The Marco Polo has been
honoured by commemorate medal and plates, two novels, a suite of music, a
National Film Board movie, above, and now a folk opera.
N.B.'s legend of the High Seas comes Home
And it's Liverpool in 15 days,
seas, her name we'll praise,
With the wind in her hair and her sails
She's the fastest ship in all the world,
And her name is
- Marco Polo Shanty, Jim Stewart
Those five lines,
although written only a decade ago, are steeped in 150 years of nautical
history that links New Brunswick and its ports to those as far flung as England
Countless ships the world over have been
built, sailed and lost over the centuries, but few have had the resonance and
the legends surrounding them as the Marco Polo, named for the great Venetian
This is the story of a ship that was mocked for
its odd design - she was once ridiculed for looking like a pregnant duck - only
to become the fastest ship in the world. Its ongoing legend is such that the
Saint John-built Marco Polo has resulted in commemorative stamps, coins,
historical novels, a National Film Board documentary, a popular suite of music
and an upcoming folk opera that will play in both New Brunswick and Russia.
New Brunswick's reputation as a builder of top quality
ships that combined strength, craftsmanship and speed was also built on the
success of the Marco Polo.
But the Marco Polo was not
always a story of great feats of speed. Like many legends, the beginnings were
much more humble. It's The Ugly Duckling meets The Little Engine That Could on
the high seas.
The story of the Marco Polo is all the
more remarkable because the world famous tall ship started out as a joke,
although its builder would hardly consider it such.
Because of its odd design and the acidents
surrounding its construction,
the Marco Polo was a subject of ridicule in
North America and British ports until
it started setting speed records. The
ship's builder, James Smith, below,
sold it before it proved its
One could hardly write about the
Marco Polo without first mentioning James Smith, the Irishman who built the
famous sailing vessel in 1851.
Smith arrived in New
Brunswick around 1819, sailing from Ireland where an uncle had raised him after
his parents died. He first worked in the woods in the Grand Falls area but
within a year he was toiling in the shipyards of Saint John. By the time he was
33, Smith was building his own ships, reportedly the first man to do so in the
Courtenay Bay area.
Despite his many successes and the
fact he was once a prosperous businessman, Smith died almost penniless in
Woodstock some time after 1861. He had suffered a number of fires and sinkings
that bankrupted the underinsured shipbuilder. Although a sad tale, it seems
somehow an oddly fitting end for a man whose most famous sailing vessel was
once known as "James Smith's Folly." For that's what she was called around the
docks of Saint John's once bustling port.
But one man's
folly is another man's treasure. Saint John High School history teacher Barry
Ogden has been working for the last 17 years, trying to get a full-scale
replica of the famed ship built. It's an idea that has been kicking around for
decades, and Ogden has been its most vocal advocate.
this day he is convinced it can be done if all the right parties come together.
He can picture a rebuilt. Marco Polo drawing visitors to New Brunswick from all
over the world, fuelling waterfront development, bringing in bags of tourism
dollars and a sense of pride of place that he says has long been missing from
this part of the world. Ogden's eternal optimism, you see, is tempered with a
sense of regret.
He is troubled that this country and
this province's talent have been draining away for generations.
"The story is enduring. It's like the story of Canada,"
Ogden says. "The Marco Polo had to go away to get good. It's like the rock
stars that have to go away to get famous. Canadians have to say they are big
somewhere else. Nobody believed in it at first."
tamarack, pine, oak and birch, the ship held the unusual features of a clipper,
along with the amidships of a cargo carrier. As if that wasn't reason enough
for ridicule in its day, the Marco Polo became known as Smith's folly because
of the dark cloud that seemed to hang over her construction. A first attempt at
building her was dashed to bits during a gale that snapped her wooden skeleton
into a mass of oversized kindling. But Smith persevered and built her stronger,
starting in the fall of 1850 and working through the winter, determined to
launch her during the high tides of spring.
eager to build the hulking ship, spurred on by rival shipbuilders William and
Richard Wright, whose shipyard lay right beside Smith's, not far from Saint
John's bustling centre. The shipyard lay behind the site of where Downey Ford
stands today at Hanover and Crown Streets. Around 1850, the Wrights were busy
laying down the 182-foot keel of the Beejapore, reportedly the largest vessel
ever built in Saint John harbour.
Smith, residents were
soon to discover, was planning his own behemoth, boasting 184 feet of keel and
weighing 1,625 tons. Her masts flew 22,000 square feet of sail.
these impressive measurements, the Marco Polo's launch didn't do anything to
inspire confidence in the jeering skeptics who haunted the Port City docks. The
first attempt took place on April 17, 1851, when she rattled down the launch
way at Marsh Creek and promptly sluiced to the far side of the creek where she
became bogged down in the muck at its bottom. When the tide ran out, she fell
over with a groan, resting on her side for two weeks. Much to the consternation
of Smith, she suffered some damage during her rest. The pressure of her mighty
weight bent the keel so that it was six inches higher in the middle than at the
Although this version of events has been widely
reported for more than a century in magazine and newspaper reports, Ogden
doesn't buy the story, as wonderfully compelling as it
"I doubt it got stuck for two weeks. I think the
builder would have got her out faster than that," he says.
The ship was designed for hauling timber, and Smith hoped
to sell the ship to buyers in England. But by the time she arrived there under
the direction of Captain William Thomas of Saint John in an impressive 15 days,
her reputation had already preceded her. And it wasn't good, despite the speedy
The Marco Polo was met with scowls and
laughter across the ocean too, partly because of the overseas reputation that
New Brunswick-built ships were of poor quality. The English ship line owners
were also derisive of this odd looking, threedecked timber drogher that was
said to be made from materials left over from other ships built in the Smith
shipyard. Above the waterline she was a bulky cargo carrier but below she had
the tapered yacht-like hull of a clipper.
already made the rounds about her twisted, or hogged, keel and the botched
launching that resulted in the odd feature. Because of her unorthodox design
and hulking stature, Marco Polo was also widely considered one of the ugliest
ships that had ever been built in the colonies.
Telegraph-Joumal file Jeff
Lisson and Gerald Ford helped
construct this model of the Marco Polo for
their Coast Guard
float in June, 1990. Jeff Lisson did the carpentry and
Gerald Ford did the rigging.
When the Marco Polo
failed to sell after weeks at port in Liverpool, she was loaded with cargo and
sent to Mobile, Ala., where she picked up a load of cotton and returned to the
Wanting to unload the ship that was rapidly
turning into an albatross, Smith sold the ship to Irish ragman Paddy Magee at a
price that satisfied both men. Magee then used his oratorical gifts to convince
James Baines' Black Ball Line that the boxy monster could be a top-notch luxury
ship used to carry emigrants to the far side of the world.
Magee made the sale, convincing Baines of Liverpool that
the ship would be a fine carrier for the growing passenger trade to Australia
that was spurred on by that country's recent gold rush. This, despite the
growing popularity of steam ships, which eventually would lead to the downfall
of the wooden ship industry.
A Ithough not a comely ship,
the Marco Polo was transformed from ugly duckling to magnificent swan following
an extraordinary makeover. When she was refitted a year after her launch, as a
passenger ship, Black Ball Line kitted her out with maple paneling, stained
glass doors, plush red carpeting and crimson velvet upholstery. It was a far
cry from the day she was built as a timber drogher, when the only ornamentation
were two carved figures depicting her namesake. One carving depicted Marco Polo
in European dress, the other in Asian dress, the latter of which is on display
at the New Brunswick Museum.
During the next 15 years she
hauled up to 900 passengers a voyage, plus 30 crew members and a veritable
barnyard full of animals that kept the first-class passengers well sated. There
was a cow to provide milk, 30 sheep, as many pigs and nearly 400 chickens and
rabbits for fresh meat.
The ship doctor was equipped with
a well-equipped floating hospital, and also set up as a photographer to record
passengers' faces. A ship's band and a newspaper press also ensured that its
comfort-loving passengers could have all the amenities of home.
Despite the relative comfort, there were, deaths: 52
children succumbed to measles on its first England to Australia voyage alone.
And despite the civilized comforts that a printing press and orchestra brought,
there were shenanigans onboard that wouldn't be out of place in the back alleys
of Liverpool or on Saint John's rough and ready docks. Boredom brought on by
five months on a ship meant that drinking, brawling, card games and dog fights
were not uncommon occurrences.
Captain James Nicol
Forbes, a feisty Scot, kept crew and passengers in line by lashing
troublemakers to the mast, clapping them in irons, or threatening to throw them
overboard - ladies included.
"It's not like going on a
cruise liner today, going down to the movie theatre or down to the casino,"
says Jim Stewart, composer of the Marco Polo Suite and the upcoming Marco Polo
The ship and passengers were also broiled by the
sun of the southern hemisphere and hammered by storms of rain and sleet. On
that first historic world voyage, "Bully" Forbes, an irascible veteran of the
seven seas from Aberdeen, knew he had to live up to his boasts that he could
sail from England to Australia in less than six months. This was scoffed at as
a preposterous bit of fantasy.
Forbes earned his
formidable nickname, Bully, by driving his crew and his ships mercilessly. In
fact, when passengers and crew begged him to slacken the pace during a
particularly fierce gale during its first run to Australia, Forbes bellowed,
"To hell or Melbourne."
Upon reaching that latter
destination in a record 68 days, Bully Forbes hatched a plan to ensure he
wouldn't lose his crew to the gold fields glistening nearby. He trumped up
charges of mutiny upon arrival and had the lot of them carted off to the local
jail. When the Marco Polo set sail for the return trip to England, Captain
Forbes knew where to find his men.
Upon its return to
England, astonished Liverpudlians turned out by the thousands to hail the ship
that flew a mighty banner between its masts boldly declaring the Marco Polo
"The Fastest Ship in the World." It was, indeed, the fastest ship, having made
the trip in just five months, 21 days. This had smashed all previous records,
having made the journey in less than six months.
speed, it has often been said, was attributed to the hog in her keel. But Ogden
isn't buying that bit of legend, either. "The bent keel making her fast, I
think that was a myth. I think it's just that she was so well built."
Bathurst residents can also lay claim to a local
connection to the Marco Polo. Sam Napier, who grew up there, served as a
crewman on the Marco Polo before he and his brother, Charles, made a
spectacular discovery in Australia's gold fields. The Napiers found a 145-pound
gold nugget, which Sam struck with his pick, first thinking it a rock. After
they sold their huge find to the Bank of England, Charles returned to Australia
and Sam settled in Bathurst and built a mansion, becoming an MLA for the county
of Gloucester in 1870. Napier fell on hard times soon after his one term in
office. He died in 1902 at age 65 in the Ottawa Valley.
Around the same time the Marco Polo was also winding
down. By the time Confederation made Canada a country in 1867, the ship's glory
days as a passenger carrier were nearly done. It has been said that the Marco
Polo was afloat before Confederation and sank not long after. Some New
Brunswickers have said the same thing about the province.
By 1870, the Marco Polo was reduced to general cargo
duty, hauling timber, coal and guano. In 1880 she was condemned and sold to a
Norwegian company that used the Marco Polo to haul timber from Quebec to
On July 25, 1883, she was caught in a
storm off Cavendish, P.E.I. In order to save the crew and cargo, Captain Bull,
a Norwegian, ordered the tired, battered and badly leaking ship beached,
crashing into the sandy sea bottom at full sail, looking like a great, winged
The Marco Polo still lies off the coast of
Cavendish in just 30 feet of water. Bits of the ship have been salvaged over
the years, some of which are on display at the New Brunswick Museum. There is a
brass telescope, an eight-foot, 45-ton cast-iron anchor, two portals, an
ornamental carving and a perfectly preserved dinner bell.
NBM curator of history and technology Gary Hughes doesn't
believe all the legends surrounding the famous clipper, but said Bully Forbes'
feats and the ship's ability to generate publicity is a good combination.
"That's how legends get started."
The Marco Polo's wreckage even helped launch the career
of Prince Edward Island's most famous daughter, Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator
of Anne of Green Gables. As a 9-year-old girl, Montgomery witnessed the
beaching and sinking of the famous ship. Fascinated by its story, she wrote The
Wreck of the Marco Polo. She entered her account of the shipwreck in a literary
competition mounted by the Montreal Witness newspaper, winning first prize.
The Marco Polo has also figured heavily in Rothesay
composer Jim Stewart's career. He started writing the music for The Marco Polo
Suite more than a decade ago when his popular folk band, Hal an Tow, was
performing at Saint John's Festival By the Sea. With the band representing New
Brunswick, Stewart wanted to write a song that reflected the province.
What he came up with is The Marco Polo Shanty
(quoted above). At the same time he was writing a song called We Built This
Old Ship about the passing of the golden age of sail. Saint John, after
all, once boasted the fourth-largest registered tonnage of all British Empire
When the festival ended, Stewart' got a call from
Marco Polo booster Barry Ogden, who told him about the movement to get the
great ship rebuilt. Ogden wanted to use The Marco Polo Shanty in
presentations he was doing in trying to drum up support for the project.
Stewart, meanwhile, was intrigued by the idea of writing
a suite of music about the famous sailing vessel.
just fell into place. I was looking to do something above and beyond the pieces
I had already written, something that was quite thematic and big. I wanted to
do something to exercise my grey matter, because it's something I wanted to do
for a long time: write music that is all based on the same
Stewart had only a passing knowledge of the Marco
Polo, having grown up in New Brunswick.
But as he read
its story he found, "The more I got into it the more drama I found. It's really
not long ago. In those days, those tall ships delivered the mail, took people
from England to Australia. When you said goodbye to your family, chances are
you would never see them again."
Stewart long ago moved
on to other projects, having released The Marco Polo Suite on cassette
in 1992 and then CD a few years later. But the Marco Polo kept coming back to
haunt him. Over the years it has received a lot of air time on CBC radio,
particularly on the long-running Max Ferguson
More than 500 letters and countless emails from
fans coast to coast and as far away as Australia have stuffed Stewart's
mailbox. Stewart says wooden ships carry a fascination and a mystique with them
that is palpable. He recalls being invited to Halifax in 2000 with Hal an Tow
for the tall ships festival.
"To see the waterfront lined
with people fascinated with the tall ships was amazing. To watch tall ships in
the harbour, you break out in goosebumps. You relate to it on some emotional
Opera New Brunswick is hoping to create some
goosebumps of its own. It approached Stewart in the spring of 2001 to turn his
suite into a full-fledged folk opera. Stewart has been busy fleshing out the
12-tune folk music suite into a two-act opera, adding two vocal compositions
and two instrumentals.
"One of the songs establishes the
continuity between the past and present. And one from the perspective of a
young girl who is leaving England and her grandparents and there is a chance
she will never see them again. It's pretty powerful stuff."
With towering sets, audio-visual effects, 20 singers and
musicians, including Stewart and the acclaimed Saint John String Quartet, it's
a large undertaking that will cost almost $100,000 to mount at the Imperial
Theatre later this month. Its glitzy three-day run takes place from Sept.
Award-winning actor R. H. Thomson is being brought
in from Toronto to narrate the opera's world premiere performances. Stewart is
resigned to the fact that he may always be known as the composer of the Marco
Polo. He's proud of the work but he knows he has done so much more over his
three-decade music career.
"I don't mind, as long as I'm
known for something."
Eileen Travis, the past president
of Opera New Brunswick, is also a Marco Polo fan and aficionado. This feisty
woman, after all, has dedicated most of her life - to books as the long-time
(but now retired) chief librarian at the Saint John Free Public
Travis knows her history, and it must rankle
locals that Nova Scotia's Bluenose schooner, featured for decades on the back
of the dime, is more famous than the Marco Polo. The Bluenose's long-time place
on Canadian currency and the fact its replica, the Bluenose II in Lunenburg, N.
S.'s harbour, are physical reminders of its storied past. Without people like
Mr. Ogden and Mrs. Travis, the Marco Polo may have been forgotten.
"It has a greater history than the Bluenose. The Marco
Polo was capable of carrying cargo and families. It's a fascinating, remarkable
story," Travis said, stressing the two adjectives.
also wants to make it clear that the Marco Polo is a folk opera, not a
musical, nor a classical opera. The "folk" is as in folk music and it gets its
opera status because of its scale and because "it is relating an actual
Although the Marco Polo is known in New
Brunswick and is still in the school curriculum, it isn't well recognized
outside of our provincial borders.
But if size matters, a
rebuilt Marco Polo would certainly dwarf the relatively puny Nova Scotia
schooner, the Bluenose II.
The top of the Marco Polo
would stand even taller than the 11-story Hilton Hotel that sits at the edge of
Saint John's harbour today.
Historian Flora Kidd has
written two historical novels based on the Marco Polo: To Hell or
Melbourne and Until We Meet Again. She penned the former when she
was approached by Ogden, who wanted to boost the profile of the Marco Polo
"I felt I was obliged to write something. It
wasn't as easy as I thought. I decided to write a simple story about a young
man going to sea and wanting to be a captain."
adventure novel was followed up by the more romantic tale Until We Meet
Again. Both are published by DreamCatcher Publishing.
Before writing the books, the Saint John writer read up
on the Marco Polo's history and found what interested her most was what
"I think that part was the most important
part, the characters involved and all the problems it had."
After the Marco Polo left Saint John, she became a ship
of the world, identified, more with Liverpool and Australia more"' than the
place of her birth. And in a way, Saint John, Melbourne and Liverpool each can
lay claim to the famous ship.
There is an interest in
Melbourne even today.
"I got a letter from the mayor of
Melbourne, asking me to send copies of both books. I am waiting to hear back
from him. I hope they arrived," Kidd said.
the high school teacher, still dreams of his re-built Marco Polo, although
those dreams have been scaled back. In the late 1980s there was a huge push to
build a replica sea-going ship, along with a marine museum, historic waterfront
village and permanent dock. That idea has been scaled back to a
permanently-docked ship, minus the extra trappings.
biggest thing that holds us back in Saint John is politically, we're not all
pulling together. People get their egos involved or their own agendas. We have
not got our act together politically. Hopefully the waterfront development will
help pull us together," Ogden says.
The Marco Polo fan
and believer wants to help put his beloved city back on track, which is why he
has spent dozens of hours volunteers and why he has put out tens of thousands
of dollars of his own money into the Marco Polo Project.
As a teacher he is
driven to create opportunities for young people and to fill them with self
worth. He wants to do the same for his city and province.
and Saint Johners don't have the pride they should. In order to have pride you
have to change the culture."
Ogden is hoping to build that bridge from the
past into the future and pave it with the legend of the Marco Polo.
words of the 19th-century Liverpool preacher, Rev. James Buck's sermons still
ring true today: "Some ships, like men, seem as though they would not and could
not be forgotten. The public is never allowed to forget either their names or
their deeds. Such a ship is the Marco Polo.
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