Evolution of the Chesapeake Ram Schooner
Shoal-draft centerboard schooners were built and used in the Great Lakes, along the Atlantic coast,and in the Gulf of Mexico. In each area they were adapted to optimize them for local conditions, but with similarities in their general arrangement. In the Great Lakes and on the mid-Atlantic coast, shoal draft schooners were built to operate through navigation canals between larger bodies of water. Built to fit inside restricting locks and sail in shallow water these "canalers" were peculiar adaptations to particular geographical conditions.15 The Chesapeake rams, such as Victory Chimes, were adapted to operate on the middle Atlantic coast and in the shallow Chesapeake, taking advantage particularly of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
Over the two centuries that commerce in the Chesapeake Bay region was dominated by commercial sail, a definite pattern grew up that lasted in schooners converted to power up into the early 1970s. . . . Schooners carried grain, lumber, cordwood, oysters, and farm products to Norfolk, Richmond, Alexandria, Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis from river landings and small towns from one end of the Bay to the other. 16
There was also waterborne commerce through canals, such as coal headed for Philadelphia, which passed through the Delaware and Raritan Canal, and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal between Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River, which provided an inside passage that avoided the often treacherous outside run past the Delaware Capes. It was for transit of the C & D Canal that the type known as a Delaware, or Chesapeake Bay, ram schooner developed. It was a flat-bottomed, slab-sided, shallow draft centerboard schooner which could pass through the narrow canal locks. 17 In his Chesapeake Sailing Craft, Robert Burgess, citing historian John Lyman, speculates that "canal-type craft with schooner rig were used on the canal system of the Schuylkill River" as early as 1863.18 One such vessel, Reading Railroad No. 34, built at Hamburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, 18 (106 feet x 19.1 feet x 8.6 feet) apparently was refitted as a three-masted schooner about 1883 at Seaford, Delaware, "a short distance from Bethel." 19 It was at Bethel, in 1889, that the first of the Chesapeake rams was built.
"Look at that damn thing, butting her way through the other schooners; she's acting just like a ram."
click images to enlarge
Chesapeake Ram Schooner
It is worth noting that the canal for which many, though not all, of the Chesapeake Rams were intended, was a vital transportation link, in addition to its merits as an inside passage. The Chesapeake and Delaware was completed in 1829, and its peak year was 1872 when 1.3 million tons passed through it.20 Unfortunately, towards the end of the nineteenth century the canal apparently was not making money and repairs were neglected, even though it was agreed that canals should be improved "to carry the low-grade bulk freight which was clogging the railroads and delaying the shipment of other commodities which trains were best able to carry."21
By 1907, the railroads viewed canal traffic as serious competition because freight by rail from Philadelphia to New York took a week or more due to terminal delays, "whereas the slower but steady waterways carried their much smaller volumes of freight between the two points overnight."22 President Theodore Roosevelt lobbied hard for government purchase of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, which finally took place in 1919.23 Today it is 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep and still cuts three hundred miles off the trip from Philadelphia to Baltimore.24
"The characteristics of these craft were wall sides, bluff bows, flat bottoms, little sheer and no topmasts."
It was in 1889 that J.M.C. Moore designed and built the first of the ram schooners, J. Dallas Marvel, at Broad Creek in Bethel, Delaware. At 112.8 feet, she was the smallest of the rams and cost approximately $7500 to build at a time when ship carpenters made two dollars a day. "All the material for her planking was hauled into Bethel by mule team and sawed by hand."25 No view of this schooner has been found, but a similar vessel, Levin J. Marvel, was built two years later, and she has been called "as homely a vessel as ever cleaved the waters of the Bay. Her cumbersome hull resembled a canal barge.
The characteristics of these craft were wall sides, bluff bows, flat bottoms, little sheer and no topmasts."26 Exactly where the term "ram" originated is unclear. Robert Burgess credits one Billy Borthwick, owner of a ship chandlery at Chesapeake City, Maryland, as having watched the first of the type going through the canal and exclaiming, "Look at that d~ thing butting her way through the other schooners; she's acting just like a ram."
In any case, the name stuck to the type early on.27 The rams may have been homely, but with their bald-headed rig (no topsails) they could be handled with a small crew, assisted by a gasoline powered donkey engine for hoisting the anchor and sails and a gasoline-powered yawl boat to push in calm weather. "A lot of freight could be hauled long distances at little labor expense."28
All told, between 1889 and 1911 twenty-six rams were built, ranging in length from 112.8 to 163 feet, at Bethel and Sharptown, Maryland. "Two were also built in Baltimore and one at Madison, Maryland. So the design must have been successful, if not eye-pleasing."29 Edwin And Maud was the fourteenth of the twenty-one rams built at Bethel.
Cargoes varied, but the standby was lumber. Another major cargo was grain. By the 1930s and 1940s fertilizer had become a major item
Cargoes varied, but the standby was lumber. Headed down Chesapeake Bay for Virginia or the Carolinas to pick up lumber or cordwood, the cargo south might be coal, fertilizer, empty cans for canning factories or supplies for stores in "river towns near the lumbering operations."30 A large ram might carry as much as two hundred thousand board feet of lumber on their return voyage. Another major cargo was grain from the Carolinas,Virginia and Maryland to the mills in Baltimore. By the 1930s and 1940s fertilizer had become a major item, with schooners picking up phosphate in Florida for Maryland fertilizer factories. It could also work the other way: "A load of fertilizer typically became return freight once a cargo of grain was unloaded in Baltimore."31
By 1933 there were still thirteen rams sailing on the Bay, and Edwin And Maud was among them. In those early Depression years "most of them kept busy in the lumber and fertilizer trade, making trips from the Carolina Sounds through the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, up Chesapeake Bay to Philadelphia via the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, and return.
By 1945, there remained only two of the rams in commercial use.
Baltimore was also a regular port of call."32 However, between 1934 and 1942, fire, foundering, stranding and other causes took a heavy toll. By 1945 there remained only two of the rams in commercial use.33 For example, Granville R. Bacon, the last ram built at Bethel in 1911, stranded at Weekapaug, Rhode Island in 1934 and was later burned. Agnes S. Quillan, built in 1894, went ashore in the Potomac River in 1938. The Sharptown-built ram Charles T, Strann, renamed Kincom, was converted to power and sold to Dominican Republic interests in 1943.34
The rich and varied content here is due to our kind and enthusiastic community of contributors.
We appreciate and value all the materials and memories of this storied and historic vessel shared here.
If you have any historic pictures or material that you'd like to show here or, if you have any favorite cruise pictures to share for our ongoing Instagram feed, just click the heart to email your Show & Tell treasures for everyone to see!