Lectures recount the days when schooners were kings of commerce

03/22/2011 7:00 AM |

A painting of the Lavinia Campbell, a three masted schooner captained by Charles Franklin of Orient.

In the days of wind-borne shipping, the waters surrounding Orient played host to scores of schooners en route throughout the northeast laden with coal and commodities.

The Oysterponds Historical Society is sponsoring two lectures at Peconic Landing in Greenport over the next two Saturdays on the history of the ships whose owners and captains lived in Orient more than a century ago.

Orient resident Ret Millis, a member of OHS and a former field reporter and producer for NBC News, will recount the voyages of the three-masted schooner Lavinia Campbell. Mr. Millis became interested in the ship after seeing a painting of it in the historical society’s collection.

“I think it’s by far the finest of our marine paintings,” he said of the moody painting depicting the ship with all sails reefed as it fights off a gale. “It’s unbelievable that such a beautiful thing turned out to be a coal carrier.”

While researching the ship’s history Mr. Millis discovered that he lives in the Orient house that once belonged to the Lavinia Campbell’s first captain, Charles N. Franklin.

Mr. Franklin ran the ship for Cicero King, a notable Orient businessman who had the 197-foot-long Lavinia Campbell built in Kennebunkport, Maine in 1883.

“She was a three-masted schooner and a good-looking one,” said Mr. Millis. “She was fast and apparently Franklin was a bit of a driver. He could really push her.”

He added that captains at the time were paid with a percentage of the cargo, leading them to drive their ships hard.
The Lavinia Campbell, which Mr. Millis says was likely berthed in Greenport, also had the distinction of having more accidents than most other vessels.

Not long after she was launched, she ran aground off Block Island on a dark night. Later, when anchored outside of Baltimore with a load of coal, she was rammed by a British steamer and began to sink. Refloated and repaired in Baltimore, the ship completed its voyage and delivered the coal several months late, said Mr. Millis.

He’ll reveal her ultimate — and harrowing — fate at his lecture, “Schooner Rigged and Rakish: The Story of Orient’s Lavinia Campbell” at 4 p.m. on April 2 in the Peconic Landing auditorium.

Clyde Mellinger, who will give the lecture “A Schooner in the Offing” this Saturday, March 26, at 4 p.m. in the same location, married into Orient’s schooner history.

His wife, Roxanna Mellinger, is descended from a long line of Potters of Orient who were involved in shipping under sail.
She’s the granddaughter of Captain William Harper Potter of Orient of the Louise B. Crary, which sank after a collision off the Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts in 1902. Captain Potter was one of 10 of the 21 crew members who survived.

Mr. Mellinger has lectured extensively on the wreck of the Crary. Saturday’s talk will focus on her sister ships, many of which were piloted by members of his wife’s family over the course of more than a century.

“I’ll be filling in the areas which have not really been covered that much by the historical society, the four, five and six masted schooners. They’re the big boys,” he said.

Mr. Mellinger said that the Orient wharf likely could not accommodate ships bigger than three-masted schooners. Larger vessels would have been berthed in Greenport while their captains were home with their families in Orient.

He takes the title of his lecture from the poem “The Sea Gypsy” by Richard Hovey: “There’s a schooner in the offing, with her topsail shot with fire/My heart has gone aboard her for the islands of desire.”

“That’s rather romantic,” Mr. Mellinger said. “These guys were merchants. I’m sure they’d like to dream they were on a yacht, but they were mostly businessmen.”

Mr. Mellinger documented the rise of the big ships in the early 1880s, when merchants realized that three-masted schooners weren’t big enough to transport coal up and down the coastline.

“It was around the kitchen tables in these houses around here that they planned these things and started raising money for building these ships,” said Mr. Mellinger. “Then they became owners and captains.”

One five-masted schooner built at that time and often seen off the coast of Orient was the Jennie French Potter, whose captain, Joseph R. Potter, named the ship after his brother’s wife, since his brother helped to finance her construction.

“She was launched in 1899. She was 257 feet long and weighed almost 2,000 tons,” said Mr. Mellinger. “She carried coal, mainly. They needed bituminous coal in New England so they would run from the rail heads all along the coast.”

The Jennie French Potter’s role was typical of big schooners of that era, which provided the north-south counterpart to east-to-west shipping routes along the nation’s railroad lines.

Large schooners carried everything from pickled pork and seed potatoes to street sweepings full of horse droppings used as fertilizer. They even picked up guano, birds’ and bats’ droppings, from islands off the coast of Peru and carried munitions during the Spanish-American War and World War I.

“If you think of the three-masters as the tandem trucks of the area, the five-masters were container ships or supertankers,” said Mr. Mellinger. “They weren’t quite as romantic, but they were far more contributory to the wealth and prosperity of the nation.”

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Schooner lectures

• Saturday, March 26, 4 p.m.: ‘A Schooner in the Offing’ by Clyde Mellinger
• Saturday, April 2, 4 p.m.: ‘Schooner Rigged and Rakish: The Story of Orient’s Lavinia Campbell’ by Ret Millis

Presented by Oysterponds Historical Society at Peconic Landing auditorium, 1500 Brecknock Road, Greenport. Free. 323-2480, oysterpondshistoricalsociety.org.



8 Comment

  • I hope they also replace the street signs which at present do not comply with the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices [MUTCD] which is the bible from the Federal Highway Administration. The correct signs must start with a capital letter and the remaining part of the sign must be in small letters. This is mandated by the Federal government.

  • I hope Brookhaven is going to stop all other unnecessary projects to correct this Rt. 112 mess. In my area many people do not want the “25A Corridor study from Mount Sinai to Wading River”. The problem with 112, in this article, is one example of why Brookhaven can not continue to keep spending. Common sense and logic, cost effective solutions can be applied to fixing high accident areas on 25A., Mt. Sinai to Wading River
    Fix what needs to be fixed (112) and keep a low cost to tax payer profile District Reps!
    NO RT. 25A Corridor Study funding, bonding or borrowing!

  • How might one determine what “common sense and logic, cost effective solutions” might be if one does not investigate to determine what the problems are? This is one of the primary functions of a corridor study, as is public participation. Show up during the study phase and provide input, rather than wait until a project is proposed and try to block it, thereby wasting all the time effort and money that went into the study process.
    And not to split hairs here, or anything, but if you don’t fund, borrow or bond, what do you use to implement these “solutions”, seashells?

  • ayup, let’s get them signs chaged, that’ll fix ‘er. them feds shure nose whut there talkin about

  • I think your bean a little two hard on them fellers, theirs only 7 and a half ous in a day, after all, and a ingneer can;t be everywhere. maybe they paved the road when he was on lunch, then whose falt is it? an what;s with all them big words?

  • No sea shells! That’s silly! Brookhaven employs Engineers; cost for labor is already being paid for! Dept. of Motor Vehicles has stats. on accidents. So does the police dept. But the biggest study, already paid for by tax payers, is the NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY BUREAU study 2008. Have a highway-traffic safety pro. line it all up and make a decision, there is no need for further, tax payer draining studies. Like 112, we have sidewalks which are falling a part, round-abouts are slated for Rocky Point, big bucks, and unnecessary…the high accident areas are not where round-abouts are being requested….traffic lights are needed at high crash intersections, get rid of center turning lanes at high crash spots, common sense and logic solutions…

  • This is nice photograph which is posted by you. Thanks for sharing.