Mark’s Whaling Heritage

Some of Mark’s ancestors were well known ship builders in the golden age of whaling. One of them was Joseph Holmes (1771-1863) was an active ship builder and shipowner for 62 years. His first shipyard was located near Taunton, Massachusetts. His Bridgewater-built vessels had to reach the ocean – some 40 miles away- by means of the Taunton River and Narragansett Bay. In 1801, Joseph Holmes built at Bridgewater for his own account the brig TWO POLLYS, followed the next year by the brig ALGOL and later, by the brig TRIDENT and the schooner ALEXANDER. Joseph Holmes built his first vessel at Kingston, the ship LUCY, in 1806. From 1806 to 1837, Holmes was the registered builder of 42 vessels (and he most probably built several of the craft of which the builder is unidentified.). From 1838 to 1863, he built alone, and later with Edward Holmes, his talented son, as master carpenter. During this period, Joseph Holmes was the registered builder of 24 vessels, and from 1864 to 1874 (the end of the shipbuilding operations at Kingston), Edward Holmes ran the yard himself, building 8 vessels, 7 of which were for his own account. Of 215 vessels built at Kingston and 270 – all told – built at and owned in Kingston, Massachusetts, from 1776 to 1898 inclusive, members of the Holmes family owned 101, wholly or in part.

Joseph Holmes, a former minister who graduated from the College of Rhode Island (later called Brown University) did not build “Down Easters” but he and his son Edward did design and construct full-bodied and good cargo-carrying vessels that were unusually seaworthy and reliable sailers under severe conditions of wind and sea. They were modeled more like the fuller-bodied trans-Atlantic packets, and such craft, incidentally, made splendid whalers as well as general traders, for they had the ability to keep the seas. Like many of the relatively bluntbowed sailing packets in the North Atlantic “shuttle,” the Holmes ships, whereas no designed for speed, made fair average passages, and most of them were credited with occasional very good runs. They had full bows and heavy quarters and sterns, and it was said that “when afloat, one end looked about as full as the other.” The Holmes ships were consistent, regular money-makers; they enjoyed no phenomenal years, as did the California Gold Rush clippers, but they paid steadily year after year a very good return on their investment and throughout the days of wood sail were very profitable to their owners.

The Holmes, however, proved that they could build very seaworthy vessels with a good turn of speed. It is said that their trans-Atlantic Mediterranean “fruit ships” (the Barks ANN & MARY, FRUITER, ABBY, SICILIAN, NEAPOLITAN, FRUITERER, and the Brig BIRD OF THE WAVE- built from 1849 to 1857) were “very fast, and it is probable that their model has never been improved on.” In model lines, carrying capacity, and spread of canvas, these vessels resembled somewhat the very much larger Down Easters built in the 1870’s and early 1880’s in Bath, Maine.

It is said that at mid-century Joseph Holmes “was one of the largest individual shipowners in the United States,” and again, “He was a wealthy man, and all his money had been made in the operations of ships, of which he owned about a hundred.” He got in the habit early of taking risks in the operation of his vessels, and as their numbers increased, he decided to insure the ships himself, “take all risk, and pay no premiums to others.” He kept his vessels in excellent physical condition, by insisted on making all possible repairs and reconditioning at his own (Kingston) yard. His letters to shipmasters read: “In case of accident, always remember you vessel is not insured and expend nothing but what is necessary to make your vessel seaworthy.”

Joseph Holmes engaged principally in trade with the West Indies and in this, the trans-Atlantic, Mediterranean, and later the Cape Horn service, lost very few vessels at sea or when making port. Holmes kept his fleet together and built or had each vessel built exactly to the type desired and in full harmony with his ideas; he operated them personally and made a lot of money “steadily and with amazing regularity throughout the years.” He died in 1863, “a rich and highly respected man.” His son Edward sold many of the Holmes ships during the Civil War (at the time that so many American ships were being “sold foreign”), and gradually the Holmes fleet, built up and operated so profitably by Joseph, was dispersed following his death.


(Extracted from: Fairburn, William Armstron, MERCHANT SAIL (6 v.) Fairburn Marine Educational Foundation, Center Lovell, Maine, 1945-1955, Vol. V, p 2881-1883.)