The Edna Hoyt was a floating anachronism that gained a cult following — and helped kick off an enduring fascination with old-timey ships.
The Edna Hoyt at full sail in 1938. Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum.
By David Shribman
With her elliptical stern, distinctive long bowsprit, and gracefully curved hull, she was elegance afloat. She plied the seas with cargoes of molasses or timber, salt or fertilizer, defying the caprice of ferocious storms and the advent of new maritime technology. She was a hard-sailing vessel that traversed the most storied routes of the seafaring world and was mobbed at ports on three continents. And for more than 17 years, she was Maine’s ambassador to the world.
When she was launched in Thomaston, 100 years ago this month, no one knew the Edna Hoyt would be the Atlantic’s last five-masted commercial schooner. As crowds gathered to see off the majestic ship — 284 feet long and more than 1,500 tons — no one knew she’d end her seagoing days as a lowly coal barge, stripped of her dignity, relieved of her refinement. As she slipped the bounds of Thomaston’s Dunn & Elliot shipyard, no one knew that the age of the schooner, so entwined with the state of the Edna Hoyt’s birth and berth, was slipping into history, marking the end of a remarkable burst of coastal construction and maritime grandeur.
Today, wooden schooners remain symbols of Maine’s adventurous spirit and heritage of craftsmanship. They were “workaday vessels that were beautiful ships,” says Captain Douglas K. Lee, co-author of an authoritative history of Maine-built schooners. In the mid-19th century, Maine was the country’s most productive shipbuilding state. In 1854 alone, around the peak of American wooden shipbuilding, the state produced 156 square-rigged ships (six times as many as the next leading state, New York) and just shy of 100 schooners. Unlike square-rigged ships, on which the primary sails are set on horizontal spars perpendicular to the masts and keel (picture the famed USS Constitution), schooners are fore-and-aft rigged, meaning their sails, set on two or more masts, follow the line of the keel.
Schooners were generally faster and more maneuverable than square-rigged boats and required a smaller crew. Designed to maximize cargo space and travel without ballast, schooners could be profitable transporting a payload in one direction only, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, they became the backbone of coastal trade in the Americas, the equivalent of today’s long-haul trucks or freight trains.
“The Maine coasting and fishing schooners like the Edna Hoyt were a principal means of transport and economic livelihood, almost since colonial times,” says Cipperly Good, curator and collections manager at the Penobscot Marine Museum, in Searsport. “Schooners connected Maine merchants to the Atlantic seaboard, as well as to the Caribbean, and were only superseded with the advent of steam.”
Maine’s schooner fleet carried lumber down the Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot rivers to the West Indies, then returned with the molasses that was a staple of meals in the lumber camps. The ships traveled to hubs like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Hampton Roads and brought to Maine the coal that became the 19th century’s vital energy source.
Schooner trade helped build the American tycoon class, although in many ways, the ships were “community endeavors,” historian and Coast Guard captain W. J. Lewis Parker wrote in a 1948 study, “built and officered by local men, managed by a leading citizen, and owned by the builder, the captain, the sailmaker, the doctor, and a score of other substantial townspeople.’’ In shipbuilding towns like Bath, Rockland, Camden, Thomaston, and Waldoboro, hundreds of tradesmen collaborated on wooden ships, and shipbuilders and riggers in the boatyard faced formidable challenges. Lightning strikes were a constant summertime threat. Working on the five-masted schooner Rebecca Palmer in 1901, one man fell 60 feet into the water. A laborer on another vessel perished after his coat was caught in a moving construction chain. Fingers were lost, limbs were squeezed, chests were crushed.
While three- and four-masted schooners were most common in coastal trade, five-masted schooners arguably represent the pinnacle of the era’s wooden shipbuilding, vessels of uncommon beauty and unusual efficiency. (Six-masted schooners were grander still, but as only 10 were ever built, they were something of a novelty.) According to Good, 52 five-masters were built in Maine between 1888 and 1920. The first was the Governor Ames, 245 feet long, built by a crew of 150 in Waldoboro and launched in the Medomak River. On its first voyage, the ship lost its 115-foot foremast in high wind and ran aground, raising questions about the seaworthiness of what, at the time, was the largest cargo vessel ever built. The Edna Hoyt would be some 40 feet longer still.
The Hoyt was the last of three five-masters built in Thomaston, named for the wife of one of its investors and built at a cost of $280,000, just as the period of schooner prosperity was nearing its end. The American schooner fleet had made a fortune carrying cargo to South America and Africa during World War I, but after the war, there were too many ships ferrying too little cargo at too slow a speed. The result was a shipping depression that deepened in the early 1920s. The Hoyt lost money in its early years because, as her last owner, Captain Harold G. Foss, once said, “She cost altogether too much.’’
Steam-powered ships had been replacing sailing vessels since the middle of the 19th century. While the U.S. Navy formally adopted steam in the 1890s, commercial vessels clung a bit longer to wind power — which, unlike coal to fire steam boilers, was free. But advances in steam-engine efficiency eventually won over the merchant marine. Steam-powered ships weren’t reliant on capricious winds and could more easily travel upriver — among the reasons that seasoned tars on steamships derided their rivals as “windjammers,” now a romantic term, then a derogatory barb.
But the Hoyt carried on like a maritime Paul Bunyan throughout the 1920s and the ’30s — increasingly a relic of a bygone era, holding its own against the technology replacing it. It eventually did turn a profit, carrying guano bound for Tampa, citrus for Eastern markets, pilings for an oil-company dock in Aruba, coal for Martinique. “She is sailed in the old traditional Yankee style of never tying up, but accepting any cargo for whatever port turns up,” a Boston Globe writer gushed in 1936. “The Edna Hoyt . . . does not come back from places; she keeps going.”
What’s more, the Edna Hoyt became a celebrity. As tall ships grew increasingly rare in the Atlantic’s busiest ports, they became objects of curiosity, nostalgia, and veneration. By the 1930s, the Hoyt was “queen of the waterfront wherever she came into port,” as Down East editor Isabel Currier wrote in this magazine in 1964. Anchored at the foot of New York’s Wall Street in 1934, she was besieged by 50,000 visitors in a week — so many, they broke the gangplank — some of them finance titans from the city’s brokerage firms, others from prominent Manhattan families, including Kermit Roosevelt, son of the 26th president.
The Hoyt helped cultivate a mystique around windjammers in the early 20th century, her admirers crowding docks to feel a bit of what Captain Parker called “the last anachronistic challenge of centuries of wooden shipbuilding against the inevitable technical advantages of steam and steel.” She was “much photographed,” according to naval writer William Armstrong Fairburn. Maine maritime historian Ingrid Grenon wrote that the Hoyt “could literally be followed in the headlines.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle declared, “City-Worn Youths Plead For Jobs on the Last of the 5-Masted Schooners.” The Boston Herald proclaimed, “Last of Once-Proud Fleet of Sailing Craft, Today Like Visitor From Mars.”
But by the mid-1930s, the Edna Hoyt had grown rickety — enough so that, during a voyage to South America in 1934, its captain warned a journalist on board, “It won’t take long if she starts to break up.’’
Then, in November 1937, the Hoyt set sail from Cardiff, Wales, with a crew of 11 and a load of coal bound for Venezuela. In the Bay of Biscay, the Hoyt came face-to-forecastle with a raging storm. In a logbook now archived at the Penobscot Marine Museum, the ship’s battle against wind and surf is rendered in perfect cursive penmanship that belies the struggle onboard. Day after day for a week, the logbook describes “strong wind and Heavy seas.” On November 17, it notes, the crew “made Life Boat Ready in case it had to leave vessel.” “Heavy swell setting in from the westward,” reads the log for November 22. And then, two days later, an even graver note: “Vessel just about holding on.”
In the late afternoon of the 22nd, the Hoyt sent a distress signal received by the Norwegian steamship San Miguel. Hours later, the steamer was towing the Hoyt into Lisbon, Portugal. The coda in the logbook reads like a breath of relief: “So ends the day.”
In Lisbon, the Hoyt was sold for $3,500, decommissioned, and converted into a coal hulk. She ended her days being towed in Portuguese waters. “Never more,” Grenon wrote, “would her long masts pierce the endless skies or her expansive, majestic bowsprit point the way to far-off lands.’’
The demise of the Hoyt left a single American five-masted schooner in operation, a West Coast windjammer called the Vigilant, which had been launched several months before the Hoyt and which later sailed under Canadian and Chilean flags before burning at sea in 1946. On the Atlantic, however, the hulking of the Hoyt marked the end of an era.
Today, the mystique that once drew crowds to ogle the Edna Hoyt lives on and is largely synonymous with Maine, where passenger windjammers (of the two- and three-masted variety) still ply the coast in tourist towns and the word schooner has become a sort of stand-in for the coastal Vacationland brand. Just ask the Carrabassett Coffee Company, whose Schooner Blend is a top seller, or the folks at Raye’s Mustard, in Eastport, purveyors of Down East Schooner Mustard. Or the balladeers of the popular folk group Schooner Fare, who’ve spent 45 years performing songs about setting “a course for parts unknown,” about watching the islands fade away and bidding farewell to Casco Bay.
“The name of our group is our way of acknowledging the maritime history and sailing vessels of Maine,’’ cofounder Chuck Romanoff acknowledges. “For us, the fare of the schooners captured our goal, which was to celebrate Down East tradition.”