Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick

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

By Grant Karr

And it's Liverpool in 15 days,
The seven seas, her name we'll praise,
With the wind in her hair and her sails unfurled,
She's the fastest ship in all the world,
And her name is Marco Polo.

- 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 and Australia.
   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 explorer.
    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 worth.

James Smith builder of the Marco Polo   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.
   To 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."
   Built of 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.
   Smith was 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.
Barry Ogden from the Marco Polo Project   Despite 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 end.
   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 is.
    "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 seafaring feat.
   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.
   Stories had 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.

Coast Guard built model of the Marco Polo
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 English port.
   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 opera.
   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.
   Her 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 London, England.
    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 bird.
   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 ports.
   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.
   "It 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 theme."
    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 Show.
    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 level."
   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. 27-29.
   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 Library.
    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.
   She 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 history."
   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 Project.
   "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."
   That 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 happened here.
    "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.
   Barry Ogden, 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.
    "The 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.
"New Brunswickers 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.
The 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.