Tag Archives: Ships

A Heightened Sense of Detail

It’s rather jarring to read the lines written by Salem’s chatty diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, about his encounter with the Salem artist George Ropes Jr. in 1804: “Paid G. Ropes’ Bill for head of Curwin, Salem, Minister, the painting by him. He is a dumb boy with Corné. Had receipt. $4.00”.  Bentley had commissioned a portrait copy of the Reverend Samuel Curwen from Ropes, who was then an apprentice of the Italian emigré artist Michel Felice Cornè. George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), the son of a Salem sea captain (how many times have I written than?) was indeed born deaf and was by all accounts speechless for all of his relatively short life, but Bentley’s notes upon his early death are more telling: Died of consumption, deaf and dumb, a painter, active, acute, circumspect, and esteemed.”  Ropes had to become the primary breadwinner for his family upon his father’s death at sea in 1807 and so he became a practical  painter of signs and such as well as an artist. While all art is evidence for the historian, I’ve always felt that Ropes’ works are more documentary in their detail, particularly two paintings in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Launching of the Ship Fame (1802) and Crowninshield’s Wharf (1806). I’ve shown it here several times, but I can’t post on Ropes without including his masterpiece, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which is also in the collection of the PEM. Those poplars! I can never see this painting too many times.

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George Ropes, Jr.: The Launching of the Ship Fame, Crowninshield’s Wharf, and Salem Common on Training Day, all courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

My favorite story about Ropes comes from the Pickering Genealogythe source of endless interesting anecdotes about Salem people. In another testimony to his skill and eye for detail, it is noted that on one occasion when the parlor in the house of Jarathmeel Peirce was being papered, it was found that there was not enough, and it being imported paper, more could not be obtained. He undertook to finish it by painting, which he did so accurately that it was impossible to tell where his work began or where it ended. A decorating crisis averted!  Ropes is probably best known for his marine paintings, including a lovely “portrait” of George Crowninshield’s famous luxury yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, and several paintings of the USS Constitution in battle during the War of 1812.The US Constitution Museum has a series of four paintings painted by Ropes (after Corné) depicting the famous engagement with the HMS Guerriere in August of 1812 which earned the victorious American ship the nickname of “Old Ironsides”, and at the end of next month, a Ropes painting of the victory of the Constitution over the HMS Java in December of 1812 will be auctioned off at Dan Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania. Artistic reportage, and some pretty bold titles, from this silent “signmaker”.

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George Ropes, Jr., the last of the Constitution and Guerriere paintings, USS Constitution Museum Collection; Constitution vs. Java, Morphy Auctions.


Go West, Young (Salem) Man

The California Gold Rush began on this day in 1848, when the foreman of workers constructing a sawmill on the American River near Coloma, California uncovered several large pieces of gold: when it was over, more than 300,000 people had gone west, including many from Salem. In the first two years after the strike, two joint-stock mining companies were organized by Salem men (of 124 from Massachusetts alone), and at least seven Salem ships departed for California, filled not only with potential prospectors but also lots of stuff to be sold there: this was an entrepreneurial opportunity in more ways than one! Here again you see Salem’s local history intersecting with a national event: the city’s trading economy had been on the decline for several decades so this would have been a very welcome opportunity as well, for both those who wanted to go west and those who were in a position to transport them there. The news of the strike spread like wildfire, and there seems to have been an immediate effort to retrofit ships as quickly as possible to carry eager passengers to San Francisco. The last of the great Salem ship captains, John Bertram, prepared his bark Eliza for the voyage,and she became the first gold-rush vessel from Massachusetts to sail for California, departing on December 2, 1848 with a cargo of “flour, pork, sugar, dried apples, bread, butter, cheese, rice, figs, raisins, pickles, boots, shoes, stoves, axes, picks, domestics, and a variety of small articles, lumber, a store, and materials for building a boat or scow, for dredging the rivers or on sand bars, together with a small steam engine, a lathe, and tools for repairs” along with passengers.

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Company certificate, California State Library; a caricature of the eastern “independent gold hunter”, 1849, American Antiquarian Society;  The Bark “Eliza” from a 1920 catalog of paintings in the Peabody Museum; model of the “LaGrange”, Peabody Essex Museum, New York and Boston “Witchcraft” clipper ships, c 1860, Library of Congress.

The Eliza reached San Francisco but never made it back; this seems to have been the fate of most of the Salem gold rush ships: they were sold, dismantled, and/or repurposed. The most dramatic example of a repurposing of a Salem ship was the LaGrange (see model from the Peabody Essex Museum above), which sailed on March 17, 1849 and ended up as a prison ship in Sacramento! We have insights into the financing of gold rush voyages from the diary of Salem forty-niner William Berry Cross, a member of the “Salem Mechanics Trading and Mining Association”, which purchased the ship Crescent for passage to California in 1850. Cross’s diary includes a complete roster of his fellow passengers, an inventory of the cargo, and the revelation that the enterprise was to be financed by the profitable sale of both the cargo and the vessel upon arrival in San Francisco.Over the next decade, celebrated clipper ships like the two Witchcrafts above would sail west and return to their eastern home ports, but these first Salem ships seem a lot more disposable.


Cabin in the Sky

The evening before last I was incredibly privileged to be able to attend a gathering in a ship’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel. Not an actual cabin of course, but a rather convincing model, built for the Salem Marine Society in the 1920s as a condition of the sale of their building to the developers of the hotel. The Society, which was founded in 1766, had met continually at this location since 1830, and while its members do not seem to have been particularly attached to their Italianate Franklin Building (which replaced the earlier McIntire Archer Block, destroyed by fire in 1860), they were very attached to the site. And so the new hotel opened in 1925 featuring not only six stories and the latest accouterments, but also a rooftop cabin room, inspired by the actual captain’s cabin of one of the last great Salem East Indiamen, the barque Taria Topan. This cabin in the sky also represents the fruitful collaboration between the barque’s one-time commander, Captain Edward Trumbull, and the architect of the Hawthorne, Philip Horton Smith. It remains the private meeting room of the Salem Marine Society and their occasional guests, of which I was fortunate to be one.

Salem Marine Society Cabin HH

Cabin Room HH

SMS Cabin Interior

Hawthorne Hotel Buildings Collage

Cabin HH Exterior

Nathaniel Bowditch presides over the Salem Marine Society’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel, the evolution of construction on the spot, from Samuel McIntire’s Archer Block (completed by 1810) to the Franklin Building (built after 1860) to the Hawthorne Hotel (built in 1925); X marks the spot of the rooftop cabin.

I was so excited to be in this space that I was a bit frenzied and not very good company, I’m afraid. I just wanted to see and capture everything. My skittishness was compounded by the fact that it was an absolutely beautiful early evening, and the ship’s cabin opens up onto an equally enticing (on such a day) ship’s deck, affording amazing views of Salem in every direction. Up in the air, surrounded by water on three sides, Salem’s original maritime orientation is all too apparent: the next time someone complains to me about how inaccessible is, I’m going to tell them to take a boat.

View of the Harbor from HH

View of Salem Common

View of Essex Street from Rooftop

But all those dashing sea captains were back inside, hanging from the teak-paneled walls in the form of portraits (alongside navigational instruments and paintings of ships) and encased in the Society’s registry of masters, a vast compendium of faces from 1766 to the present. I could have spent hours with this volume, gazing at all these drawings, paintings, silhouettes, and photographs of men and (finally!) women. There are so many ways you could use this source: it’s not just a record of maritime history, but also genealogy, social history, military history, even fashion history. Hats, no hats, hats, no hats.

Captain Abbot

Captain Fisk of Salem

Captain Collage

Captains Collage

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Captains Abbot, Fiske, Chipman, Millet, Ward (clockwise), Tucker (right) and Webb, masters and members of the Salem Marine Society; a 20th century portrait of Captain John Fillebrown, who served in the War of 1812 and died a prisoner of war at Dartmoor Prison in England, along with 270 other Americans.

There were stories to be found in the cabin as well. The most apparent and dramatic one concerned the status of the Society’s very first honorary member, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Commander in the U.S. Navy and the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Despite his maritime magnificence, Maury was a Virginian and so not eligible for membership in the Society, but its membership honored his achievements by bestowing an honorary membership on him in 1859 and hanging his portrait on the wall of their original rooms.Two years later, after Maury resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy upon the start of the Civil War, the Salem mariners rescinded his membership, condemned him as a traitor, and placed his portrait head down and against the wall. This “reverse orientation” remains to this day, though a visiting delegation of the Mary Washington Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities gifted the Society with another image of Commander Maury in 2008, which hangs alongside the reversed portrait. And so now, in the words of the southern Commander, “All is Well”.

Salem Marine Society Cabin Interior

Sticken from our rolls


A Galleon in Port

Our anniversary falls on Memorial Weekend so this past Friday we celebrated it with drinks and dinner in Newburyport, after which we walked around the foggy old town and came across a pirate ship, with a party on board. This was El Galeón, a Spanish reconstruction of a sixteenth-century galleon, which is apparently sailing up and down the eastern U.S. coast this summer. Somehow we didn’t know she was going to be in Newburyport, but there she was, and quite a sight to see. This is a ship from my period, so I was thrilled, and determined to make it back to see her in daylight. The weekend was busy, and so I didn’t manage this until late yesterday. In broad daylight El Galeón was still pretty impressive in its details, and bigger than I thought such a ship might be, but perhaps not quite as magical as she appeared on Friday: much less fog, no costumed party-goers on board, and I suppose alcohol might have colored my previous view a bit. But I had wanted to head north to Newbury and Newburyport anyway, to explore some Moses Little territory as a follow-up to my last post, and these towns are so packed with beautiful old houses they are always worth a trip, even on a busy holiday weekend.

Newbury cemetery

Newbury Short House Memorial Day Weekend

Newbury Short House Memorial Day Weekend2

Driving through Newbury, I always stop to admire the Knight-Short House (built c. 1723) with its brick sides.

Newburyport Galleon 4

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Newburyport Galleon2

Newburyport Galleon Night

Newburyport Galleon

Newburyport

El Galeón in port, day and night. Then I was off to see more houses.


Cruising Ahead

This is a very busy time of year in Salem, of course, but yesterday morning when I looked outside my bedroom window I saw four buses lined up on Chestnut Street. Then I remembered: the cruise ship is in town, one of the first signs of the port’s transformation from power plant facility to destination dock. There has been talk of cruise ships for a year or more, ever since it was announced that the old Salem Harbor oil- and coal-powered plant would be closing, but I didn’t expect them to arrive so soon or be so BIG. Obviously I hadn’t listened closely, as my expectation was that ships with a capacity of 150 or so people would be stopping in Salem, but this ship looked like it belonged in the Caribbean! I approached carefully on my bike, and it got bigger and bigger…..

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And then there it was, blocking out everything else in sight! The Seabourn Quest, en route from Canada to Florida, via Salem. I’m so glad its name isn’t the Sea Witch!

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Ship Map

Quite a site really, especially when you compare this ship with the other ships in the harbor, like the replica Fame, a War of 1812 privateer (that tiny little ship in full sail on the right below), and the Friendship, a 1797 East Indiaman. Salem’s past, present and future?

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Exciting Appendix! My former student Erin, who now works in the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections and has her own facebook page entitled “Archival Encounters” which should be a blog found this GREAT (but undated and unattributed) postcard in said Archives.

Ship from SSU Archives Future View

P.S. Just got the attribution:  Invitation to the 1996 Annual Meeting of the Salem Partnership.

 

 


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