The Mainers died and went mad on the ‘world’s most dangerous journey’
BELFAST, Maine – In the 19th century, Maine adventurers signed up for years aboard whaling ships or sought passage on clippers bound for California during the Gold Rush.
There were fortunes to be made there, but there was also a big obstacle: Cape Horn.
The southernmost tip of South America, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet, was infamous for its strong winds and currents, giant rogue waves, and icebergs. A new book by Northport maritime historian Charles Lagerbom, “From Maine to Cape Horn: the world’s most dangerous journeyâ, Details the dangers sailors face when trying to bypass the horn.
“Cape Horn could break anyone, if not physically, maybe mentally,” he said. âIt was a challenge. And that’s why you really have to hand it over to those who did.
Lagerbom, 57, a history professor at Belfast Area High School, became interested in the history of Cape Horn while researching his latest book, âWhaling in Maineâ from 2020. Although Nantucket and New Bedford , both located in Massachusetts, being the focal point of whaling history, Maine was also significant.
âI was blown away by the amount of historical connections, be it the ships that were built here, the captains here, the crews that came from here,â he said.
As he delved into the logbooks and newspapers, he found story after story on the passage of Cape Horn.
The journey started at 50 degrees south latitude on one side of the South American continent and ended 50 degrees south on the other side of the continent. The trip could be done in as little as 10 days. But most westerly ships took longer, sometimes weeks or even months longer, as they tacked against the prevailing winds.
Some captains had to ration food and water for their crew. A ship was limited to a single pint per person per day, Lagerbom said. The crews immobilized the cargo so that it did not move underway, endangering the ship, and kept an eye out for rogue waves, the highest of which was measured at 98 feet.
In total, it is estimated that in the 20th century, 10,000 sailors died at Cape Horn.
âOnce I got the individual stories of captains, crews or ships, it was just amazing,â Lagerbom said.
The stories he was learning made him shiver. There was the Suliote, a bark almost completed by Asa Faunce of Belfast in 1848, when rumors of Californian gold came in. He sold 50 berths on the ship for $ 150 each. They were quickly captured by young men from Maine, including three – but not all four – members of the Bangor Quartet, a musical group.
“It shattered the squad, it was really a draw,” Lagerbom said.
Prior to departure, the passengers met at Hammond Street Church in Bangor for a special sermon, and when the ship was launched, the Governor of Maine was on hand to cheer her on. The Suliote, under the command of Captain Josiah Simpson, was the first ship from Maine to sail to California during the Gold Rush.
But Cape Horn has taken its toll.
The vessel encountered bad weather as it proceeded west around the cape. On a pitch black night in a very rough sea, Simpson’s son Edwin Paul Simpson, 18, was near the steering wheel when the Suliote abruptly swerved and washed him overboard.
Edwin was adrift in the cold ocean, and there was nothing on the ship to save him, Lagerbom said. The Suliote could not stop and turn around, and if a lifeboat had been lowered it would have been immediately submerged.
“It was just floating in the waves, further and further behind,” said the historian. âHe got lost at sea. He just destroyed Simpson. He took everyone to California, but he never sailed again.
So many Maine sailors have been lost at sea, in fact, that Lagerbom has heard that a third of the state’s graves from the 1820s to 1850s are empty.
Cipperly Good, curator of maritime history at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, said Lagerbom’s book could rekindle interest in maritime adventure for a new generation.
âThis is the ultimate story of man against nature, trying to get around the horn,â she said. âIt’s a wheelchair trip. You don’t have to be on the boat to bypass the horn, but you can read about it. And that’s a test of human skill, to try to make that passage.
In the days of sailing, goods moved by water and Maine was at the forefront of commerce.
âIf you wanted a well-built ship with a competent captain and crew, then you were going to Maine,â Good said. “We were the people who sailed around the world and transported goods.”
That’s why it was worth risking the vagaries of Cape Horn, even if the trip did not always end well.
Take the story of EH Harriman from Belfast, who was the captain of the three-masted vessel PR Hazeltine. While circling around Cape Horn, he encountered terrible storms and attempted to cross a cluster of islands but ended up wrecking his ship. Two lifeboats managed to transport people on board to safety, but the cargo was lost in relatively shallow water.
âHarriman spent the rest of his life trying to come back and save this ship,â Lagerbom said. “He was so scared that other people would get there first that it ended up mentally breaking him.”
The captain died in the Maine Insane Asylum in Augusta and his Belfast house – now demolished – was known as “Mad Sea Captain’s House”.
However, perils did not prevent Mainers from trying their luck by setting out to sea and rounding the horn.
“I kept finding out that it was basically the job of the sailors,” Lagerbom said. âThey knew it was a tough crossing to get around Cape Horn, and they did it. There aren’t a lot of complaints in the papers. It was all part of the job, and I have to take my hat off to them. These tough Mainers did this.
Of those who returned home, many marked their achievement by wearing a gold earring on their left ear. It has also been said that Cape Horn survivors have earned the right to put their foot on the table by dining, Lagerbom said.
“Pretty outrageous behavior, but hey, you deserved it, if you survived Cape Horn,” he said. âIt’s not like they’re bragging, but it’s such an accomplishment. And I guess other sailors knew that too. There was always a certain special respect they had for the sailors and captains who had done it, and had done it time and time again. It takes a warm enough person to do this.
“Maine to Cape Horn: the World’s Most Dangerous Voyage”, by Arcadia Publishing, is available wherever the books are sold. Signed copies are available by emailing Charles Lagerbom at [email protected]