The battle appeared all but lost by the time an unknown cameraman took this remarkable photograph of the schooner Onward ablaze in Rockport Harbor at the beginning of the twentieth century. The decks are awash and the man standing at the mainmast shrouds, just left of center, is about to get his feet wet as he perches on top of the bulwarks, the smoke and steam swirling around him. Two fellows wait beside him in a dory. Judging by his posture, the man with his hands on his hips, at center, may well be the Onward's owner, watching a bit of his livelihood go up in smoke. A slightly less bold crewmember observes the blaze from the base of the bowsprit, at right, as a second dory circles past the foundering ship's stern.
The most striking thing about this photograph, of course, is the utter lack of urgency it captures. Fires were common aboard the cargo schooners that carried lime from the kilns in Rockport for use as mortar and plaster in Boston and New York, as the processed lime would ignite the instant any moisture touched it. Tight wooden casks prevented most water from reaching the volatile goods, but the aged cargo schooners like the Onward - she was about thirty-five years old when this photo was taken - that were chosen for this service were known to let a bit of seawater aboard between their planks. Clearly this crew knew just what to do when the fire started, as unlike the moored schooner at far left, the Onward has been stripped of her sails, booms, and even her running rigging, shown by the blocks hanging empty at the top of the masts. The cabins have been sealed in an attempt to snuff out the flames, and an anchor hangs off the port bow, ready to deploy if the ship begins to drift near other vessels or else collides with the leaning granite dolphin post, right of center. Fires like this one were known to burn for days or even weeks, and captains sometimes simply waited out the blaze before pumping out their ships.
That strategy appears to have worked with the Onward. While the seventy-two-foot long ship's final resting place is unknown, we know that it is not one of the half-dozen wrecks scattered across the bottom of Rockport Harbor, several of them less-fortunate lime schooners. But even though she might have lived to sail another day - she is listed in a 1902 register of ships but disappears from the list by 1907 - the days of heavy industry in Rockport were already drawing to a close when another fire destroyed the Rockport kilns in 1907, as the demand for pure limestone had been supplanted by the advent of cement. The Onward won the battle recorded here, it seems, but the war was lost even before this photographer opened his lens.