An Investment

By Barbara F. Dyer | May 21, 2020
Courtesy of: Barbara Dyer Pictured is the Margaret Haskell,  a five-masted schooner.

Because I have not submitted a column lately, I wanted to state that it is only because I am lazy. So please don't feel that you have the chore of writing my obituary. I am still here, but was not visible for a spell.

For a little knowledge, we have not seen a five-masted schooner in quite some time, but they were building them in the very early 1900s. Have you ever wondered just how they financed them?

Well, by some strange figure of the imagination, suppose you have an extra $14,000.00 to invest. Could there be a more exciting investment than owning 1/8 of a five-masted schooner? Back in those days, the two-, three- and four-masted schooner owners seemed to want one bigger and better to carry cargo, such as coal, to the New England states. So five might be better.

The shares to be a part-owner were usually divided into 64, and perhaps eight of them might give you a large enough share to name the vessel for yourself, daughter, or even your devoted wife. The captain would also own some shares, as he saw to the building of this investment. He was also the one who kept track of the income and expenses, after the vessel was in operation. Hopefully you would receive dividends. If it should lose money, you might be assessed, and called by some "Irish dividends."

It was most exciting to watch the construction, from laying the keel to launching. It could take 10 months or more depending on the size and plans. Undoubtedly, as an investor, you would visit the builder many times to watch its progress. The many workmen would become your friends and you certainly would appreciate all the work that went into it and how dedicated the workmen were in their building of that vessel. You might be very tempted to help with the construction, but you would soon learn not to even try. The tools of the carpenters and joiners belonged to them personally, and were probably all hand-made. Quite likely they were handed down from father to son.

Thousands of people would be there to witness the vessel's launching. As many of these took place during the Temperance Movement, or if you prefer "Prohibition," a young lady might christen it by scattering apple blossoms over its bow. The bow of the boat being launched would be filled with select invited guests, while the wharf and standing room would be crowded with curious onlookers.

The very jovial launching party of the builder and workmen, would follow. Later that evening would be a lavish dinner party of owners, the captain and their invited guests. Perhaps some dancing and things to make it a special celebration.

The steadfast Maine workmen might be seen digging out a forbidden bottle of booze, or several. They were drinking to the completion of a vessel that had taken months of their hard labor.

Now, what primary cargo would she carry? Quite likely it might be coal from Philadelphia to Boston or Portland. She might return without ballast, but would be much more profitable to return from this area with ice for the cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. In 1904, the ice business was really booming.

How long would she live, your queen of the sea? The life of these sailing vessels averaged about 15 years. However they could meet their demise in the prime of life due to fire, hurricanes or bad winter storms. In the fall, many storms were off Cape Hatteras, so captains preferred to go south before the hurricane season and return after. He could pick up a cargo of lumber for houses, new buildings or even for Maine vessels. Maine had plenty of manpower, but lumber came from many places to build the vessels. White oak frames came from Virginia, hard pine planking from Georgia, hackmatack knees from Canada, and Oregon fir for masts.

It was not always a pleasant adventure when sailing on these vessels. The sea demands a great deal of respect. There were many shipwrecks, as vessels went aground, and people were known to freeze to the rigging in a winter storm as they desperately hung on for life.

The captain worried not only about his responsibility of the vessel, but also the cargo and crew. Sometimes his wife and small children were making the trip with him. Occasionally he dealt with fires, mutiny and other perils at sea.

The first five-master was the Governor Ames, and that vessel was constructed in Waldoboro. The second one was John B. Prescott, launched in 1899 by the H. M. Bean Yard in Camden. Within five years, the Bean Yard launched several more: Van Allens Boughton, Arthur Seitz, T. Charleton Henry, Margaret Haskell, Samuel Goucher, and Helen Seitz.

The Arthur Seitz got off to a bad start, when she was launched on Sept. 5, 1901. The cradle slipped sideways and gave her a list to the starboard. Tackles were fastened to the masthead and stretched across to a row of jack screws on the port side to raise her. They had to dig in order to get new blockings under her. Holly Bean's grand-daughter told me that when that happened, Bean turned and walked out of the yard. She was launched the next day, when the tide was right. This vessel did not have a long life. The following year, she was wrecked off Skiff Island Reef and washed ashore off Nantucket, Mass.

The investors on that vessel were not pleased with their investment. Like any investment, it was a gamble.

Barbara F. Dyer has lived all her life, so far, in Camden and is the official town historian.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Daniel Purdy | May 21, 2020 14:15

Hi. What I understand is that they would load coal at Coalport, a little north of Philadelphia. Thanks, Dan

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