Given the fact that the economies of most of the coastal communities on the North Shore were long based on the fishing and maritime trade industries, it is no surprise that there exists so much written material about local vessels and their voyages.
Over the centuries, thousands of craft of varying designs and sizes served as seasonal “homes” to local mariners. One of the most successful ships of its time was Joseph Peabody’s George, a Salem vessel of most unusual origin. The 328-ton ship was designed by Christopher Turner and built during the War of 1812 by a group of unemployed carpenters. The men planned to outfit the George as a privateer, but the war ended, so they sold her to Peabody to recoup their investment.
By 1815, the George was on her way to India on the first of what would be 21 voyages — almost all of them to Calcutta — in a 22-year span. During that time, she carried cargo that generated $600,000 in duties for the United States Treasury, and one can only guess at the fortune she earned for her owner and officers.
The George was known in its time as the “Salem School Ship,” because so many seamen who served on her went on to become masters or supercargoes on other vessels. She also was the fastest Salem ship of her time. George Granville Putnam claims she probably holds the record for the fastest trip ever for a ship of sail between Cape of Good Hope and an American port in the North Atlantic.
A sometimes member of the George’s crew was a large black and white cat, also named George, who was known to climb up the masts and onto the yards to “supervise” the sailors at work. George Granville Putnam, in “Salem Vessels and Their Voyages,” claims that while at sea, the precocious feline would “go over the ship into the channel (most likely using the netting) ... and catch a flying fish for a repast, after which he would sprawl himself on deck and go sound asleep.” Sadly, he was lost at sea on his fourth voyage.
Many of those who served aboard the famed vessel grew quite attached to her. When Joseph Peabody announced in 1837 that he was selling the George to a Boston firm, a group of former officers mounted a fishing expedition in local waters and then gathered with a larger contingent who had already assembled aboard their beloved vessel. Gathered for this last farewell cookout on her decks were many former masters, officers, clerks, supercargoes and friends.
The proud ship made one trip for new owners, to Rio de Janeiro, where she was condemned. It was a sad, anticlimactic end for an extraordinary vessel.
Another equally beloved vessel came along nearly a century after the George’s demise. The Gertrude L. Thebaud was the last fishing schooner built in the A.D. Story shipyard in Essex (1930) and was designed by Frank Paine almost as a cross between a schooner and a yacht. In addition to her mundane (by comparison) fishing voyages, the Thebaud had a second career competing in the famed Sir Thomas Lipton International Fishing Challenge series in the 1930s. She raced head to head with the famed Bluenose out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, three times between 1930 and 1938, and after winning the initial series lost the next two. The Gertrude L. Thebaud was later used for Arctic exploration voyages and for submarine hunting during World War II.
The beloved Gloucester schooner survived the war and the Arctic weather but not a storm encountered off the coast of South America in 1948. But her fame lives on partly because she had become, according to the Essex Shipbuilding Museum’s website, “one of the most painted, photographed and modeled schooners in history.”
In 1933, Capt. Ben Pine presented a painting of the Gertrude L. Thebaud by Emile Gruppe to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a major collector of ship portraits and models. The occasion was a stopover in Gloucester by the president and his family. A few months earlier, Pine had met the president during a lobbying trip to Washington made by East Coast fishing representatives who were transported to the capitol on the famed Gloucester schooner.
The Gruppe painting was accorded a place of honor in Roosevelt’s “gallery” — right above his desk in his White House office.
Historian Jim McAllister of Salem writes a regular column for The Salem News.