After Henry Buck left Maine for South Carolina in the 1820s, he created a lumber empire in the Palmetto state. Bucksville and Buckstown were soon established, much like the Bucksport, Maine of his youth. But it was Henry’s son William Lightfoot Buck who made a name for himself as the one who tried to build a Maine downeaster down south.

The Buck family, long interested in expanding lumber operations, had earlier experimented with shipbuilding. Before the Civil War, the smaller wooden-built Waccamaw was designed, constructed, and launched under the careful eye of family patriarch Henry Buck. (More on that ship later!) When Henry died in 1870, his son William took over the family lumber business and its interest in shipbuilding.

Shortly after his father’s death, William embarked on building a large wooden sailing vessel. Prompted by his father-in-law William McGilvery and Captain Jonathan Nickels, both of Searsport, Buck explored the idea of using Maine workers and tools in South Carolina. Rather than ship lumber to a Maine shipyard, savings might be realized if the shipbuilding was done closer to the source of wood.

Watercolor of the shipyard at Bucksville, S.C. made by S.S. Stevens of Cherryfield, ME in 1875 titled “View on the Waccamaw” with the Henrietta under construction dominating the skyline (Image courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum)


Funded mostly by Searsport capital, Henrietta’s group of initial owners were all relatives of Buck, Nickels or McGilvery. Among them were wives Desiah McGilvery Buck and Henrietta Thompson Nickels, for whom the ship was named. There was William McGilvery, T. Holmes Buck (William’s brother), A.V. Nickels (Jonathan’s brother) and his wife Elizabeth McGilvery Nickels. There was Desiaha’s sister, as well as William Buck’s sisters Mary Buck Sarvis, Alice Buck, and Lucinda Buck Gilbert.

At the Middle Mill in Bucksville, along the Waccamaw River, Buck laid out plans for a shipyard to accommodate the planned-for vessel. According to the Horry County Independent Republic Quarterly, Captain Nickels and master builder Elisha Dunbar arrived from Searsport in 1874. They had been imported from Maine to build the ship.

Along with Nickels and Dunbar, more than 100 Maine ship builders, blacksmiths, joiners and riggers were brought to Bucksville; among them was shipwright, Peter Ward. This was an intriguing demographic experiment. Dunbar enticed them with promises of a warmer winter than those in Maine, but the September heat and humidity they initially encountered made for a rough start. Several became sick in the humid conditions.

Watercolor made by S.S. Stevens of Cherryfield, ME in 1875 titled “The Shipyard at Bucksville, S.C. March 5, 1875” (Image courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)


The addition of over 100 new inhabitants strained the services of the small village. Men worked in the swamps to find the necessary wood; it took 1.3 million feet of mill cut lumber to build Henrietta, mostly longleaf pine. They worked the daylight hours, six days a week in a particularly cold and drizzly southern winter. In quick order, the keel for the massive ship was laid and the frame begun.

Few thought of this move as permanent. Many felt out of place in the new environment, surrounded by a culture still feeling the effects of the Civil War just a decade old. But work on the ship continued; Henrietta needed 65 tons of wrought iron hardware. The frame of the ship emerged, taller than anything else in town. Someone said it looked like a cathedral.

Henrietta under full sail from the Applebee Collection LB1980.222.438 (Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum)


It took longer than a year, or more correctly one winter, to build the 210-foot vessel. Except for a few of the single men, most workers returned to the Pine Tree state, including the young shipwright, Peter Ward and his broad axe. The result of their efforts, however, was the massive seagoing downeaster Henrietta.

Today, not much remains of the Buck timber and shipbuilding empire, or the site of Henrietta’s construction. However, when the Waccamaw River is at low tide, especially at the Upper Mill site, remains of old wooden riverside docks can be seen.

When Henrietta was launched into the Waccamaw in May 1875, it was the most well-known vessel built in the state. William Buck was quite proud; it was the longest wooden ship ever built at Bucksville or in all of South Carolina at the time.

The majestic Henrietta running under full sail (Image in Public Domain)

Henrietta weighed 1,267 tons, the tallest mast reached 147 feet above deck, and it carried 24 sails. It was the first and only downeaster ever built in the south.

They launched Henrietta with no sails or masts, which lay piled along the deck length. This was due to the profusion of overhanging trees on the river. The masts would instead be stepped down on the coast at Georgetown, near Charleston. Another problem not foreseen was the sheer size of the vessel and the shallow state of the river.

The downeaster launched just fine, but while being towed down the Waccamaw to Georgetown, it bumped along the river bottom. When they got to the Winyah Sand Bar at the mouth of the river, Buck found the vessel could not cross the sand.

A large wooden cradle had to be built. Using numerous wooden barrels to lift the vessel, Henrietta finally floated over the bar. Once at Georgetown, and then Charleston, Nickels was able to finish the work, especially the masts, spars, and rigging.

It was reported Henrietta cost $90,000 to build. This was 25% less than what a similar sized ship cost in Maine, which was about $115,000. Northern shipyards and builders were not happy about this experiment.

According to one source, a coordinated attempt was made by New England companies to block the sale to Buck of any marine gear and materials for Henrietta as well as for any future ship construction. Buck had to search elsewhere for Henrietta’s rigging and other maritime hardware. This coordinated embargo proved quite effective and seriously curtailed Buck’s operations.

The total cost savings to build in the south had not been realized, at least not as much as Buck, McGilvery and Nickels had hoped. And the Winyah Sand Bar was still fresh in their minds. After Henrietta, the experiment of building downeasters down south was not repeated. William Buck focused instead on his timber interests.

Shortly after its launch, Henrietta sailed to Maine under first master Jonathan Nickels and a 25-man crew. The large ship then went to New Brunswick then on to Liverpool, England.

Henrietta proved a strong, good sailing ship and was put into the Far East and Australian trades. Many trips were made to the Pacific Ocean by way of Cape Horn. The vessel handled well and maintained decent rates of passage. It was referred to as majestic.

Oil painting of Henrietta signed B.T.N. which may indicate it was painted by a Nickels family member (Image courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum)


In April 1891, the ship was in Portland, Ore., awaiting cargo. U.S. President Benjamin Harrison was on one of his most notable cross-country presidential trips. This one was an unequaled five-week tour of the American west, aboard a very nicely outfitted train. Harrison and his advisors were seeking some publicity, they essentially wanted a photo op. Henrietta was found to be the only American ship in port at that time, so was chosen for a presidential visit and inspection.

In August 1894, Henrietta loaded 800 tons of manganese ore in Yokohama, Japan. Its next stop was to secure more cargo at Kobe, Japan. Then it was to proceed on to New York.

But while trying to enter Kobe Harbor, a typhoon came upon the ship and quickly dismasted it. The captain tried to take the vessel to safer waters. They anchored and tried to ride out the storm. As winds increased, the captain was forced to cut the anchor and Henrietta ran aground, a total loss. The crew was saved, the wreck with its cargo was sold for $4,100.

Thirty-inch shipyard wooden broad axe made and used by Peter Ward of Searsport. (Image courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)

The Penobscot Marine Museum has some great images and materials related to Henrietta, including a needlepoint of the ship. Another item is a 30-inch wooden broad axe owned and used by Peter Ward of Searsport.

Born in Ireland, he was working in the McGilvery shipyard in Searsport when he became one of Dunbar’s men recruited for South Carolina to help build Henrietta. Ward returned to Maine after the ship was finished. By 1891, shipbuilding was pretty much done in Searsport and Ward took his talents on to shipyards in Belfast, Camden, Waldoboro, Damariscotta and Quincy.

So goes the story of Henrietta, the only Maine downeaster built down south. One final note: I found that even though it had been owned and captained by Searsport interests and had visited the state on numerous occasions, throughout its entire 19-year life-span Henrietta apparently never once saw the town of Searsport.

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

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