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Coasting by the Cape

The Dorothy B. Palmer

The 310-foot Dorothy B. Palmer under construction in Bath, Maine. Reprinted from “Chatham Sea Captains: In the Age of Sail” by Joseph A. Nickerson Jr. & Geraldine D. Nickerson (The History Press, 2008)

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.

John F. Leavitt at the wheel of the Alice S. Wentworth

John F. Leavitt at the wheel of the Alice S. Wentworth. Photo courtesy of Mark Wilkins

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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