- by Carol Standish
Snow Squall - The Last American Clipper Ship (Tilbury House, Publishers, Maine Maritime Museum; 320pp; $30) is the life story of Maine built clipper and her archeological resurrection. And her story is still not over.
The Snow Squall was a speed-record setting wind ship of the “extreme clipper” design. Her hull, painted a gleaming white to suggest her name, was sharper at the waterline and narrower overall. She was built at the Butler yard in a section of Cape Elizabeth which is now South Portland, near Spring Point in 1851. She was a hard-working cargo vessel owned by a shrewd and ambitious Yankee trader, Charles Green, of Malden and Boston.
In the course of her 13 year career, Snow Squall was never idle. She sailed to and from New York, Boston, Honolulu, Shanghai, San Francisco, Cardiff, London, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Melbourne, Penang, New Orleans, Batavia, Amoy, Manila, and Newport with cargo of every description. Her captains, four in all, were skillful seamen and as shrewd as her owner, assuring the profitability of each complex trip. She was also well-maintained even during leaner times.
So, even though the era of the clipper ship was drawing to a close, eclipsed by the efficiency of steam, it was a surprise and a disappointment when she ran aground in le Maire Strait near Cape Horn en route from New York to San Francisco in 1864. Her Captain, James S. Dillingham, Jr. was able to float her off the shoal with the tide and she limped across the South Atlantic to Stanley in the Falkland Islands in hopes of repair. She was carrying explosives, among other cargo. After expensive off-loading, she was “heaved down” (on her side, as there were no dry-docks in Stanley large enough to accommodate her) and examined. The leaks could not be found. Crew and cargo were dispersed and she was condemned where she lay in Stanley Harbor.
One hundred and fifteen years later, she was pointed out to author, Nicholas Dean, a Maine based photographer and maritime historian who was in Stanley on another mission. “What are you Mainers going to do about her,” Dean was asked by his Falkland Islands counterpart.
Archeologist Dave Switzer’s short prologue and the slightly longer epilogue of the book answer that question. The balance of the text is a recounting of Snow Squall’s breathless career by Nicholas Dean. Dean is a careful researcher, answering questions and providing background and detail in just the right amount. His prose style is conversational with not trace of stuffy academic. In fact, Snow Squall’s adventures are so enjoyably told that the reader forgets that he/she is reading history.
Dave Switzer tells an equally engaging tale of the clipper’s extraction from the mud of Stanley Harbor in the early 1980s. Giving lots of credit where lots of credit is certainly due, Switzer describes a physically harsh scene full of great camaraderie and generosity. The islanders as well as British military personnel based in the Falklands lent time, strong backs and material to the archeological team which finally took home to South Portland most of the ship’s bow, pieces of which are now preserved and exhibited at four museums around the country—Maine Maritime Museum, Bath, Portland Harbor Museum, South Portland, South Street Seaport, New York and the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.