The Clipper ‘Snow Squall’ – Part 1
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.”
Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is the author of “Whaling in Maine” and his newest book, “Maine to Cape Horn.” Photo courtesy of Charles H. Lagerbom.
The American clipper ship Snow Squall was built at Cape Elizabeth by Alford Butler. Hosting a grinning dragon for figurehead, it was 157 feet long, 742 tons and painted gleaming white, with a red-orange stripe along the gunwales when it slid into the Fore River estuary on July 14, 1851.
Snow Squall was sold to Charles R. Green & Co. of New York for $30,000. It was not a packet ship with a regular route, but instead intended by Green to wander the globe picking various cargoes and destinations based on market conditions. This was a delicate economic dance that often resulted in long periods laid up awaiting a cargo or a destination to be determined.
One of the fastest ships in the fleet, Snow Squall was in general service for the next 13 years. Its first captain was Cape Elizabeth native Silas D. Greg.
Snow Squall’s maiden voyage around Cape Horn from Boston to Honolulu had Capt. Isaac Bursley at the helm. They sailed for Cape Horn Jan. 17, 1852, with a load of lumber, shingles, pickets and clapboards and three passengers, two of whom were Christian missionaries being sent to the Pacific.
Cape Horn proved a formidable initiation; they faced adverse winds and horrible weather but arrived safely at Honolulu on June 2. Snow Squall proceeded to Shanghai then back to New York City on Sept. 6 with a cargo of last year’s black tea. They returned in January 1853.
Within the month, Green decided to run the clipper for a first time to California. Snow Squall sailed for San Francisco Feb. 24, 1853, with a load of flour, oats, starch and 100 barrels of whiskey. The clipper logged 360 miles in a 24-hour run, a very respectable 15-knot average, but still had a brutal passage around the Horn. They spent 52 days rounding it, 35 of them in very heavy seas. Strong winds carried away all iron work off the bowsprit as well as their steering apparatus.
From San Francisco they sailed for Shanghai then on to London by way of Cape of Good Hope with a load of silk and tea. Off to Cardiff, Snow Squall next sailed for New York with a load of railroad iron, arriving Aug. 8, 1854.
The clipper then sat idle until Green sent it to Australia by Cape of Good Hope with general cargo and six paying passengers. They arrived in Melbourne Feb. 21, 1855. On to Jakarta, then Hong Kong and finally Shanghai, where they loaded a cargo of tea for New York. Snow Squall arrived there early February 1856.
Green then employed the clipper in the Rio trade, but by June 1856 decided to send it once more to San Francisco. Weather was atrocious and the ship was dismasted off Montevideo. In August, the captain recorded taking more water than usual. En route to Cape Horn, a gale slit their fore-topsail. They then lost the main topmast, main topgallant mast, main topsail yard, maintop, and the main trestle trees.
All had crashed to the deck at night and the crew spent several hours hacking at the tangle on the ship, much of which also trailed over the side. Snow Squall swung wildly in the wind and the captain feared wreckage banging against the side might pierce the hull. They finally freed the ship and limped into Montevideo for repairs, where the unfortunate vessel collided with the Spanish brig Cora (others call it Cairo).
The collision damage required three additional weeks of repair. Snow Squall finally arrived San Francisco Jan. 31, 1857, after 208 days. They continued on to Manila in the Philippines, the Sunda Strait and then New York by way of Cape of Good Hope, where they also endured a treacherous passage. They finally arrived New York with a cargo of hemp in early August 1857.
Green decided to next use Snow Squall for runs to Rio de Janeiro. Then he sent the ship from Boston to Shanghai by way of Cape of Good Hope, where one of the ship’s boys, Edmund Rice, kept a journal. This future Civil War Medal of Honor winner recorded that the cape passage was treacherous, weather blowing a gale the entire time. He described wind, snow and hail that tore up his hands and froze stiff the sails.
Sickness also hit many officers and crew, killing some. By mid-December they limped along the China coast with the 2nd mate and carpenter running the ship. On Jan. 3, 1859, after numerous storms that further taxed the dwindling crew, Snow Squall finally reached Shanghai.
Its return trip was as eventful as her outward-bound voyage. Loaded with 600,000 pounds of green tea and sundries, Snow Squall departed Shanghai March 22. By early April, captain and crew were traveling parallel with another clipper, Romance of the Seas, who had departed a day earlier. A race developed between the two vessels.
Being 100 feet shorter than Romance of the Seas, Snow Squall put on every sail it could, at times losing them in driving winds. The race was not one for the record books, since the ships had left China at the end of the monsoon season with its lessening winds. But it did matter to the crew.
Romance of the Seas crossed Cape of Good Hope two days before Snow Squall but fell behind by two days as both crossed the equator. Snow Squall reached New York one day ahead of Romance of the Seas, in one of the last great clipper ship races.
Snow Squall made another Shanghai run via Cape of Good Hope in July 1859 then returned to New York in March 1860 with another large load of tea. Back again to Shanghai, Snow Squall then returned to New York in April 1861 just days before the American Civil War.
With the war starting, Green opted to send Snow Squall on a long voyage to Melbourne. They arrived Feb. 19, 1862, then continued to Singapore, which they reached in April. Then it was back to New York by way of Cape of Good Hope.
Snow Squall departed New York again on the Australian Run in the fall of 1862 and arrived in Melbourne in February 1863 after a 76-day voyage, referred to as an extraordinary passage. Then it was on again to Singapore and then a return voyage to New York by June 11.
Snow Squall left China with a cargo of 1,500 slabs of tin. In September off Cape of Good Hope, Capt. James Sullivan Dillingham Jr. noticed a bark making the same course as they. The clipper swung in under the other ship’s lee to speak to her. When asked what ship they were, the answer was a request for Snow Squall to heave to, so their boat could come alongside. Dillingham responded in the affirmative but then saw three starboard ports open and guns run out.
The ship was no ordinary bark, but rather the Confederate raider Tuscaloosa. Dillingham decided to make a run for it. “Requesting my wife to return to the cabin, I ordered the helm hove up and all possible sail made,” he wrote. Tuscaloosa fired a blank shot then a solid shot, but it fell 30 feet short.
Upon firing, Tuscaloosa hoisted the Confederate flag taking down the Stars and Stripes. Snow Squall sped ahead, and the raider gave chase. Dillingham ordered the crew to lighten the vessel as much as possible to make even better speed and the clipper eventually pulled away from the Confederate raider.
It had been a narrow escape. Interestingly, the log of Tuscaloosa differed somewhat from Dillingham’s account in that the Confederate captain reported the weather had been squally with a strong breeze, drizzling rain and a heavy sea. Such conditions he reported, made him discontinue the chase after two hours. Snow Squall reached New York Sept. 14, 1863, with an exciting story to tell.
The brief brush with the Confederate raider was not the end of the story for this Maine-built clipper ship. Much more to come!
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.
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