Crack Schooner Moonlight, The
DESCRIPTION: "Oh, we towed out the Moonlight, dropped the tug in the gale With the old Law before us and the Porter on our tail." "Hurrah for a race down the Lakes!" The sailor describes the wind and how they "leave the Law, the Damforth, and others by the score."
EARLIEST DATE: 1932 (collected by Walton from a group of Illinois sailors)
KEYWORDS: ship racing
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Walton/Grimm/Murdock, pp. 231-234, "The Crack Schooner Moonlight" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ivan Watson, "The Crack Schooner Moonlight" (fragment, 1938; on WaltonSailors, which curiously omits a line from the chorus shown in the Walton/Grimm/Murdock text)
NOTES [608 words]: Although this song praises the Moonlight's performance, the statement that she was a "crack schooner" requires a lot of footnotes. Walton/Grimm/Murdock describes her as having a clipper hull but a schooner rig -- a strange compromise, since clippers were designed mostly for speed (at the cost of cargo capacity), and schooners, though highly maneuverable, we not as fast as square-rigged ships. Keller, p. 77, reports that "She was a three-master, her rigging consisting of fore and aft sails on the mainsail and mainmast, and a squaresail on the foremast. But unlike the traditional barkentine rig, she carried a large, billowing triangular topsail above the squaresail, known as a raffee." The effect of this, clearly visible in the painting of the ship on p. 78 of Keller, is that most of her sail is on the foremast.
This apparently was a common compromise on the Great Lakes, where (due to the many shoals) manueverability was important. Keller, p. 79, says that "Only a few short years after she was built, the MOONLIGHT was generally acknowledged to be one of the finest -- and fastest -- cargo vessels on the Great Lakes."
Her reputation did little to keep her in business. After just 14 years, in 1888, Moonlight was sold, cut down, and made into a sailing barge. Nor did it have much luck in this configuration. Thompson, p. 90, shows a photo of the Moonlight after it ran aground near Marquette in 1895 after her tow the Charles J. Kershaw suffered a boiler problem. (a closeup of the photo is on p. 80 of Keller, who however dates the accident to 1896.)
According to Wolff, p. 74, the Moonlight and the Henry A. Kent (which had also run aground in the Kershaw incident) were not re-floated until the next year, and that at "enormous expense." The Kershaw itself was a total loss, and one of the tugs called in to rescue the barges sank on its way home.
At that time, Moonlight still had three masts. But apparently after that she was further cut down. Keller has a photograph on p. 81; the once-proud schooner ended up losing her mainmast, and while the foremast and mizzen are still there, they have no yards; I see no way to hang a sail. The once-beautiful ship has become extremely ugly and utilitarian.
According to Wolff, p. 100, the Moonlight's last voyage was in September 1903. Carrying a load of 1400 tons of iron ore, she began to take on water and quickly sank. The crew, fortunately, was rescued by her tow the Volunteer (Keller, p. 82); the Moonlight may have had a lot of accidents, but she seems to have had a good safety record.
According to Keller, p. 83, the Moonlight at the time of her loss "was valued at $12,000, less than half of what she was worth in her glory days."
This song, however, describes an earlier event in the boat's existence. Keller, p. 80, gives no date, but apparently the Moonlight and the Porter left Buffalo at about the same time, and both were heading for Milwaukee. They agreed to have a race. It was a very close contest as they passed the Straights of Mackinac. Then a storm blew up. Captain Sullivan of the Moonlight took shelter in Port Washington; the Porter pressed on. The Porter won the race -- sort of. Moonlight reached Milwaukee under her own power. The Porter had lost all her masts and rigging, and reached Milwaukee only because tugs had found her after the storm and hauled her into port (Keller, p. 81). According to Keller, the captains decided to call it a draw and headed to a bar together.
It would seem reasonable to assume that this song was written in the years between the race and the time the Moonlight was cut down. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Keller: James M. Keller, The "Unholy Apostles: Shipwreck Tales of the Apostle Islands, 1984 (I use the 1989 Bookcrafters edition, which -- given the information on the spine and title page -- I suspect to be a private printing)
- Thompson: Mark L. Thompson, Graveyards of the Lakes, Wayne State University Press, 2000
- Wolff: Julius F. Wolff Jr., Lake Superior Shipwrecks,Lake Superior Port Cities Inc., Duluth, 1990
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