One humid May morning in 1989, as I was walking along our cliff at Osborn Cove, I was taken aback by the progress of an immense three-masted ram schooner moving slowly upstream.
The ship, Domino Effect, was more than 127 feet long and rated 208 gross tons; her masts rose more than 80 feet high. I’d never seen anything like her in on St. Leonard Creek, a principal tidal tributary of the Patuxent River.
She proceeded up the creek, past the valley where cattle came to graze saltmarsh hay and wade. (This was before the Bay Program persuaded owners to keep cattle out of natural watercourses.) It was a fine sight right out of the 19th century.
I later sailed my ketch Galadriel to where the schooner had moored and was invited aboard by her engineer and second mate, Alex Markoff, who hailed from the German Baltic.
He explained that the Domino Effect, owned by pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, was used as part of an incentive program for his employees. Previously, the ship—dubbed Edwin and Maud when built in 1900 at Bethel, DE, on the Nanticoke River—had carried cargo.
Markoff offered a tour of the ship. The hold, once a cavernous box to accommodate bulk cargo in her early years, was now partitioned port and starboard with small cabins for passengers, each one with a porthole.
A major structural backbone member of the ship—a keelson made of Georgia pine—lay atop the oak keel. The keelson, while old and punky in its 89th year, was about a foot square and was supported aft on each side by two 30-40 feet timbers, which added rigidity so that the ship’s stern resisted the sagging.
The Domino Effect’s huge, pivoted centerboard was raised and lowered in a wooden case through a slot in the planking that was offset from the keelson, so as not to weaken it. The mainmast was 21 inches in diameter where it came through the deck and required the harvest of a 100-foot tree to obtain the required dimension and strength.
The original timbered hatch frames were deeply scarred where they had been struck by cargo, which included ore, fertilizer and even watermelons during the ship’s more than four decades of commerce in Chesapeake and along the coast to the Carolinas.
The bulk of hard physical labor—hoisting sails, moving spars, raising its two anchors—was handled by a gasoline donkey engine circa 1910. Winch-like devices turned by this engine handled the chains, ropes and lines, making it possible for a crew of eight to handle a ship of 200 tons. The roughly 7,600 square feet of sail were also less demanding because there were usually no topmasts and topsails above the massive single-spar lower masts. Occasionally, in times of barely break-even cargo, the schooner’s skeleton crew consisted of just a man and a boy.
Ram schooners were an evolutionary sideline, a branch off the long line of schooners in Chesapeake history: the fast slavers, the Baltimore clippers, the big coasters that ranged from New England to the Caribbean, and the sleek pleasure yachts and racers.
They were partly patterned on the schooner-rigged craft that served Reading Railroad interests on the Schuykill River canals. Vessels of this type were used to carry low-value bulk cargo when a timely delivery was not critical. Early on, the rail lines found these items impeded the flow of more valuable cargo by occupying scarce space when shipped by rail. The canal boats were a temporary expedient, though, and as rail capacity and speed increased, it was not long before the railroads themselves wanted this cargo. In an odd turnabout, the boats were then viewed as unwelcome competition.
The first recognized ram, J. Dallas Marvel, was built by J.M.C. Moore on Broad Creek, downstream from Sharptown, MD. Last summer, my colleagues and I found the remains of a ram schooner on the left bank of the Nanticoke. Its size became apparent as we nosed around the ruined frames and and walked around what was once the cargo hold.
About 29 of these vessels were built at on the Nanticoke at Bethel and Sharptown. Ram schooners were relatively high and “wall-sided” to increase capacity. This, coupled with their relatively shallow draft meant that they would slide sideways when sailing into the wind. While the ram’s design meant that it sailed poorly compared with other schooners, its broad, rectangular midsection was characteristic of most later sail merchant ships—a huge box with maximum cargo space.
Ram schooners were designed to closely fit the locks of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, which was not made into a sea-level waterway until 1929. There’s some uncertainty about the actual width of the lock chamber itself, but one source states 24 feet. If so, the Edwin and Maud’s 23.8-foot beam would have been a tight fit.
The canal may also be the source of the name, ram. According to maritime historian Robert Burgess, Billy Borthwick, a ship chandler on the canal, once observed: “Look at the damn thing butting her way through the other schooners; she’s acting just like a ram.”
While the main channel from the Delaware today enters the canal at Reedy Point, the original first lock heading toward the Chesapeake was at Delaware City, DE. One can still visit this surviving lock.
Because it would have been unusual to have the necessary wind to sail a vessel through the canal, transits were first made with the assistance of mule teams on a towpath beside the waterway. The muleteers worked in teams sharing a segment of the canal, and their hire was separate from the complex schedule of tolls and freight fees.
Small tugboats with very narrow hulls designed to fit inside the locks, later replaced the mules.
John Tresh, the late C & D historian, worked on the canal from age 15 until his retirement in 1986. He remembered when the last locks were removed and the canal made sea level from one end to the other, making the ram schooners unnecessary. Four years later, in 1933, though, there were still 13 rams sailing the Chesapeake. Two of these schooners were the Levin J. Marvel, built 1898, and the Edwin and Maud.
Chesapeake maritime artist, Louis Feuchter, made a pencil study of the Edwin and Maud in 1935. The ship looks sound, but its push-boat is off somewhere and pieces of gear hang off the visible starboard side. Thirteen years later, in 1948, Feuchter rendered this sketch as an oil, somewhat changed, and it is owned by the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, VA.
The Marvel carried cargo as late as 1938. In 1944, Herman Knust paid about $18,000 for the ship, which he used to run a dude or pleasure passenger service on the Chesapeake Bay. The Edwin and Maud was purchased and renamed Victory Chimes for the same purpose in 1946. During the June to October cruising season, they sometimes operated at 90 percent capacity.
When the Edwin and Maud was sold in 1954, only the Marvel was left in this business. Photos of the time show her pretty badly hogged (drooping by the stern) and her sails looking very old.
On August 12, 1955, while the Marvel was cruising the Bay, Hurricane Connie swept up the Atlantic Coast. The storm and its violent northeast gales caught the ship unaware and offshore, just north of the long and harborless Calvert Cliffs.
With a fetch of 12 nautical miles toward the northeast, a fierce sea battered the ship unmercifully. The Marvel ran ashore and was wrecked in Herring Bay, MD, where a long bar comes out from Deale to the north and depths shoal abruptly from 22 to 4 feet in less than a mile. The Marvel had an 8-foot draft and it was almost 8,000 feet to shore. Seven people, all passengers, died. A U.S. Coast Guard Board of Inquiry lay the blame on her captain and owner, John Meckling.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charts show a wreck in this vicinity, and I suspect that these may be the remains of the Marvel.
The morning after I visited the Domino Effect, she was bound for Crisfield, MD. Markoff was concerned because the original 89-year-old gasoline bilge pump was out of commission with a lubrication problem and one of the old oil reservoir fittings with a sight-glass oil cup was broken. He had absolutely no idea where such a turn-of-the- century relic could be found before they sailed.
When functioning, this engine could pump the bilges against prodigious leaks. One of Edwin and Maud’s former crew, William Stevens, recalled that when heavily loaded, “the water would be coming across and you could have rowed a skiff around on deck if it weren’t so rough.” A photo by Frank Moorshead, Jr. shows a ram weighed down by a cargo of lumber, the water within a few feet of her decks, explaining how this might come about aboard an otherwise high-sided vessel.
I told him that I had some antique oil cups in my machine shop, and that perhaps, one would fit. He was ecstatic and followed Galadriel back to Osborn Cove in Domino Effect’s inflatable boat.
He was stunned by my musty old shop, much of which dates to around the time Edwin and Maud was built. In an old metal auto parts drawers—marked “Model Year 1919” and squirreled away since the 1930s by David Pillsbury Allen, the shop’s former owner, (See “Past is Prologue,” June 2004.)—he found the needed oil cup. Two thunder squalls chased him back to his ship at flank speed.
As the ship pushed out with her tugboat at sunrise’s calm, I had a good feeling that in future years my oil cup would keep Domino Effect safe as it sailed into its second century. It continues to sail to this day.
New owners rechristened the ship Victory Chimes, and the ship resumed the New England cruise trade. It was designated a National Maritime Historic Landmark in 1997.
In January 2006, its owners put the ship up for sale, asking $1.3 million. Based on the costs of the first ram—about $7,600—it could bring in about 170 times the builder’s price today. I suppose the additional multiple represents its historical value!