A.J. Fuller built at Bath by Benjamin Flint in 1881. (LB1980.41.5.32 Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

Researching Cape Horn passages, I came across the story of a Bath-built down-easter named A.J. Fuller. The 1849-ton vessel measured nearly 230 feet long, over 41 feet wide and 26 feet in depth. It was commissioned by New York’s Benjamin Flint & Company and built by John McDonald. McDonald was supervising builder at Benjamin Flint’s yard in Bath and a pupil of renowned clipper ship designer and builder Donald McKay.

Launched in May 1881, A.J. Fuller was rigged with a billet head, had three decks and three masts. Its registry listed four enclosures on the upper deck, which included a cabin, a poop, a house, and quarters. It was named after prominent Bath citizen Dr. A. J. Fuller, who was also part owner. The down-easter was considered handsome and trim, its cabins beautifully fitted up.

AJ. Fuller carried only 28 crew, while 25 years earlier, the same sized clipper-ship Sovereign of the Seas required a 108-man crew to work the sails. Coal-fired donkey engines helped the later crews somewhat, but the fewer numbers were more of an economy move. As a result, those later crews were often worked much tougher.

Captain Theodore Persons Colcord went to sea at 16 years and took command at 27 years of age; he was captain of the A.J. Fuller from 1881-93 and 1895-96. (LB2008.3.377 Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

In its first 11 years, A.J. Fuller was commanded by Searsport-native Capt. Theodore P. Colcord. Born December 13, 1848, he died March 22, 1914. Colcord used A.J. Fuller for fast shipments New York to San Francisco to Liverpool, its main challenge doubling Cape Horn.

An 1882 handbill advertised A.J. Fuller as ‘The Magnificent A-1 First-Class Clipper Ship’ but was actually a large down-easter.

In 1886, Colcord commissioned maritime artist William Howard Yorke of Liverpool to paint the vessel. That artwork shows the ship driving along well-reefed for the winter North Atlantic. Like most big down-easters, Yorke captured it as a three skysail-yarder, meaning skysails above its royals at the top of the masts. Looking carefully, a figure atop the main cabin could possibly be Colcord’s wife.

In October 1889, Colcord rescued nearly 60 people from a burning steamer named Santiago. In New York, Santiago‘s officers presented Colcord with a gold chronometer. His wife received a pair of solid gold bracelets. It is suggested the incident may have persuaded Colcord to commission yet another painting of A.J. Fuller.

Marine artist William Howard Yorke’s 1886 and 1889 versions of the A.J. Fuller. (1992.11.1.1 and 1990.4.1 Both images courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

Colcord turned to Yorke once again. This second painting, done three years later, presents a brighter scene with nearly all sails set on a calmer day. Both paintings are at the Penobscot Marine Museum. PMM also holds a logbook of Colcord as master of A.J. Fuller and one of its Cape Horn voyages.

The painting may have been Colcord’s good-bye to the vessel. That same month, A.J. Fuller was sold to the California Shipping Company. It spent the next three decades working in the Pacific Northwest carrying case oil (kerosene) to the Orient and general cargo and coal to Hawaii from eastern United States ports.

During this time, its captain was Searsport-native Henry Nichols of Patmos fame. (More on that ship later!) The California Shipping Company then used the vessel in the Australian and Pacific Northwest lumber trade.

The A.J. Fuller under sail in its early years (LB1980.220.1.659 Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

Felix Reisenberg was a sailor who doubled Cape Horn aboard A.J. Fuller under Captain Nichols. He later became a captain of his own and published a 1950 book entitled “Cape Horn.” Of note is his description as a young able seaman rounding the Horn in a storm.

When the weather turned for the worse, he was not surprised when his port watch crew was awakened in the middle of the night with a mate roaring at them “All hands on deck! Out! Every mother’s son of a *****! Out you go!”

They hustled past the mate into a wild world of water, spray, and motion. Riesenberg noticed the sails overhead were thrashing and thundering, but that any noise seemed lost in the confusion of storm.

“Hang on! Oh! God! My mouth was full of salt water. Black, cold seas – solid ocean was lifting us, sweeping the gang along the lee side of the house, into the waist. Running ropes streamed across the deck. The water was filling our oilskins, our boots, wetting our shirts up under our armpits. The slippery deck rose, and she scended (sic) to windward, hitting us, knocking us down. Another flash, followed by close, reverberating thunder, deadened our hearing. The white fire has for an instant lit a picture of indescribable confusion and speed.”

Riesenberg recognized the mate’s roaring voice ordering them aloft to secure the mainsails. Six men gingerly hauled themselves up flat against frozen rigging into the “black pandemonium of the night.” Whipped by hail, they climbed. Edging out onto the icy footropes, they desperately held on to the spar with interlocked frozen fingers as it swung wildly back and forth.

“Cold bodies were forgotten. Fingernails were broken off and bleeding, no one knew. We smothered the bulge of the sail…The screaming of the wind and the cut of sleet were our thunderous applause; the mighty tossing of the ship, exaggerated because of our height, gave grandeur to our victory. We had saved the topsail!”

About 1900, A.J. Fuller was sold for the Australian lumber trade. Around 1909, it was sold once again, this time to the Northwestern Fisheries Company of Seattle. There it spent the next several years in the Puget Sound-Alaska fishing trade, transporting fish products south to Seattle and supplies north to isolated fishing communities in Alaska.

A.J. Fuller docked late in its life (Courtesy of SCRET and John Sharps)

On October 30, 1918, A. J. Fuller arrived in Seattle with a full cargo of salmon and salt. It was moored to a large steel buoy in the east anchorage of Elliott Bay, about 2,000 feet off Harbor Island. All crew went ashore except for the first mate and one watchman.

In a dense fog, the Japanese steamship Mexico Maru left the Milwaukee ocean dock on its way to Tacoma. While its crew stated that fog sirens were blown at regular intervals, they heard nothing in return from A.J. Fuller.

Upon sighting the down-easter, Mexico Maru threw its engines into full speed astern. Too late, the vessel collided with the A.J. Fuller. The collision ripped a 10-foot gash in the bow of the down-easter causing it to rapidly sink. The first mate and watchman escaped in a small boat.

Some months later, Seattle diver Henry Finch dove 70 feet down and, using a 200-foot line and grappling hook, retrieved a compass and other fittings from the wreck. While salvage was deemed possible, A.J. Fuller’s underwriters thought otherwise and declined. The owner listed it a total loss. In 1976, during a search for a Panamanian freighter’s lost anchor, an older anchor chain was found, believed to be from A.J. Fuller.

In 1988 and 1989, side scan sonar surveys of Elliott Bay identified possible wrecks, one of which turned out to be A.J. Fuller. On June 24, 2000, a group of local divers known as SCRET, Submerged Cultural Resources Exploration Team, tentatively identified the vessel. It was in an area where a Department of Transportation barge regularly dumped garbage. SCRET member John Sharps kindly shared with me his account of the dive as well as several images.

Wreck of the A.J. Fuller found. (Courtesy of SCRET and John Sharps)

He reported the team dropped down a weighted line next to the wreck and descended down it on scooters. At 240 feet, they reached a mud bottom. Following a compass heading, they reached the wreck, which was sitting upright. The sides were intact but showed large holes where planking had fallen off and which revealed inside wooden ribs. The deck was littered with boxes and other debris.

Sharps said they continued along the starboard side and passed what appeared to be blocks from the rigging. They observed a large hole in the starboard bow, its mortal wound sustained in the collision. There they also found a large chain lying across the wreck, probably lost by that commercial vessel that had snagged A.J. Fuller with its anchor.

The A.J. Fuller represents Maine-shipbuilding at its best. Rugged, durable, these vessels were built to work. Many went through vigorous years of service, different jobs in the maritime industry and ended their days nearly worn out. They led complete, full lives. What better testament could there be to Maine maritime history?

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US 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.


A.J. Fuller in dry-dock (Courtesy of SCRET and John Sharps)

On ice in Alaska (Courtesy of SCRET and John Sharps)

Captain Henry Finch’s diving operation on the sunken A.J. Fuller. (Courtesy of SCRET and John Sharps)






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