Abner Coburn




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Ship Name: Abner Coburn; Sailed: 1882-1929; Type: Wood 3-masted; Built by: Bath, Maine by William Rogers; Dimensions: 225' x 43.2' x 18.5'; Tonnage: 1972.58 tons.


The ship Abner Coburn honored the life and achievements of a former Maine governor who also directed lumber and railroad interests in the Northeast. The ship kept its name throughout its long life and as such, became somewhat famous, or at least well known. Adding to this renown was the fact that Montague Dawson, Charles Robert Patterson and John Stobart have all painted portraits of the ship. Excepting only the swift clipper ships and a few historically notable vessels, there are few ships boasting of three high-visibility artists capturing them in oil and print. Durability can be its own reward. William Rogers, son of a lumber merchant and shipbuilder, began building ships in 1847. One hundred ships and fifty-five years later, he retired. He was a meticulous builder who innovated with mixed-wood frames and knees. The idea came to him as he would lay out huge amounts of timber from his sawmills, and then pick the best parts for his ships. His shipyard resembled a lumberyard even more than the average shipyard in the wooden age. Abner Coburn was the product of his mature years as a shipbuilder, and withstood an exceptionally rigorous commercial life. Abner Coburn traded on behalf of her owners (including the builder) initially voyaging from New York to the Orient and back. From 1882-1900 this type of trading was the ship’s employment. Abner Coburn changed ownership to Pendleton, Carver & Nichols sometime in the late 1890s, but continued trading round trip from New York to the Orient. On 19 June 1897, under the command of George A. Nichols (who also had his wife aboard and eighteen-year-old son as second mate), the Abner Coburn encountered a horrific gale in the southern Indian Ocean. Just at the change of the watch, a huge sea pooped the ship and carried away the wheelhouse. Captain Nichols was in the process of ascending the companionway when tons of water struck him and smashed both his legs. In the ensuing tumult, he also suffered severe internal injuries. The captain died seven hours later. The first officer was also injured so severely that he could not return to duty for several weeks. Young J. F. Nichols, the captain’s son and eighteen-year-old second mate, shouldered the tasks of burying his father at sea, and guiding the ship safely to Hong Kong. Captain Nichols, with one exception, had had the ship since launch. Subsequent captains included James C. Gilmore, James P. Butman, and Benjamin F. Colcord—all well-known mariners of vast experience. In 1900, the California Shipping Company purchased the Abner Coburn and for the next 29 years, the ship journeyed almost entirely in the Pacific and Arctic seas. California Shipping mostly chartered the Abner Coburn to carry lumber from northwest ports to Australia and the South Pacific. During some part of either this term of ownership or when owned on the East Coast, the Abner Coburn was covered in white paint, giving the ship a decidedly yacht-like appearance. San Francisco ship brokers Libby, McNeill & Libby acquired the Abner Coburn in 1912 for work taking cannery hands and supplies north to Alaska and returning with holds brimming with packed canned salmon. In May 1918, the Abner Coburn went on the beach in the Bering Sea. Towed to Naknek for evaluation, the ship continued its season and sailed back to San Francisco or Seattle. On other occasions, the old ship was caught in the fast-melting, or rapidly forming ice either at the beginning of the season or its end. The stress of such hazardous voyaging took its toll on the old full-rigger. It is also doubtful that Libby, McNeill & Libby lavished money on the Abner Coburn’s maintenance; success with sail in early twentieth century meant an unblinking eye focused on the bottom line. In 1919, 120 cannery hands and crew refused to board the ship for the return voyage claiming the Abner Coburn was unseaworthy. While on strike, they also held 200 other cannery workers from boarding. Indeed, on the voyage north several leaks had been discovered and repaired. It is doubtful that the ship made any voyages north after 1925, and the old ship was sold for scrap in 1929. Towed north from Seattle to Richmond Beach, near Edmonds, Washington, salvagers burned the ship for the metal fastenings in its hull in the month of November 1929. The first two photographs (4a and 4aa) show Abner Coburn in the ice of Alaska. In the first, a couple of stalwarts posing on Bering Sea ice with the noble Abner Coburn obviously going nowhere. The second is a port view of the same ship in the same incidence. Not known is whether these two photographs reflect the above-mentioned May 1918 incident or another incident. My suspicions are that they are indeed the 1918 incident owing largely to the fourth photograph (4b), dated 1918, which clearly is from the same time and place. The third photograph (4aaa) I suspicion is the same 1918 event showing the tent city of the cannery workers, crew, and others. In this photograph can also be seen a couple of ships to the far left, unidentified. The succeeding four photographs (4b, 4c, 4d, and 4e) of the Abner Coburn are courtesy of the Joe Williamson Collection of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. The fourth photograph (4b) is obviously the same ice-bound incident from 1918 inasmuch as the yards are positioned identically. Easily seen is the rebuilt wheelhouse on the stern and the platoons of fishing dories lashed on the upper works. The men with their shirts off lower left are either desperate for entertainment or have been on the ship too long for sanity to prevail. The fifth, sixth, and seventh photographs (4c, 4d, and 4e) show the Abner Coburn respectively catching a wave when employed in the service of Libby, McNeill & Libby—one can barely discern the company name under the “Abner Coburn” on the bow. The next photograph (4d) shows Abner Coburn then being towed out to sea, and the last of this series (4e) the ship is moored in Union Bay, Seattle. The Abner Coburn was a pretty ship—graceful, well proportioned--even in its dotage. The gaff-less spanker was a regular feature of west coast sailing ships, and Abner Coburn originally had a gaff when built. Clearly, the decades of service on the Pacific had adapted the old ship in more ways than one. The large stock on the anchor of the last photograph reveals an anchor design little changed from Roman times. The lovely acanthus leaf scrollwork on trailboards at the bow was de riguer in the early 1880s. Within a few short years, even this homely decoration would disappear in an effort to economize. A couple of workers hang on a scaffold just below the mizzen chains caulking and painting—a never-ending task on a wooden ship. In the foreground at the right is another down east bark, possibly the Pactolus that like the Abner Coburn, had a long and eventful career on the west coast. Astern of the Abner Coburn are two largish four-mast schooners, their semi-elliptical transoms clearly visible. The closer schooner is the newer of the two—its raised rail-to-rail cabin a unique west coast design initiated in the late 1890s but almost universal among the last wooden fore-and-afters built on the west coast. The previous style can easily be seen in the schooner to port. This unique cabin design is an echo of Scandinavian practice, modified, that traveled to the west coast because it worked. This aft cabin design was certainly more spacious, and the additional freeboard welcomed by after guard and crew alike. Note that neither of the schooners have gaffs on their fourth masts, either.


Ships, Merchant Ships