December 19, 1919

By: Henry T. Claus
Transcribed and edited by Jane Estabrooks

Nature Acted When She Got Ready

From the earliest days trouble was experienced in getting the larger ships from the river to the sea, and all sorts of contrivances were rigged up to drag the vessels through the shoals. But the thing that really bothered the builders was the fact that the mouth of the river was not where they wanted it or thought it ought to be. As will be noted in the accompanying map, the new mouth or the river shortens considerably the voyage to the ocean. For years and years, the shipbuilders tried to cut through here, but as soon as they had completed the canal a heavy storm would set in and entirely refill it. Nature, it seems, was not ready for any such change, but she was ready for it in 1898, when another great storm cleared the ditch, which has remained open to this day.

Strange folks there have always been among those who make their living by the sea. And North River had its share of them. In Scituate, for instance lived Uncle Peter Litchfield, who used to drive an ox, and when he wanted to train a new steer, put it on ahead of the old ox. Someone would ask him how he liked his new steer, and he’d say, “Does pretty well for a flying jib.” Then there was “Black Bill,” supposedly a run-away slave, whose hobby was building ships in the woods. He was always going to build a fleet, he said, and sail down South to free the slaves. The war, of course, saved him the trouble. “Black Bill” never entirely finished a single ship, but had a number partly done. He would work on them until his money gave out and then he would hire out to the farmers for a while. As soon as he had earned enough to buy a little food he would go back to his ships.

It is but natural that a district which turned out so many ships should also turn out some notable sailors. Among the men who helped carry the fame of North River abroad was Captain John Manson, a native of Scituate Harbor. Captain Manson was master of many ships and sailed many seas, yet in all his career he never met with any serious accident. In his later years he sailed for William F. Weld & Co., for whom he cleared $60,000 in one voyage to New Orleans and back. While sailing the Meridian, the largest vessel afloat, the proceeds of three voyages in 1851 paid for the vessel and left a surplus of $27,000.

It Took Rum to Build Ships

Of course, labor was cheap in North River’s glory days. Imagine getting a ship built today for $29. 50 a ton, as Captain Caleb Nickerson did in 1817. Indicative of the scale of wages prevailing years ago is the story of one of the district’s men-of-all-work who once was paid 62 cents for “killing, cutting up and salting a cow.” Another time he received “36 cents for shearing 6 sheep” and on a third occasion added $1 to his wealth by the simple expedient of “cutting two cords of hard wood at Grey’s Hill.” But if it did not cost a lot of money to build ships, it did cost a lot of liquor, which was charged to the vessel just as lumber and other material was charged. This was the custom at all yards and from an old account book are taken the following items: “To 78 gallons West India rum, drunk in the summer of 1811, while at work on vessel … $104.”  “To 80 gallons Gin and Rum, from March 22 to Aug. 15, 1813, $120.” In those days, too, liquor was generally served at the launchings and it is related that in 1832, when the bark “Mary Ballard” was completed, William Fay of Boston, the owner, who proposed to use her in the rum trade, sent down a quantity of liquor to be dispensed at the launching. It was so dispensed, and by none other than the Rev. David Barnes Ford.

There is a story told of William Taylor one of the famous shipbuilders of the district, who lived to the proverbial ripe old age but did not show it. Someone remarked to him that he must have been strictly temperate in all things to have reached his years and still be in such good physical condition. To this observation Mr. Taylor replied that he had drunk rum enough to float the largest ship that ever swam and chewed tobacco enough to load her.

To be Continued …