CapeCodHistory home page
18th and 19th Century document page
posted January 2005
original publication The American Neptune, --- (1964)
Deyo's 1890 transportation chapter
Brewster Ship Masters
Thirty Years of
The American Neptune
Ernest S. Dodge, editor
Harvard University Press
The Boston Packets
BY HENRY C. KITTREDGE
IT has long been the fashion when we look back at earlier decades, to sigh faintly and call them the good old days. There is no harm in the habit, certainly. Every generation has done it. Go back to the good old days of fifty years ago, and you will find men of that day looking enviously at the simplicity of life and the abundance with which their grandfathers had been blessed. In the same way you may chase Time back to its very beginnings and find men singing the same sad song: O! for the good old days!
Well, in the following pages we shall take a brief backward look at some of the old days on Cape Cod and at one phase of seafaring that flourished a hundred years ago—the story of the Boston Packets. The business was at its best from about 1800 to 1875 or thereabouts, old days, certainly, but if we look at them with the naked eye of the historian instead of through the rose-tinted glasses of the sentimentalist, neither better nor worse than our own.
It is useful to keep some such reflections as these in mind when we contemplate the era of the local packets—those stout little sloops and schooners which for two generations or so furnished the principal means of transportation between the Cape villages and Boston. That era, like every era, had its pleasant features and its unpleasant ones, and it is my purpose to depict it briefly and without bias. Then each can decide for himself whether on the whole, those times were better than our own, or worse; whether, if it lay within our power to do so, we should bid Time turn backward in its flight to the days when our roads, ankle deep in sand, were bare of automobiles and our harbors were white with the sails of fishermen, coasters, and Boston Packets.
The first fact that strikes one in examining this period is that, like the era of the clipper ships, it was brief. Two generations, as we have said, just about covered it. This does not mean, of course, that nobody ever went to Boston by water before 1800, but that if he did so, he embarked
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as the lone passenger on a chance fisherman or coasting schooner. There were stagecoaches, to be sure, but one trip by stagecoach was usually enough. Men of God, like Timothy Dwight, or philosophers like Henry Thoreau, might rise above the hardships of such an experience; but then, as now, there was more salt than dust in the blood of Cape men and women, and they preferred a boat to a carriage. They knew more about the wind than they did about horses, and after one trip overland on rough, sandy roads in a coach that rocked and jolted and in air thick with dust, they either went by water or stayed at home.
Nor was it a very difficult matter to find a vessel of some sort that would take them, for communication by water between the Cape and Boston began early. Stubby little sloops and schooners made occasional trips as far back as 1660. One of them was owned by Thomas Huckins who, at least as early as this, was the landlord of the Barnstable tavern and found that the surest way to keep his taproom supplied with rum was to bring it himself from Boston in his own vessel. And no doubt he took a passenger along with him once in a while. Rum, in fact, seems to have formed a not inconsiderable item in the merchandise of these early and sporadic coasting skippers. Captain Jeremy Bickford, about 1670, brought a cargo of rum and molasses—and one lady passenger—from Boston to Truro.
Some of these men were real sailors, but a good many were Jacks-of-all-trades, versatile mechanics and farmers who would never have left dry land if they had not had something to sell in Boston. Their seamanship, though adequate, was often rudimentary, and according to the trend of their genius, they regarded their trips as pleasant interruptions to the monotony of farm work, or as disagreeable necessities. Many of them were sharp traders, a Yankee trait which, if I am not mistaken, their descendants have not yet lost. If, therefore, their business methods sometimes lay open to criticism, let him who is without sin among us cast the first stone.
Take, for example, the trick that Isaac Bacon played on his neighbor, Samuel Huckins. Both were Barnstable farmers who specialized in onions and were in the habit of carrying their crop to Boston in their own vessels. Huckins had agreed with parties in Salem to deliver a cargo of onions there. Bacon learned of the arrangement, got to Salem ahead of Huckins, sold his own onions as Huckins' and was half way across Cape Cod Bay, headed home, before Huckins reached Salem and learned how he had been tricked.
It would be interesting to know what kind of looking vessel Bacon's was, for local wags nicknamed her Somerset after the celebrated British
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frigate that was wrecked at North Truro during the Revolution. Obviously she was not a queen in her class. That Bacon's seamanship was as rough and ready as his business ethics appeared during one of his trips to Boston. He rounded the point of Sandy Neck with a strong S.W. breeze, when suddenly the vessel developed an alarming leak. Bacon brought her about on the other tack, no doubt with a view to beaching her, but found to his surprise that on this tack she was as tight as ever. He had himself lowered over the windward side to investigate, and found (so the story goes) a neat round hole, about three inches in diameter, in her planking. He whittled out a soft pine plug to fit it, pounded it well in with a caulking mallet, came about once more, and continued his voyage to Boston. One may well ask how a neat round hole could suddenly appear in a vessel's planking. An underwater woodpecker? A salt-water rodent of a new species? Something very strange about that story!
But these sporadic sailors bore small resemblance to the real packet captains of later years. The term packet implies some degree of regularity In making trips, something at least approaching a schedule; and since none of the men who have been mentioned had any reason for following schedules they cannot be called packet captains in the proper sense of the word, nor can their vessels be called packets. After the Revolution, however, conditions on the Cape improved greatly. By 1800, salt was being made in every town, and though much of it was used by local fishermen, a surplus often remained for the Boston market. Farmers kept on raising onions, and sometimes they had a cargo of flax. The forests of Sandwich yielded more wood than the citizens could burn in even the coldest winter. All this merchandise called for transportation. So, about 1800, with freight as their mainstay, and with passengers as a side issue, packets to Boston began to appear and eventually to flourish.
By 1830 boom times for the packets had begun because business of all sorts was booming. More salt was being made every year, and what was just as significant, the number of deepwater shipmasters in every village had grown enormously, and those lordly mariners, most of whom sailed out of Boston, demanded something pleasanter than stagecoaches and stuffy sloops to carry them to and from their commands. With such men on board, speed was essential and regular meals and comfortable accommodations.
There is no keener rivalry than the rivalry between the towns of Cape Cod, and there is no more exciting sport than boat racing. When these two factors are combined, and when the question of money is also involved, the cords of competition are stretched extremely taut. This was
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precisely the situation that existed between the owners and the captains of packets in one Cape town and the next. No sooner did a new schooner appear in the business in Provincetown, let us say, than the citizens of Truro would see what they could do to go her one better. If Orleans came out with a new flier, Brewster, within a month, was looking around for something bigger and faster.
A fine instance of this kind of rivalry existed between the neighboring towns of Barnstable and Yarmouth. During these flush times these two towns strove mightily to surpass each other in the packet business, and Yarmouth, in spite of a woefully inadequate harbor, no more than a creek in the marsh, was first to carry off the laurels. About 1830 its citizens came out with a new schooner, Commodore Hull which, under the able command of Captain Paddock Thacher, could pass anything on the Bay without putting her lee rail under. Barnstable, as the shire town, swallowed its chagrin for a time, but after a few years of defeat two of the leading citizens, Matthias Hinckley and Thomas Percival, took a trip to Boston and called on Captain Daniel Bacon, a retired shipmaster in the China trade and a leading Boston merchant and shipowner. More important, he was a loyal son of Barnstable, and had built the Bacon farm there for a summer place. He told Hinckley and Percival to go ahead and get a packet that would beat Commodore Hull and he would pay the bill. They came back with a new sloop called Mail, built to order somewhere on the Hudson River, and the fun began.
At the end of the first race, Mail, under the joint command of Hinckley and Percival, slid into her dock at Central Wharf a bare length ahead of her Yarmouth rival, which was now commanded by Captain Thomas Matthews. Whether or not the tables were turned in subsequent races does not appear, but the two towns long remained rivals, with races between one or another of their vessels becoming almost weekly occurrences. Barnstable had another vessel at this time, a sloop called Emerald, and Yarmouth's second string packet was Eagle Flight. If we may believe the vainglorious strains of a nameless Barnstable bard, Emerald could beat not only Eagle Flight but the redoubtable Commodore Hull as well. Here is the ditty which makes up in sprightliness what it may lack in truth:
The Commodore Hull she sails so dull
It makes her crew look sour;
The Eagle Flight she is out of sight
Less than half an hour.
But the bold old Emerald takes delight
To beat the Commodore and the Flight.
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One point the commendable bias of the poet forbade him to mention. Emerald, so loudly lauded, had originally belonged in Yarmouth, and having grown old in the service, had been sold to Barnstable. Nor need we suppose that many five-dollar bills found their way from Yarmouth to Barnstable pockets to pay wagers won by the 'bold old Emerald.'
Dennis was an active town, too, in packeting, with Captain Orren Sears, of East Dennis, and his schooner David Porter well up in the front rank. The calmness and skill of Captain Sears were well demonstrated in a famous gale that struck the Cape from the southeast in the fall of 1869. Beginning as a hard blow, it steadily increased until it approached the strength of a hurricane. Trees were blown down; roads were turned into rivers. It caught Captain Sears and David Porter off Plymouth, but so far north that there was no hope of his being able to beat into harbor there. The jib halliards parted; the fore gaff and the main boom broke, one after the other, leaving the schooner under bare poles. Nothing daunted, Captain Sears scudded before it, edging in bit by bit as he got a chance, and finally, working her up under a lee, he beached her on a strip of sand not far from Scituate. When the tide ebbed, he discharged his passengers dry shod. David Porter floated off on the next tide, her hull as sound as ever—none the worse for the terrific beating she had taken.
But Dennis, always a seagoing town until some years ago, when It became the theatrical center of the Cape (second only to Provincetown), had plenty of other packets and packet captains besides Orren Sears and David Porter. From the days of Captain Nathaniel Hall, who was prospering just after the Revolution, up to 1874 when David Porter lowered her flag for good, the town carried on a brisk packet trade with Boston. There were Judah and Jacob Sears of East Dennis, who in 1830 were joint commanders of the schooner Polly and Betsy, named for their respective wives. And there were two other particularly celebrated men in the business, Captains Dean Sears and Joseph H. Sears, also of East Dennis. Both of them gave up the command of their packets, David Porter and Combine, to become masters of ships on deepwater.
And herein lay one of the less immediate but very important results of packeting: it opened the eyes of young Cape men to the roadsteads of the world. The humble, necessary packets served as a primary school for seafaring, and like all good schools, they furnished their pupils with the incentive to fare farther and reach higher, until many a youngster who began his career coiling halliards on a Dennis packet, finished on the quarter-deck of a full-rigged ship, bringing tea and silk from Penang or linseed and jute from Calcutta. The late Mr. Edgar Jones, of West Barnstable,
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who was in his day mate of such fine ships as Radiant, Comet, and Royal Arch, told me that his first desire to go to sea came to him when, as a boy, he watched the sloop Mail leaving her dock at the foot of Scudder's Lane and heading for Boston. And how, in truth, could it have been otherwise? What boy could sail into Boston Harbor on Combine, or Emerald, or Commodore Hull and there see the spars of tall ships cutting the sky with the intricate tracery of their rigging, without longing to join the ranks of the conquerors and command such ships on voyages that would take him across four oceans and into half the harbors of the world? No town could have been less favorably endowed by Nature for the packet business than the proud town of Brewster. There was nothing anywhere along its shore line that could even remotely suggest a harbor —not even a creek in the marsh big enough for a schooner to lie in. But the citizens, undismayed, went ahead with the business, harbor or no harbor. For the ten years between 1820 and 1830 Captain Joseph Crosby and his successors used to bring their schooner Republic to anchor off a wide sandy cove near Point of Rocks and let her ground gently on the flats with the ebb tide. Then the passengers and cargo went over the side into wagons and were driven ashore as comfortably as on the highway— more comfortably, in fact. In writing reminiscently of her early years, Augusta Mayo, daughter of one of the principal Brewster packet owners, says,
We had great enjoyment in riding down to the packet [Lafayette] with Father at low water, where he had to go frequently for goods in the summer. We would drive up to the vessel's side, climb a ladder, and go on board. While the wagon was being loaded with goods from the hold, we children would go down into the cabin where Captain [John] Myrick would treat us to pilot bread from the table drawer.
In spite of this unorthodox method of making port, the packet business grew so fast (owing partly to Brewster's being the port for Chatham and Harwich passengers as well as her own) that about 1830, when business of all kinds was booming on the Cape, owners felt justified in building a breakwater which gave the town a makeshift harbor and a dock to tie up to. Thenceforth it was plain sailing. In 1833, thanks to these improved facilities, the schooner Patriot made forty-two round trips—not bad when we realize that about 1 December all the vessels were pulled up for the winter. Her profit was about $400 a season over and above all expenses.
But even before the breakwater was built Captain Crosby and Republic had rivals in the business. The old sloop Fame, which by 1824 was well along in years, was brightened up during the winter by her Captain, Solomon Foster, preparatory to resuming business in the spring. Her
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owners, following a custom that was common in the business, suggested that Captain Nathaniel Lincoln should take joint command of her, but he refused, and Foster had to go it alone. He did so well with her that the next season she was fitted out with more bunks and mattresses and everything was done to put her, in the language of her owners 'in prime order for the accommodation and convenience of passengers.'
But not every packet could make the same claim by any means. Young Albert Smith, who in 1847 made the trip from Boston to Orleans in the leaky old schooner President Washington, has left a lively account of the voyage, the more interesting as he was only fifteen years old at the time. She cast off from her dock in Boston in a flat calm at 9:00 o'clock of a July morning, drifted a few miles with the tide, and anchored. In an hour or so a breeze sprang up which, though dead ahead, was better than swinging idly at anchor. She set sail again, beat down Harbor as far as George's Island, and anchored once more. Apparently, windward work was not President Washington's strong point. While waiting for the wind to shift, the captain obligingly had a boat lowered so the passengers might while away the time by rowing over to the Island and having a look at the castle. By suppertime they were back on board, and toward sunset the anchor was weighed and the voyage resumed. Only ten bunks were available for the twenty-five passengers, but they obligingly slept in shifts, one group turning in early and sleeping until midnight, then rolling out and finishing the night on deck while the second shift crawled into their beds. They woke in the morning (those who had been asleep) to find that they were off Cohasset, seventeen miles (and twenty-four hours) from Boston. But the tedium of this day was enlivened by a chowder made of five fish which one of the passengers caught between Cohasset and Plymouth. After another night of turn and turn about in the bunks, they arrived off Orleans, but the tide being low, they had to anchor off the flats and row into Rock Harbor in the tender. So ended a seventy-mile voyage that had taken forty-eight hours!
The monotony of such a trip as this was bad for the business. Even ministerial patiences were tried at such times. There is the story of Captain Edward Gorham, of Yarmouth, who was taking his schooner in light airs, dead ahead, through the narrow, twisting channel that connects Yarmouth with the Bay. His emotions may be imagined; tack followed tack with scarcely perceptible progress, but all hands had to be polite because Mr. Simpkins, the minister, was on board and though no sailor, he was, like all ministers, a figure to be revered. He watched at first in bewilderment, and finally in exasperation, the painfully slow progress of
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the vessel, until, man of God though he was, his patience was gone. He approached the captain and said in a pompous voice: 'Captain Gorham, why do you zig-zag back and forth in this aimless fashion? There lies the channel; why do you not sail right along it?'
'Go below, you damn fool!' snapped the captain.
Later, after he had calmed down, Captain Gorham may have been sorry for his brusqueness, justifiable though it was, for part of the business of a packet captain was to keep his passengers happy in all weathers. A past master at this art was Zoeth Rich, of Truro, captain of Postboy. Postboy is said to have been the finest packet in the Bay, her cabin finished in bird's-eye maple and adorned with silk draperies. However this may be, it was the captain's geniality quite as much as Postboy's luxurious fittings that kept the passengers happy. The same urbane qualities that made Captain Rich an immensely popular figure on shore robbed long stretches of calm in the Bay of much of their tedium.
Another royal entertainer among the genial company of packet captains was Simeon Higgins, of Orleans, master of the sloop De Wolfe. It was no accident that led him to become a well-known hotel proprietor after he retired from the sea. He was merely continuing to give his genius the true bent, and to exercise among his guests on shore the same genial qualities that had charmed his passengers on De Wolfe.
But captains had plenty of assistance in keeping life pleasant. If David Porter was becalmed off Duxbury, a veteran of foreign voyages was pretty sure to be on board with tales of outwitting a Britisher in Canton or giving the slip to Malay pirates in the China Sea. The squire would pompously admit that it took a smart man to get ahead of a Yankee, and there would follow jingoistic reminiscences of Commodore Raggett and the War of 1812; for few Cape sailors who had tried to leave port during that dreary period had failed to encounter that celebrated officer of His Majesty's Navy. Perhaps a retired shipmaster would be on board who was now serving as Representative to the General Court. He would enlighten the company in affairs of State and the ways of governments until the schooner docked at Central Wharf and each man went his way, the squire having practiced democracy and the humbler citizen having broken bread with the great. The fare was $ 1.50 for the round trip; meals were twenty-five cents. But after one or two experiments most passengers wisely took their own provisions with them!
Another way in which the captains made themselves and their commands popular was by turning themselves into errand boys for their neighbors. Edmund Jarvis, of Orleans, the most casual of a necessarily
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casual group, was particularly accommodating in this regard—partly, it may be, because his little sloop Nancy was a good deal more of a tramp than most, putting in at Plymouth, Sandwich, Barnstable or any other town along the Bay shore where there was a chance to sell some cargo. His staples from Boston were rum, molasses, potash, lime, indigo, tobacco, sea coal, and now and then a passenger. Much of this merchandise was on order, no doubt, but Captain Jarvis was a trader at heart and never hesitated to take on a part of his cargo as a speculation. He it was who on one occasion bought an umbrella in Boston for an Orleans lady, and again put in at Plymouth to pick up two chairs for another neighbor. A Barnstable citizen (his name, fortunately perhaps, is not recorded) asked Captain Matthias Hinckley to get a jug of rum for him in Boston. He was the first man on the wharf as the captain's famous sloop, Mail, appeared off the Sandy Neck lighthouse on the return trip; and no sooner was she made fast than he jumped on board and confronted the captain.
'Did you do that, —er, —er, —little errand for me, Captain?' he asked.
'If you mean rum, say rum,' roared Hinckley: 'There's your jug.'
When it came to actual performance, though, the laurels went to Captain Whitman Freeman, of Provincetown, and his lovely schooner Northern Light. Her graceful lines and lofty spars were a match for even the famous Georges Bankers; and under Captain Freeman she held to a schedule of three round trips a week between Provincetown and Boston, a performance unrivaled in the annals of Cape Cod sailing packets. After a brilliant career on the Bay she was sold to parties in San Francisco and was lost in the Straits of Magellan on the long voyage out.
It was steam, of course, in one form or another that tolled the knell of the sailing packets. The beginning of the end came as early as 1848 when the first locomotive puffed into Sandwich. Sandwich had had a lively packet business for years with close races between Captain George Atkins of West Sandwich, who commanded Henry Clay, and Captain Calvin Fish, of the village, in the sloop Sarah. Another man who was active in the business was Captain Roland Gibbs of the schooner Cabinet, and the sloop Osceola. These men hung on after the arrival of the railroad, but fewer and fewer passengers graced their decks and they had to content themselves with cargoes of cordwood for the Boston market.
A few enthusiasts tried to answer the challenge of the railroad by starting steam packets—one of them, with Sandwich as her home port, was hopefully named Acorn, and two others, both of Provincetown, were George Shattuck and Longfellow. These, and perhaps one or two more,
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splashed back and forth between the Cape and Boston in a vain but valiant attempt to keep the business alive. The towns between Sandwich, and Provincetown had a few more good years because the march of the rails was slow; it was 1873 before they reached Provincetown; but other changes, too, contributed to the ruin of the business. As early as 1840 the salt from the Turks Islands mines was crowding out that made locally by evaporating sea water; farming had long since given way to seafaring, so no more Cape onions or flax were unloaded on Boston docks. The packets, that had been kept so trim and shipshape during the busy years of their prosperity, grew dingy and neglected. They sailed halfheartedly if they sailed at all. The business was stone dead in Yarmouth in 1871, yet had outlasted its old rival, Barnstable, by ten years. The lower Cape, as has been said, hung on a little longer, but even there the end was in sight long before owners would admit it. Seafaring men are a strange mixture of conservative and pioneer. Blind to the inevitable, Wellfleet and Provincetown captains sailed their packets stubbornly until even they had to realize that the end had come.
The old vessels themselves, their usefulness as packets ended, fared variously. Some spent their last years as fishermen; one was sold as a pilot boat in New Orleans; the tragic end of Northern Light has already been mentioned. Another, on her way south, went down in a collision off Hatteras. One by one, they faded from sight, and a lively and often prosperous epoch in the annals of the Cape was at an end.
It may have been observed that nothing has been said about any of the South Side packets, which had their home ports in Falmouth, Cotuit, Hyannis, South Yarmouth, Harwich, and Chatham, and from the east side of Orleans and Eastham as well. The reason for this omission is that, barring accidents, these vessels were freighters pure and simple. If a citizen of Chatham or Harwich or Hyannis had business in Boston, he watched for a flag to fly or a barrel to be raised on the nearest of a scattering line of poles set along the high wooded ridge that forms the backbone of the Cape. This was a signal for South Siders that a packet would sail before long, and the traveler packed his bag, drove across the Cape to the appropriate Bay village, and embarked in comfort on a passenger carrier. This is how it came about that the vessels of his own village had nothing but freight to carry. Furthermore, Boston, not New York, was the metropolis for the Cape. A hundred Cape Codders headed for Boston for one that had business in New York.
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Our song of the packets, then, has been sung; not a grand opera number, it is true, but a cheerful lay of a busy and prosperous time, a ballad, too, of a day that some of us find it pleasant to contemplate.