By Dr. Donald H. Dyal

Most of the thousands of books I have read deal with concrete issues: wars, politics, presidential succession, dates, people, events, places. Books that deal with how something occurred or why it occurred are rarer. Books delving into the history of social changes are rarer still. Few inventions have had a greater impact on people living in the Southern United States than refrigeration and air conditioning. In many ways, these twin inventions created the new South. Yet who can recall reading a history of air conditioning in the South? As someone has once intoned: Technology is the often neglected insight into historical change.

The adoption and adaptation to new technology can be both disruptive and emotional. In the multi-millennial history of commercial sail, the most controversial and perhaps interesting period is the years between 1870-1920, when maritime transport underwent enormous change. This half-century witnessed commercial sail fall from pre-eminence on many of the world’s trade routes to virtual non-existence on the commercial seascape. In 1870, powered shipping was in the ascendancy, but sail still owned the tonnage. Some have argued that commercial sail’s finest hours were in its finale. Sail held on because of a complicated set of economic factors and the enduring power and emotional strength of an equally enduring way of life. After years of arduous work to acquire the skills necessary to command in commercial sail, many practioners of sail were slow to accept the realization that such skills were no longer necessary—in fact, the skills became irrelevant. There was disbelief among many that sail would/could disappear. This cultural lag, as the late William Fielding Ogburn stated it, exists any time a dynamic change occurs in the way we exploit our resources through technology. The lag—or its effects—can be particularly virulent if the change is sufficiently disruptive that a life-way abruptly ceases (with its accompanying skills) and is replaced by a much less rigorous skill set, or a set of skills in which there is little transfer from the old technology. A Bath, Maine ship figurehead carver in 1870 had lots of work. A generation later he was completely out of work.

In contemporary literature of the period 1870-1920, many hardcore sailors looked down on steam sailors as less skilled or less “proven.” While such observations may have been the case from a particular point of view, they also missed the point. One technology displaced another and the partisans in the struggle were not always aware of the displacement. Many “sailing” sailors willfully jumped ship for a berth in steam, but others were reluctant to leave behind the emotional and skill and time investment in sail. Cloaked in phrases like “continuity” and “integrity”—by which some may have meant hard-won stability and soundness or honesty— these conservatives attacked changes that threatened their world. Risk-takers are not comfortable with stability and continuity; they espouse a different vocabulary. Interestingly, inventors and other revolutionaries rarely use such vocabulary as “stability” or “continuity.” They often seek disruption or at least change. I am not sneering at such attitudes or vocabulary—merely trying to shine a weak-battery flashlight on them. Many of us cherish our “continuities” and “integrity” and perhaps rightfully so. Conventional wisdom becomes conventional because it answers more times than not. However, when real change is here, the adaptation/adoption can be wrenching. Such was the case when steam displaced sail. For example, steam appeared to be literally independent of nature. Sail operated in alliance with nature. If a sailor’s notions of “rightness” incorporated a morality concerning the harmony of ecology, for example, then many might resist such a change on grounds far removed from practicality. The persistence of industries with economic stability argues persuasively for continuance so that employment is available. Is that not essentially one of the arguments for bailing out General Motors financially in 2008? Such musings are not part of the scholarly record when it comes to the eclipse of commercial sail by the powered ship. Of these social aspects of change, the common laborer is virtually silent. When some owners or masters installed Jarvis or halyard winches on sailing ships toward the end of the sail era, was this innovation universally applauded as laborsaving—or did some minds realize that it also meant unemployment for a certain percentage of sailors? Alternatively, had crews been so reduced already, that the labor-saving in fact made up for missing crewmembers? At the very least, Jarvis winches may have meant greater work for those fewer who remained on board. On the other hand, did Jarvis winches even matter inasmuch as many working crews of sailing ships in the latter days of commercial sail were not experienced or knowledgeable seamen. Rather, they may have been individuals who happened to be found by crimps in the wrong place at the right time. Probably none is correct as a generalization, but the questions remain. Undiscovered is the social impact of the technological change—nor has society addressed such change at present. While questions like these fascinate me, I am probably the only one so moved. Most others, as revealed in countless articles and books, revel in the nostalgia (a recognition that something has passed, and will not return—but will be missed), and romantic notions of adventure, individualism, testing, and even manliness.

Sailing ships have had a love affair with the public for generations. Operation Sail (sail training) is more popular than ever. More large sailing ships are now plying the seas than at any time since World War II. Unlike aviation, where Charles Lindbergh and others became popular heroes, the sailing ship is hero of its own story—the machine as persona. Writers have been traditionally interested in the historical, technical and to a lesser degree, the commercial aspects of sailing vessels. Amateur historians and others who had a deep and abiding affection for these ships wrote many of these. The best of them become actual ship biographies: a written life done intimately, and often with personal knowledge.

Often lost in these narratives or tap-danced around, however, are the realities of keeping a complex and expensive transportation machine economically viable in the face of changing technology and business practices. The last days of sail, rather than romantic, were often scary. In the San Francisco Call Bulletin of more than a century ago, I recall reading of a British master, captain of a 4-masted bark, who, upon shipping a new crew, would “day-sail” his big ship in the protected waters of San Francisco Bay before commencing a voyage. It was newsworthy because few masters were so meticulous. It was also revealing about the decline of skills in the latter-day commercial world of sail. This master in sail wanted training time for his green crew before entrusting his ship and his fortune to the very real hazards of blue water voyaging. My recent research into the economics of the Alaska Packers Association sailing ships reveals that the sailing ship could and did compete economically with the Alaska Packers Association steam fleet—profits were consistently on par between both sail and steam fleets for a time. Then why did the Alaska Packers effectively ditch its sailing fleet by 1927? One of the essential elements of this decision seems to be that the very skilled captains of sail in the Alaska Packers were no longer able to find sailors who could or would work in sail. The Packers logbooks are laced with acrid commentary about the “sailors” who, according to the masters, were anything but. The voyages from San Francisco to Alaska and back were sufficiently short, but also sufficiently hazardous that underwriters and company administration lost the appetite for the risk. The Alaska Packers pulled the plug on sail before 1930 and the Alaska Packers Association sold virtually the entire fleet within a half-dozen years.

What then, are these photographs about? They are not about the glory days of sail; those days disappeared before most of these photographs were taken. No, these photographs are about old ships, often cut down in rig, wheezing out their lives in such employment as owners and masters could capture until wreck or scrapping caught up with them. They are about the last gasp of a superseded technology.

Please credit any use courtesy of the collection Donald H. Dyal.

Recent Submissions

  • Independence 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name:Independence; Sailed: 1871- After 1897; Type: Wood 3-masted; Built by: Boston for Augustus Hemenway; Dimensions: 165.6' x 34.2' x 22.9'; Tonnage: 953 tons.
  • Bulk Trades, the 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Photographs of sailing ships engaged in fishing, salmon, lumber, grain, coal trades from west coast ports such as San Francisco, Portland, Seattle.
  • Svithiod 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Svithiod; Sailed: 1881-1932; Type: Iron 4-masted, baldheaded bark; Built by: Greenock, by Russell & Company; Dimensions: 289' x 42.2' x 23.9'; Tonnage: 2094 tons.
  • Kentmere 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Kentmere; Sailed: 1883-1906; Type: Iron 4-masted, later bark; Built by: Liverpool by W. H. Potter & Son; Dimensions: 300' x 42.2' x 24.7'; Tonnage: 2521 tons.
  • Star of Iceland, ex Willscott 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Star of Iceland ex Willscott; Sailed: 1896-1930; Type: Steel 3-masted bark; Built by: Glasgow, Scotland by Hamilton & Company; Dimensions: 267.3' x 40.1' x 22.7'; Tonnage: 2165 tons.
  • Undaunted 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Undaunted; Sailed: 1921-1931; Type: Wood 5-masted schooner; Built by: Hoquiam, Washington, Matthews Shipbuilding; Dimensions: 268' x 45' x 24'; Tonnage: 2266 tons.
  • Mataura, later Alida 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Mataura; Sailed: 1868-1900; Type: Iron 3-masted; Built by: Glasgow, Scotland by Aitken; Dimensions: 199.4' x 33.3' x 20.3'; Tonnage: 853 tons.
  • British Yeoman 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name:British Yeoman; Sailed: 1880-1917; Type: Iron 3-masted later bark; Built by: Oswald, Mordaunt Co.; Dimensions: 269.2' x 39.8' x 24.2'; Tonnage: 1893 tons.
  • Golden Gate 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name:Golden Gate; Sailed: 1888-1934; Type: Steel 4-masted, later bark; Built by: Whitehaven Shipbuilding Co.; Dimensions: 293.3' x 42.8' x 24'; Tonnage: 2341 tons.
  • Diamond Head, ex Gainsborough 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name:Diamond Head; Sailed: 1866-1950; Type: Iron 3-masted later bark; Built by: London, England by Lungley; Dimensions: 206.5' x 34.1' x 19.2'; Tonnage: 1012 tons.
  • Ponape, ex Regina Elena, ex Bellhouse 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Ponape; Sailed: 1903-1936; Type: Steel 4-masted bark; Built by: Genoa, Italy by Societa Esercizio Baccini; Dimensions: 293.4’ x 41.8’ x 23.7’; Tonnage: 2318 tons.
  • Almendral, ex Glaucus 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Almendral; Sailed: 1889-1923; Type: Steel 4-masted, later bark; Built by: Glasgow, Scotland by Barclay, Curle; Dimensions: 278.7' x 41.1' x 24.2'; Tonnage: 2056 tons.
  • Arethusa 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Arethusa; Sailed: 1890-1919?; Type: Iron 3-masted; Built by: Glasgow, by Charles Connell; Dimensions: Unknown; Tonnage: 1781 tons.
  • Howard D. Troop 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Howard D. Troop; Sailed: 1892-1935; Type: Steel 4-masted bark; Built by: Glasgow, by R. Duncan & Co.; Dimensions: 291.3' x 42.2' x 24'; Tonnage: 2165 tons.
  • Wendur 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Wendur; Sailed: 1884-1912; Type: Iron 4-masted, later bark; Built by: Greenock by Charles Connell for A. Mackay & Co.; Dimensions: 292.7' x 42' x 23.8'; Tonnage: 2046 tons.
  • A. G. Ropes 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name:A. G. Ropes; Sailed: 1884-1913; Type: Wood 3-masted; Built by: Bath, Maine by Chapman & Flint; Dimensions: 258.2' x 44.7' x 28.5'; Tonnage: 2460 tons.
  • Pactolus 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Pactolus; Sailed: 1891-1927; Type: Wood 3-masted; Built by: Bath, Maine by Flint & Co.; Dimensions: 223.7' x 41.2' x 24'; Tonnage: 1585 tons.
  • Vigilant 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Vigilant; Sailed: 1920-1946; Type: Wood 5-masted schooner; Built by: Hoquiam, Washington by George F. Matthews of Matthews shipbuilding Co., successors to Hitchins and Joyce; Dimensions: 241.9' x 44' x 29'; ...
  • Red Cloud 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name: Red Cloud; Sailed: 1877-1893; Type: Wood 3-masted; Built by: Quincy, Massachusetts by George Thomas; Dimensions: 230.5' x 43.2' x 21.2'; Tonnage: 2208 tons.
  • Star of Chile 

    Dyal, Donald H. (Texas Tech University Libraries, 2008)
    Ship Name:Star of Chile; Sailed: 1868-1960; Type: Iron 3-masted; Built by: Dundee, Scotland by the Gourlay Brothers Shipbuilding Co.; Dimensions: 202' x 34.2' x 21.8'; Tonnage: 1001 tons.

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