Behind the Scenes Snapshots of History

The Wreck of the “Governor Ames”

A three masted lumber schooner docked at Race Street and Delaware Avenue, January 17, 1900.
A three masted lumber schooner docked at Race Street and Delaware Avenue, January 17, 1900. 

On December 9, 1909, the lumber schooner Governor Ames set sail from Brunswick, Georgia on a routine coasting voyage to New York. Onboard were 14 souls, including Captain King and his wife. Lashed onto her upper deck was a cargo of freshly cut railroad ties, most likely headed for the New York Central Railroad’s supply yard.

Captain King was in command of a unique vessel. When launched in 1888, the Governor Ames (named after Massachusetts governor Oliver Ames)  was the only five masted schooner in the world, and one of the largest cargo vessels afloat, grossing 1,600 tons and stretching 252 feet in length. She was also an expensive ship, costing $75,000. Her owners, the Atlantic Shipping Company of Somerset, Massachusetts, had built the Ames for short cargo runs up and down the Eastern Seaboard, as well as longer runs to South America. She was also swift, with a reputation of being “speedy and a good sea boat.”

Yet the Governor Ames got off to a bad start on her maiden voyage from Boston to Baltimore. In December 1888, she was dismasted off Cape Cod and ran aground on Georges Bank. As the wrecked ship groaned and wallowed in the Atlantic, the wet and shivering crew prayed for help before the Ames broke up. “Here we remained clearing up and waiting for assistance,” recounted J.F. Davis, the brother of the Ames’s captain. “Up to Sunday we saw but few vessels, and they passed at a distance. Sunday, the fishing schooner Ethel Maude of Gloucester ran up to us, and we made a bargain for a passage for myself and the two extra carpenters to Gloucester. The extent of the damage at the time I left the vessel was about $10,000 due to loss of spars.”

Miraculously, no lives were lost, and the maimed Ames did not break up. Help arrived, and she was re-floated and repaired by February of the following year. She departed New Haven, Connecticut for Buenos Aires, Argentina carrying 2,000,000 board feet of lumber, expected to sell for $15.50 per square foot. Three months later, she departed Portland, Maine, carrying a similar sized cargo of spruce, valued at nearly $30,000 and according to The New York Times, “the largest cargo, perhaps with one exception, ever taken by an American vessel.” Ill-luck continued to dog the Ames. She ran aground again in 1899, this time in the warm waters off Key West while en route from Philadelphia to Galveston. To refloat her, the crew had to throw 200 tons of coal overboard.  This time, she suffered minimal damage.

Governor Oliver Ames of Massachusetts (1831-1895), namesake of the schooner "Governor Ames." Source:
Governor Oliver Ames of Massachusetts (1831-1895), namesake of the schooner Governor Ames. Source:

After the Key West grounding, the curse on the Ames lifted. When Captain King guided his vessel up the stormy Atlantic Coast in December 1909, the Ames and been accident-free for almost a decade. She had even survived a few brutal trips around stormy Cape Horn, hauling New England lumber to Australia. Although the air was frigid and the iron seas menacing, this run to New York would be a routine trip by comparison to battling Cape Horn westerlies. The Governor Ames was a twenty year old veteran.


The sailing ship did not die out with the coming of the deep water steamer in the mid-19th century.  Well into the 1900s, soaring masts were a common sight along the Delaware River. Big, steam-powered craft did wipe out the clipper ships and North Atlantic packets on the ocean routes, but the versatile schooner remained popular for hauling  basic, low-cost bulk cargoes such as coal, timber, gravel, railroad ties, and ice, especially to and from smaller ports that did not have railroad access.

The name of this three-masted schooner depicted at Race Street and Delaware Avenue hast been lost to history.  There was little concept of tall ship “romance” when this photograph was taken. People took these ships for granted. It was only after the schooners vanished — supplanted first by the railroad and the Mack truck — did people lament their disappearance. As singer-songwriter Stan Rogers said about the Nova Scotian schooner Bluenose, she “knew hard work in her time. Hard work in every line.”

1930s footage of the Nova Scotia schooner “Bluenose” racing against her Gloucester, Massachusetts rival “Gertrude L. Thibault.” Set to the music of Stan Rogers.

A schooner has two or more masts, all of which are rigged with “fore-and-aft” sails.  The triangular sails allowed captains to sail their ships close to the wind, something that square riggers could not do.  They could also tack easily, making them maneuverable in coastal waters and remote ports. Most importantly, their lack of yards  — with exception of topsail schooners, which had one or two square sails on their foremasts — meant that the crew did not have to climb aloft to make or trim sail except in an emergency.  On a schooner, a crew almost always remained on deck to hoist and lower sail. By the late 19th century, steam-powered donkey engines on deck assisted the crews with the heavy-lifting on bigger schooners.

For the shipowner, the smaller crew drastically cut reduced a vessel’s operating cost.  For example: the big, square-rigged California clipper ships of the 1850s — the most famous of which was the Flying Cloud —  needed about 60 crew members to operate efficiently.  A comparably sized five masted schooner such as the Governor Ames of 1888, built for the lumber trade, required only 12 men to sail. Not having to buy and store coal for fuel also saved money, and freed up space for cargo.

For two centuries, the schooner was the served as the humble workhorse of the American mercantile marine, a common sight in big harbors and small ports all along the Eastern Seaboard.   They were relatively cheap to build out of abundant native timber, especially in Maine. According to naval historian Howard Chappelle, “in spite of the fact that ships and square riggers have monopolized certain important trades, such as the packet and East Indian, and though they handled large and valued cargoes individually, the total tonnage and value of such cargoes were small compared to that carried by the schooners engaged in the coasting and foreign trades.”


On December 25, 1909, as Philadelphians gathered in warm, pine-festooned churches to celebrate Christmas, a battered, badly-shaken Joseph Speering arrived in Philadelphia on the steamship Shawmut. He was the sole survivor of the Governor Ames, which had sunk off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras in a gale twelve days earlier. He told the press that everyone else onboard had either been drowned or crushed to death by collapsing masts, including the captain’s wife, who the crew had lashed to the rigging in an attempt to protect her from the boiling seas crashing over the schooner’s bulwarks. As the Ames’s wooden keel bounced up and down against the rocky shoals, Speering jumped overboard and clung to a floating hatch cover. He then watched the Governor Ames break up and sink.

All alone, Speering clung to the hatch cover for over twelve hours before the crew of the passing Shawmut lowered a lifeboat and plucked him from the frigid seas.

Launch of the five masted schooner "Governor Ames" in Waldeboro, Maine. Source:
Launch of the five masted schooner Governor Ames in Waldeboro. Source:
The Governor Ames under sail. She was wrecked  Source:
The Governor Ames under sail.  Source:


“A Big Lumber Schooner,” The New York Times, February 15, 1889.

“The Five Masted Schooner Missing,” The Philadelphia North American, March 3, 1895.

“A Large Cargo of Lumber,” The New York Times, April 30, 1889.

“An Unlucky Voyage: The New Schooner Governor Ames Badly Wrecked,” The New York Times, December 18, 1888.

Howard Irving Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York, NY: Bonanza Books, 1935), p. 219.