Historical lectures recount the days when schooners were kings of commerce

A painting of the Lavinia Campbell, a three masted schooner captained by Charles Franklin of Orient.

In the days of wind-borne shipping, the waters surrounding Orient played host to scores of schooners en route throughout the northeast laden with coal and commodities.

The Oysterponds Historical Society is sponsoring two lectures at Peconic Landing in Greenport over the next two Saturdays on the history of the ships whose owners and captains lived in Orient more than a century ago.

Orient resident Ret Millis, a member of OHS and a former field reporter and producer for NBC News, will recount the voyages of the three-masted schooner Lavinia Campbell. Mr. Millis became interested in the ship after seeing a painting of it in the historical society’s collection.

“I think it’s by far the finest of our marine paintings,” he said of the moody painting depicting the ship with all sails reefed as it fights off a gale. “It’s unbelievable that such a beautiful thing turned out to be a coal carrier.”

While researching the ship’s history Mr. Millis discovered that he lives in the Orient house that once belonged to the Lavinia Campbell’s first captain, Charles N. Franklin.

Mr. Franklin ran the ship for Cicero King, a notable Orient businessman who had the 197-foot-long Lavinia Campbell built in Kennebunkport, Maine in 1883.

“She was a three-masted schooner and a good-looking one,” said Mr. Millis. “She was fast and apparently Franklin was a bit of a driver. He could really push her.”

He added that captains at the time were paid with a percentage of the cargo, leading them to drive their ships hard.

The Lavinia Campbell, which Mr. Millis says was likely berthed in Greenport, also had the distinction of having more accidents than most other vessels.

Not long after she was launched, she ran aground off Block Island on a dark night. Later, when anchored outside of Baltimore with a load of coal, she was rammed by a British steamer and began to sink. Refloated and repaired in Baltimore, the ship completed its voyage and delivered the coal several months late, said Mr. Millis.

He’ll reveal her ultimate — and harrowing — fate at his lecture, “Schooner Rigged and Rakish: The Story of Orient’s Lavinia Campbell” at 4 p.m. on April 2 in the Peconic Landing auditorium.

Clyde Mellinger, who will give the lecture “A Schooner in the Offing” this Saturday, March 26, at 4 p.m. in the same location, married into Orient’s schooner history.

His wife, Roxanna Mellinger, is descended from a long line of Potters of Orient who were involved in shipping under sail.
She’s the granddaughter of Captain William Harper Potter of Orient of the Louise B. Crary, which sank after a collision off the Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts in 1902. Captain Potter was one of 10 of the 21 crew members who survived.

Mr. Mellinger has lectured extensively on the wreck of the Crary. Saturday’s talk will focus on her sister ships, many of which were piloted by members of his wife’s family over the course of more than a century.

“I’ll be filling in the areas which have not really been covered that much by the historical society, the four, five and six masted schooners. They’re the big boys,” he said.

Mr. Mellinger said that the Orient wharf likely could not accommodate ships bigger than three-masted schooners. Larger vessels would have been berthed in Greenport while their captains were home with their families in Orient.

He takes the title of his lecture from the poem “The Sea Gypsy” by Richard Hovey: “There’s a schooner in the offing, with her topsail shot with fire/My heart has gone aboard her for the islands of desire.”

“That’s rather romantic,” Mr. Mellinger said. “These guys were merchants. I’m sure they’d like to dream they were on a yacht, but they were mostly businessmen.”

Mr. Mellinger documented the rise of the big ships in the early 1880s, when merchants realized that three-masted schooners weren’t big enough to transport coal up and down the coastline.

“It was around the kitchen tables in these houses around here that they planned these things and started raising money for building these ships,” said Mr. Mellinger. “Then they became owners and captains.”

One five-masted schooner built at that time and often seen off the coast of Orient was the Jennie French Potter, whose captain, Joseph R. Potter, named the ship after his brother’s wife, since his brother helped to finance her construction.

“She was launched in 1899. She was 257 feet long and weighed almost 2,000 tons,” said Mr. Mellinger. “She carried coal, mainly. They needed bituminous coal in New England so they would run from the rail heads all along the coast.”

The Jennie French Potter’s role was typical of big schooners of that era, which provided the north-south counterpart to east-to-west shipping routes along the nation’s railroad lines.

Large schooners carried everything from pickled pork and seed potatoes to street sweepings full of horse droppings used as fertilizer. They even picked up guano, birds’ and bats’ droppings, from islands off the coast of Peru and carried munitions during the Spanish-American War and World War I.

“If you think of the three-masters as the tandem trucks of the area, the five-masters were container ships or supertankers,” said Mr. Mellinger. “They weren’t quite as romantic, but they were far more contributory to the wealth and prosperity of the nation.”

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Schooner lectures

• Saturday, March 26, 4 p.m.: ‘A Schooner in the Offing’ by Clyde Mellinger
• Saturday, April 2, 4 p.m.: ‘Schooner Rigged and Rakish: The Story of Orient’s Lavinia Campbell’ by Ret Millis

Presented by Oysterponds Historical Society at Peconic Landing auditorium, 1500 Brecknock Road, Greenport. Free. 323-2480, oysterpondshistoricalsociety.org.