In 1848, once rumors were confirmed, gold fever hit hard among most everyone along the Maine Midcoast. Belfast’s Asa Faunce was just finishing construction of his 212-ton bark Suliote. It was 105 feet long, drew 11 feet and could hold a decent amount of cargo and a number of passengers. Faunce immediately made it available to ferry to California with paid-up passengers who wanted to seek their fortunes in the gold fields. Suliote would sail at end of January under Capt. Josiah Simpson. Schooner Eudorus under Capt. Charles L. Wiggin, would sail two weeks later from Frankfort.

There was no shortage of interested participants wanting quick passage to California. Fifty area men, mostly in their early 20s, raced to secure a berth aboard Suliote. They were willing to pay the $150 fare, which was big money in 1848.

Twenty-four of the voyagers hailed from Bangor, including 3/4 of the town’s Bangor Quartette. Apparently gold fever was enough to break up the singing group; two departed on Suliote, Alonzo Wiggin and Robert Cram, while the third, Rufus Wiggin, left on Eudorus. Only Renaldo Wiggin opted to stay in Bangor.

For many of these young men, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Belfast residents who took their chances included Thomas Farrow, Curtis Merrill, William L. Torry, Freeman Patterson and Benjamin Griffin, the recent editor of the Belfast Republican newspaper. Torry returned to Maine after holding numerous public positions in California, and died in Rockland at age 64 in 1883.

Camden gold seekers included George T. Crabtree, Joseph Cusac, Joseph P. Dyer, and Fisher H. Follansbee. Crabtree did not linger long in California, he returned and married Clementine McLoon in 1852 in Rockland. Years later in 1915, when he was 93 years old, Thomas Dinsmore, of China, recounted his voyage aboard Suliote for local newspapers.

On Jan. 21, 1849, many of the excited passengers filed into Bangor’s Hammond Street Church to hear specially prepared sermons by the Rev. George Shepard and S.L. Caldwell. They preached for the benefit of the passengers about to sail for San Francisco.

The bark was launched Jan. 30, 1849, and loading for its California voyage began at once. The pace was almost frantic, fueled by gold fever. Soon everyone was aboard, ready to go. Suliote earned the distinction of being the first vessel to sail from Maine for the California gold rush.

The passage was not quick. It involved plowing their way steadily south into the Atlantic along the east coast of South America and then the dangerous rounding of Cape Horn. If they survived that, they then expected a long northerly voyage up the west coast of both South and North America. Overall distance traveled would be over 16,000 miles.

Thirty-three days into the voyage, they were near the equator along South America’s east coast. Suliote arrived in Rio de Janeiro March 19, then sailed the following day. So fast was the turnaround, no letters from passengers were posted. There was no time to delay: ship and crew were entering far southern Atlantic waters in the southern hemisphere’s late fall months.

On April 16, 1850, Suliote encountered bad weather off Cape Horn. To round the Horn, in the words of Jack London, you must make westing. “Whatever you do, make westing! Make westing!” As we have learned, those became the sailing directions for Cape Horn.

An artist named K. Johnson painted a watercolor of Suliote battling its way through heavy seas off Cape Horn. No other information has been found as to the artist or even when the painting was made. One clue might be the presence aboard Suliote of a passenger named Aaron H. Johnson of Stillwater, Maine. Maybe a relation?

Then tragedy struck. On a pitch-black night with a heavy sea running, Capt. Josiah Simpson’s 18-year-old son, Edwin Paul Simpson, was standing near the ship’s wheel. When Suliote gave a sudden heavy lurch in the rough seas, the wet and slippery deck provided no purchase and the young man was hurled overboard into the frothing water. Capt. Simpson’s cry of "Edwin is overboard!" roused the crew, but there was nothing to be done. In such seas, any lowered boat would have been swamped as soon as it hit the water.

Passengers and crew helplessly watched in horror as Edwin, a favorite of everyone, floated farther and farther behind with each successive wave. The howling winds covered any other sound.

On May 10, the battered ship and weary passengers arrived at Valparaiso, Chile. They had doubled the Horn, which meant passing from 50°S latitude around the southern extremity of South America and then back to 50°S latitude on the continent’s western coast. This is where a passenger named Griffin, either William or Benjamin, posted a letter written April 23 about the loss of Capt. Simpson’s son off Cape Horn.

Griffin wrote that the tragedy destroyed all that may have been termed the pleasure of the voyage and that it clouded everyone’s experience the rest of the trip. In addition to the loss, Griffin wrote of the need to wear three pairs of pants, woolen shirts and three coats to ward off the Cape Horn cold.

For two weeks they rested at Valparaiso while they repaired the storm-damaged vessel. Then they sailed onward for California. Suliote arrived at San Francisco July 20, 1849, after 171 days passage. It was not a record-breaker, but they were happy to arrive.

Suliote’s voyage, coupled with the loss of his son, seemed to end Capt. Simpson’s days at sea. He returned to Belfast and built Simpson’s Wharf, where he engaged in trade and commerce. The wharf burned in 1873.

Belfast, Maine, had earned itself a place in California Gold Rush history, with having one of the first ships to take gold seekers from the east coast. For bark Suliote, however, its story is not over. … To be continued.