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New Bedford Harbor Towboats and the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World

Purrington & Russell show the island steamer Massachusetts towing the ship Niger into New Bedford harbor.

Purrington & Russell show the island steamer Massachusetts towing the ship Niger past Clark’s Point lighthouse and into New Bedford harbor in 1847.

In the early scenes of the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell, ever the purveyors of the unique in their paintings of maritime scenes, show a whaler passing Clark’s Point lighthouse under tow of a sidewheel steamer. The whaler shown is the ship Niger of New Bedford flying the house-flag of Hathaway & Luce. Given the period in which the Panorama was painted, 1847-1848, this scene can only be meant to represent the successful return of the Niger from her maiden voyage.

William Hathaway, Jr. and Matthew Luce of New Bedford managed a growing fleet of whalers in the late 1840s including the ship Niger, 434 tons, built to their order at Rochester, Mass. in 1844.

William Hathaway, Jr. and Matthew Luce of New Bedford managed a growing fleet of whalers in the late 1840s including the ship Niger, 434 tons, built to their order at Rochester, Mass. in 1844.

The steamer shown was the Nantucket Steamboat Company sidewheel steamer Massachusetts. The Massachusetts was a ferry built for the company in 1842 to run three days a week between the island and New Bedford. She remained in service until 1858, as was described as the finest vessel of her type in service. This is the only such painting documenting an island steamer towing a whaler into New Bedford harbor. That the steamers were employed as towboats is well documented, especially at Nantucket where the Massachusetts was employed towing whalers lodged in the floating dry-dock “camels” over the sandbar at the mouth of Nantucket Harbor. Other histories indicate that both the Massachusetts and the Telegraph, another ferry in the same service at the same time, earned extra money for company as towboats.[1] Later photographs show whalers being towed out of New Bedford harbor and barges and such being towed by tugs into the harbor. By the 1890s this was common practice. The bark Canton of New Bedford was towed out of the harbor in May of 1891 and back into the harbor when she arrived home in June of 1892 (ODHS #988).  For all of that, however, this image from the Panorama is unique.

One of the earliest steam tow boats built in the United States for coastwise towing, the "R. B. Forbes" was built in Boston by Otis Tufts for the Boston Board of Marine Underwriters, at the behest of Robert Bennet Forbes, for whom the vessel was named. The first iron-hull vessel built in Boston, she measured 320 tons. Her two Ericson screw propellers were driven by a pair of condensing engines, each with a bore of 36 inches and a 32-inch stroke. A pioneer in coastwise towing, the "R. B. Forbes" was mainly used to tow newly-built sailing ships from New England shipyards to New York, where their owners would complete the fitting-out process and send them to sea. Unable to use her profitably to this end, the owners sold her, as did her subsequent owners. She was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. She was lost when she went aground on the coast of North Carolina, near the Hatteras Inlet on February 25, 1862, a total loss. – Erik Ronnberg

Another steamer appears in the early sequences of the Panorama and while it is prominently featured was not a steamer that saw regular use in New Bedford harbor. “One of the earliest steam tow boats built in the United States for coastwise towing, the R. B. Forbes was built in Boston by Otis Tufts for the Boston Board of Marine Underwriters, at the behest of Robert Bennet Forbes, for whom the vessel was named. The first iron-hull vessel built in Boston, she measured 320 tons. Her two Ericson screw propellers were driven by a pair of condensing engines, each with a bore of 36 inches and a 32-inch stroke.
A pioneer in coastwise towing, the R. B. Forbes was mainly used to tow newly-built sailing ships from New England shipyards to New York, where their owners would complete the fitting-out process and send them to sea. Unable to use her profitably to this end, the owners sold her, as did her subsequent owners. She was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. She was lost when she went aground on the coast of North Carolina, near the Hatteras Inlet on February 25, 1862, a total loss.”
 Erik Ronnberg, Curator of the Cape Ann Museum wrote the above text and it appears courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum

The Panorama towing scene offers a number of interesting points to consider. For instance, under what circumstances would a sailing ship need to be towed into the harbor? When was the steamer available? How much did it cost to employ the steamer? Some of this information is forthcoming, some of it isn’t. For instance, whaling merchant John Avery Parker kept account books that summarized each of his vessels’ voyages.

Accounts for the 7th voyage of the ship Phenix of New Bedford managed by whaling agent John Avery Parker, 1846. KWM #A-163

Accounts for the 7th voyage of the ship Phenix of New Bedford managed by whaling agent John Avery Parker, 1846.
KWM #A-163

Detail from above summary voyage account noting the cost of employing a steamer to tow the ship Phenix into New Bedford.

Detail from above summary voyage account noting the cost of employing a steamer to tow the ship Phenix into New Bedford.

In the summaries he breaks down standard outstanding costs like pilotage, wharfage, rolling and filling oil casks, night watching, etc. For a few of these voyages, “steamboat towing” is a cost listed. The cost in the mid-1840s for the use of a steamer for towing a ship “up the harbor” was about between $15.00 and $30.00 depending upon how far the vessel needed to be towed. Other times, although rarely, a vessel in distress would need to be towed. A good example is the story of the bark Courser. On September 8, 1869, the  Courser of New Bedford on her homeward passage sailed directly into a hurricane off Block Island, ran aground, and had put into Newport Harbor leaking so badly that teams of men from Newport needed to be put onboard to continuously man the pumps for three days. A steamboat was sent for and on September 11 the New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamboat Company steam ferry Helen Augusta arrived in Newport from New Bedford to tow the Courser to her home port.[2] While the Courser is an extraordinary example, steamers most definitely had their place in lifesaving, wrecking, towing and other duties in addition to carrying passengers.

The majority of logbook entries for the final day or two of a homeward New Bedford voyage, however, end at or around Block Island, Nomans Island or Cuttyhunk when a Branch Pilot was taken up to guide the ship into New Bedford. As far as the log keeper was concerned, his responsibilities ended when the pilot took command of the ship and most logbooks go no further after the pilot come onboard.

This advertisement for New Bedford Port District Branch Pilots appeared frequently in th Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants' Transcript newspaper in the 1840s.

This advertisement for New Bedford Port District Branch Pilots appeared frequently in th Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript newspaper in the 1840s.

Artist and journalist David Hunter Strother made this drawing "Pilot takes a lunch - Whaleship BALTIC - May 23rd 1859" for an article "A Summer in New England" published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1859.

Artist and journalist David Hunter Strother made this drawing “Pilot takes a lunch – Whaleship Baltic – May 23rd 1859,” showing the famous New Bedford Branch Pilot Ben Aken, for an article “A Summer in New England” published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1859. 2001.100.4630

Branch Pilots were highly skilled, licensed mariners whose job it was (in the case of the New Bedford Port District) to cruise the waters between Block Island and Nomans Island in order to provide services to inbound vessels. Another set of harbor pilots guided the outbound ships. Some of these pilots lived in New Bedford. Many of them made their homes on Cuttyhunk Island and others lived on Martha’s Vineyard and even on Noman’s Island. In 1847, inbound pilots charged $2.00 per foot of the length of the vessel being piloted. Ship captains were not obliged to take a pilot but such a choice had its own perils. In 1844, for instance, Captain Avery F. Parker of the ship Midas of New Bedford did not like the terms under which the pilot of the schooner Superior, who was not a licensed Branch Pilot, offered to guide the ship through Quicks Hole. He finally agreed to take the pilot as the weather was worsening. With the wind northeast (a head wind), the ship ran aground twice off Dumpling Rock on the outgoing tide and needed to be kedged off the rocks. The prevailing wind on Buzzards Bay is southwest, but the wind often shifts around to the north. A north wind is one of the primary conditions under which a sailing ship would need to be towed into the harbor in order to avoid the very sort of difficulties encountered by the Midas.

On a fair wind a ship could sail in under her own power and many did just that. One such example is that of the ship Milton of New Bedford that returned from a voyage to the Pacific Ocean in June of 1873. On the day of the final log entry, the wind, predictably, was west/southwest. They took a pilot off Cuttyhunk and “at ½ past 6 PM arrived alongside of the wharf, made fast and left.”[3]

William Bradford painted this view of a whaler approaching the Fairhaven wharves under sail in 1854. 1975.18

William Bradford painted this view of a whaler approaching the Fairhaven wharves under sail in 1854. 1975.18

In most cases the final logbook/journal entry will indicate that the vessel has come to anchor off Clarks Point Lighthouse or Palmer’s Island. In some cases, like that of the Milton, the final entry makes mention of the vessel actually sailing to its berth at the wharf. Curiously, the Niger returned from her maiden voyage on November 29, 1847, a three-year sperm and right whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean. The final entry in the logbook indicates that the ship Niger sailed into the harbor with studdingsails set on a strong westerly wind.[4] This was about the same time that Purrington & Russell were painting the Panorama. Whether the scene shown is intended as a documentary illustration of actual events, or as a representative example of potential common activities, the Niger was not towed into the harbor by the Massachusetts in 1847.

"View of New Bedford. From the Fort near Fairhaven." Lithograph by Fitz Henry Lane, 1845. 1981.6

“View of New Bedford. From the Fort near Fairhaven.”
Lithograph by Fitz Henry Lane, 1845. 1981.6

The Massachusetts itself appears in several other prints and paintings of the period. Fitz Henry Lane included a fine view of the Massachusetts as well as a whaler anchored off Palmer’s Island, in his 1845 lithograph “View of New Bedford from the Fort near Fairhaven.” In many ways, this view seems to capture much of the spirit of the later Panorama view of the harbor and perhaps it was for this very reason that Purrington and Russell chose to document the steamer in use as a towboat instead of simply as a vessel type to be seen in the harbor.

[1] Harry B. Turner, The Story of the Island Steamers (Nantucket, 1910), pp 22-28

[2] ODHS #1187

[3] ODHS #420

[4] NBWM #1279

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