Saturday, February 11, 2012


The sail-driven maritime freight trade was entering the autumn of its era when the Dirigo slid down the ways on February 10, 1894.  Three hundred and fourteen feet long, built to carry four masts that reached 200 feet above her decks, weighing in at 3005 tons, she made a spectacular splash as she crashed into the waters of the Kennebec River in Bath, ME, her sleek black hull gleaming in contrast to the snowy riverbanks.
Dirigo, circa 1910-1915 (Plummer/Beaton photographic collection (courtesy of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)
Tens of thousands of coasting schooners (rigged fore-&-aft, many with centerboards – as opposed to fixed keels - for access to shallow waters) had plied the waters of the East Coast, the West Coast, and the Gulf of Mexico since the late 18th Century, and square-rigged China trade ships had crossed the oceans all over the world for just as long. But all of these sailing predecessors were wooden-hulled ships. Dirigo, a Latin word meaning “I lead” and the State of Maine’s motto, was the first steel-hulled sailing vessel built in the United States. With the construction of Dirigo, A. Sewall & Co. led wooden shipbuilding into the steel age, to much public acclaim.

Arthur Sewall – the man who had built her - hoped that she’d live up to her name and pay for herself. Times were tough as a depression settled on the economy, and no one could afford to have cargo ships lying idle.  Dirigo was designed by J.F. Waddington of Liverpool, England, and she cost $157,000 to build. The steel plates for her hull were produced by Messrs. David Clolville & Sons, and came all the way from Motherwell, Scotland.

To a degree, Dirigo did pay for herself. After she was launched, the tugboat C. W. Morse towed her to Philadelphia, where she was outfitted as a square-rigger.  She was laden with a cargo of 121,000 cases of oil bound for Japan, captained by an old friend of the Sewall family, George W. Goodwin of Calais, ME.  Initially her speed was not outstanding, a concern with the growing competition from steam-driven ships, but as the captain and crew became familiar with the new ship, her efficiency improved, although she was never swift. Goodwin made suggestions for several improvements, but in general was pleased with the way she handled.

Sewall had a dream that within his lifetime, he would see powerful shipyards on the Kennebec River producing the finest steel ships in the world. He did not live to see that dream entirely fulfilled, for his shipyard was the only one in the US to switch to steel. He died in 1900, only six years after Dirigo launched.  Four years after Dirigo, Sewall launched her sister ship, Erskine W. Phelps, to equal fanfare. Evidently Sewall had found the investment in Dirigo profitable.

She did acquire a little claim to fame. In February of 1912, Jack London and his wife Charmian boarded the Dirigo in Baltimore, for a trip around Cape Horn. They sailed to Seattle and returned home in August.

Dirigo had several captains over her 23-year lifetime:
1894-1902  Captain George W. Goodwin, Calais, ME
1903-1904  Captain Lewis S. Colley
1904-1909  Captain George W. Goodwin.
1909-1911  Captain Omar E. Chapman.
1911-1917  Captain Walter M. Mallett.
1917  Captain John A. Urquhart, Brooklyn, NY.

Dirigo remained in Sewall’s fleet until 1915, when G. W. McNear, Inc., in San Francisco bought her. This firm engaged in shipping oil and grain. She worked in Pacific waters for a while, but McNear didn’t hold her for long: she was sold again in March 1916 to C.C. Mengel & Brother, Inc., of Louisville, KY, a lumber company, and then again that November to Axim Transportation Co. of Anchorage, AK, which used Pensacola, FL, as a homeport.  She worked out of that port for six months. Then on May 31, 1917, she sank about 6 miles southwest of the Eddystone Rocks off the coast of Plymouth, England, the victim of torpedoes launched by German submarine UB-23 (the Hans Ewald Niemer). One life was lost.

(Another vessel contemporary to our square-rigged sailing bark Dirigo was an ocean-going passenger steamship also named Dirigo, built in 1898 at Hoquiam (Gray’s Harbor, about 40 miles west of Olympia, Washington) and used in the Alaska trade during the Klondike Gold Rush.  In several photographs dating from 1898, she is shown moored at the docks in Skagway, District of Alaska. These are two separate vessels.)

A few other photographs of Dirigo exist, but most of them are copyrighted against any use without permission. You can see some at Maine Memory Network, a project of the Maine Historical Society which provides an online museum and database.

Yakowicz, Susie, “Steel Glory: The Life of Shipbuilder Arthur Sewall (1835-1900)”

Emanuels, George, “Early California Voyages”

Wreck Site

Vintage Maine Images, also part of the Maine Historical Society and associated with the Maine Maritime Museum

Maine Memory Network, a project of the Maine Historical Society

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