Institute is the most learned body in all France. In 1860 one of its members wrote a book to prove that the earth does not revolve upon its axis, nor move about the sun. In 1878, when Edison's phonograph was being exhibited to the eminent scientists of the Institute, one rushed wrathfully down the aisle and seizing by the collar the man who manipulated the instrument, cried out, "Wretch, we are not to be made dupes of by a ventriloquist!" So it is readily understandable that after being referred to the Institute, Fulton and his project disappeared for a long time.

The learned men of the Institute of France were not alone in their incredulity. In 1803 the Philosophical Society of Rotterdam wrote to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, for information concerning the development of the steam-engine in the United States. The question was referred to Benjamin H. Latrobe, the most eminent engineer in America, and his report was published approvingly in the Transactions. "A sort of mania," wrote Mr. Latrobe, "had indeed prevailed and not yet entirely subsided, for impelling boats by steam-engines." But his scientific hearers would at once see that there were general objections to it which could not be overcome. "These are, first, the weight of the engine and of the fuel; second, the large space it occupies; third, the tendency of its action to rack the vessel and render it leaky; fourth, the expense of maintenance; fifth, the irregularity of its motion and the motion of the water in the boiler and cistern, and of the fuel vessel in rough weather; sixth, the difficulty arising from the liability of the paddles, or oars, to break, if light, and from the weight if made strong."

But the steamboat survived this scientific indictment in six counts. Visions proved more real than scientific reasoning.

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