Snow Squall was more than a dozen years old when its owner Green had an American Lloyd’s surveyor inspect it in November 1863. The clipper was classified A-2, roughly translated as a warning to shippers of highly perishable cargoes. The risk and reward factor had just significantly increased.

It was showing its age and wear and tear from numerous voyages and difficult passages. Still, as soon as he was able to secure a cargo, Green dispatched Snow Squall to San Francisco on yet another California run.

A model of Snow Squall is at Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

With a fresh coat of black paint and a white stripe in the between decks, Snow Squall was loaded with tons of steamer lump coal, 200 cases of alcohol and 50 cases of canned lobster. The clipper also stored 16 carboys of acid on its deck as well as a sizeable quantity of explosives from Hazard Powder Co. of Delaware. This last addition had to be loaded safely out in the harbor at Bedloe’s Island.

With Dillingham as captain, Snow Squall departed Jan. 2, 1864. By February, they were in far southern waters off the east side of South America. Dillingham opted for the shorter route through the Straits of LeMaire, a narrow stretch of water separating Staten Island from the South American mainland.

Using the Straits saved Dillingham more than a day’s passage around Cape Horn. It was the choice of experienced captains, although the region even in mid-summer was treacherous with its “Stone Age geography” and unpredictable weather.

On Feb. 24 in a light rain and moderate wind, Dillingham gingerly approached the opening to the strait. He recorded at 1:30 p.m. the wind came around to the northeast while the ship was about 9 miles offshore, so he cautiously proceeded. Less than three hours later, however, the wind suddenly died away and the surging current rapidly swept the ship toward shore.

Dillingham ordered the anchors out, but before the crew could respond, Snow Squall went upon the rocks with a sickening crunch. The ship was helplessly held fast at the entrance to the strait.

Making use of one of his anchors, Dillingham tried to heave the vessel off the rocks, but a pickup and sudden shift in the wind caused the ship to lurch and then float free. A quick inspection revealed the rudder was badly damaged and Snow Squall’s hold had taken several feet of water.

Initially, Dillingham tried to continue around Cape Horn, but soon realized the danger and prudently changed course for Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. There, he hoped to maybe get the vessel repaired and then continue to California.

Badly leaking, Snow Squall limped into Port Stanley. Dillingham had to discharge the entire cargo in order to ascertain damage to the vessel. He hired a local diving crew to check out its bottom while local hands emptied the cargo from its hold.

It took three weeks to completely empty the ship and still the leak was never found. Dillingham soon faced problems with his idle crew; at one point he had the carpenter and cook jailed for mutiny. Rising costs, endless repairs, and constant delays all contributed to Snow Squall’s predicament.

Dillingham finally arranged for another ship, the Freeport-built bark Orsini, to take the cargo on to San Francisco. He then stripped the ship of all gear and auctioned it for $10,600. The vessel was condemned April 23, 1864. Stripped clean, it was sold for $2,000 to the Falkland Islands Corp. and moved to its final resting spot near the FIC’s wooden jetty.

There Snow Squall was left to rot in the mud while Dillingham and owner Green and the clipper’s insurers wrestled with bills, which soon totaled over $16,000. A series of paperwork disagreements regarding the clipper’s loss, claims, charges, reimbursements and payouts took several months to settle.

And there it sat. For years, Snow Squall was the only American-built clipper ship whose hull was still known to be in existence, although it lay rotting thousands of miles south in the Falklands. In 1982 just prior to the Falkland Islands conflict between Great Britain and Argentina, a reconnaissance team from Maine flew down to the island to check it out.

A Falkland Islands stamp commemorates the Snow Squall wreck. From the collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

Their first sight of the hulk was mortifying but the team determined parts of its hull could still be salvaged. The bow appeared to be the most visible part remaining. Snow Squall’s decks had rotted away as well as any frames or planking that had been subjected to the daily tides.

Survey team member marine archaeologist Peter Throckmorton reported their initial dives were hampered by the thick kelp that covered the wreck and gave off a fine silt which obliterated any visibility.

The old clipper ship sat in 3 feet of water at low tide. For many years, it had been used as a pierhead fender for the Falkland Islands jetty. After World War II, piles had been driven through the vessel, and two other wrecks alongside it, to form Port Stanley’s main jetty.

One silver lining to this for the survey team was that the remnants of the vessel had been covered with dirt and debris and therefore somewhat protected by this modern pier. It lay heeled over on its port side, perpendicular to the jetty, which ran north and south. A large part of the port side of the vessel was under the dock.

Throughout the years, the hulk had become a receptacle for all kinds of junk and trash. It even sustained an accidental collision with an oil barge during a fierce gale after the reconnaissance team had seen it.

But the restorers persevered and made plans to take apart and bring back to Maine parts of the clipper ship. Future visits of team members from the Snow Squall Project resulted in the 2-ton waterway section of the ship being removed and shipped in containers back to Portland, Maine.

By 1987, this Maine-led effort resulted in the successful raising of Snow Squall’s bow and successfully getting it shipped back to the U.S. When initial plans for Spring Point Museum in Portland fell through regarding Snow Squall remains, it was decided that one of the sections retrieved would go to a museum in San Francisco and another to a museum in New York City.

The prominent bow section of Snow Squall went to Maine Maritime Museum in Bath in 1995.

This photo at the Maine Maritime Museum exhibit of the Snow Squall shows the ship being returned to the state of Maine. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

It is fitting the three major pieces rescued now reside at those three places, since Maine was the home of its construction and New York and San Francisco had been major ports of call for the clipper.

Interior bow view of Snow Squall remains at Maine Maritime Museum. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

During the survey in the Falklands, Throckmorton had noticed there was very little iron, strapping or use of copper on the ship. It had not been stripped; rather, Snow Squall had never had much of that material to begin with. This was indicative of the economical aspect of its construction. Built quickly and cheaply to take advantage of worldwide maritime commerce just after the California Gold Rush, Throckmorton thought its construction had been almost too fragile for a ship that size.

The author, with the remains of the Snow Squall at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

The life and fate of the Maine-built clipper ship Snow Squall provide a great glimpse into a lost era. It was fortuitous the clipper lay in the mud at the Falklands for so many years, preserved against the ravages of time. Maine Maritime Museum has a great new exhibit for the Snow Squall — make sure you check it out!

Snow Squall’s retrieval has benefited the history of the clipper ship era in general and of clipper ship construction in particular. It is also a great connection between Maine and Cape Horn with its many difficult passages through those waters. And it is a testament to forward-thinking proponents who want to rescue and bring back great pieces of Maine maritime history.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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