April 2, 2018

The Curator’s Log: April 2018

The Boyhood Sketches of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff

The Boyhood Sketches of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff

Captain Nat's files are replete with sketches of boats. Search the records of a particular boat and there will invariably be a sketch and on the verso one or more sketches of another vessel or some other ship detail. In fact, his design process always started with a small freehand pencil sketch of the profile and midship section.  When did he start sketching boats? Until recently we thought it was probably in 1859-60, when assisting his father and blind older brother John to build the catboat SPRITE. It was there he later wrote; "I thus began my instruction in naval architecture at age of eleven and one-half years." 1

But recently librarian and archivist Norene Rickson pointed to five sketches donated to the museum from the L. Francis Herreshoff Collection by Muriel Vaughn via Elizabeth Vaughn. They appear to be from the same hand; two of the five are scribed "N. G. Herreshoff" and dated in February -March 1858-- just days short of his 10th birthday. They all demonstrate an understanding of the subject; a keen eye to proportion and detail, as well as a strong interest in steam vessels and machinery. We have identified all the sketches save one sailing vessel. Maybe one of our readers can identify it.

Let's examine the sketches.

Paddle-steamer PERRY – Sketch undated & unsigned.
Below: Figure 1A & Figure 1B

PERRY was launched by the American Steamboat Co. about 1845 and in 1847 was its first vessel in a Providence to Newport service that included stops in Bristol. According to Warwick historian Henry A. I. Brown, it was the ship of choice of Governor John Brown Francis and a transport for the Assembly for their yearly May meeting in Newport.  PERRY, as evidenced by advertisements in the Newport Daily News, operated through the summer 1862; early afternoon excursions to Providence and return for a fifty-cent fare. The last found record of her service in Narragansett Bay is September 1864, assisting in the transfer from the steamer BALTIC of nearly 500 sick and wounded Union soldiers to the Portsmouth Grove Hospital. 2 3 4

Nat most likely witnessed PERRY at dock in Bristol or transiting the Bay.

Nat's sketch, Figure 1A, showing PERRY's profile, pilot house, tall funnel, and diamond shaped lattice structure of the walking beam engine compares closely with a preliminary study, Figure 1B, by noted marine artist, Samuel Ward Stanton (1870-1912). (Stanton accurately documented more than 1000 American steam vessels, before going down with the TITANIC.)5

Paddle-steamer METROPOLIS- Sketch signed "N. G. Herreshoff to his brother James March 13, 1858".
Below: Figure 2A & Figure 2B

The 2108-ton METROPOLIS was built in 1854 by Sneedon and Whitlock of Greenport, Long Island for the Boston and New York Line's service via Newport and Fall River, connecting by rail to Boston. METROPOLIS operated along with two earlier-built and slightly smaller, BAY STATE and EMPIRE STATE, until conversion to a railroad car ferry in 1873. These boats carrying about 600 passengers for a fare of $4, arrived in Fall River in the early morning where passengers boarded the Old Colony Railroad to arrive in Boston in time for morning business appointments. 6

Nat would have seen her transiting Narragansett Bay, or at the pier in Newport or Fall River. He also may have seen images of her in advertisements of the service.

Nat's sketch, Figure 2A, with prominent wheelhouse, side-by-side funnels, paddle wheel casing with vessel name, and kingpost arrangement closely matches Stanton's published drawing, Figure 2B. 7

Ocean-going paddle-steamer NORTH STAR-Sketch signed at the top "N. G. Herreshoff to his brother James March 13, 1858" and also at the bottom "N. G. Herreshoff Feb. 20, 1858"
Below: Figure 3A & Figure 3B

The black-hulled, 270-foot long, two-funnel NORTH STAR was designed and built by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt as a private yacht. Powered by four boilers, two walking-beam engines and thirty-four-foot paddlewheels she rivaled the most modern transatlantic liners of her day. Later she operated a tightly scheduled passenger liner and mail service between New York and England for the Vanderbilt Line. A review of newspaper shipping records for the early months of 1858 reveal no diversion from her schedule. Nat must have made his sketch from a published print image of this well-known vessel, such as the left image Figure 3B. The right image shows NORTH STAR fully-rigged when sailing as a yacht.8

Railway steam engine 4-4-0 wheel arrangement- Sketch undated & unsigned.
Below: Figure 4A & Figure 4B

The 4-4-0 wheel arrangement was common to American railroads from the late 1830s. Nat would have seen it in the Bristol yard of the Providence, Warren, and Bristol rail line at the west end of Franklin Street. Comparing Nat's sketch, Figure 4A, to the 1856 photo of a 4-4-0 engine, Figure 4B, he has accurately located the cranks for the large driving wheels; also, the location and proportions of the other major features.

The Mystery Ship
Three-masted Bark- Sketch undated & unsigned.
Below: Figure 5

Figure 5; Nat's Sketch of Unknown Bark

This is the ship we have not been able to identify. It is a three-masted bark, with fore and main masts rigged for square sails and the mizzen rigged fore and aft with a gaff. From the look of her hull she is not a warship with guns and side ports. She flies an "A" or star symbol pennant from the foremast, a very long pennant from the main, multi- starred flag from the mizzen and US colors from the gaff. The details of the rig are amazing for a boy of barely ten years. This sketch is on the verso of the undated PERRY sketch.


The sketches evidence at a very young age Capt. Nat's, later widely recognized, ability for keen observation, a deft eye and hand for drawing, and focused thought towards continuing self-betterment.

John Palmieri

1 Carlton Pinheiro. Recollections and Other Writing by Nathanael G. Herreshoff. Herreshoff Marine Museum, Bristol RI, 1998. Page 41.

2 Robert A. Geake, A History of the Providence River with the Moshassuck, Woonasquatucket & Seekonk Rivers. Charleston, SC The History Press 2013. Page not given.

3 Newport Daily News Monday Aug. 11, 1862 (For example)

4 Frank L. Grzyb, Rhode Island's Civil War Hospital: Life and Death at Portsmouth Grove, 1862–1865.  Jefferson NC McFarland & Co. 2012. Page 131.

5 Samuel Ward Stanton preliminary sketch of PERRY, courtesy of the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA.

6 Carl D. Lane, American Paddle Steamboats. New York, Coward-McCann, Inc. 1943. Pages 18-20, 82-3.

7 Figure 2B is from Drawings by Samuel Ward Stanton, Vol. 2 Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay. Pg. 25

8 T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Knopf, 2009. Chapter 9; North Star