Coasting by the Cape
A brief history of maritime trade
Today we buy things online and they are delivered to our door—we don’t even think twice about it. The only reminder of the great age of shipping is the diction “shipping and handling” in our online shopping carts. In the 19th century it was an altogether different story. There was no Amazon, airplanes or Internet. For roughly 250 years sending goods, and passengers, by ship was the best option. It was simpler and cheaper to send things by water than by wagon—over uneven and dusty dirt or cobblestone roads of the day. During the 1800s, the railroad was slowly spreading like ivy across this great country of ours, but it would still be many decades before the “Iron Horse” replaced the salt-stained thoroughbreds of oak and canvas that plied the waters up and down the East Coast.
It is often overlooked that the invention of the schooner was a distinctly American endeavor—and most of them were made in New England, due to ready supplies of timber and prodigious Yankee ingenuity. These handy two- to six-masted vessels were ideal for the coasting trade, as their simple fore and aft rig kept crew sizes small, thus increasing profits. These schooners ranged from 50-foot two-masters, like the Alice S. Wentworth—a familiar sight along the Cape’s shores—to large six-masters, like the 450-foot Wyoming. What did they carry? Everything! Fish, ice, coal, lumber—all manner of goods packed in kegs and crates, often piled high on their decks.
If goods were shipped from Boston to New York (and visa versa) and beyond, vessels had to pass Cape Cod—pre-canal—which meant skirting the treacherous bars and shifting sands of the Cape, home to thousands of shipwrecks. Except in the stormiest of weather, sails could be seen on the water all around as well as passing the Cape, busily moving goods and passengers up and down the East Coast. This was not always easy or safe.
Reverend James Freemen wrote a letter petitioning for a lighthouse near Truro and stated that in 1794 more vessels were wrecked on the east shore of Truro than in all of Cape Cod. In 1797 Congress passed legislation to erect a lighthouse on Cape Cod—it was approved by President George Washington. Between 1797 and 1890, there were 14 lighthouses built on Cape Cod. By 1873, life saving stations began being built on Cape Cod—there would be 13 in all—as there were around 200 vessels passing the Cape every day during much of the 19th century.
In addition, by March 1, 1817, Congress passed an act designed to aid the American merchant marine. The most significant aspect of the act concerned the navigation of the U.S., stating that “no goods, wares or merchandise shall be imported, under penalty of forfeiture thereof, from one port in the U.S. to another port in the U.S. in a vessel belonging to a foreign power.” This effectively barred foreigners from our coastal trade. This was further extended to include trade between east and west coasts. Railroad builders were initially more intent on reaching the West Coast than running up and down the eastern seaboard.
The coasting trade can be neatly divided into two categories: pre- and post-Civil War. Pre-Civil War coasting was characterized by the coaster-packet hybrid, a fairly fast schooner that transported both passengers and commodities. Additionally, the “night boat” and “tramp coaster” emerged. This facilitated the interaction of people from different walks of life with those of another—people who ordinarily might confine their activities to specific types of people were forced to socialize and interact with those of different social circles. The night boats were steam driven and kept regular schedules, as they were not restricted by unfavorable winds, whereas the tramp vessels did not operate on a fixed schedule—they would travel where there might be profitable cargo.
Night boats catered primarily to the passenger trade but also provided quick, dependable service for certain cargoes (UPS of the day). Coastal trading continued somewhat during the Civil War but in a diminished capacity, given that, in addition to the usual hazards of the trade, coasters had to contend with Confederate raiders and port blockades.
Post-Civil War coasting, on the other hand, was characterized by increasingly larger schooners to transport bulk goods such as lumber, coal and ice. Following the end of the Civil War, the growth of cities and towns in New England created a huge demand for lumber for the construction of houses, businesses and factories. The lumber came largely from Maine and from the southern states.
Demand for coal eventually eclipsed the need for lumber due to the gradual expansion of the railroad, which needed coal for power as well. Coal also supplied gas for cooking and illumination, and when the general shift to electricity came, the need for coal to power turbines increased.
Another element of the coastal trade was the ubiquitous general store in the backcountry of a port’s sphere of influence. A store owner would travel to a port with a load of salt fish or country produce, sell them after some haggling, and leave with the various products stocked by the general store. The same store owner might be the producer of the consumer exports that he would then sell in port.
The impact on the coastal trade was two-fold: In addition to finished goods, raw materials were also needed from the south (e.g. cotton). Transportation of flour from the south—upon which New England had depended since colonial times—was another important trade component. By 1851, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia produced an average of 13 million bushels of wheat per year; Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut raised only 73,000. Yankees wanted their white bread, so coasters from the south were constantly streaming into New England harbors.
New England sent a return cargo of salt cod and pickled mackerel, as well as surplus lumber, in payment for anthracite coal, which had become popular by the 1830s. The coasters’ rates were competitive with the railroad, especially with heavy cargo. Evolving concurrently was the coastal steamer service, which would spell the end of the coaster-packet as such.
The Cape increased its sea-borne tonnage sixfold between 1815 and 1850. Every town had sail lofts, ropewalks, chandleries and other trades associated with the sea. In 1824 Wellfleet coasting schooners began bringing Virginia oysters directly to northern markets—leaving them behind Billingsgate for a time greatly increased their value, as they developed the distinctive flavor of what we now call the Wellfleet oyster. Since colonial times, almost every oyster dealer in New England had been a Wellfleet man.
A great example of a typical post-Civil War Cape Cod coaster was the four-masted schooner Alice Holbrook (1890), owned and captained by Sidney Ellis of Harwich. The cargo capacity for the schooner was 1,250 tons of coal, and freight charge was approximately $2 per ton or $2,500 per load. Cargo capacity for ice was less for coal, but freight charge was about the same, making it a preferred southbound cargo.
Ice was obtained from the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers in Maine (or from Cape Cod ponds sometimes) and was then shipped to Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. and Norfolk (this trip took just over a month and delivered a gross income of $5,000). The return on the investment was such that, in two years, the cost of the vessel ($64,000) was covered. On ice runs, perishables (meat, milk, vegetables) could be transported for a day or so and were placed on hay atop the ice cargo. By 1910 the ice business was practically ended due to Charles Morse’s invention of artificial ice machines.
Competition with the railroad, steam tugs and barges, and shrinking profit margins, spelled the end of the coasters. However, before coasters became a thing of the past, some six- to seven-masted monsters were built. The largest of the lot was the Wyoming (1909), 450 feet long and capable of carrying 6,600 tons. As the coasting trade competed with the burgeoning railroad, shipping vessels grew is size—desperately trying to make their voyages profitable by carrying progressively larger amounts of cargo. Wyoming was heavily laden with coal when she foundered off Monomoy Island in 1924—in 2003 the wreck was found due to large deposits of coal where she sank.
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