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When an accident with an open oil lantern set the American clipper Hornet alight in 1866, the 31 passengers and crew were forced to abandon ship. Cast adrift in three small lifeboats, they had less than 10 days rations to share between them. They were over 1000 miles from the nearest island. Over the next six weeks they were to encounter every danger the Pacific could throw at them. They were attacked by sharks and swordfish. They endured storms, and even tornadoes. Their hunger became so intense that they resorted to eating their clothes, and later, half-mad from the effects of drinking sea-water, were driven to the edge of cannibalism. A FURNACE AFLOAT tells the story of their 4000-mile voyage through the eyes of three men, who kept journals throughout their ordeal. It is one of the rare, great historical survival stories, and yet it also transcends its genre: the boatful of castaways becomes a microcosm of 1866 America - a diverse mix of immigrants struggling to overcome class divisions, and to recover from the recent Civil War.
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A four time Pulitzer Prize nominee, Joe Jackson is author of the Edgar Award Nominated LEAVENWORTH TRAIN (Carol & Graf, 2002), and is co-author of DEAD RUN (Canongate, 1999), which is in development as a feature film with HBO.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: The Picnic Cruise
Later, when the heat and thirst grew so torturous that his tongue swelled in his mouth; when his skin shriveled black and salt-water boils dotted it like smallpox; when Captain Mitchell complained of hearing strange music and the men in the bow stared at him in hunger; then and only then did Henry Ferguson recall his first glimpse of the Hornet and the drift ice crunching against her sides. The memory of the cool, white ice tormented him now. It floated in sheets, grinding against the pilings of the South Street Harbor, first appearing on the ebb tide of Saturday, January 13, 1866, then filling the East River from shore to shore. The drifts were large and heavy, making navigation perilous: they'd already hauled down the dock when the pilot refused to tow them past Sandy Hook until Monday. Henry stared at the hundreds of ships and steamers lining the river, their thicket of yardarms and masts like a forest stripped of foliage. He gazed at the low clouds, lit sulphurous by the city lights; at the large, heavy snowflakes that muffled his city in silence. Soon he'd leave this cosmopolis of mansions and opera houses, tuberculosis and cholera. He was already homesick, but longed to be away.
In the days following the disaster, they remembered the delays that held them back, as if in warning not to sail. The unseasonal ice and violent gale. The pilot's refusal to tow them out. The change of masters eleven days before embarking. Captain Prince Harding was slated for the Hornet's thirteenth voyage from an eastern port, its eleventh to San Francisco round the Horn, but clipper captains drove themselves as hard as their ships and such pressure took its toll. On January 2, a telegram arrived for Mitchell in his Freeport home. Harding begged Mitchell to take command, citing bad health, a request echoed by the shipowners, the New York merchant firm of Lawrence, Giles & Company. Mitchell had commanded the Hornet in four straight cruises during 1859-1861 -- three times on the Frisco route, once from New York to Bristol, England. He knew her better than almost any man alive. Harding was more of a "driver" than the younger Mitchell, his best time on this route an enviable 111 days compared to Mitchell's best of 128, but Mitchell was solid and level-headed. The ship's cargo, insured at $400,000, or nearly $4.4 million in today's dollars, included 45 barrels and 2,000 cases of "kerosene oil," 6,195 boxes of candles, 400 tons of Pacific Railroad iron and three small steam engines, one bound for California gold country. The owners believed their capital couldn't be in better hands.
Reliability defined Josiah Mitchell. He'd received an A1 manager's rating from Lloyd's of London and fit the picture of the "prudent mariner" prized by merchants and insurers: the captain who worked his way across the oceans, avoiding risk as much as possible, but bravely facing whatever came. At 53, Mitchell was quiet and undemonstrative, yet despite the calm surface, he drove his ship like other clipper captains, very much Alexis de Tocqueville's American mariner: "The European sailor navigates with prudence," wrote de Tocqueville. "The Americans are often shipwrecked, but no trader crosses the seas more rapidly."
The weather was an omen, too. Seamen read the atmosphere like Talmudic scholars, and the signs made them uneasy. The conditions on January 13 continued the bad weather that had plagued the eastern seaboard since New Year. A prolonged gale howled from the northeast, blowing from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and filling the shipping columns of the New York Herald with notices of wreck and ruin. On Tuesday, January 9, the steamer Mary A. Boardman wrecked on the Romer Shoal and broke in two; the brig Itasca ran aground off Sandy Hook and five crewmen died while rowing for aid. The brig Emma C. struck the beach at East Sandwich, went to pieces, and five of her crew froze to death. On January 11, the schooner Christiana sank with all hands missing; the schooner Warren, bound for Rhode Island, wrecked off Hatteras. Four of her crew froze to death in the rigging, and two pilots washed overboard and drowned.
The Hornet's course was an old one, charted by explorers, whalers, and sailors in the hide-and-tallow trade. The shortest course from New York to Frisco lay through the Straits of Magellan, a 13,328-mile route that most ships followed religiously. The U.S. Naval Observation and Hydrographic Office estimated 130 days as the average passage for a ship on the east-west route: 120 days was good, while 110 was a miracle. But this was not good enough for a nation obsessed with speed. America at midcentury was in a kind of exuberant adolescence, demanding change in every field. Americans had invented the sewing machine and trip hammer and strung telegraph wire from New York to Chicago, and women demanded suffrage. Speed was the index of change. No more dramatic change occurred than in sailing ships, which doubled their rates of speed in less than a decade -- all because of clippers.
For Henry, booking passage on a clipper was like riding the Concorde: the clipper was a sublime technological feat, a gasp-inducing marvel that alters the sense of what humanity can achieve. With long, lean frames and knifelike bows that sliced through waves instead of riding over them, clippers carried loftier masts and wider sails than ever before seen in the history of sail. Their existence depended on speed. Before their development in the 1840s and 1850s, few sailing vessels had gone faster than an average sustained speed of six knots, and seamen considered a 150-mile day an excellent run. Yet by the 1850s, American clippers routinely clocked 250-mile days, and merchants were intoxicated. Conservative firms that once modestly christened vessels for wives and children were suddenly filled with poets who named their ships the Lightning, the Flying Cloud, and Sovereign of the Sea.
All this masked the less-than-glamorous reality that clippers were glorified express freighters, nothing more. All the romance was accident; the beauty, serendipity. It was a matter of trial and error that the shape that moved fastest through the water was streamlined and attractive, and that the cloud of sail needed to move such a ship took one's breath away. Clippers specialized in high-duty freight composed of smaller, more valuable items, many of these charged at an individual rather than bulk freight rate, and the California gold rush fueled the demand for such luxury goods. In 1849, for example, a barrel of flour selling for $6 in New York commanded $200 in San Francisco; a bushel of potatoes sold for $16; a pair of boots, $100; an egg, $1, equal to $23 today. Clippers were the moment's cash cow.
"Extreme" clippers like the Hornet were the solution to a nagging commercial problem: how to maximize hull speed while maintaining profitable cargo space in the hold. The answer was to build ships longer, not wider, yet even designers were amazed by the speed of their creations. Passages to California suddenly dropped from 130 to 116 days. Then, in 1851, the Flying Cloud cut that to 89 days, 21 hours -- a sailing record that still stands.
New York was the center of the clipper world. By the 1850s and 1860s, the city handled five times more freight than all the New England cities, a focus that turned it into the nation's banking and financial center. Henry's family grew rich off this world. In 1790, his grandfather had immigrated to America from County Yorkshire in England, settled in Philadelphia to enter merchant shipping, then moved to New York to found a shipping house with his brother-in-law. In 1802, they formed J&S Ferguson, merchant bankers specializing in import and export shipping, and by the time of his death in 1816, the business was turned over to Henry's father, John, who located the firm at 35 Pine Street in the financial district.
Henry was the youngest of five brothers, all destined for money and power. John Day Ferguson, the oldest, practiced law for twelve years in New York under former senator William M. Everts, then returned to the family's "country" home in Stamford, Connecticut, to serve as state legislator. Samuel, the second boy, was born in New York on February 11, 1837, and graduated twenty years later from Trinity College with a bachelor's degree. By 1866, he listed his address as 35 Pine Street and his occupation as private banker. By then, Edmund, the third brother, and Walton, the fourth, worked for the firm. There were three sisters -- Helen, Elizabeth, and Sarah -- and Henry, who in truth had no idea what he wanted to do.
Merchant bankers like J&S Ferguson invested heavily in clipper ships, and though there has been considerable debate about their profitability, economic historian Robert Evans, Jr., argued that even after costs, owners earned at least 10 percent on their capital in lean years, and over 50 percent in better times. From 1853 to 1876, for example, the clipper David Crockett brought its owners a 37 percent net annual profit, or $500,000 yearly, equal to nearly $8.2 million today. The Midnight netted a 12.4 percent average annual return from 1855 to 1860, while the Mandarin took in a healthy 38 percent from 1851 to 1859.
All changed with the Civil War. In 1857, the United States slid into an economic slump, and by 1860, shipbuilding had ground to a halt. Then Confederate cruisers dealt Yankee shipping a mortal wound. Raiders like the Alabama and Shenandoah chased every merchantman they spotted, then put to the torch those registered American. Premiums for war-risk insurance rose out of proportion to real losses, and ships with neutral flags took business from the U.S. fleet. By 1865, nearly 1,600 American vessels had been transferred to foreign owners, a blow from which the merchant marine would not recover until after World War II.
Considering the upward course of their fortunes, it is likely that J&S Ferguson divested itself of most merchant fleet holdings by 1866 and diversified instead in the era's growth industries, including steel. The brothers did well. On his early death in 1877, John Day Ferguson bequeathed $10,000 to the town of Stamford for a public library. Edmund, the third brother, left an estate of $110 million in 1911, equal to nearly $2 billion today. Walton, the fourth, joined the family firm in 1863 and went to Pittsburgh, where he befriended coke and steel magnates Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Through his influence, J&S Ferguson became an early backer of Carnegie's steel empire, while Walton himself was appointed director of Union Carbide. When he returned to Stamford years later, he built a huge mansion the color of gold.
By 1866, Henry had shown no interest in the business world. Not that it mattered, since his future was charted for him. Like his brothers before him, Henry enrolled in Trinity College, attended St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Stamford, and was expected to vote Republican someday. It was assumed he would join the family firm after graduating in 1868. He was a prize scholar, but at 18 he was mostly interested in girls. On New Year's Day, 1866, he made 29 social calls, many including Stamford's eligible young females. On January 4, he visited the young ladies of a sewing society; on January 7, he "went to church with Josie Taylor and succeeded in freezing an ear" in 15-degree temperatures. He seemed particularly interested in Miss Taylor: she was included in his New Year's visitations, and on January 11, she and he ice-skated.
When the subject of accompanying Samuel to Frisco was first broached on Monday, January 8, Henry itched to go. It was raised at supper, a fire crackling in the hearth, the family seated at the silver-laid table, servants in the wings. The choice of a traveling companion was Samuel's. His father cautioned him about falling behind in his studies. Who cared about that? Henry thought. He was going Out West. "Felt much in favor of it," he wrote, but his excitement was best telegraphed by the speed with which he left for Trinity to arrange his sabbatical.
Of all the brothers, Henry was closest to the introspective Samuel, while Samuel seemed amused by his younger brother's high spirits. An 1866 photo shows the two of them together, the beardless youth and hirsute young man, both in conservative black suits with white handkerchiefs poking from the left lapel pocket, both lean and lanky with high foreheads. The photo does not show the affection shared between them: the way Samuel nursed Henry through his seasickness, or Henry's careful watch over Samuel. They were two oddballs in a clan of high achievers, but both were given leeway: Henry, because of his youth. Samuel, because he was dying.
Riches and power shielded the Fergusons from the Civil War, economic downturn, and the poverty rampant in New York's streets, but it did not save them from disease. John Day, the oldest, died young at 45. Edmund and Walton were forced to leave Trinity early from sickness; the fate of the sisters is not known. Samuel was their harbinger, his curse pulmonary tuberculosis. The rod-shaped mycobacterium tuberculis bacillus was mankind's first reported plague, and evidence of its affliction goes back to 5000 B.C. In 1866, Samuel's disease had many names -- white plague, phthisis, and most commonly consumption -- but Samuel called it "my lung fever" and Henry knew it as "my brother's wasting disease."
Samuel was nearing the final stages of his disease. He'd probably contracted it two and a half to five years earlier in New York, where entire sections of immigrant neighborhoods were known as "lunger blocks" and the bacillus-filled droplets sneezed, coughed, or exhaled by TB victims hung suspended in buildings for days. His slow-growing curse progressed through chest pain, shortness of breath, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and fatigue; the ruddiness of his face gave way to deathlike pallor; he feared the day his cough transformed into the recurring hemorrhage that started "sweet, insipid, or saltish" and ended with a foul-tasting, rusty-green mucus streaked with blood. His body assumed the classic proportions of the dying: the frame that was "slim, erect, delicate looking, having scarcely any fat"; a gaunt face with bright eyes and large pupils; skin that was soft and transparent, through which the bluish veins pulsed and glowed.
His family watched the change, spellbound and horrified. There was an obsession with death in mid-century America: Lincoln had been assassinated nine months earlier; the 1.09 million war casualties were a constant presence; typhus, malaria, pneumonia, smallpox and tuberculosis killed more soldiers than battlefield wounds. But tuberculosis was the greatest killer of all. Death had a wasting face, seen up close in loved ones. Vital records suggest that by 1800, one of every 250 people on the eastern seaboard suffered some "consumption," accounting for one in four deaths. The Industrial Revolution, crowded slums, bad water, open sewers, moral decay -- all were blamed for TB.
A strange inversion of life and death occurred in popular culture, where i...
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