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Old News
by John Thorn
October 20, 2004 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In my last column, in which I weighed the benefits of attending a grade-school reunion (I did; it was great), I mused that it might be a good thing to sense that all of one's life is connected, and not just one damn thing after another. Three months earlier, in my first column for this paper, "Finding Frank Pidgeon," I asked readers to supply further information about the once-famous pitcher-inventor-painter who, as it turned out, was buried on Main Street in Saugerties. The sound you are about to hear is the other shoe dropping.



In the first week after the Pidgeon story hit print I received a call from Matthew Leaycraft, a descendant who differed with my interpretation of how the great man had died but all the same was pleased that his life had come into public view once again. He mentioned that Annie Eliza Pidgeon Searing, one of Frank's four daughters, had attended Vassar, was an activist for women's rights, and had written a book for children. Long out of print, When Granny Was a Little Girl detailed life in the Pidgeon household in Saugerties (in the hamlet of Malden, along the Hudson) in the 1860s and '70s. Among many other interesting bits about his legacy, Mr. Leaycraft said that the figurehead of the ship Albany, which had borne Frank Pidgeon and other New Yorkers to California in the golden year of 1849, had once stood on the lawn of the family's home in Malden and was now on display at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY).

The story of the reaper-styled figurehead was intriguing; as a frequent visitor to the MCNY, I was certain that I had seen it there among the many marine treasures. But what seized my imagination was the very existence of the book - a family log not only of life in Saugerties, where I had lived with my own family for 17 years, but perhaps a uniquely personal look at one of the giants of early baseball. I went online to used-book retailer abe.com and located a copy immediately.

Receiving the book in the mail a week later, I read it through in one sitting. Published in 1926, when A.E.P. Searing was nearly 70, these personal reminiscences written over many years recreated an idyllic family life along the Hudson that had long since disappeared. When Granny Was a Little Girl was so charming a memoir that I scarcely regretted the absence of anything to do with baseball. It included a splendid chapter on a steamer visit to New York City and a meeting with P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb; a glimpse of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train, northbound in April 1865; and an entire chapter on the voyage of the Albany and the stunning arrival of its figurehead at the Pidgeon homestead.

"Stricken dumb with awe, the little ones watched as a giant man carved out of wood, weather-beaten with age, and bound about with ropes, was lowered to the ground. The huge image was carrying a sheaf of wheat over one arm, and in his other hand he held a sickle. He was dressed in knee-breeches, and a shirt open at the neck, and on his head was a very queer, old-fashioned flat-topped hat." The children were impatient to learn the story behind this odd statue that their mother called a figurehead.

"Well," their father began, "your mother was right in her guess - it is the figurehead of the ship Albany in which I went to California in '49. The old square-rigger must have gone to pieces years ago, and, as is the custom when they break up old ships, the parts were sold for junk. This figurehead - a very fine one - I found by chance in a junk shop on South Street in New York."

"I don't see," Mollie broke in, "why the ship was named Albany when the figure on the bow was a man reaping?"

"Good," said Father; "very intelligent of you to notice that, Daughter. The name of the vessel had been the Reaper, and under that name she had sailed all over the world. She had been a whaler when Yankee ships were the great whale-hunters of the seas, and then a cargo-carrier to Oriental ports. True to her name, she had reaped harvests of profits to her owners all over the world, and when she was getting old, the gold fever came, and they fitted her up to go round the Horn with a shipful of young gold-hunters from New York State, and out of compliment to them, they changed her name to Albany...."



A.E.P. Searing mentioned two other distinguished shipmates of her father's on that vessel: Henry Meiggs of Catskill, who later perpetrated a famous fraud on the residents of San Francisco and skipped town, though he later won fame as a railroad builder in the Andes; and George Steers, with whom her father had worked in the New York and Brooklyn shipyards and who would go on to design the famous yacht America, for which the racing cup is still named.

Might other notables, baseball or otherwise, have been on board? I wrote to the Society of California Pioneers, whose librarian, Pat Keats, had been so helpful in my research of two baseball argonauts, Alexander Cartwright and William R. Wheaton. Had a passenger list of the Albany survived? Passenger lists of 1850-79 had been published in four volumes, Ms. Keats said, but according to the U.S. Harbor Master of San Francisco in June 1851, "original records of the arrivals from March 26 to July 1, 1849 were defaced in the fire by water and mud, and some portions were entirely destroyed and others rendered unintelligible and difficult to be copied."

I cast about on the web, and at sfgenealogy.com I found that the Albany had sailed from New York in January 1849 and, presumably because of bad weather, had not arrived in San Francisco until mid-July ... and what was more, the site had a complete passenger list. It included "F. Pidgeon" and "H. Meiggs," but not "G. Steers." Mrs. Searing was wrong; Steers was busy building ships rather than boarding them. Maybe this slip was just a bit of poetic license, or an isolated careless recollection, but it made me suspect her report of the figurehead.

Setting sail on the web once more, I navigated through old newspapers (New York Times, Brooklyn Eagle, San Francisco Alta), nautical and historical books (via the digital libraries of Proquest, Project Gutenberg, Questia, and the Making of America), and specialized sites such as maritimeheritgae.org and mysticseaport.org. The wind was up, and I rode the waves confidently. I discovered that the Albany had been built between 1843 and 1846, had served nobly in the Mexican War, and was lost at sea in 1854. A second Albany had been launched in 1864 but was placed out of commission only six years later, and sold for scrap in an auction advertised in the New York Times on December 3, 1872. Was this second Albany the source of Frank Pidgeon's figurehead?

Not yet satisfied, I wrote to the MCNY, which I thought might have received some clue as to the provenance and origin of the figurehead upon its acquisition. The Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Andrea Fahnestock, replied:

"The donor of the object in 1937 was Augustus Van Horne Ellis of Pelham Manor. The object's file indicates that the figurehead was carved c. 1831 for the packet ship Albany when it was built at the yard of Christian Bergh & Co. near Corlears Hook. It is said to have served as one of the principal packet ships of the Havre-Whitlock Line for 16 years. There is no notation of the source of this information. The base on which the figure rests, made later, bears a carved inscription that records the speed of a New York-San Francisco voyage made between January and July 1849. Minutes from the Marine Museum (previous owner of the object) from 1937 read as follows: 'It is of interest to note that the father of the donor sailed in the Albany as a passenger, from New York to San Francisco, in 1849, the passage taking six months.'"

I glanced again at the passenger list, and sure enough, one of the passengers was John Ellis. Now, Mr. Leaycraft had told me that the figurehead had found its way up to Maine sometime after Frank Pidgeon's death in 1884. Mrs. Augustus Van Horne Ellis, whose husband was to donate the figurehead to the Maritime Museum (and thence MCNY) in 1937, told a member of the Pidgeon family that the figurehead had stood in the garden of John Ellis's Mt. Deseret Island home in 1888, when she married into the family. I thus had to presume, with two shipmates of the 1849 Albany proudly displaying the figurehead, it was unlikely to have come from another ship, even one of the same name.

Back to shore, and back to the web. Now I searched shipping records from 1831, when the packet ship Albany began to ply the Havre line, to beyond 1854, when the first Albany was lost at sea. I found a packet ship Albany making voyages between New York and Spain in the 1820s, and another sailing regularly to Le Havre from 1832 to 1848. And then, in the New York Times of November 12, 1855 - a year after the Albany's presumed disappearance - I found a merchant vessel named Albany cleared to depart New York for port unstated. Here the fact of my ignorance dawned upon me: I had confused a naval vessel Albany (1846-54) with a merchant vessel Albany (1831-??).

And yet the question remained: why would Frank Pidgeon call the Albany a refitted Reaper? Was his vessel the packet ship Albany, built by Christian Bergh, or was it something else? Now I set off on the web for mentions of a pre-1849 vessel named Reaper, and I found plenty.

I was most drawn to a Reaper built in Medford, Massachusetts in 1808, and another that was built in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1819. Both were brigs, and the latter was of a tonnage comparable to that of the 1849 Albany. The former plied the Orient and was involved in a celebrated neutrality dispute during the War of 1812, but it may have been "sold foreign" in 1813, according to Glenn Gordinier, Historian at Mystic Seaport. The 1819 Reaper, however, had a figurehead and its log book, which came on the market three years ago, was described by the auctioneer as: "Detailed and lengthy ship's journal kept on a whaling cruise, notable for accounts of whale chases marked by pictures of whales drawn in the margins. With pencil scrawl on the front cover noting it as the 'Log kept by William F(?) Brown Ship Reaper of Nantucket.' ... Information from the National Archives and Records Service describes ship as 'having 2 decks, 3 masts, a square stern, a bust head, and no galleries, as being 101 feet 6 inches long, 338 30/95 tons. It was built at Middletown, Connecticut, in 1819.'"

This brig Reaper also sailed in 1832 from Acra, Africa to Edgartown, Massachusetts. In 1836-37 it took part in the slave trade, according to Captain Theophilus Conneau in A Slaver's Log Book or 20 Years' Residence in Africa.

In a very recent message, Ms. Fahnestock of the MCNY wrote: "I just found a reference in a caption for the figurehead in a 1978 book of ours titled The City of New York that repeats the other information I gave you from the file, but also says: 'This figurehead was rescued when the ship was sold for the last time in 1863.'" I now believe that the story told in When Granny Was a Little Girl is largely correct. There was a brig Reaper that became the ship Albany. The packet ship built in 1831 was a different vessel.

All this I found on the web, never leaving my hometown. Twenty years ago, when a book I was researching required access to the Library of Congress and National Archives, I was compelled to take a train and book a hotel room for a week to accomplish what I now can do in an evening.

I can't be sure just yet, though; even after many exhilarating evenings of web trawling, I still must return to the old ways if I want to do this right. Back to searching methodically but joyously for the needle in a field of haystacks - certain of finding other, greater things by not looking for them - but now I know which haystacks look especially promising.

What explains the impulse to engage in such a seemingly arduous and perhaps pointless pursuit? I don't know. It feels like play to me.++

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