Built in 1877, the Bark SEA KING was the largest vessel ever built in Bowdoinham. This picture was taken about 1910, when the King made her second and last visit to the Kennebec. (B'ham Historical Society Collection)
Editor's note: Below we've combined two accounts describing the career of Bowdoinham's finest vessel. The copy set in italic was part of an article published in the BATH INDEPENDENT when the Sea King returned to the Kennebec. The remainder of the copy was written in 1936 by James Dunlap. The Dunlap stories were told originally by James Albert Dunlap (James Dunlap's grandfather) who sailed on the Sea King during her maiden voyage to Charleston.
The Sea King was built in 1877 by master builder John P. Rideout of Bowdoinham, in his now deserted yard at the foot of Main Street. There was a great crowd present at the launching, for the Sea King was the largest vessel ever launched in Bowdoinham, and one of the largest ever launched to the Kennebec River. She was 273 feet long, and had a capacity of 1,500 tons.
She was built from lumber harvested and selected in Georgia by expert shipbuilders. The lumber came north in the spring of 1875, and work was commenced the following summer. The ship progressed rapidly for about two months, when suddenly, due to a lack of money, construction was stopped. Until the following summer, no work was done on the vessel. Finally, a man from a neighboring town came to look the ship over. He was a man who knew vessels, and he saw great potential in the Sea King. He bought her and picked up the building, finished her in the summer of 1877. Master George H. Theobald (Richmond) became the ship's husband. He paid S70,000 for the vessel, said amount being divided between some ten share holders. She was a vessel of 1,491 tons, over 200 feet long, and was 24 feet deep.
From Bowdoinham, the Sea King was towed to Bath to be rigged. In mid-November the finishing touches had been added and the ship was ready to sail. On Thanksgiving morning, in a cold, northeast gale, she was towed to the mouth of the Kennebec River. Here she put on sail and gained headway so fast that the tugs were forced to let her go before they were out of the river. Her course was then set for Charleston, South Carolina. It was almost December, 1877, when Capt. Benjamin Adams took command of the Sea King i n Bath and sailed her to Charleston with a cargo of pressed hay. Before the Sea King left Bath, a new stove had been installed in her forecastle to keep the sailor warm. On the first day out, however, one of the old "salts" aboard threw the stove overboard. He said he wouldn't have any "new fangled" stove in his forecastle so he would freeze when he left its warmth and went into a cold blizzard. The loss of the stove caused a disturbance which was soon quieted down.
One dark night on the way to Charleston, the mate on watch saw a light a long distance ahead. He reported it to the captain, who said it was a steamer's light, and he should keep it to star board. Only a few minutes passed when suddenly, the watch called out, "breakers dead ahead." The crew attempted to bring the ship about, but without success. All at once, the captain appeared on the top of the deck house with a rifle in his hands. He ordered that the ship be brought about or every man on deck would be shot. It is needless to say that the next attempt to come about was successful, although some of the sailors claimed that the keep rubbed bottom during the turn. The light which the captain mistook for a steamer lantern was the lighthouse on Cape Hatteras. In December the Sea King reached Charleston, where she was to take on a cargo of cotton for Liverpool. However, the cotton rates were low and it was necessary to wait until late January 1878, to sail.
On Christmas day, 1877, a chicken was sent to the captain for his dinner. It happened that this particular bird had been on board slightly longer than the natural time for chicken to keep well. The captain, therefore sent the chicken to the forecastle for the crew. The crew members took one long breath, breathed out again very quickly, and threw the bird into the harbor, no doubt driving all the fish from that particular locality. The Sea King cleared for Liverpool in February, carrying a cargo of cotton.
At Charleston the vessel was loaded with Sea Island cotton, $284,000 worth being placed between her decks. In 19 days, the Sea King was in Liverpool. Halfway across the Atlantic, the Sea King was struck by a gale which took away part of her sails, spars, and other rigging. The ship very nearly got into the trough of the waves, and without some skillful handling, would have gone over. The ship's carpenters and crew were put to work, and the damage was repaired in mid ocean. The voyage to Liverpool then continued without mishap, and from England, the Sea King made a safe voyage back to New York. The masts on the Sea King were so tall that the top masts had to be dropped to allow passage beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
About this time, the shipping business became poor on the Atlantic, so the owners of the Sea King decided to send her to the Pacific coast for trade with China and Asia. After a voyage from Liverpool to San Francisco and return. Capt. Adams took the vessel to Philadelphia and loaded with cased oil for Japan. On his return he brought a cargo of green or wet sugar from Formosa to New York, and then turned the ship over to Capt. George T. Getchell, who commanded the Sea King for about 10 years. Following one of her successful voyages around the Horn, the Sea King started into Iquique, Chile, to await further orders.
On her way into the harbor however, she met a French ship coming out which, according to Capt. Getchell of the Sea King gave the poorest exhibition of seamanship he had ever witnessed.
Due to this poor handling, there was a collision. The two ships were completely tangled up, a snarl of ropes, spars and sails. On a voyage in 1889, Capt. Getchell nearly lost his vessel through the poor seamanship of the captain aboard the French barque Victorine. Both vessels were bound for Iquique, the Sea King in ballast to load nitrate of soad, and the Frenchman heavily loaded. The Sea King was standing in towards land on a starboard tack, while the Victorine was beating off on a port tack.
It was about 9:30 on a beautiful evening. Having the right of way, Capt. Getchell paid little attention to the approaching stranger until he was aware that she was getting too close...
The two came together. The King was cut from the rail to the the water line. The spars were knocked out of both vessels, and for 12 hours, they lay bound together by the spars laying across their decks. When finally they were cut free, both vessels limped into Iquique and Capt. Getchell instituted proceedings against the Victorine for the Sea King's owners.
The French authonties of Iquique immediately blamed the accident on the Sea King, and ordered her to remain in harbor pending an investigation. She waited on anchor for several weeks, but nothing happened. However, during her stay the Sea King's crew was not idle, they were busy repairing and rerigging their vessel. Through the slow methods of the South Amer ican courts and the desire of the court officials to make as much trouble for the Americans as possible, the case dragged on month after month. Finally the owners sent Capt. Benjamin Adams to assist Capt. Getchell. Before leaving home, Capt. Adams made a careful study of the law covering the case, but on arrival, he found there was absolutely no prospect of a settlement . After a conference between the two, the captains decided that the best thing to do was to leave that section of the country . . .
One night there was a particularly bad storm, a blow so bad that even the French patrol boat stayed in the harbor. Taking their advantage, the captains ordered the anchor cable cut and the Sea King broke for the sea, leaving her anchor, cable, and her troubles behind her.
From Iguique the Sea King went to San Francisco, and several years plied the Pacific between western and Far Eastern ports. In May, 1891, Capt. Theobald closed the accounts on the Sea King, selling her for S25,000 to San Francisco owner, Myles Budrow.
About 1900 she was purchased by a packing company to carry Salmon between the Alaska fisheries and Seattle, Washington.
I might add that when the Sea King was 14 years old, she was inspected by the government and rated A-1-. This means that there was not a rotten spot in her after 14 years. This is a great tribute to her builders . . .
After sailing for the packing company for about seven years, the Sea King was sold to a New York concern for use as a coal barge. As she was still in good condition, she was loaded with spars and lumber for Bath.
As cargo the Sea King carried 900,000 feet of lumber and, ironically, 275 spars such as she is soon to be stripped of.
When she reached the Kennebec, her captain had the excellent report of 110 days out without loss of sail, spar, or hand. The Sea King was back at the port from which she had started for the first time in 31 years. She was also there for the last time.
The only trouble during her last voyage was the depletion of the crew's tobacco supply. This happened 42 days out of Seattle. Up to the time of their reaching port, they had found a workable substitute&emdash;smoked tea and molasses!
From Bath, the Sea King was taken to New York where her decks were cleared and her her masts taken down. Gone were the days as a proud "down Easter." In the spring of 1917, the Sea King sank in New York harbor, taking a load of coal with her.
Frank Connors, Editor