"Electus Comfort—Beau Brummel of the Sea/ Captain of the pilot boat J.F. Loubat No. 16—Captain Comfort was in active service 42 years." From the booklet, p. 19: Cigars, "plug hats, and frock coats constituted the au fait apparel for a Sandy Hook pilot. On shore the pilot invariably was the Beau Brummel of his home port."
"Cape Regatta, May, 1873/ Won by pilot boat Thomas S. Negus, No. 1." This is from a lithograph of a painting by Frederic S. Cozzens, Over the Cape May Course.
"Pilot Boat Richard K. Fox/ Named in honor of the famous sportsman."
"Pilot Boat William J. Romer/ Which made a round trip in 1846 from New York to Cork, Ireland, in 64 days, including a six-day stop at Cork." In 1846 the William J. Romer #12 was commissioned by the New York Tribune, Journal of Commerce, Currier & Enquirer, Sun, and Philadelphia North American to sail to England to test whether a pilot boat could bring back Continental news faster than a packet boat and before James Gordon Bennett's Herald. In spite of great encouragement and fanfare at departure, she returned six days later than a competing packet. William J. Romer was a "grocer" with a facility at 179 South Street. The Pilots' Association office was at 173 South Street. Romer employed three maids at his 54 Oliver Street home.
"Pilot Boat Alexander M. Lawrence/ Largest boat of the fleet."
by A.J. Peluso, Jr.
When the new pilot boat Commodore Bateman #11 was launched in July 1888, the New York Timesnoted: "A large number of people were present to witness the first plunge of the new boat, among them being ex-Commodore Bateman, for whom the boat was named....The schooner was gayly decked with a new set of bunting, a big red and white streamer floating from her fore with her name, 'Commodore Bateman,' in large red letters on it. The Commodore's little 7-year-old daughter, Margie, stood bravely on the forecastle as the boat slid off the ways and christened it with the contents of a big bottle of champagne."
The naming process began long ago: "And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every creature, that was the name thereof." (Genesis 2:19)
In time, the privilege of naming had to be delegated, particularly in the naming of boats. The owner of a new boat took on the important responsibility, but the name had to be validated by ritual christening. To bring the ship good fortune it had to please the gods. Thousands of years ago they sacrificed oxen for the purpose. Later, they called on Poseidon for protection. In the Middle Ages they celebrated by drinking from golden cups. In the 19th century, the English sang Psalm 107: 23-24: "They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep." In France, they appointed ships' godfathers and godmothers with bouquets.
Most (but not all) ships' names, of course, were pedestrian. They had to be appropriate, had to convey the proper trustworthy image, and had to suggest the ship's special quality. It might evoke the wife's or the sweetheart's name, a notable hero, or in many cases simply a place. It had to bring honor to the owner.
With that in mind, when considering the purchase of a ship's portrait it must first pass important tests—condition, accuracy, authenticity, provenance, and the artist's market history. But in addition, a potential buyer should wonder why a particular name was chosen then and, in the name of nostalgia and with a focus on the subsequent history of the ship's life, what it might mean now. Whereas a ship's name never changes, its biography does.
New York's 19th-century pilots brought ships routinely from the Atlantic Ocean's hazards to the safety of East River and Hudson River docks. The trade boasted a community of experienced, hardworking, and licensed men. Their highly competitive business was conducted in uncertain weather and under dangerous, life-threatening circumstances. They required the hardiest, swiftest, and best-built schooners. The culture and swagger of the pilot boat owners made them intensely aware that in choosing a name, that name would endow the ship with the namesake's prestige. It is similar to, but more than, the celebratory endorsement on a cereal box. The following will demonstrate their naming joie de vivre.
Take the New York pilot boat Richard K. Fox #8 (see illustration). Antonio Jacobsen painted her portrait. His sketch is at the Mariners' Museum. The Newsman of May 1891 describes the scope of the Fox brand. It tells that there was a brand of cigar called R.K. Fox, branded wine and liquor, a saloon, a barbershop, a cigar store, a blacksmith shop, a trotting horse named Richard K. Fox, and, of course, the pilot boat. The Newsman noted that "the man thus named is the editor of the Police Gazette."
Fox lived life to the fullest and, as a sporting man, contributed prize money for boxing, horseracing, sculling, football, shooting, running, and wrestling. He offered to boxing champions the memorable trophy of a gold diamond-studded belt, once worn by John L. Sullivan.
The pilot boat James B. Stafford #18 (see illustration) was built as the replacement for the loss of the Enchantress #18 and all hands in the blizzard of 1888. Stafford was a sail maker with a loft at 30 South Street. A similar fate seemed in store for the James H. Stafford #18, when following a winter storm contact with her was lost. The New York Timessaid, "Grave fears were entertained." But after a week passed, she reappeared, having been blown 90 miles into the Atlantic from her work station.
When the pilot boat William Starbuck #6 was launched in May 1886, the New York Times said, "She Looks like a Racer." Over 1000 persons witnessed her launch at Tottenville, Staten Island. Among the witnesses was a mutineer from the brig of war Somers (1842) and the captains of the clippers David Crocket, E. Blunt #2, and the Alexander M. Lawrence #4(see illustration of Electus Comfort). A special train left for Manhattan at 7:30 p.m., but the greater part of the visitors remained to have a dance at the pavilion near the shipyard.
The New York Times account of May 1885 had described what happened to the Alexander M. Lawrence #4 (see illustration) 20 miles east of Nantucket. "Suddenly the vessel shook from the stem to stern as if she had struck a rock, and then gave a terrific lurch to starboard. Her port bow seemed to rise up into the air, while the starboard railing went under water. It seemed to the terrified crew that the vessel was capsizing. The water had nearly rolled up to the hatches which guard the companionways when the vessel suddenly righted. The men could make out under the bow a dark object in the water, which boiled like a caldron. The object disappeared almost instantly, however, and the vessel kept on her course. The trouble was caused by a whale, which ran headlong into the port bow of the vessel. [It was said to have been a large rorqual, the largest of baleen whales.] ...The crew of the pilot boat were well shaken up, but none of them was hurt." The pilot boat finished her career heroically in 1897 by rescuing the frail sloop Fawnof Virginia.
The Brooklyn Eagle, under a heading "Glad Tidings" in March 1888, reported that a "dismal group of mariners sat around the glowing stove in the New York and Sandy Hook [South Street] pilot office...mourning over the score or more of brave tars... [William Starbuck #6 had been fouled by the steamship Japan.] …[They] told of Pilot Jacob M. Heath's daring and nerve in the presence of great danger. No man...was more widely admired than the 'Nantucket Indian.'...a messenger boy burst in...He held a telegram...'What does it say?' yelled every man around the stove...'The Starbuckand the 'Nantucket Indian' are saved'....'Thank God,' said every man of 'em, in a loud and unanimous voice that made the long row of XX gin bottles on the shelf behind the bar dance up and down…."
There's the puzzling image of the 1873 Cape May Regatta (see illustration). Note that New Jersey pilot #1, the Thomas S. Negus, appears next to last in this Frederic Cozzens 1884 lithograph of the race, but she won in her class (second overall, after the larger yacht Enchantress). Thomas Negus was vice president of a New York bank and had an address on Fifth Avenue. His father was an expert maker of chronometers. By 1897, the pilot boat, having sailed with distinction, became the choice of a group of adventurers intent on the hazardous journey from New York to the Klondike—and gold. The adventurers made it to San Francisco where the captain was fired and repairs had to be made. What happened thereafter is unknown.
Howland & Aspinwall was a New York City merchant firm in the China trade—porcelains, silk, and tea. They financed the building of the clipper ships Rainbow (1845) and Sea Witch (1846). They created the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. When gold was discovered, their fleet and their expertise made them rich. William Aspinwall participated in the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Part of the Aspinwall fortune descended to FDR through his grandmother Mary Aspinwall Roosevelt. It seems likely that the William H. Aspinwall #21piloted many of Aspinwall's own ships on their arrival in New York from Far Eastern waters, before she was wrecked in 1880 on a Long Island beach.
There are similar stories to be told about the pilot boats: Joseph Pulitzer #20, named for the editor of the New York World; A.T. Stewart #6, named for a multimillionaire mogul of department stores; James Gordon Bennett #7 (and James Gordon Bennett #9), named for the owner of the New York Herald; W.W. Story #5, named for William Wetmore Story, the American sculptor; Mary Taylor #5, named for a chorus girl/opera diva, the boat designed by George Steers, who also designed America, the Cup winner; Edwin Forrest #14, named for an actor; and Caldwell H. Colt #13, named for the scion of the Colt firearms manufactory. Each suggested a chapter on the popular culture of the time.
Unluckily, the Commodore Bateman #11 was run down in April 1889, in a fog on Georges Shoal, by the German steamship Suevia. Two pilots and the cook were lost.
All illustrations appeared in the 1922 booklet Pilot Lore: From Sail to Steam. They represent part of a collection of paintings, photographs, and prints that once hung in the Pilots' Club in the Municipal Ferry Building. Their whereabouts and artists' names are unknown. The captions for them are as they appear in the booklet.
"Pilot Boat James B. Stafford/ Built to replace the Enchantress which was lost with all hands in blizzard of 1888."
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2012 Maine Antique Digest