The greatest anachronism in ship-building history

Having filed my 1999 Armistice Day comments well in advance, I had little to do on Armistice Day but think on those I had attended. The first Armistice Day of my memory was in 1918, which was well before anybody called it Veterans Day. Back then, my little Down East town of Freeport, Maine, was not a big mail-order address, and we lived in simple serenity.

So, on Nov. 11, I finished my barn chores, had my porridge and eggs, picked up my books, and went to school. I was 10. As we youngsters arrived, we found our teachers on the schoolhouse steps to intercept us and tell us school would not keep today. Germany had surrendered; the war was over. The shoe shop was closed, the stores hadn't opened, the shipyard whistle hadn't blown, and we could all go home.

Nobody went home, and before long every last Freeporter was milling about the "corner," our business section. Nothing happened until Jack Randall showed up with his Overland, the only automobile in Freeport. A parade formed spontaneously behind Jack, and he drove back and forth from Kendall Corner to Mallet Curve the rest of the day.

There was something appropriate in both Mr. Randall and the shipyard whistle. As to Mr. Randall: He was just Jack in Freeport, but his true name was John A. Briggs Randall because he was born out east aboard the downeaster John A. Briggs, of which his father was master. A downeaster was the ultimate and finest development of the sailing vessel. A luxury boat, she was designed from the clippers of the brief gold-rush decade with better cargo space, posh passenger accommodations, and greater speed.

A downeaster also had comfortable living quarters aft for the captain and family, and Maine women and children began going to sea. A vessel with the captain's wife on the voyage was called a "hen frigate," and the Briggs was a hen frigate. She was also Freeport's finest vessel, perhaps the most beautiful of all the downeasters then afloat.

Freeport's days of building and sailing ships had long gone by the time of World War l. Then our expeditionary forces were in Europe, and Uncle Sam needed cargo bottoms to support the troops. If you remember the flurry of building steel Liberty Ships for World War II, it was much the same except the fleet for World War I was wooden.

Nobody ever knew more about wooden boats than the Freeport shipwrights. True, they were long retired, but their tool chests were in their barns and the tools were sharp. The emergency-fleet ships were built in all parts of the country from the same blueprints. They were called Ferris-type steamers. And on Armistice Day, 1918, the half-built hull of one of these vessels was on the ways at the Soule shipyard at Freeport. Now, Uncle Sam didn't want more boats, so the whistle didn't blow, the builders didn't come, and work stopped on the Nemassa.

Thatcher Soule gave Uncle Sam $1 for the Nemassa and then passed the hat among Freeport businessmen to finance finishing her as a five-masted sailing vessel. Thatcher was a blue-water master himself, the last in a long line, and he would take her to sea.

The would-be steamer had her stern redesigned, but otherwise there were no changes except the tailboard said Sintram instead of Nemassa. Vessels were launched before the masts were stepped, so the Sintram was tied up at our town landing while five Oregon "sticks" were put in place, each resting on a new silver dollar. Now would come the rigging and the sails. This has got to be the greatest anachronism in history.

In 1918, the last thing the world needed was a five-masted merchant sailing vessel. But Freeport was a deep-sea town with long memories and enough sentiment. Our teachers told us the five masts are fore, main, mizzen, spanker, and driver. The only machinery on the Sintram was a steam donkey engine to work sails and capstan.

I was fascinated by all this and had wangled from Thatcher his permission to be on the Sintram when she was, as Freeporters still say, "la'nched." And I spent every minute I could aboard her while she was being finished off and rigged. I never knew the names of the two men who stayed aboard the Sintram to finish her because they called each other Cap'n. They'd let me pull the lanyard on the donkey engine whistle at noon when I was there.

When the Sintram was ready for sea, Capt. Thatcher Soule assumed command. He was well aware this would be the last commercial sailing vessel ever to leave a Maine home port. This would close forever the long chapter of Maine shipbuilding and seafaring that began in 1607 when the pinnace Virginia was built in Maine by the Popham colonists.

The Sintram was beautiful when her sails were spread, and Captain Thatcher "filled to the no'th" and took her to sea past the harbor islands of Pound o' Tea and Punkin Knub. One of the Freeport businessmen who speculated with Captain Thatcher was "Lin" Bean, which is the way to pronounce "Leon," and while L.L. Bean would never tell me how much he contributed, he did say, "I didn't lose."

The Sintram did make some money for a few voyages, mostly by carrying coal from Pennsylvania mines, but she became just a barge, pulled by a tug. She was lost off the Jersey coast in a storm when I was in college.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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