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Coasting by the Cape

The Dorothy B. Palmer

The bow of the five-masted schooner Dorothy B. Palmer at anchor in Perth Amboy, NJ. She sailed the seas for 20 years until she went down off Handkerchief Shoals on Cape Cod. Reprinted from “Chatham Sea Captains: In the Age of Sail” by Joseph A. Nickerson Jr. & Geraldine D. Nickerson (The History Press, 2008)

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.

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