There was an immediate demand for everything needed to build a boom town. Building materials, tools, food, wagons, small boats, and furnishings were sent to California. The driving force was the high prices paid for some things and high freight rates. Typical of the ships of the time was the Andrew Scott. It was financed by a group of Portland men who had heard lumber was selling for $400 a thousand (board feet) in San Francisco. The same wood sold for $10 a thousand in Belfast.
The Scott's run around South America with a load of lumber and forty-niners took more than 160 days, arriving in May of 1850 to find that the lumber market had collapsed. However, the ship's captain had taken a small two-masted sail boat as cargo. He had paid $180 to have it built and sold her for $2,000. Freight rates between San Francisco and the Sacramento gold fields were $60 to $120 a ton and the small boat earned $600 to $1,000 a week for its new owners.
Fluctuations in the California market increased the desire for speed under sail. Along with this motivation was the development of trade with China and the later discovery of gold in Australia in 1851. Out of these market changes, the country's gold fever, and the inclination of designers to make ships faster, came the clipper ship. Speed would become more important than carrying capacity in this area of the shipping industry. These narrow ships with sharp bows and lots of sail would soon make the trip around the Horn in close to 110 days. The Flying Dragon of 1853 would make the run in 97 days. The sharp stems of the clippers led to the name "sharp boats." That so many of them were built in Maine, including most of the record breakers, led to them also being known as "State of Maine clippers."
The speed and design of the clipper ship made them popular topics of conversation and symbols of the era. The names of some are legend: Typhoon, Flying Dragon, Spitfire, Nightingale, and Red Jacket.
Shipping investors all wanted to own one or shares in one. It was possible to recover more than its original cost in one trip around the world. Clippers racing each other to port soon became subjects of speculation and wagers. Racing clipper captains often refused to back down in the face of gales and storms. The voyages of these ships inspired a sports-like interest in the average person, many of whom followed their progress.
Maine began building clippers or "sharp built" boats in 1850 and most were produced in the next four years. Maine's economy was also generating a lot of prosperity at this time. The greatest production was in four yards: Fernald and Pettigrew of Kittery, Trufant and Drummond of Bath, Metcalf and Norris at Damariscotta and at Rockland, Deacon George Thomas' yard from which came Maine's most famous ship the Red Jacket. In 1851, on Badger's Island in Kittery, Fernald and Pettigrew launched their Typhoon. On her first voyage, a passage in March from Portsmouth to Liverpool, her time was 13 days and 10 hours dock to dock. It was a feat unequaled up to that time and got her the nickname "Portsmouth Flyer." She was the maritime newsmaker of the year, the first American clipper and the largest merchant ship ever seen in Liverpool.
In 1852 the George Thomas yard in Rockland launched the larger Defiance at 1,690 tons. Designed by the 25-year-old "genius of marine design," Samuel Hartt Hook, it was the most extreme type of clipper. Her good looks came from concave sides and ends that were very long and sharp. The type would be widely adopted by later builders. On her voyage in ballast, from Rockland to New York, Defiance logged twenty nautical miles an hour.
On November 2, 1853, before a large crowd that included some who had come from New York and Philadelphia to witness the event, the largest, fastest and best looking of the Maine fleet was launched at Rockland. It was the Samuel Hartt Hook-designed, George Thomas-built, 2,306 ton extreme clipper Red Jacket. With graceful lines, arched stem, life-sized figurehead of the Seneca chief whose name she bore, proportioned spars and rigging and round stern surrounded by heavy gilt scrollwork, she was considered one of the most beautiful of the larger clippers.
Red Jacket was built for Seacomb and Taylor of Boston. The name came from Seneca chief Sagoyawatha who was born in 1750 and lived near Buffalo, New York. In the Revolutionary War, he aided the British against the colonists for which he received a (British Army) red jacket. In the War of 1812, he switched allegiance and secured the release of a prisoner, Captain Samuel Taylor. Taylor became part of Seacomb and Taylor and kept his promise to name a ship for Red Jacket.
Little expense had been spared in furnishing the three-decked ship with the best. The aftercabin was finished in rosewood, mahogany, zebra wood, black walnut and set off with gilt work. In addition to the officers' quarters there were 14 staterooms. The forward house accommodated the 62-man crew.
According to the U.S. Registry, her length was 250', beam 45'7", depth 24', gross tonnage 2,434. Of her three masts, the main was 168' above the deck, length of main yard 90', bowsprit beyond the hull 23'. The rugged hull had 5' planks, 18" square keelson, 17" square upper keelson, 15" square deck beams and 12" thick hanging knees. The large anchors had 2" chain. Drawings of clipper ships under sail always depict acres of canvas. It's fairly accurate. They could carry a lot of sail and usually did.
The Red Jacket sailed from New York to Liverpool on her first voyage after being rigged. Sailing with the handicaps of an uncoppered bottom, an indifferent crew, hail, rain or snow on almost every day of her run, her elapsed time from dock to dock was 13 days, 1 hour and 25 minutes. This is a record that still stands for sailing ships. For six consecutive days she averaged 343 miles, and on one twenty-four hour run, 417 nautical miles.
The Red Jacket created a stir in Liverpool. A day before her arrival a steamer announced her arrival and a crowd gathered on a point in the harbor. The ship swept up the River Mercy with all canvas drawing, refused assistance from waiting tugs and raced toward her pier. The captain, in a rarely attempted feat, came about, threw her yards aback and laid her up to the pierhead with such precision it brought a roar of applause from the spectators. She was later bought by a British company.
The Red Jacket would continue to appear in the news for both speed records and incidents in her long life at sea. She would make regular runs to Melbourne, Australia, China and around the globe. In 1854 the urge for speed was beginning to wane along with high freight rates. By 1856 shipbuilding in the United States had reached a peak, with Maine leading all the states. The economy that boomed through the early part of the decade crashed in 1857. One of the biggest depressions of American economic history ensued. It proved to be the end for the construction of Maine built clippers.