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( Originally Published 1940 )
The field of transportation is perilous ground for the researcher in craft to tread. In the narrowest technical sense the story of American contributions to, or influences upon, modes of transportation belongs in a study of invention, or technological processes. But we have made the tenet that craft is a prerequisite to invention, in most cases. We further note that many American developments in transportation flourished almost spontaneously to meet specific needs. The ingenuity that rose to the occasion in answering such needs sprang often from the insight of the craftsman.
As early as the Revolutionary War ingenious Colonials were tinkering with the idea of submersible boats, as strategic means of attack upon the superior naval forces of the British. The idea of travel under water clung so tenaciously from one generation to another that the submarine inevitably evolved as an American invention.
To meet the needs of the Civil War, river and coastal vessels were sheathed with armor and sent forth to battle; the first ironclads in the world, ingeniously improvised to meet a need.
The development of the steam engine must largely be credited to the English, who had a necessity of their own, chiefly for stationary power to be used in industrial activity. It was in America, where great networks of vast rivers held the key to our inland exploitation, that steam was harnessed to boats, through the sum of the efforts of several individuals. The steamboat is truly American.
In the great overland push westward, the ingenuity of wheelwrights and waggoners contrived the many conveyances needed, not for the luxury of passenger carrying, but for freight hauling. These ranged from the hand-carts of the heroic Mormon advance to the Conestoga Wagon and the later familiar Covered Wagon or "Prairie Schooner."
The railroad had been used on a small scale in England. It was on the expanding continent of America, where the distances to be spanned and the directions to be taken could no longer be accommodated by rivers or artificial waterways, that the iron horse was set upon stretches of track worthy of his powers. The railroad, in its epic proportions, is American. The railroad for years was like a child whose developing strength exceeds his discretion. The need for speed and power outstripped the development of safety devices relating to switches, signal systems, and air brakes. American craft ingenuity hastened to keep up with the rolling cars, contriving devices to meet the continual appearance of new needs.
The fabulous Erie Canal, unfortunately destined to a swift doom by the railroads, is an astonishing record of the capacity of ingenious men to work by main strength and instinct. Reput edly the men who headed the construction were not "engineers" as we understand the term today. Nor were they trained in the secrets of vast-scale canal building. (Where could they have obtained such training? Where were comparable canals?) They sent out their work crews and did the job, devising means of solving each problem as they met it, never bothering to look for trouble they didn't find. Walter D. Edmonds has written a number of rich novels about the days of the "canawl," notably Rome Haul and Chad Hanna.
The French led the development of the automobile. Again the insatiable Americans with more country to cover, seized upon the idea, developed their own simpler and more efficient variants, and had begun to scatter cars over the face of the nation long before suitable roads could be made to accommodate them.
Roads, waterways, and tracks proved insufficient to the American need and the American energy. The Wright brothers tinkered around in a bicycle shop and came out with a flying contraption that revolutionized transportation and realized a dream which had haunted visionaries for centuries.
Deliberately removed from its more or less chronological sequence is the most sheerly romantic of all the American contributions to the rapid consumption of distance: the Yankee Clipper. It is an open question as to whether the clipper should be classified more accurately as a work of craft or a work of art. It was the most beautiful, the most noble type of ship ever built by man.
No one man was responsible for the clipper ship. It evolved, with a growing need, under the hands of far-seeing, daring, and loving craftsmen. The man who builds an iron boat is an engi neer. But the man who builds a sailing vessel, of whatever proportions, is indisputably a craftsman, and a good bit of an artist. There is a lack of precision in the behavior of a sailing ship, an incalculable factor which can be called each ship's personality. There is an intimate, personal link between a sailing ship and its builder, and a sailing ship and its crew. The vast structure of legend, song, and poetry that has sprung from the sailing ship is testimony to this. The obscure and sometimes fanciful jargon of the old-time sailor reflects it.
The clipper ship grew out of the frigate and the packet. The frigate was a boat necessarily built for speed and strength. In the days of the Revolution, and the stormy years of sea conflict with England that followed, the frigate was designed to carry guns and to outstrip the slower but formidable vessels of hostile British patrols. The frigate was the ship of the pirate and privateer.
The packet was a smaller and lighter vessel and became the traditional carrier of mail. When one of the major factors in the development of the clipper ship came along, the discovery of gold in California, the packets set up a speedy run between New York and Panama for the many who desired to rush westward via the Isthmus crossing.
Many authorities feel that the element of sheer sportsmanship was one of the greatest forces underlying the clipper ship. Races around Cape Horn, races to China, races around the world were the sport and trade of the fabulous Yankee skippers. The richest prizes in the Orient were often for the man who got there first. With the further impetus to carry freight and passengers around the Horn to gold-galvanized California the true clipper, or technically the extreme clipper, flourished.
For the lay understanding the principle of the clipper is fairly simple. It was a boat with an unusually slender hull and a considerable length. It was anything but a conservative vessel for it carried a disproportionate and sometimes dangerous amount of sail. The demoniacal skippers, (Melville's Captain Ahab, though not a clipper man, is the archetype), with the lust of speed and competition, often brutally driving their men, crammed sail onto the long, slender craft until they were nearly lifted out of the water. There are hair-raising accounts of legendary roundings of the Horn, passages through the Straits of Magellan with full sail in a hurricane, and the like. Never did the craftsmen-artists of America set their hands to a more beautiful and glamorous creation.
Several men made clipper ships. The greatest and most productive of them all, the man who led the development more than any other single person, was a Scotch-American, Donald McKay. Among his many beautiful clippers was the loveliest of all, the famous Flying Cloud.