Rhode Island’s Lost Ships

This essay appeared as a Providence Journal commentary on August 9, 2008, in the midst of another summer season during which the Sloop Providence rested in a restricted private shipyard rather than on my dock for the public to view and visit. The Providence Maritime Heritage Foundation (on which I once held the vice presidency) had been the custodian of the sloop–a replica of the U.S. Navy’s first warship–since May 1996, after the city acquired ownership of the Providence from its original builders. During a decade of operation the sloop served as a “classroom under sail” for Rhode Island schoolchildren, a charter boat, a vessel to show the Rhode Island flag at tall-ship regattas, and even a ship used in Pirates of the Caribbean, a movie series starring actor Johnny Depp. In 2007, its last year of operation, the ship conducted public sails from Dock Conley on the Allens Avenue waterfront. By 2008, however, the foundation’s funds were depleted, despite its gala fundraiser at the Fabre Line Club in June 2007, an event that featured Massachusetts senator and 2004 U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry.

Mayor David Cicilline and Thomas Deller, his misdirector of planning, had no interest in the vessel, except to sell or scuttle it. I had offered free dockage for the ship at my Allens Avenue pier and arranged for volunteer docents to conduct tours aboard it. These offers were ignored in 2008, 2009, and 2010, so the sloop sat in drydock, just next door to my facility.

Without notice to me, and notwithstanding my offers to dock and to buy it, Deller sold the ship in 2010 to businessman Thorpe Leeson of Newport who will make the vessel available for charter. At least the Providence will remain in Rhode Island, more by accident than intent. Meanwhile, as this volume goes to press, a Newport-based nonprofit group, spearheaded by Bartlett Dunbar, is constructing a steel-hulled tall ship to be named the Oliver Hazard Perry. This 132-foot-long sail-training vessel with its 64-foot spar is to be completed by September 2013, a date that will coincide with the bicentennial of the famed Rhode Island commodore’s crucial victory in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

As for the carrier Saratoga, also mentioned in my futile essay, it appears headed for the scrap heap, but in its place Frank Lennon, the driving force of the Saratoga Foundation, is moving to acquire the much more functional and glamorous USS Kennedy as a substitute. He has brought me aboard for this effort. JFK’s connections with Newport and Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s residency in Portsmouth bode well for this project. Win some, lose some!

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The title of this commentary may suggest to some that it refers to those vessels that have been lost in Rhode Island waters by storms, explosions, and mishaps, often with many fatalities. The earliest of such ill-fated ships was the legendary Princess Augusta (known in oral tradition as the Palatine, from the origins of its German passengers). In a 1738 December gale, the vessel ran aground on Block Island with an indeterminate loss of life. The tragedy was immortalized by John Greenleaf Whittier in a poem which suggested that the islanders used a false light to lure the immigrant ship onto the rocks for purposes of salvage.

A more recent and better-documented tragedy involved the passenger steamer Larchmont of the Joy Line, which left Providence bound for New York City on the night of February 11, 1907, during a blinding blizzard. In Block Island Sound, about three miles off Watch Hill, the Larchmont collided with the fully laden coal schooner Harry Knowlton and sank in thirty minutes. Because accurate records were not kept, estimates of the death toll vary widely. The history of the Joy Line puts the count at 111, but other estimates range as high as 192 fatalities.

Another significant “lost” ship was the steamer Mackinac, which was rocked by a boiler explosion on August 18, 1925, en route from Newport to Pawtucket. Fifty-five of its 672 passengers were killed in the blast.

However, there is another category of ships whose loss–though far less tragic than the fate of the Princess Augusta, the Larchmont, and the Mackinac— is most regretful. These are the ships that have found homes in other ports where appreciation for their history and beauty far exceeds our own. The USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) was berthed at Newport from 1861 to 1865, when that city hosted the U.S. Naval Academy. It is now the main attraction at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston Harbor. The completely reconstructed USS Constellation, a Newport training vessel from 1894 to 1945, graces Baltimore’s revitalized Inner Harbor. Both were built in 1797– the former in Boston and the latter in Baltimore–but Newport had them, and the U.S. Navy took them away without any local effort to retain them. The loss of Old Ironsides is understandable, but the departure of the rebuilt Constellation, after its presence in Newport for a half-century, is less defensible.

The HMS Rose is a replica of the eighteenth-century British frigate that patrolled Narragansett Bay on the eve of the American Revolution under the command of Captain James Wallace. Former Newporter John Millar built the modern Rose at great personal expense as his contribution to Rhode Island’s bicentennial celebration. Rhode Islanders let the Rose slip away. In 1984, it was moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and it now rests in San Diego harbor after starring in the movie Master and Commander.

The Ernestina made its final voyage to Providence in 1965. It is the last of the “Brava packets,” ships that sailed between Cape Verde and New England from 1867 to 1965. This ethnocultural icon was berthed for several years at a dock near Point Street until it was lost to the port of New Bedford.

Consider the fate of the Newport, the last Newport-to-Jamestown ferry. After it was rendered obsolete in 1969 by the opening of the Newport-Pell Bridge, it was sold to the city of Pawtucket as a youth center for the arts. By 1982 it was in Portland, Maine, where the DiMello family had converted it into a hugely successful floating restaurant–a facility Rhode Island still

lacks, despite the short-lived presence of Tony Mastronardi’s Victoria, a vessel that replaced the Ernestina at the Point Street dock where the Downtown Marina is now located.

Thisselective listing includes only surviving lost ships. Even more tragic has been the scrapping of the magnificent coastal steamers of the Fall River and Colonial Lines and that of the vessels of the transatlantic Fabre Line, which brought thousands of southern European immigrants to our state. The legendary racing yachts of the Herreshoffs of Bristol and the innovative boats of the Saunders family of North Kingstown have shared a similar fate. Clearly the Ocean State has squandered its maritime heritage.

Most are lost, but not all. Fortunately, two iconic ships remain in Rhode Island waters–for now. One is the USS Saratoga, a huge aircraft carrier representative of those (like the Hornet and the Wasp) that once called Quonset home. The Saratoga Foundation, led by the indefatigable Frank Lennon, is making an effort as large as the ship itself to establish the Saratoga in Quonset as a museum, an educational facility, and an exhibit honoring marine pilot Ted Williams. Its varied uses make a compelling case for its draw as a tourist attraction.

A second locally extant but endangered vessel is the Sloop Providence, a replica of the first ship of the Continental navy. The original Providence–the first command of John Paul Jones–was scuttled in the Penobscot River in 1779. The replica was completed in 1976 by the Seaport 76 Foundation with a sizeable grant from the Rhode Island Bicentennial Commission (ri76), which I then chaired. Presently the Sloop Providence, designated as Rhode Island’s flagship by the General Assembly, sits high and dry at the Promet Shipyard on Allens Avenue. The ship is now owned by the city, and its fate is uncertain. I have offered to give the vessel free space in Providence at my dock so that the sloop can continue to serve as a floating historical exhibit and a classroom under sail, but as yet there has been no response to this overture.

Will the Saratoga and the Providence join that huge fleet of scrapped, scuttled, or sold Rhode Island ships? Will we continue to destroy or discard our famous vessels, or can we salvage these two? Echoing the final words of James Lawrence, heroic captain of the Chesapeake, I give Rhode Islanders this exhortation: “Don’t give up those ships!”

-Dr. Patrick T. Conley

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