The Clipper Ships
The Clipper Ships
Age of Sail. For a few brief decades between the end of the War of 1812 and the control of the world’s trade routes by the ocean steamers (after about 1860), America’s merchant marine enjoyed a golden era, in some areas challenging even the historical predominance of England on the high seas. New York’s packet lines plied the Atlantic on predictable schedules to and from Liverpool, Le Havre, and London. New England’s whaling fleets dominated that most dramatic of seaborne industries. Meanwhile, the new plantations of the recently settled Deep South swung into cotton production, and the Great Lakes basin began yielding tons of surplus grain and flour from its fertile farm fields, much of both bound for the transatlantic European market. The increased volume of shipping helped make flourishing port cities of New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans. This rise in waterborne commerce also required everlarger ships, and by 1850 America’s major shipyards (at Boston, Portsmouth, and New York) were turning out two-masted brigs, three-masted ships, and squareriggers three times the size of similar vessels in the 1820s. Many of these boats had sleeker lines and carried a greater spread of sail than their predecessors. They were built for speed, and the fastest ship of that golden age was also an American creation: the clipper ship.
Built for Speed. Clippers were defined as much by speed as by design. Even the name apparently derived from the slang verb clip, meaning to move quickly. To earn the name of clipper a ship had to be able to make the run from New York to San Francisco in 110 days or less. Contemporaries often classed clippers by the markets they served: the China clipper, the California clipper, the opium clipper. Since speed was the overriding consideration in defining the clipper, these vessels tended to share certain design elements. Clippers were more streamlined than other sailing ships, sharp bowed instead of bluff (the sharpest bowed were referred to as “extreme clippers”), and concave on the sides. Their maximum beam (width of the ship) was farther from the bows, and they were narrower for their length than their slower counterparts. Clippers ranged from 150 to 250 feet in length, with the longest being the Great Republic at 302 feet. They were especially known for their heavy spars, tall masts (the mainmast of the Challenge soared 200 feet above the water), and the immense amount of sail they carried. Knifing their way out of New York or Boston bound for the far-off Pacific under a huge cloud of white sail, these sleek vessels seemed the very embodiments of romantic ocean travel.
Heyday. The era of the American clipper was short but dramatic, lasting from about 1845 to 1859, with 1848–1854 representing the high tide. The reason for the clipper’s rise and fall had everything to do with profit, specifically the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1849. Americans wanted to get to San Francisco and the gold fields as fast as possible and were willing to pay whatever it cost to do so, an ideal situation for fast ships. Once they arrived, gold miners did not want to waste time growing food. As a result there were tremendous profits to be made in delivering even the most basic commodities to California. A barrel of flour costing five or six dollars in New York could be sold for fifty to sixty dollars in San Francisco. Even penny newspapers from the East, several months old upon arrival, could fetch as much as a dollar in California. Moreover, the return cargo of gold promised equal profits. There were other attractions in the Pacific market as well. In 1849 the British allowed American ships to compete on the China-to-London tea runs, and in 1851 the Australian gold rush provided yet another opportunity for clippers to carry the precious metal halfway around the world. Merchants and shipbuilders all up and down the East Coast realized that here was an opportunity to make money shipping small, high-value cargoes at the greatest possible speed. Thus was born the clipper era.
Racing. Their owners ran the clippers for profit, and their captains drove them mercilessly for speed, routinely carrying full sail in winds that would make the commanders of other vessels order the crew to reduce sail, reefing (taking in) part of the topsail at least. The public avidly followed both clippers and captains in the news while competing lines regularly raced from New York to San Francisco and boasted of their record runs. Where ordinary shippers took from 150 to 200 days to make the journey from Gotham to the Golden Gate, clippers were expected to arrive in 110 days or less. The fastest of them all was the 1, 782-ton Flying Cloud. Commanded by Josiah Perkins Cressy of Marblehead, Massachusetts, the Flying Cloud left New York on its maiden voyage at 2:00 P.M. on 2 June 1851. Although the Flying Cloud sprung her mainmast and (according to the ship’s log) ran “very wet, fore and aft,” it covered 374 miles in one day, a new record for any ship, steam or sail. On that first voyage the Flying Cloud reached San Francisco in a mere 89 days and 21 hours, a record for sailing ships that was to be surpassed only by the Flying Cloud itself when it shaved 13 hours off the mark in 1854.
Decline. By the late 1850s few clippers were being built in American shipyards, and the financial panic of 1857 drastically reduced available cargoes for the entire merchant marine. The Flying Cloud was idled for two years, and most clippers were reduced to carrying bulky low-value cargoes such as flour or Peruvian guano, for which they were structurally and financially unsuited. Some clippers still plied the China- and Australia-to-London runs, and British shipyards continued to build clippers into the 1870s for the tea trade. But on most routes the clippers were no longer profitable, and because of overbuilding during the boom era there were simply too many clippers in the market. Moreover, even as early as the 1850s oceangoing steamers were cutting into the clippers’ speed records, erasing the last advantages the clippers had over their competitors.
Robert Greenhalgh Albion, The Rise of the New York Port, 1815–1860 (New York: Scribners, 1939);
George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution: 1815–1860, Economic History of the United States, volume 4 (New York: Holt, 1951).