By Lisa Cavanaugh
If you drive from Bridge Street in Dennis, crossing over Sesuit Creek and turning down a charming stretch of Sesuit Neck Road, you will find yourself at Sesuit Harbor, home to the town of Dennis’ docks, Northside Marina, and the popular Sesuit Harbor Cafe. Don’t be too intent on a pleasure cruise or lobster roll to miss a plaque embedded on a stone placed on the rise above the town marina’s parking lot.
Dedicated in 1924, it commemorates Shiverick Shipyard, which once filled the environs with the sounds of hammers, axes and saws, and sent to sea magnificent multi-masted vessels. From 1815 until 1863, the family-owned enterprise produced dozens of vessels for fishing, commerce and international shipping. They were the only builders of glorious clipper ships on Cape Cod, manufacturing eight in the period from 1850 to 1862.
The patriarch of the family, Asa Shiverick, was born in Falmouth, son of a minister. He moved to East Dennis during the War of 1812 and bought land that backed up to Sesuit Creek. He began building ships in 1815, crafting schooners and brigs used by local fishermen. Schooners were popular for fishing because their holds were large enough for storing both supplies and fish, and they were crafted to reach Georges Bank and the Grand Banks rather quickly, by measure of the 1800s.
Shiverick had three sons, David, Paul and Asa Jr., all of whom learned the craft of shipbuilding, either with their father or in Boston’s big commercial yards. Asa Jr., the youngest, also traveled to Maine to gain experience and when he returned he joined his brothers on Sesuit Creek. Each of them built homes right along the water, and worked with their father constructing the smaller vessels in demand at the time.
Around the time Asa Sr. retired in the early 1840s, the three young men had decided to venture into a new line of vessel — the clipper ship. Sleek and narrow, with three masts and a square rig, clipper ships were built for speed, to “clip” quickly over the waves. Clipper ships were beginning to sail around the globe on international trade routes, particularly to China, whose tea was in great demand in Europe and North America. When gold was first discovered in California in 1848, men started flocking to the territory and wanted to get there fast – so fast, the old saying went, that they could bring fresh eggs from Boston to San Francisco all the way around Cape Horn (long before the Panama Canal was built) without those eggs spoiling.
The Shiverick brothers moved their boatworks a half-mile closer to Cape Cod Bay, the better to launch their new greyhound-sleek 500- to 1000-ton ships. Their first clipper, Revenue, set sail in 1850 and was captained in turn by two local men, Captain Seth Crowell and Captain David Seabury Sears, both of Dennis.
Shiverick ships were launched out of the yard bare.
“They built the hulls of the ships in East Dennis,” says Dennis Historical Society curator Phyllis Horton, “then they were towed or jury-rigged to East Boston shipyards to be outfitted with everything else.”
According to one of the last clipper ship officers, Captain Thomas Franklin Hall, as quoted in Admont Clark’s 1963 book, “They Built Clippers Ships in Their Back Yard,” the launchings could seem momentous and dangerous:
“The launchings always occurred during the high course tides in the early spring or fall. Even then there was not a great surplus of water, only enough to really float the larger ships for about one-half to three-quarters of an hour on each tide. Launching such large vessels into such a small stream was, therefore, considered by the inexperienced a venturesome, daring undertaking.”
The next Shiverick clipper ship, Hippogriffe, took its maiden voyage from Boston to San Francisco in 1852, helmed by Captain Anthony Howes, also of Dennis. He captained her for several years, including voyages to Peru and Calcutta, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1858, Hippogriffe encountered a previously uncharted rock in the South China Sea and Captain Howes maneuvered the ship back to Hong King safely despite a chunk of the coral stuck in the bow.
Six other clipper ships the Shivericks built on Cape Cod were Belle of the West, Kit Carson, Wild Hunter, Web Foot, Christopher Hall (named for one of the Shiverick Shipyard primary financiers) and the last in the series, Ellen Sears. Each was profitable, traveling to places like Ceylon, Chile, Burma, Singapore, and Australia, quickly carrying exotic and valuable goods back to Europe and America.
Soon after completing Ellen Sears in 1862, the brothers closed the Shiverick Shipyard and moved on to different maritime-related careers. David was a captain, and Asa Jr. and Paul joined the Pacific Guano Company in Woods Hole (whose fertilizer product’s main ingredient was originally transported from the South Seas to Cape Cod on their clipper ships).
The Civil War took its toll on American nautical commerce and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 offered a shorter journey between the North Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Finally, once steamships with their much larger cargo capacity began to increase their capabilities – the steamships were not necessarily faster than the clippers, but their engines made them more reliable — the brief heyday of the globe-trotting clipper ship came to a close.
In Dennis, the bustle of a busy commercial harbor — Sesuit and nearby Quivet Neck also had blacksmith shops, carpenters and caulkers, general stores and packet ships moving salt from nearby salt works to markets off-Cape — eventually gave way to private homes and recreational boating. Of the Sesuit Creek clippers there is nothing remaining; none of the Shiverick ships have survived. Made of wood, worked hard, only two clipper ships still exist: the City of Adelaide and the Cutty Sark.
But if you get a chance to stop by the quiet knoll above Sesuit Harbor, take a moment to imagine a thousand tons of oak and pine, crafted into what many believe was the sleekest sailing ship ever crafted, launching into Cape Cod Bay, bound for ports around the world.