The Baltimore Clipper

by Jennifer Klima

The Baltimore Clipper is not only the symbol of Maryland, but its ambassador to the world. Since the first true Baltimore Clipper appeared shortly after the Revolutionary War, its growth can be traced as Maryland, and its maritime expenditures, develops from a British colony to a representative U.S. state.

The Baltimore Clippers, like the citizens of Maryland, are derived from a polyglot of many different civilization and cultures. To reach the velocities that the Baltimore Clipper was able to achieve, the designers and architects looked to countries whose maritime histories were full of conquest of speed, with and against the wind. Though the discovers of the necessity of low drag on the hull of a ship can not be accredited to any specific origin, it can be seen in the creations of the first sea going peoples. The Phoenicians and other eastern Mediterranean cultures with their galleys over two millenniums ago learned the necessity of "round boats", a boat with a broad-beamed hull. Another group would be the Vikings whose hulls navigated through the icy fjords of Scandinavia in the eighth century. The fifteenth century Mediterranean states of Genoa and Venice, whose ideas were later copied by parts of the African coast, built war galleys that were able to move with low water resistance and speed under sails, principles which would later be applied to the Baltimore Clippers.

But not all advancements in technology took place thousands of years ago. In the mid-17th century new designs came from Holland of the first "fore-and-afters" gaff-rigged sails which allowed for quick maneuvering, culminating in the type of vessel commonly called a schooner. Also of European ancestry was the sloop which was most common in Sweden, France, and Spain. The sloop was, according to the British definition, a single masted craft with a gaff sail and a fixed bowsprit which allowed for several triangular headsails. Finally, from the turbulent waters of the English Channel, came tall-rigged fishing boats from France and Britain called luggers. These boats were able to combine the sturdiness they needed to survive in rough water with the speed they needed to be competitive. These ships, and the design principles used to create them, were the backbone of the Maryland shipbuilding industry for many years.

Because of the importance of watercraft on Maryland's economy in the eighteenth century, the Chesapeake Bay was an area of refinement and development for shipbuilding innovations, based on both new and old ideas in maritime engineering. One such predecessor would be the Chesapeake schooners that were mainstays of the bay industries in the late 1700's. These boats were "sharp built", that is having a merchant type or fast sailing hull that is to be used either in letter of marque service (to engage enemy vessels and take prizes) or for privateering. From this source came the basic concept of the Baltimore Clippers, first seen in the ship Ann McKim.

The Baltimore Clipper has many distinct features which separate it from other Chesapeake Bay craft of the early nineteenth century. Though no two were ever built to the same dimensions or specifications they share common bonds just as the citizens of Maryland share similarities in their uniqueness. All Clippers were approximately 100 feet in length from stern to bow. Baltimore Clippers had heart shaped midsections with short keels and raking sterns. The undecorated hulls of these ships were black, low-sided, and sharped bowed, leaving the Clippers with minimum freeboard. Uncommon to the period was the fact that these ships failed to bear a figurehead, nor headboards or trailboards. Finally the rigs of the Clippers were unique to the Chesapeake Bay, in that the designers made better use of engineering principles than did their contemporaries. The mast was further aft on the ship just as the foremast was proportionately taller, therefore allowing a more efficient use of sails.

For Baltimore in the late nineteenth century the Clippers were as an intricate part of daily life as the Chesapeake Bay is for Maryland now. They were a pivotal aspect in the development of foreign trade because they were far less vulnerable than other merchant ships of the period, and at the same time were more reliable and quicker to respond. They were used in naval service, illegal trading, and for carrying light cargoes. But the Baltimore Clippers received their true recognition for their role in the War of 1812. The Clippers were used to prey on English merchant ships and run blockades. If and when discovered they were able to outsail their opponents and therefore were able to keep on schedule better than their counterparts. In this way the Baltimore Clippers were responsible for more than 500 sinkings or seizures of British ships.

But after the treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, the uses for the Baltimore Clippers declined in number. They were still known worldwide for their usefulness in trade, both legal and illegal, allowing merchants the speed they needed to be competitive. They went to the West Indies with cargoes of flour and cotton, returning with coffee and sugar. They were used illegally to run blockades with war munitions in the South American revolution from Spain. Baltimore Clippers were often the ship of choice for slavers, smugglers, and West Indian pirate craft.

The use and manufacturing of Baltimore Clippers declined not because of their obsolescence but due to the reputation they gained. One part of this reputation was gained by being the ship of choice for South American raiding. Baltimore became one of the main supply ports for both the Spanish and revolutionary forces. With this reputation many respectable Baltimoreans backed away from any enterprises involving South America and indirectly the Baltimore Clipper. Another reason for this disapproval was their use in the slave trade. When the slave trade was prohibited in 1808, the Clippers went into use as shipping vessels for the enslaved human cargo. Therefore, they were looked down upon for both their use in this controversial issue and for going against the laws of the United States. Thus the Baltimore Clippers faded away to be replaced by larger ships capable of carrying greater cargoes with the same speed that the Clippers were so famous for.

Though the actual Baltimore Clippers may have drifted away into obscurity they are still prominent in the hearts and minds of Marylanders. The love citizens feel for these vessels of the past can be exemplified through the creation of the clipper ship Pride of Baltimore. This ship represented Maryland and its maritime ventures of the past and present on Independence Day 1976 when Baltimore's Inner Harbor opened its arms to welcome the tall ships of Europe and South America. Even the name bears connotations to the past. During the blockade in the War of 1812, Captain Thomas Boyle commanded the Chasseur which was able to capture 45 British merchant ships in a five month period. Because of its impressive performance, it returned home with its new nickname "Pride of Baltimore". Therefore it was only appropriate to name the new symbol of Baltimore and Maryland after its historic counterpart. From this point on, the Pride of Baltimore went, as former mayor William Donald Schaefer said, "forth to the port cities for the world".

Maryland's commitment to preserving its heritage can be seen throughout the state. Together the citizens have adopted the symbol of the Baltimore Clipper as a tribute to the people who have worked the waterways of the Chesapeake, the lifeline of our state's economy. It marks our triumphs and the obstacles we have overcome to protest our independence. Finally it can be seen as being representative of Maryland and its citizens as a whole, taking ideas and concepts from many different countries and combining them into something that is uniquely Maryland.

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Copyright December 09, 1998 Maryland State Archives