July 18, 2024

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Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.
Some Mainers never returned from the treacherous southern waters off Cape Horn or Straits of Magellan. And some who did were never again the same. This was the case for Belfast captain and part-ship owner Edwin Horace Harriman; another source says William and Herriman spelled with an “e.”
Regardless, in 1878 he sailed with his wife and son aboard the down-easter P.R. Hazeltine. At 1,836 tons, the 233-foot schooner was the largest-ever at that time built in Belfast. Constructed in 1875 by C.P. Carter for himself and Harriman, the vessel seemed ill-fated from the start.
A load of Virginia oak crashed to the ground from a broken gaff in the first days of construction, barely avoiding harm to dozens of workers. Carter then became ill with Bright’s disease and died before the vessel was completed. A week before launching, portions of staging around the ship collapsed, four painters fell over 15 feet. Worker Samuel B. Gillum was badly bruised.
P.R. Hazeltine launched May 25, 1876, although everyone thought it would be named C.P. Carter, after its late builder. But Harriman thought otherwise with a late decision on P.R. Hazeltine, after prominent Belfast resident Paul Richard Hazeltine, wealthy businessman and original benefactor for the Belfast Free Library.
On its very first voyage, P.R. Hazeltine went ashore in thick fog at Cape Sable Island and had to jettison its deck cargo of timber and be hauled off by a tug. It was not strained, but keel and planking were sorely chafed. Harriman reported the ship’s compass had been in error.
Its next and final voyage was December 1877, when it departed New York for San Francisco, with Harriman as master. His wife was aboard, as well as his 20-year-old son (another source says 21) as 2nd mate. Encountering horrible weather near Cape Horn, Harriman sought shelter near the Wollaston Islands, a group of rocky bits in Nassau Bay, between Cape Horn to the south and Navarino Island and Beagle Channel to the north.
Most 19th century sailing ships tended to stay away from the area, unless weather was even worse off Cape Horn. That was the case, when P.R. Hazeltine hit a submerged rock near the Wollaston Islands and sank in 10 fathoms of water. Belfast newspapers reported P.R. Hazeltine’s loss in early April 1878.
A few years ago, I had the great opportunity to visit that area aboard Seabourn Quest as guest lecturer in maritime history. My hope was to see some ship remains, but waters and weather did not cooperate, par for the course in Cape Horn waters.
It was at least possible to experience the area, mentally picturing Harriman’s situation. I also got to tell its story over the bridge’s inter-com to the passengers.
Author on the bridge of Seabourn Quest off Wollaston Islands near Cape Horn, telling the story of P.R. Hazeltine. From collection of Charles H. Lagerbom
First reports of the shipwreck were fragmentary, reporting only part of the crew had been saved, nothing more specific. Finally, reports came from Harriman himself, who said the ship had gone ashore near Cape Wollaston, but that vessel and cargo, worth nearly $500,000, could be raised from 10 fathoms.
Its cargo included 245 tons of coal, 200 tons of pig iron, 102 bundles of sheet iron, nearly 2,000 iron pipes, 75 cases of liquor, 586 barrels of whiskey, over a thousand kegs of nails, 3,500 cases of petroleum, and 347 barrels of pickles. But by May, Belfast newspapers reported the ship had been deemed an entire loss.
When P.R. Hazeltine sank, Harriman, his wife, and 17 crew took to two boats, later rescued by French bark Gustave. It was reported Capt. Harriman blamed the first mate for loss of the vessel. Harriman’s son took a third boat, which quickly separated from them in horrendous weather.
That May, Belfast’s Mrs. George F. White received a letter from her son Wellington, one of P.R. Hazeltine’s crew. It had been posted from Portland, Oregon, where some crew had been taken by steamer after reaching Valparaiso, Chile. White reported a tough journey, describing losing their fore-top-gallant mast just eight days out from port.
As for the wreck, he wrote they were just a few miles from Cape Horn when Harriman decided to detour around Wollaston Island to avoid horrendous weather. At 8 knots running, trying to round Wollaston, P.R. Hazeltine struck a submerged rock. The next sea lifted the vessel dropping it back onto the same rock, which holed the bottom, quickly putting 3 feet of water in the hold.
Within an hour, the first two boats were away, leaving the mate and seven others aboard with a smaller third boat. Avoiding local natives, the two boats struggled for the next 18 days facing privations from lack of food and horrible weather before finally being rescued by Gustave.
Harriman’s son and six others were rescued in the Straits of LeMaire by American bark Sonoma out of Boston, which transported them on to San Francisco. For nearly two weeks, they had fought rough seas and weather, living chiefly on mussels and an occasional penguin.
At one point, they took shelter in a cave, only to find remains of a boat, some oars, oil-skin clothing and skeletal remains. The skeletons, lying side by side, had no clothing on them and looked like their flesh had been stripped away.
Suspecting cannibalism and sickened by the smell, 2nd mate Harriman grabbed as much of the clothing as possible, as well as a box with 15 pounds of tobacco, and fled back to their boat. He washed the oil-skin coat as best he could to rid it of its fearful smell and also made use of a pair of large sea boots.
Apparently, the crew attempted a few times to assert their authority over Harriman as 2nd mate, but failed to do so. He kept control, sailing their boat into LeMaire Strait, where they were picked up by Sonoma; another source says Samoa on its way from Liverpool with a load of coal for San Francisco.
Other Belfast owners of P.R. Hazeltine were notified by Capt. Harriman in late May that the ship was in 10 fathoms of water, but could still be salvageable. He requested permission to draw funds to do so, reckoning it would take five months. When owners declined, he went ahead on his own and bought it back at auction in Valparaiso.
Once back in Belfast, Harriman made plans to return to Tierra del Fuego and salvage his ship; it became his driving obsession. He looked into chartering a vessel, with eyes on local Belfast barkentine John C. Smith. He also got U.S. Sen. Hannibal Hamlin to contact the American minister in Chile to request P.R. Hazeltine be protected until he got there.
In September, a ship found P.R. Hazeltine entirely submerged. Some rigging was saved, pieces sent to the Punta Arenas governor. A month later, Harriman learned of potential rivals interested in his ship; they were outfitting at Montevideo, Uruguay, further fueling his worries and obsession.
In January 1879, Harriman left for Cape Horn after engaging salvage expert C.A. Jones of Montevideo. Another source says Jones, a professional diver and wrecker, had already bought the rights for salvage and that Harriman just accompanied him on the attempt.
Either way, word surfaced that ship Kate Kelloch had encountered natives in canoes near the wreck. Shots had been fired and three natives killed; another source says one died with others wounded. A warning was sent to Harriman to be on guard.
In June, it was reported Harriman had made it to Cape Horn, possibly with Jones, but by then had suffered a complete breakdown. Their salvage attempt was reported to have ended in failure and this may have been the cause.
Harriman was declared clinically insane, driven in extremis by anxiety. Reports from fellow ship captains on seeing him in Montevideo confirmed it. He was taken to Havre for treatment and newspapers then refrained from further comment on his condition, following the family’s wishes.
It appears wrecker Jones once again visited the site; he reported P.R. Hazeltine still in decent shape. He must have been partially successful, as on January 1880, a report from Valparaiso announced cargo had arrived there after being salvaged, mostly barrels of whiskey and pianos encased in tin.
One diver on that salvage effort was known around Belfast; he was S.F. Purrinton. When interviewed, Purrinton suggested the vessel could still be raised and estimated $15,000 to do it. There were no takers and P.R Hazeltine was left to the mercies of Cape Horn waters and weather. It eventually broke apart and reportedly remains are still visible.
Capt. E.H. or William Harriman died at the Augusta, Maine, mental hospital Aug. 14, 1893, at age 66. His son Charles S. Harriman, P.R. Hazeltine’s 2nd mate, was chief mate aboard ship Levi C. Wade when that vessel was lost with all hands in 1884.
Harriman’s house in Belfast, later run as a bed and breakfast known as the Mad Captain’s House. Courtesy of Belfast Historical Society and Museum
Wellington White died in Miami in 1937, last of the surviving crew. Harriman’s stately captain’s home in Belfast operated at one point as a bed-and-breakfast notably called the Mad Captain’s House. It was later torn down.
The author overlooking Punta Arenas, Chile, and the Straits of Magellan. Photo by Jon Cox, from collection of Charles H. Lagerbom
Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.
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