Proud heritage sailing home

History: From Baltimore's bustling shipyards, graceful clippers, greyhounds of the seas, raced the trade winds.

June 21, 2000|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff

When visitors came to Baltimore 150 years ago, they could not help but notice the noise and bustle along the city's energetic harbor. Workers' saws, hammers and caulking tools raised a racket. There were shipyards scattered from the foot of Federal Hill to Locust Point, from Fells Point to Canton. Thousands of workers -- black and white -- earned a living by building and repairing the ships that plied the Patapsco River, Chesapeake Bay and the oceans of the world.

Until steam power supplanted wind and sails, the most efficient way to move passengers and freight was by water and canvas. Baltimoreans routinely went to Philadelphia, Richmond and New York by ship until the mid-19th century.

Baltimore's contribution to the world of sail was considerable. Baltimore shipbuilders constructed a craft that sat low in the water and carried plenty of sail on steeply raked masts. The fast, agile Baltimore clippers of the 1790s and early 1800s helped inspire the larger, square-rigged clipper ships built mostly after 1840 that put America in the race for world trade.

Launched mainly in Baltimore, New York and Boston, these greyhounds of the sea generally were 140- to 250-feet long, had top speeds of 15 knots and made the trip to China in 15 weeks. The largest clippers measured more than 300 feet, displaced 2,000 tons and had as many as four masts.

Tthe call of exotic ports was difficult to resist. Traders called on the busy port of Canton, China, during the 18th century. Baltimore merchant Capt. John O'Donnell's ship, the Pallas, returned with a rich cargo in August 1785. His exploits became so well known that he named what is today the city neighborhood of Canton after the city in China.

Historians believe his was the first ship from Baltimore to reach China. A newspaper notice recorded the goods O'Donnell brought back for sale: "hyfon teas of the first quality in quarter chests ... Nankin blue and white stone china ... satins, the greatest part black ... silk umbrellas of all sizes, elegant paper wallhangings ... cinnamon and cinnamon flavors, rhubarb, opium."

George Washington ordered an agent to buy "if great bargains are to be had."

Baltimore clippers often carried more routine cargo -- barrels of flour from the farms of Central Maryland and Pennsylvania. They brought back sugar and rum from the Caribbean. The city established a sub-industry in cotton textiles. In what are today Hampden and Woodberry, millworkers made canvas sailcloth called cotton duck.

On June 25, 1851, a large Baltimore clipper, the Seaman's Bride, was launched with fanfare -- lemonade and ice cream -- at Locust Point in South Baltimore. The Sun reported, "Thus is added to our unsurpassed fleet of clipper vessels."

On her first major voyage, the Seaman's Bride left New York, sailed around Cape Horn, put in for repairs at Valparaiso, Chile, and arrived in San Francisco on May 20, 1852. It took another 57 days to make port in Shanghai.

Baltimore would build many of these sleek sailing ships until they were gradually displaced by steam. When the steam engine was perfected, tall masts and fields of canvas began to disappear from the harbor. Until the tall ships would make their triumphant return.

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