Memories of a Dorchester Traveller Part I

Browsing through tourism brochures, visitors to Dorchester have been known to question references to the villages role during the Golden Age of Sail. Statements such as: It was shipbuilding that made Dorchester famous around the world, cause the skeptical to ask: How could there be shipbuilding without a harbour?

Tour guides, having heard this before, point to a map, and patiently explain that the centre of the community was once Dorchester Island. It’s just down the road. And yes, although landlocked today; it was a bustling home port for ships that sailed the seven seas. Age of sail historian Stanley Spicer attests that at least 109 vessels were built in Diorchester. Of these, 68 came from Dorchester’s three major shipyards; owned by the Palmer, Chapman and Hickman families.

Dorchesters shipbuilding heritage was brought to my attention recently through a remarkable diary. Covering the last phase of the Age of Sail, from January 01, 1870 through to December 31, 1894; it records how and why, shipbuilding and international trade became the lifeblood of a prosperous community, once the shiretown of Westmorland County.

On the surface, the diarist was an unlikely recorder of this era. A farmer and businessman; he once sailed aboard the barque John Hickman as ships carpenter. But for Alexander Black (1838–1902) this was not all; for he possessed many talents and mastered more than one occupation. In addition, Black had an interest in music, art, politics and law. If an important trial was in progress at the old Westmorland County Court House, Alexander Black was certain to be a spectator. Well read, and largely self educated, he had an excellent command of language and always expressed himself in a cryptic, but engaging manner.

Beyond these achievements, Alexander Black was a staunch follower of Methodism. This is not surprising when his family background is known. His father James A. Black (1790–1863) was a half brother of the Revd. William Black (1760–1834), founder of Methodism in the Maritimes. In his time, Alexander Black was a prime mover behind the building of the Dorchester Methodist (now United) Church, dedicated on Nov. 26, 1882. As revealed in his Diary, wherever he traveled, it was his custom to worship in the nearest Methodist Church. While Blacks Diary provides valuable insight concerning late 19th century life in Dorchester and the Tantramar region; this Flashback and the one that follows on March 12th, will focus on Alexander Black the traveling man.

In order to understand this aspect of Blacks life its necessary to delve into his business interests. Growing up in Dorchester during the Age of Sail he could not help being influenced by the call of the sea. Ship launchings were important highlights in the community and he witnessed many of these events, from early boyhood onward. .How were shipbuilding ventures financed? Commonly, most contracts were divided into units of 64 shares, based on the total cost of the vessel. The shipyard usually held the controlling interest; while the remainder might be sold to the captain, the ships agent, or to local businessmen such as Alexander Black. These investors received dividends, based on profits made and their number of shares. Starting in a small way, Black was able over time, to reinvest his profit in ever larger numbers of shares. Later, as his financial involvement increased, he made frequent trips to Saint John, Boston and New York; the chief ports of call for the ships in which he had an interest. Here he would confer with local agents, supervise the unloading of cargoes and negotiate future contracts.

Important though these trips were from the business standpoint, they did not fulfill Alexander Blacks yearning for overseas travel. Unmarried, and without family responsibilities, he was able to take off when the spirit moved him. Normally these longer voyages were made over the winter months when farm choring was not so pressing.

During October of 1875 attention in Dorchester was focussed on a new ship about to be launched. Christened the Bessie May, and built by Edward Chambers, it was successfully launched on October 21st. Just over a month later, on Nov. 25th, Alexander Black, having earlier placed his trunks on board, set sail from Dorchester Island, on the maiden voyage of the Bessie May. The brigantine was bound for Glasgow via Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland. Lets pick up the story from the Diary

Nov. 25 sailed for Queenstown at 10 AM; passed Saint John and anchored in Beaver Harbour at 3:30 PM on the 26th. Set sail at 10 AM on the 27th. Passed to the west of Grand Manan and then lost sight of land. By the 28th, we were off Cape Sable. Sighted four steamships and a brig. Weather fair. During the next three weeks, the Bessie May crossed the North Atlantic by way of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Enroute considerable rain, squally weather and eventually fair winds were encountered; otherwise the voyage was uneventful. On Dec. 18th at 11:30 PM, the light from Cape Clear lighthouse, on a small island off the southern tip of Ireland, was sighted. At 7AM the next day, the Bessie May was abreast of Kinsale Lighthouse and by 11:30 dropped anchor in Queenstown Harbour. This seaport, located a few miles southeast of Cork, is today known as Cobh. The first leg of the voyage was over.

Happy to be on dry land, Alexander Black made good use of his time over the next few days as the Bessie Mays cargo of lumber was unloaded. Always the curious traveler, he spent Dec. 20th exploring the nearby city of Cork. While anchored in Queenstown, arrangements were made for the Bessie May to proceed to Greenock, Scotland to pick up a load of coal. On Dec 23, the ship set sail through the Irish Sea and Firth of Clyde, reaching a point 28 miles below Greenock at daybreak on Christmas Day. A tug towed the brig into port, where an unspecified cargo, picked up in Queenstown, was unloaded.

Once more Alexander Black opted to go exploring, this time in nearby Glasgow. Unfortunately, the Diary mentions only the highlights. Chief of these was St. Mungos Cathedral, which made a lasting impression. He also singled out West Park, the Arcade and Bazaar as being of interest. Alexander Blacks one regret was an inability to find a Methodist Church. Nevertheless, on Sunday Jan. 2, 1876, he starts the new year right by worshipping in a Presbyterian Church. A delay in departure of the Bessie May provided another opportunity. He was able to hop on a train and travel to Edinburgh, where he spent several packed days visiting all the noted places in the New Town and all the noted places in the Old Town.

By Jan. 12th, Black was back in Greenock. A contract to carry a cargo of coal for Havana was signed and the brig hauled to a crane to be loaded with coal. On Jan. 31st he was on board the brig awaiting fair wind to sail for Havana. Finally, on Feb. 5th the Bessie May weighed anchor at 4 AM, with a fair wind… Another trans-Atlantic voyage had begun.

Thanks to the northeast trade winds, and a good sailing breeze a smooth crossing was made. The only problem, a dead calm, meant an eight day delay in mid-ocean. Eventually on Mar. 25th, the island of St. Domingo was sighted and the Bessie May arrived in Havana at 11 AM on April 2nd our passage from Greenock was 57 days. Strangely, the Diary is blank for the next six weeks; mentioning only that the coal was unloaded and a cargo of sugar secured for New York. We can only speculate that illness prevented Alexander Black from exploring the Cuban countryside.

On May 24th the Bessie May sailed for New York, arriving on June 8th, to be met by Mr. Chambers from Dorchester. Undoubtedly, much time was spent in catching up on the news from home. By now, Alexander Black was back in form and took several days off to travel to Philadelphia to attend the American Centennial celebrations. 1876 was a notable year, as the United States observed the centenary of the Declaration of Independence. Although Black does not tell us, we may be certain that he made the rounds of the many historical sites in this city.

By July 2nd, Alexander Black was homeward bound. The Bessie May remained behind in New York to await another cargo; forcing him to travel by rail, first to Newport, Rhode Island. Once there, a drive in the country was followed by a visit to Mount Adams. In one Diary entry, made while in Newport, Alexander Black was unusually candid. He confessed to having spent a day walking to Purgatory and Paradise with details being left to the readers imagination. He then travelled from Newport to Boston for a brief overnight stop. On July 12, Alexander Black caught the train for Portland and Saint John; arriving home in Dorchester on July 15th, 1876. His long journey of almost nine months was now over.