by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
The North River today is so serene: it can be difficult to imagine that it was once a booming center of industry. Beginning in the mid-1600s and continuing long into the 19th century, this 12-mile waterway was home to a total of 24 shipyards. Between 1645 and 1871, more than 1,000 vessels were constructed along the river in Hanover, Pembroke, Marshfield, Norwell and Scituate.
The shipbuilding industry provided jobs for all sorts of craftsmen – carpenters, caulkers, liners, sailmakers, and so on, — as well as sawmill operators to provide lumber, and pilots to maneuver the ships downstream to the ocean – a complicated process that often took a full week. Vessels were commissioned by such entities as the US Navy, British trade companies, and whaling fleets from Nantucket, New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard.
If you’re interested in the histories of the North River shipyards and the vessels constructed there, check out L. Vernon Briggs’ book, History of Shipbuilding on the North River, which is available in most of our local libraries. In the meantime, I’ve compiled some basic facts about some of the more famous ships.
The Beaver: One of the ships involved in the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773) was The Beaver, a whaler constructed by Ichabod Thomas at the Brick Kiln Shipyard in Pembroke. Commissioned by the prominent Rotch family of Nantucket, it measured 85 feet in length, with an almost 24 foot beam, and a draft of only nine feet, to accommodate Nantucket’s shallow harbor. Captained by Hezekiah Coffin, the Beaver made its maiden voyage from Nantucket to London to deliver whale oil. As was customary, it took on a different cargo for its return, in this case some fine English furniture as well as 112 chests of tea from the British East India Company. After spending two weeks in quarantine in Boston Harbor, due to a case of smallpox on board, it finally docked at Griffin’s Wharf on December 15, 1773. The next day, The Sons of Liberty, a group of more than 100 men from all walks of life, led by Samuel Adams, boarded the Beaver, as well as two other ships loaded with tea — the Dartmouth and The Eleanor. Being careful not to damage the ships, they smashed open 340 chests of tea (approximately 92,000 lbs.) and dropped them into the harbor, a significant act of protest in what would become the American Revolution. The Beaver returned to the whaling industry but was sold shortly thereafter.
Further reading: Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America by Benjamin Carp
The Columbia: It is possible that the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe was constructed on the North River. Some say the ship was actually built in Plymouth, but that its keel was constructed here. But local history claims that James Briggs constructed the three- masted ship at Hobart’s Landing in Norwell in 1773. It was 83 feet long, with a 24-foot beam and an 11-foot draft. Owned by John Kendrick or Joseph Barrell, its captain was Robert Gray. Gray was active in the gold and silver trade with China. However when he found that European traders were consistently outbidding him, he began instead to purchase fur in the Pacific Northwest. In 1792, he observed the Columbia River near what is now Portland, Oregon, and named it after his ship. The Columbia River became a major venue for the fur trade. The ship itself was decommissioned for salvage in 1806.
Further reading: Columbia’s River: The Voyages of Robert Gray by J. Richard Nokes
The Essex: Another disputed North River vessel was whaleship Essex. Local records indicate that it was built in 1796 on the North River, with no exact location provided. However the town of Amesbury on the North Shore makes a similar claim. The ship – which was 87 feet long, with a 24-foot beam and 12-foot draft — was launched in 1799; in 1804, Nantucket merchants purchased it in Salem. In August 1819, George Pollard Jr. was its commander when it departed Nantucket for the South Pacific. On November 20th of that same year, the captain spotted a school of whales and set off in pursuit. A large sperm whale struck the ship forcefully with its head, knocking those on board off their feet. Soon after the same whale struck again, this time completely staving in the ship’s bow. The 20-man crew quickly gathered equipment, food and water, and disembarked to 3 smaller boats, then watched while the Essex sank. What followed was an ordeal that included dehydration, starvation, taking refuge on a small tropical island, and eventually cannibalism. Two men survived. If this sounds familiar, it might be because it served as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Further reading: In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
The Globe: A local ship with an equally remarkable story, The Globe was constructed at Wanton Shipyard in Norwell in 1815. With two decks and three masts, the ship measured 94 feet in length, with a beam of 26 feet. A successful whaler, it is renowned as being the first ship to bring 2000 barrels of sperm oil into the United States. But The Globe is best known for a gruesome mutiny in 1824. The ship was owned by C. Mitchell & Co., and commanded by Thomas Worth. After sailing from Nantucket on December 20, 1822, it arrived in the Sandwich Islands in the South Pacific on May 1, 1823, then continued to Hawaii and Japan. By then, six of the 21-man crew had deserted. The Globe continued south toward Fanning Island. In January 1824 ,after an incident during which a crewman was whipped as punishment, crewmen Samuel Comstock and Silas Payne murdered the captain as well as the first and second mates, then threw their bodies overboard. Not daring to go to port for fear of repercussions, they ran the ship aground on Mili Atoll, with a plan to take the provisions, strip the ship, and burn it, and then take up residence on the island. But there was more trouble to come. Comstock was killed by his shipmates. Crewman Gilbert Smith took charge of the ship and escaped by night with five other men, leaving the others behind. When The Globe arrived at Valparaiso, Chile, in June, the American Consul took possession of it, and sent it back to Nantucket. Most of the men remaining on Mili Atoll were killed by the natives, but two survived and were rescued after 22 months. The ship was sold for salvage in 1828.
Further reading: Demon of the Waters by Gregory Gibson.
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 22+ years of nature columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com