Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick

Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick

The Accident that made an Industry

    The following article is part of a series prepared by New Brunswick broadcaster and writer David Folster and is provided by the New Brunswick Bicentennial Commission.
   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 century.
    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 investors.
   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 revealed.
    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.
    With 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 world."
    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 Black River.
   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 1855.
    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 notice.
The article below was published in the Kings County Record, Wednesday, March 14/84