Famed liner Manhattan tested in Rockland

By Daniel Dunkle | May 17, 2019
SS Manhattan

I found myself missing my beloved 1930s and so booted up the time machine for a stop in the Depression era.

The largest U.S.-built passenger ship, the S.S. Manhattan, was here in Rockland July 25, 1932. At daybreak it began a series of tests on the government course off the Rockland coast. I found information about it on sources including Wikipedia and Greatships.net, which in turn used sources including Bonsor's North Atlantic Seaway and Kludas' Great Passenger Ships of the World.

The ship is historically significant, and not just because of its massive size (705 feet long, 86 feet wide). In June 1936 it would bring the U.S. Olympic team to the summer Olympic games in Berlin.

The ship was considered a massively expensive risk during the Depression, when it was built by the New York Ship Building Corp. out of Camden, N.J. Shortly after its tests in Rockland, in August 1932, it began regular service between New York and Hamburg. In 1941, it was requisitioned by the Navy to serve as a troop transport and renamed the Wakefield. In September 1942, it caught fire. The crew escaped, but it was badly damaged. It was later repaired and put back into service for the war, and was scrapped in the 1960s.

I found the mention of the Rockland testing and an old newspaper clipping photo taken from the air of the vessel during the tests among the clippings of Earle C. Dow, who was my wife, Christine's, great-grandfather and a local newspaperman in the 1930s. The clippings have been on loan to me from Sue Thurston of South Thomaston. Unfortunately the photo from the air on 87-year-old newsprint was not something that could be reproduced here, so I grabbed a public domain photo from Wikipedia. If anyone has a picture of it in Rockland, I would be interested.



Some of you have been in my office here at the newspaper and seen the framed print of whalers battling a sperm whale behind my desk, the map of the whaling world of the 19th century on the wall across from it from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the tall ships calendar above my computer and might correctly assume I'm interested in whaling history. And that is not to say that I ever want to see an actual whale harmed again. One of the ironies of being interested in this history is that it gives you an appreciation for these amazing creatures.

Herman Melville is a kind of hero for me, though I will also admit that I found "Moby-Dick" a very difficult read at first, just like anyone else. I like Melville, though, because he's one of those writers who actually did things. He worked on a whaling ship. No matter how much of a dreamy writer you are, that was hard labor, real adventure, and it separates the weak from the strong. He was made of tough stuff, both a physical worker and an intellectual giant.

In my own imperfect understanding of it, the whaling industry was a massive force in the first half of the 19th century. New England sailors, many of them Quakers from Nantucket, and those jumping on ships out of New Bedford, traveled the world at a time when there was no shore-to-vessel communication, no Panama Canal, no engine driving the ship. They launched from Massachusetts and traveled around the horn to the South Pacific on voyages that took years.

Melville saw a lot in his travels, and it made him question things you normally didn't question in the 19th century. In his books he talks about the poor treatment of indigenous island people at the hands of Christian missionaries, and he puts forth a sense of cultural relativism that was massively ahead of its time, suggesting that islander shipmate Queequeg's sincere worship of his idol was as good as the author's own Christian beliefs.

It's little wonder that it took until the 20th century for him to be truly appreciated.

So what does this have to do with The Courier-Gazette? Very little, but enough to give me an excuse to talk about it.

Since the Rockland Historical Society has helped digitize the back issues of our worthy publication, I was able to search for Melville online and came up with something.

On Thursday morning, Oct. 29, 1846, in East Thomaston, The Lime Rock Gazette ran an excerpt of Melville's new book at the time, "Typee."

He wrote this novel, which was based on his travels as a whaler, prior to his masterpiece "Moby-Dick," and it was better received by the reading public. It's an exciting adventure story about a sailor who lives for a time among the natives in the Marquesas Islands.

The headline in the paper is "A Flotilla of Marquesas Mermaids." Now, after all of my lofty pontification, I have to admit, the excerpt is the narrator's account of a group of naked women swimming out to greet the sailors from the island, spicy stuff for the newspaper in 1846, and perhaps proof our ancestors were not all the prudes we believe them to be. He likened them romantically to mermaids, and I'm sure the description would elicit an eye-roll now.

He does point out in the brief piece that he feels the influence of European sailors on the culture of the Pacific peoples brought with it the introduction of vices, and happy are they who had not yet been visited by white sailors.

The masthead of our publication at the time said it was "Devoted to Commerce, Agriculture, Art, Science, Morality and General Intelligence." What a wonderful list, and I would say that is still our mission today.

It shows that 173 years ago, the Gazette was helping expand local readers' knowledge of the wider world and exposed them to great literature.

Daniel Dunkle lives in Rockland. He is author of the novel, "The Scrimshaw Worm." Send in your stories, photos and memories via email at: ddunkle@villagesoup.com; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Vintage Ink columns rely on back issues of The Courier-Gazette for source material. Other sources will be cited specifically.


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