Chapter 2: The Packets to Liverpool and Life in Brooklyn


     The whale industry experienced a steady and permanent decline through the 1840s and 1850s. The reasons are various and won't be outlined yet here. It isn't surprising to find that, by 1850, Luther had definately moved away from whaling. Aside from commercial issues, he undoubtedly was not happy to be away from his family for such long periods. His wife surely didn't like it, and he now had 3 children he barely knew. For whatever reason, he turned his attention to a different sort of sea-faring life.
     New York City shipping in the mid 19th century was dominated by the transportation of immigrants from Europe and mail and commercial goods between that city and Liverpool. This was called the "fast packet" business, packet referring to the mail that was delivered back and forth. John Briggs' ship Wilmington & Liverpool Packet had an odd name, but it referred to this business. Packet ships were square-rigged sailing vessels constructed or refitted for the purpose. Many of the captains of packet ships came from New Bedford and Nantucket, which had large populations of seasoned men who commanded or were among the crews of the fleets of whalers. Trips made by the packets were generally no more than 3 months in duration, which must have appealed to whalers and their families after those long voyages to the Pacific.
     Luther found work with the extensive Black Ball Line, the most famous of New York’s packet firms, by 1850. His first commission was on the ship New York. It was made in Brooklyn by Webb & Allen in 1839, and upon her launching The New York Evening Post said "She is a very fine ship....In point of beauty...New York is all that could be desired by any one." The Herald said the ship "is one of the most skillfully finished vessels that sails out of this port... and fitted up with every regard to convenience and comfort." It was 862 tons and 152 feet, 6 inches in length (7.5) and sailed from New York with Luther at the helm probably on 16 September 1850.(8)



company flag of the Black Ball Line


     Luther's premiere voyage (the first found to date) in the packet service was a sober one. In addition to mail, these ships carried many Irish famine immigrants. There were 386 passengers on this trip of New York.(9) Westerly gales damaged the ship and nearly doubled the usual time to make the passage. The ship arrived in New York harbor with 19 dead, suggesting that a contagious disease made its way through the ship. Hannah Green had boarded in Liverpool with her four children. She and her oldest, 12 year-old Michael, survived the trip but Catherine, 8, John, 6, and Mary, 11 months, died. While these and the other deaths would have been cause enough for concern, a young woman killed her baby during the trip and a teen-aged boy named Bernard McCardle, intended to be united with relatives in Manhattan, apparently suffered a crushed right foot. He undoubtedly got in the way of shifting or falling objects during the storm.
     Luther's commission as master of the New York continued through only one more voyage. By the Fall he was master of Yorkshire, perhaps the most famous of these sailing packet ships and on which a previous captain, David Bailey, made a never-surpassed speed record (under sail) in 1846 on the more difficult, wind-fighting leg from Liverpool to New York. Yorkshire was 996 tons and 166 feet, 6 inches in length, made in Brooklyn by William H. Webb in 1843. After a second trip on Yorkshire which arrived back in New York early in 1852 and was delayed in quarantine due to a small pox death, Luther’s Black Ball career ended. With the exception of a few captains who held long associations with the most prestigious of the company’s ships, it seems Black Ball captains generally came and went quickly, not unlike today's large firms that have many openings but fewer opportunities for advancement. Further research into this aspect of the packet firms is needed.



Yorkshire (notice the black ball on the sail and the flag above)



(above taken from "The Old Print Shop" website)

     Luther's next ship was to be sailed by another captain in the Winter of 1852. Capt. Eben Howes held the commission for Siddons and The New York Post through January advertised that he was about to make his regularly-scheduled trip to Liverpool on 26 January. The prescribed day came and went without the ship leaving and the ad disappeared. Siddons finally sailed on 8 February, but with Luther Briggs at the helm. The fate of Eben Howes is not yet known.



     Siddons was owned by the Dramatic Line, composed of ships named for English playwrites. It was a triplet with the ships Garrick and Sheridan. They were 895 tons, 157 feet, 6 inches in length, the latter two built in Brooklyn by Brown & Bell in 1836 and Siddons in 1837.

The perfection of the science [of shipbuilding] would seem to have been obtained in the 'Siddons,' now lying at the foot of Wall street, and taking in a cargo for Liverpool, whither she will sail on Tuesday...and, incredible as it may appear, surpasses her immediate predecessors of the same line. She is...as exquisite a model as...a crack frigate. Her cabins are built in the form of the cuddy of the English East Indiaman, being on the main deck, so that there is no occasion of going below - an improvement greatly in favor of the comfort of qualmish passengers. These sufferings are so much increased by the closenes of the atmosphere in the cabins on the old plan. In this vessel, which glitters with painted glass, inlaid brasswork, and rose wood work polished like a mirror, the most fastidious and apprehensive must feel at ease; solidity and elegance, strength and luxury seem blended together in such harmonious union. The demi-pilasters between the staterooms have a beautiful effect, presenting the appearance of the whitest porcelain, the process, we understand, is tooling ??? wood, and it looks like an encaustic painting. The figure head is a likeness of Mrs. Siddons, in the famous attitude of 'Queen Catharine,' and this is multiplied upon glass in various parts of the cabin, wherever painted glass can be introduced. The roominess of the staterooms is extraordinary, and their dimensions are equal to those of many a gentleman's apartment in the old American and City Hotel. Althogether we loook upon the 'Siddons' as being at the head of the packet fleet, and almost envy her passengers their three weeks of easy luxury.(11.4)

The owners may have offered Luther a better deal than that with Black Ball Line. They were left without a captain for an already scheduled trip and Luther, surely known in the business by then and perhaps looking for a change, was on land. In a snapshot of profit shares for packets in 1852, Luther is on record as having an eighth share of profits from Siddons.(10) It may have been to Luther's advantage to work for this company, being a big fish in a much smaller pond than that of the Black Ball. Records for other years will likely reveal that Luther had shares in other ships he sailed, but perhaps not during his first year out as a newcomer with Black Ball.

For Liverpool - Dramatic Line - Packet of 26th Sept. - The splendid and favorite packet ship SIDDONS, Capt. Luther J. Briggs, will sail as above her regular day. For freight or passage, having very fine accomodations, apply on board at pier 14, East River, or to Spofford, Tileston & Co., 48 South St.(11)
     Luther made five trips on Siddons before changing lines again. Between January and May of 1853, the Dramatic Line was several times. Spofford, et al, sold to "Foster, Morgan and others" for $120,000.(11.5) to J. Collins, and between May and August, ownership passed to J. Foster, Jr. The New York Times reports that the line was sold again the following December, so clearly things were unstable and Luther was probably suffering, at least financially. Did he find a larger share elsewhere? The new line was the Empire, operated by D. & A. Kingslands & Sutton out of New York, and the Black Star operating out of Liverpool under the directorship of Caleb Grimshaw & Co., which had a long history of transporting immigrants and cargo from Waterloo Dock. Immigrants' fares went directly to the captain. This company brought the George R. K. Smith family (from another branch of Doug Sinclair's tree) from Liverpool in 1849 on Caleb Grimshaw (which had the misfortune to burn at sea the following year on the route to New York). Luther's commission was on Empire State, previously helmed by Joseph G. Russell. Russell was born in Maine, and therefore not from the New Bedford Russells. The ship was built in Portsmouth, NH, by Fernald & Pettigrew in 1849. It was registered in 1857 at 1435 tons (by customs measurement, but 1640 tons carpenter's measure when built), and in 1863 it was registered with a length of 180 feet and a width of 40 feet. It was the largest of all the packet ships when it was launched:(11.6)





      It was not unusual for New York packet captains to live well outside that city. The Briggs family had remained in New Bedford through this period, perhaps waiting to see if the packet business would work for them financially.(12) In 1854, they could be found in a townhouse at the corner of State and Nevins Streets in what is now the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, (13.1) They had probably moved by the Spring of 1853. In August of that year, Siddons arrived in New York with the Briggs family on board, having joined Luther on one of his trips to Liverpool, and they would all have sailed out of New York harbor earlier in the year. Mary Briggs, Jr., wasn't with them, however. Discussed further later, it seems she may have died by then. It is curious that Mary, Sr., was pregnant when they left and about 7 months along when they returned. It is easy to imagine Mary wanting the family to be together, even if it meant a risky sea voyage while pregnant. Their son Henry, known as "Harry," was born the following October. The family sailed with Luther again in 1855, with the eldest and youngest of the boys staying behind that time. Thornton was only about 11 and Harry just a toddler, without their parents for about 3 months. Mary's sister Rebecca Thornton was probably living with them by this time, given that she is known to have later on. She may have cared for those children who did not go to Liverpool. They weren't left off the passenger lists mistakenly because Luther himself compiled them.

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7.1 Richard Albion, Square-Riggers on Schedule.
8. Black Ball ships were regularly scheduled to leave New York on the 16th of each month.
9. Lists of Passengers Arriving in New York, 1790-1897, microfilm, National Archives Records Administration
10. Albion, Square-Riggers on Schedule.
11. advertisement from The New York Post.
11.4 The New York Herald, 1 Jan 1838.
11.5. The New York Times, 10 Dec. 1852, p. 8.
11.6. New Hampshire Patriot, 15 March 1849, p. 2.
12. The New Bedford city directory of 1852 lists Luther at the 1849 address and as master of the ship Siddons.
13.1 1854 Brooklyn city direcory. The house still stands, although if the street numbering changed at all, it may not be the same building. It is mentioned in the Marsh diary, visited by Celia, her sister and the Briggs family in 1857.

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