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Original Marco Polo had Iron Masts

    Please find enclosed part of a document that was sent to me by the federal government concerning the wreck of the Marco Polo at Cavendish National Park, Cavendish, PEI. Readers will be interested to know that the Marco Polo had iron masts, iron knees and a copper bottom.

Barry Ogden,
President Marco Polo Project,
Saint John, N.B.

    The story has not been told by a replica of what was once the world's fastest ship. That's because in 12 years of planning a new Marco Polo, Barry Ogden and the volunteer Marco Polo Group Inc. have come up with proposals that were appealing and affordable, but never both.

    The Marco Polo was a strong and durable ship for its time, but by 1883 the vessel was in its dotage, stripped of its fine accommodations, hauling lumber from Quebec to England. A summer storm in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was too much for the leaking hull and the skipper was forced to drive the ship aground with all sails set off Cavendish Beach, PEI.

    The stirring sight of the ship's grounding, its salvage by the local Islanders and dramatic breakup in a subsequent storm, inspired a young Lucy Maude Montgomery (of Green Gables fame, of course) to write an essay that was to be her first published work. Thus, (start waving your flags here) we can say that the demise of a great Canadian ship helped launch the career of a great Canadian author.

    Salvage activities undertaken by Prince Edward Islanders, which began before the initial storm had completely subsided, were prodigious. Not only was the entire cargo of deal successfully recovered (requiring 26 schooners to off-load) but many components of the ship itself were also retrieved.

    Many "pieces of the Marco Polo", alleged as well as legitimate, are scattered throughout the Maritimes in private homes and businesses, and sometimes even in museums. Here is the ship's nameplate in a Prince Edward Island restaurant. Other items include the captain's table, more anchors than the ship carried and decorative elements from the ship's transom. A carved elephant, for instance, is apparently now displayed in the summer home of a former island premier.

   Yet a surprising amount of the hull survives, apparently owing its preservation to shifting sands which must have recovered the site for much of the last century. A sketch of the site resulted from three days of mapping by four diving archaeologists with Parks Canada.

    The ship's backbone with ballast atop stands over two metres proud of the seabed, with the scantlings of keelson, sister keelsons and rider keelsons clearly discernible.

    Notable is the unusual iron mast, two sections of which survive near the northern (offshore) end of the wreck.

    A mound of concreted anchor chain marks the bow. To the west, the ship's topsides have survived remarkably well with knees and clamps marking the ends of two decks (exactly eight feet apart).

    A more detailed survey of partial excavation of these extensive hull remains would certainly reveal a lot about Maritime shipbuilding techniques in the 1850s. This was a time of great innovation in the industry.

    This site has sufficient remains to allow some reconstruction of the Marco Polo's specific lines, but more importantly will reveal construction techniques employed by Maritime builders in the 1850s. Due to the secrecy engendered by a competitive industry coupled with the lack of a strong written tradition among builders of the time, much less of this kind of information has survived in the written record than the casual observer might suppose.

    The 1,625-ton ship had a full complement of over 1,000 people when carrying passengers. In other words, to switch to a modern aviation analogy, the Marco Polo was a 747, with all its relative carrying capacity, but one which flew faster than the rival Concords of this time.

The articles below were taken from the "Letters to the Editor" section in the Times Globe Newspaper, Monday, June 14/99

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