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Coasting by the Cape

The Schamyl, 1864

The Schamyl, outbound from the Mediterranean in 1864, was one of three barks commanded by Captain Elijah Crosby of Chatham during his career. Reprinted from “Chatham Sea Captains: In the Age of Sail” by Joseph A. Nickerson Jr. & Geraldine D. Nickerson (The History Press, 2008)

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.

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