Intrigued by ships in a bottle, I was searching them out on the internet a while back when I came across an Ocracoke, N. C., website called the Village Craftsmen. One of their kits was for the four-mast bark Roanoke, built by Arthur Sewall and Company in Bath. That got me thinking.

The Roanoke had quite a history. One of the largest wooden ships ever built in an American shipyard, its size was eclipsed only by the Great Republic and six-mast schooner Wyoming. More on that one later!

Roanoke was the last of the “Big Four” large wooden ships built by Arthur Sewall, all named after great southern rivers. The other three were Shenandoah, Rappahannock and Susquehanna.

Roanoke was a four-mast bark built by Arthur Sewall & Company, one of the largest wooden ships built in an American shipyard. (Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum and the Library of Congress)

Sewall had financed construction of these huge wooden vessels, even though the industry (and later himself) was moving toward steel. He found investors with no previous association with shipping. This practice of finding “dry owners” for investors would continue with his steel construction years.

In August 1891, Eben Haggett, wood procurer for Sewall’s big ships, delivered to the shipyard a white oak frame from the Shenandoah ship’s molds. He charged $16 per ton. It was his last contract with Sewall, whose yard was transitioning to steel construction.

The draft of Roanoke was over 27 feet, and the spacious carrier could store more than 5,300 tons of cargo. Such a large vessel needed a strong backbone and Roanoke had two tiers of 16-inch-thick white oak for its keel.

It was reported 1.25 million board feet of yellow pine went into its construction. Roanoke was also fastened by 98,000 locust wooden treenails and supported with 550 hackmatack knees. Nearly 225 tons of iron fastenings added to its bulk and weight. Roanoke’s sails needed 14,000 yards of material.

Sewall’s long-time master builder, Elisha P. Mallett, died in January 1892 and did not see it completed. Nor did Roanoke’s designer and modeler, William Pattee. Roanoke was the end of an era in many different ways.

Such a large ship carried only a crew of 30, due more to cost savings rather than use of labor-saving devices. Critics complained sailors for these large ships were overdriven, often by ship officers known as bucko mates. Roanoke, as well as the other Sewall ships, were in fact cited in legal proceedings regarding violent mates and abuse of crewmen.

Roanoke launched at Bath, Maine in 1892. (Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

 

The 311-foot-long vessel was launched Sept. 20, 1892, into the Kennebec River. While assembled crowds exhibited excitement, filling the shipyard and riverbanks, a newspaper noted Sewall and Roanoke’s master, Capt. Joseph P. Hamilton, regarded the affair as purely a business matter and manifested a stern indifference to the enthusiasm of their guests.

Hamilton called the vessel “The Great Brute.” It was noted he made a good first impression, but there were stories of drinking, violence, and philandering. When command of Roanoke came along, Hamilton declared himself proof against any temptation and Sewall gave him the job.

The first of many deaths aboard Roanoke happened when the ship’s boy fell into the hold. Sewall covered funeral expenses. Roanoke departed on its maiden voyage to San Francisco in December 1892 and arrived 122 days later. Hamilton said it was a heavy ship but a fair sailer. Its return trip was a more respectable 111 days.

For its next voyage, Roanoke carried 126,000 cases of oil around Cape Horn to Shanghai, a record cargo for a sailing ship. It returned via Manila and the Philippines with a load of hemp. On its third trip Hamilton and Roanoke unexpectedly put in to Rio de Janeiro. He did not contact Sewall about it for six weeks, until they were once again underway.

This raised red flags at the Sewall office, although Hamilton said it had been due to being short-handed. Three sailors had died falling from aloft and 15 had been laid-up disabled, either hurt by constant waves being shipped or covered in raw sores from exposure to salt-water. At Rio, the injured were hidden or escaped and Hamilton could not find many replacements.

Further, he himself had taken sick and had been sent to a private hospital 50 miles away from the ship. Meantime, what crew was left had mutinied and tried to kill the mate who had shot two of them, one seriously.

Apparently, the problems began when the cook broke into the whiskey cargo. The second mate was fired when it was learned he had hidden in his cabin while all the troubles occurred.

The rest of the journey went unremarked; Roanoke returned to New York with sugar from Hawaii. Another Cape Horn passage took case oil to Yokohama and returned with more Hawaiian sugar. It was on this 1897 return voyage that Hamilton died aboard while off Cape Horn, apparently of blood poisoning.

News of Hamilton’s actions quickly spilled out. Upon their New York departure, he was not seen on deck the first 40 days of the voyage and had been taken to an insane asylum while in Rio. From Hawaii until his death, it was reported he was raging drunk and never seen outside his cabin. The mate, who took over that voyage, was 24 years old.

Starboard side view of bark Roanoke under sail, with most sails set. (Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

 

Roanoke’s last captain was Rockport native Jabez A. Amesbury, given command in 1899. He bought a captain’s share of the vessel. In 1901, they sailed 2,200 miles while fighting a constant fire in its coal cargo. A year later Roanoke delivered cargo from Seattle worth $850,000.

On its final voyage in June 1904, Roanoke departed New York City. In August, an Australian newspaper reported the vessel had been involved in a serious collision with a British steamship named Llangibby off South America. Roanoke limped into Rio de Janeiro, where it required three months’ worth of repairs before continuing its voyage.

A Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, reported after delivering cargo to Australia, Roanoke caught fire while loading chromium ore near Nouméa, the capital and largest French-speaking city of New Caledonia in the Coral Sea.

A London newspaper reported the vessel burned Aug. 10, 1905, while loading chrome ore for Delaware Breakwater. About 9 p.m. a fire was reported aboard ship, which by that time had loaded more than 3,000 tons of ore. The crew escaped to nearby sister vessel Susquehanna, which had also been loading ore. The flames quickly spread, the ship burned all night and sank a few days later. Roanoke was a total loss.

Roanoke preparing to sail for Melbourne from New York City June 1904 on what would be its final voyage. (Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

It is very possible that if Roanoke had not burned, it might not have survived its return voyage. Chrome ore was extremely heavy and had to follow special loading instructions in the hold on platforms to keep the vessel from becoming too stiff. In any type of bad weather, if not properly loaded, the chrome ore might keep the wooden vessel from properly flexing in heavy seas.

This was a special danger with extremely long wooden ships like Roanoke, Amesbury had even written the owners about it. And this is exactly what happened to sister ship Susquehanna just two weeks after the loss of Roanoke. In heavy seas, a tween-deck beam was found snapped, the stern had fallen aft of the rigging and there were 2 feet of water aboard with more coming in from a caved-in section. The ship had literally broken its back and had to be abandoned. Of the Big Four, Sewall now had only Shenandoah left. The end of an era of large wooden ships was at hand.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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