2017-12-08 / Community

A Window on the Past

Thomas W. Lawson – the only seven-master ever built
By Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo
South Portland Historical Society


The Thomas W. Lawson in Boston Harbor. (Courtesy photo) The Thomas W. Lawson in Boston Harbor. (Courtesy photo) While the drive was on in the late-1800s and early-1900s to build larger and faster ships, they apparently found their size limit with the Thomas W. Lawson. This one-and-only seven masted schooner was a steel-hulled ship, the largest strictly sailing ship ever built. The Lawson was launched on July 10, 1902, from the Fore River Ship and Engine Company in Quincy, Massachusetts. It was 494 feet long and 50 feet wide.

Originally used as a collier, the Thomas W. Lawson carried coal along the east coast. By December 1902, there were already news reports of problems with the Lawson. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 21, 1902: “The new seven masted steel schooner Thomas W. Lawson, built to carry coal from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Hampton Roads to Boston, is too large to load a full cargo at Baltimore or Philadelphia and the vessel is now on her way to Newport News from Boston in a third attempt to load a full cargo … there are but three discharging piers at Boston where she can unload, her great dimensions are far in excess of the harbor channels and wharf facilities of all the Atlantic coast coal ports except Hampton Roads … Captain Crowley had to sail out of Philadelphia with 7,347 tons, about 1,500 tons less than the ship’s capacity, and then grounded twice in the Delaware River.”

With the Lawson unable to carry coal at its full capacity, the ship’s owner converted the vessel into a sailing oil tanker in 1903.

The ill-fated Thomas W. Lawson only lasted about five years, however. In a voyage across the Atlantic that started in November 1907, heading from Philadelphia to London with a cargo of oil, the Lawson encountered severe weather on much of the voyage. When it reached the Scilly Isles, southwest of mainland England, on Friday, Dec. 13, the Lawson foundered in a gale. Most of the crew perished, with only the captain and the engineer surviving.

An article in the Dec. 15, 1907 edition of the Plain Dealer described the tragic end of the Thomas W. Lawson. During the gale, the captain had the anchors put out and signaled the vessel’s distress. Despite the efforts of life savers, they couldn’t get to the crew. Captain Dow, the engineer Edward Rowe, and the pilot had lashed themselves to the rigging of the mizzen mast. When the mast broke and fell, Dow and Rowe were able to get clear but were swept overboard. The pilot couldn’t get free and the ship unexpectedly rolled over with him and the rest of the crew, also unable to free themselves. Dow and Rowe were carried by the current to a rocky shoreline, where they clung to the rocks for almost 15 hours while waves crashed and held them before being rescued by life savers. Sixteen in all died in the wreck – 15 of the crew members, plus the pilot who had come on board to try to bring the ship in. It was the end of the Thomas W. Lawson, and no one ever attempted building a seven-masted schooner again.

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ – recital at museum this weekend

On a much more pleasant note, we are thrilled for the return of society member Jack Nordby to the museum 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10 for his annual recital of the Dylan Thomas holiday classic. “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a light, much-loved, almost lyrical tale of childhood Christmas memories. Filled with alliteration, this 25-minute star of Thomas’ work is best heard aloud for the “music” in the words.

Jack has performed this recital for us for several years now and it is always a pleasant and relaxing interlude to enjoy on a Sunday afternoon during the holiday season. He recites the story from memory and his rich baritone really brings the characters to life. This is a free event, open to the public.

For more information, call the society at 767-7299 or visit our Facebook page at South Portland Historical Society.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of South Portland Historical Society.

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