While much has been written of New Bedford whalers, the famous ships, barks and schooners that sailed the world round, little has been written of the small working craft of the harbor. These boats were employed all up and down the East Coast in a variety of styles and sizes, from the large double-ended “pinky” schooner to the smaller pinky “Chebacco Boat,” dogbody Hampton Boat and little working skiff. Perhaps it’s because at first glance there seems little to say about them. As they appear in prints and paintings, they all look sort-of similar and are engaged in some activity, but seldom can one tell what that activity actually is. Obviously small boats were used for a host of purposes including everything from fishing to freighting to ferrying people. Not appearing in either the official enrollments of American vessels in the coastwise American trade or the registers of ships engaged in foreign trade, these boats are often merely adjunct details to larger art works or photographs. Yet for all of their ubiquity, these boats suggest a fundamental element of a maritime culture. People worked on the water and used various sorts of boats to do it. These boats would, most likely, have been of local manufacture and designed for the waters they would ply.
If the boats are challenging to identify, their users are even more so. “Boatmen” appear occasionally in the New Bedford City Directories and these people made their livelihood either renting or working onboard small craft about the harbor. As larger shipping was anchored in the stream, boatmen would move people and goods from the shore to the ship.
Whether or not the people can be positively identified and discussed, the boats appear often enough that one can glean much information about them. When Purrington and Russell painted New Bedford harbor in 1848-1849 they included a large number of these small working craft. Unlike the formal oil paintings by prominent marine painters, the boats in the Panorama are not adjuncts, they are integral to the interpretation of a busy seaport. The Panorama was intended for audiences nationwide, and by showing the full array of busyness, the artists created an effective interpretive sequence. Among the more easily recognized are the larger two-masted schooners and single-masted sloops. These often appear as pilot boats in marine paintings. The larger ones were undoubtedly coasters as well trading domestic goods coastwise.
The smaller boat close-by the larger is among the more common aspects of ship portraiture. But who was sailing these pilot boats? Who were the pilots? Where were the boats built and by whom? Why did they look the way they did? These questions are difficult, if not impossible to answer because these small craft are seldom the subject of the painting. The pilots were listed in the New Bedford City Directories and thirty-five appear in 1852 along with five named pilot boats. As these boats are seldom identified by either flag or by name their actual appearance is merely circumstantial. The artists seem to include them as necessary decoration; evidence of the full range of complexity involved in an active seaport, but small craft often only appear as elements in the arrangement and structure of the composition.
Likewise, another small craft commonly seen, especially in New Bedford scenes, is a two-masted work boat with a small jibboom, the hull of which is either double-ended (a pinky) or with a square transom (a dogbody). These boats seem to have evolved from the much earlier 17th century European “shallop,” often around 25 feet long, two-masted, fore and aft rigged, simple to sail and very weatherly, used for fishing and other work. On these New Bedford boats, the main sail is rigged with a boom and the fore sail is loose-footed. The short jibboom may have been removable. (See John Gardner, “The Elusive Hampton Boats,” The Small Boat Journal (November, 1979). Sometimes the boats are ¾’s decked over with a passenger cockpit aft. Sometimes the masts are stayed and sometimes un-stayed. They appear in a variety of lengths.
This craft is commonly shown with two men on board, and whether they are fishing, or doing something else is often ambiguous. The context of their appearance, especially in the formal marine paintings of artists like William Bradford and Albert Van Beest suggests that these are fishing boats. Boats of this type were built in a variety of sizes all along the New England coast. On Block Island a similar craft was called a “cowhorn.” In Gloucester there was the Chebacco boat, on the coast of Maine and New Hampshire there was a similar craft called a Hampton Boat. The New Bedford boats appear to be a kind of Hampton or Hambden Boat (see Chappelle, The National Watercraft Collection, Washington, 1960, pp. 254-257). Chapelle reports that these “two-man” boats were common as fishing and lobster boats on the coast of Maine in the late 19th century but the frequency with which they appear in New Bedford paintings suggests a much broader geography of use. In 1845, there was at least one lobsterman in New Bedford, Joseph Crapo, (City Directory, 1845, p. 80) and while no individuals are listed as fishermen in the Directory the Bartlett family operated a fish market at the Ferry Boat Wharf, so presumably someone must have been providing them with fish.
In the below list there are doubtless a number of builders who specialized in whaleboats. This was a major manufacturing sector of New Bedford’s whaling industry. Most, if not all of the below list of boat builders could and probably did build other sorts of working craft but the full extent of that production remains to be researched.
List of New Bedford boat builders from the 1845 City Directory
Alexander Wall, boat builder, 1845 Ray Street
Joseph Warren, boat builder, 1845, Ray Street
Daniel Wardsworth, boat builder, 1845, rear, 32 South Water Street
Lawrence Wardsworth, boat builder, 1845, rear, 32 South Water Street
Robert C. Topham, boat builder, 1845, Foot of Griffin
William H. Smith, boat builder, 1845, rear 98 South Water St.
Sprowell Pease, boat builder, 1845, 133 Ray St.
Calvin D. Macomber, boat builder, 1845, no address
George C. Lewis, boat builder, 1845, 214 Ray Street
Ebenezer Leonard, boat builder, 1845 works for D. Wardsworth (possibly whaleboats)
Joseph Irish, boat builder, 1845, no working address
John D. Hillman, boat builder, 1845, 214 Purchase St.
Alvin Hinckley, boat builder, 1845, no working address
George Hart, boat builder, 1845, rear 94 South Water St.
Samuel E. Gabriel, apprentice to Robert C. Topham, 1845
Samuel A. Enholm, boat builder, 1845, works for R. C. Topham.
James M. Cranston, boat builder, 1845, 133 Ray St.
Joseph W. Cornell, boat builder, 1845, 133 Ray St.
Edmund B. Coffin, boat builder, 1845, no working address
Shubael C. Coffin & Co. (Edward F. Slocum), boat builders, 1845, Rotch’s South Wharf.
Henry Butler, boat builder, 1845, no working address.
Frederick F. Bunker, boat builder, 1845, works for T.N. Allen, lives on Ray Street.
Charles Bosworth, boat builder, 1845, house and shop 61 South Water St.
James Beetle, boat builder, 1845, 214 Purchase St.
John G. Bailey, boat builder, 1845, 20 Elm St.
Rhodes G. Arnold, boat builder, 1845, South Water St.
Thomas N. Allen, boat builder, 1845, 94 North Water St.