The Accident that made an
article is part of a series prepared by New Brunswick broadcaster and writer
David Folster and is provided by the New Brunswick Bicentennial
When the sailing vessel Marco Polo was
launched at Marsh Creek, on the east side of Saint John, on an April day in
1851, nobody expected anything special. After all. the ship was just another
timber carrier, one of hundreds then being built on the New Brunswick coast.
But instead of stopping dead in the water after she'd
cleared the launchways the Marco Polo plowed across the creek and into the mud
on the opposite bank. It was two weeks before she could be refloated.
Years later, when she'd become known as 'the fastest
ship in the world," old salts attributed the Polo's great speed to that
launchday accident. It had put a permanent "hog" or warp in her hull. Talk
about your twists of fate. This one was instrumental in turning Saint John into
one of the great shipbuilding capitals of the world at the middle of the last
In the early days, Maritime-built ships had
suffered a terrible reputation. They were "hard-scribble packets," as Frederick
William Wallace called them, turned out to make a quick buck for
In a typical arrangement for construction of
one of these ships, all the people who supplied materials sail-maker,
ship-chandler, block-maker and sometimes even the laborers would take shares in
the vessel. Then, when she was sold, they would recoup their investment, along
with a tidy profit.
Since the whole idea was to make
money, these ships were built and sold with great expediency and little grace.
The result was predictable. "It is not possible for us to describe to you the
Prejudice that exists against a New Brunswick-built ship," declared the London
firm of Bainbridge and Brown in 1828.
But there was also
good and reputable shipwrights in the province, among them the Olive and Troop
families and the Wright brothers, William and Richard, who in 1854 would launch
the White Star, " one of the finest and fastest ships built in British North
America." And there was also James Smith.
The son of an
Irish family, Smith had set out with his cousin for Philadelphia in 1819.
Somehow they landed instead in Saint John. The cousin died, but James worked in
the shipyards and became a carpenter.
The year he was
admitted freeman of Saint John, 1836, Smith launched his first vessel, a small
barque called the Ocean Queen. Others followed. And then, in 1850, he laid the
keel for the Marco Polo.
Smith had no pretensions about
the Polo. Though his largest ship to date, she was originally slated for
nothing more exotic than the timber trade. But at the dock in Liverpool she was
spotted by the owner of the Black Ball shipping line, and he bought her for the
run to Australia.
He refitted the ship to carry
passengers and picked as her captain James Nicol Forbes, a man with the
appropriate nickname "Bully."
Forbes bragged that he
would take the Polo to Australia and back in six months. Everybody laughed. But
Billy wasn't kidding, as an incident on the turn-around in Australia clearly
In those days it was common practice for a crew
arriving Down Under to desert ship and head for the goldfields. To avert that
possibility with his crew, Bully had them put in jail as soon as he got to
Melbourne. Then, when he was ready for the return trip to England, he withdrew
his charges and had the men returned to the ship.
stern measures like this, Forbes achieved his record round-trip, sailing back
into Liverpool five months and 21 days after he'd left. The Black Ball Line
gave a dinner for him and proclaimed the Marco Polo "the fastest ship in the
The voyage wasn't a total triumph though, 52
passengers had died an route to Australia, victims of overcrowding, disease and
shoddy construction in the refitting.
But these weren't
things that could be blamed one shipbuilders back in Saint John. The Marco Polo
got world-wide attention. Orders poured into shipyards all over New Brunswick
on the Miramichi, in Richibucto, Cocagne, Sackville, St. Stephens and
St. Martins. In 1854 alone 40 ships were launched in the province.
As late as 1871 Saint John was fourth in the entire
British Empire for the number of ships based there. But the age of wooden ships
ended quickly. A mere 14 years later the last N.B. built one was launched at
The Marco Polo met her end off Prince Edward
Island in 1883. As for James Smith, he and his son built 37 ships in all. But
they suffered a series of financial setbacks, including a devastating fire in
In later years Smith became interested in an
ironworks near Woodstock. But the iron was poor quality, and the venture
foundered. And when Smith died sometime in the 1870's scarcely anybody took
The article below was published in the Kings
County Record, Wednesday, March 14/84
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