The stranding of Jamestown in Iceland 1881:

by Leo M. Jonsson ©1)
English translation by Leo M. Jonsson © - All rights reserved.

The destiny of the sailing vessel Jamestown

(This article was first printed in the Icelandic literary magazine SKJOELDUR2.

On a sunday morning June 26th 1881 early risers among people in Hafnir, a small fishing village on the South coast of Iceland, were stunned; a gigantic sailing ship had stranded at Hvalsnes between the rock Hestaklettur and a small creek Thorshoefn opposite Kotvogur, a farm in Kirkjuvogshverfi a part of Hafnir. Those who first made it to the stranding location soon discovered that not a single soul was found aboard. Judging from the general condition it was obvious that the ship had been drifting for a long time - as most of its rigging was missing.

Upon closer examination the ship, which size may have been of around 4.000 tons according to current measurement and therefore of a gargantuan proportion - presumably amongst biggest ships ever to be seen in Icelandic waters, was fully loaded with fine timber planks of different sort and sizes, even hardwood and all of excellent quality. This stranding is described in Sigurd Sivertsen's Sudernesjaannals3. There the elaborate stacking and securing of the ship's cargo is especially mentioned and said it was obviously carried out by highly skilled professionals. It also says that a considerable part of the cargo had been salvaged and the lumber utilized for construction of houses and buildings, not only on the south coast (Sudurnes) but also in distant eastern parts of the country. Locals established a co-operative union for the purpose of a joint purchase of the salvage and were able to negotiate with the county sheriff to do so. After a heavy storm some days after the stranding the ship broke down and disappeared. It is to describe the weather condition and the heavy sea at the southwest coast of Iceland that, as later became known, after drifting for 4 months on the North Atlantic, this great ship was grinded to pieces in few days at the coast of Hafnir.

Soon after my moving to Hafnir from Reykjavik in December 1978 I heard local legends about the stranding of this great ship and became interested in finding out more about it. I began to search for written sources of information on the stranding of Jamestown. In the annals this stranding is mentioned. In the Christmas-issue of a local magazine, Faxi10 from 1967 is a notable interview where Fridrik Gunnlaugsson (then 95 years old) described the salvaging of Jamestown's cargo in detail. In the book "Sunnlenskir sagnathaettir"4, there is a telling of the stranding, the salvaging and disappearing of Jamestown by Olafur Ketilsson former parish sheriff. On the other hand I did not find but little information on the ship itself, nothing about its history or about its crew.

In annals Jamestown is said an American ship, probably from Boston. Judged from described measurements it must have been among biggest sailing ships in its time, more than 300 ft long and the width 60 ft. (As a comparison a standard soccer-court is approximately 270 x 300 ft.).

Nearly 17 years later by coincidence my interest in knowing more about Jamestown and the faring of its crew was rekindled. The winter 1996 using the Internet I was able to contact curators at maritime museums on the eastern coast of U.S.A. and Canada. At first my inquiries did not bear any fruits - I was referred from one instance to another. But then I happened to come into contact with Dan Conlin then Curatorial Assistant at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Mr. Conlin could inform me about the ship and also helped me contact David Hayward then Research Assistant at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine. And from there some progress began. In addition to the information supplied by Dan Conlin, David Hayward mailed copies of clippings covering Jamestown in American newspapers in its time. The development revealed that this great ship in particular had had quite a history - a history that could explain why it went aground abandoned at the southern coast of Iceland.

Some of the clippings from Bath Daily Times that David Hayward at the Maine Maritime Museum in the U.S. was kind enough to send the author of this article in July 1997.

Disappeared from shipping register before 1890

Among information supplied by Dan Conlin was that the description of the ship in Icelandic annals was a perfect match for the American sailing ship Jamestown that had been removed from the shipping register for American and foreign ocean vessels shortly after 1890. Jamestown was of 1889 tons size (according to standard measurement methods at that time) and had been registered in Richmond, Maine in 1880. Registered captain was C.H. Kidder and owner James M. Hagar. The ship measured 207 ft. length, 40,5 ft width and 28,7 ft of depth. Those figures are a little less than quoted in the Icelandic annals but nevertheless Jamestown probably has been, according to Dan Conlin, among biggest sailing vessels built of wood in 19th century's last decades. (As a comparison it is worth mentioning that the famous British sailing ship and tea-clipper Cutty Sark (Sark is an island in the British Canal), that many a tourist has inspected where it is docked in Gravesend in the outskirt of London, is 212 ft length and measures 963 brutto-tons against Jamestown's 1889 tons). Jamestown had 3 decks at the same time as the bigger sailing ships had 2 decks.

The keel for Jamestown was laid in Richmond5 and it was first floated in November 1879 and according to Dan Conlin it had been removed from the shipping register soon after 1880 and before 1884. Mr. Conlin also informed that quite a number of smaller sailing vessels with the name Jamestown or James Town had been on record at this time but they could all be excluded as being under 200 tons capacity and all shorter than 100 ft. Mr. Conlin had checked Lloyd's Register of Shipping from this time and had not found any another ship of similar size as Jamestown from Richmond.

The first clipping is from Bath Daily Times in December 2nd. 1880. There it is told as an example of excellent craftsmanship and quick service that it had only taken Bath Iron Works 4 days to manufacture a big windlass from steel for the sailing ship Jamestown docked at Eastport. It is mentioned that the windlass replaced had been made in Providence, Rhode Island and had broken down.

Next is a clipping from same newspaper February 10th 1881 or two months later. It says: "The ship Jamestown, which was abandoned on the high sea when the steamer Ethiopia rescued the crew, was under command of W. E. Whitmore captain from this city (Bath) who had taken command in St. John, New Brunswick early in November last year and it seems that the captain has been ridden with misfortune as only few days after leaving port the ship had to dock at Bliss Harbor where 4 of its crew jumped ship which forced the captain to wait for new recruits from Boston. And after but a few days sailing the captain had to seek harbor at Deer Isle to have a broken windlass repaired. The repair delayed the ship for almost a month. About 18 thousand dollars were spent on repairs of Jamestown in St. John. Jamestown that is of 1888,7 tons was built in Richmond 1879 for Mr. James M. Hagar."

On another page in the same edition of the same newspaper under the heading "Marine Journal" and "Disasters", the Jamestown got a more detailed coverage. It says: " St. John. NB. February 17th (1881). On the 10th of November the ship Jamestown sat sail for Liverpool (England) under command of Capt. Whitmore loaded with a precious cargo." Then the events mentioned in the former clipping are detailed with the addition of: "She (Jamestown) was well insured, and it is believed the cargo was also insured. She (Jamestown) was abandoned on lat 43.10, long 22, with loss of rudder and boats and crew exhausted. Twenty seven persons, including the captain's wife and child, were rescued by the steamer Ethiopia from New York, and landed at Glasgow February 16th."

A clipping from Bath Daily Times, February 18th 1881 and the same column says: "Moville February 16th (1881). The steamer Ethiopia from New York has arrived. She landed the crew of the ship Jamestown, from St. John, NB, for Liverpool, which was found disabled 600 miles of the Irish coast."

Then comes a clipping from Bath Daily Times April 8th 1881. Under the heading "Marine Journal" and "Disasters" it says: " An Abandoned Ship. Capt. Scott of steamship Lake Manitoba, reports March 27th, at one o'clock in the afternoon, he boarded the abandoned ship Jamestown of Boston, timber laden, water logged, seventeen feet of water in her hold, rudder gone, masts standing but badly cut, most of the sails gone, or hanging over the side, tried to tow her, but her hawser broke: tried again by making fast along side, but the hawser parted. It was then concluded impossible to tow her without some strong steerage, and night falling, she was abandoned."

And now we have a clipping that verifies that the ship stranded in Hafnir was indeed the same Jamestown that left St. John, NB for Liverpool on November 10th 1880: Bath Daily Times July 25th 1881: "Ship Jamestown. The ship Jamestown is finally at rest. After many months of drifting in the North Atlantic an abandoned wreck, she has now been driven ashore on the coast of Iceland."

With its 6 masts, the great sailing ship Wyoming from Bath, Maine, has been a magnificient sight. She was one of several grand sailing ships, owned by a shipping firm in Bath, all named after American states. The picture is the painting "The Pride of the Yard" by Thomas M. Hoyne, III. Photo courtesy: Maine Maritime Museum.

And the ballast ....

Local legends in Sudurnes tell of some precious metals - even silver as part of the Jamestown's cargo. In an article of Olaf Ketilsson6 he tells about what he had heard of the stranding of Jamestown. He mentions this remarkable stone that had been the ship's ballast. In Bath Daily Times November 21st. 1881 we find the following on Jamestown: "It would seem as if the Jamestown's notoriety would never cease. The Maine Mining Journal says the first lot of ore shipped from the Deer Isle mine has led a somewhat checkered career and finally brought up in a strange locality. The ore was shipped from Deer Isle, Me., to St. John, N.B., and there transferred as a ballast to the ship "Jamestown" which sailed for Swansea, England (!), with a cargo of lumber nearly a year ago. It presumably still remains in the hold of that ill-fated ship, now stranded on the coast of Iceland."

What is accurate and comply with other information in the newspaper clippings is that the ballast in Jamestown being foundry blocks from the iron mine/works at Deer Isle. The rumor about the silver might be explained as the blocks containing clinker making them lighter in color.

A sad termination of a captain's career

In the newspaper Bath Daily Times of November 13th 1905 is an obituary with a brief account of the life of W.E.Whitmore, a prominent Sea Captain and Merchant who died suddenly of a hearth failure at almost 70 years of age. William E. Whitmore who had been a sailor and captain for a long time on trans-continent vessels and indeed the captain of the great Jamestown - the sailing ship abandoned on the high sea south of Ireland early in February and stranded on the south coast of Iceland in June 1881. Jamestown, which was only a little more than a year old, was on her maiden voyage on the Atlantic and Capt. Whitmore had been one of its first captains, presumably the second one after C.H. Kidder.

The most gracious ocean ships

The bigger sailing ships crossing the oceans between continents in the 19. Century and into the 1900 were a remarkable sight where they ran under full sailing often overtaking steamers. Famous among the fast trans-continent sailing ships were the British tea-clippers Cutty Shark and Thermopylae (which sailed from Newcastle, England to Shanghai in China in 28 days - a record that stood for a long time) - ships that were a little less than 1000 tons of size (at that time measures) and those legendary American Yankee clippers as Young America and the famous British Lightning (identified with Macey) which crossed regularly each month for many years carrying mail between England and Australia.

In his memoirs, Sveinbjoern Egilsson7 who was an able seaman on the big sailing ships of different nationality, decribes those long-voyage vessels traveling the seas around year 1900. (At the time Jamestown stranded Mr. Egilson was an ordinary seaman aboard the yacht Henrietta carrying goods around the Icelandic coast for his father, a merchant in Hafnarfjoerdur). Mr. Egilson went abroad after finishing college8 in Iceland 1894 but instead of enrolling at university in Denmark he became a sailor and sailed all over the world for almost a decade. In his books Mr. Egilson does not hide his admiration of the big sailing ships and their commanders. In the first volume of his memoirs (page 315) he describes a famous race between the great sailing ships Loch Linnet, where he was one of the crew, and Falls of Clyde, on their way to Rangoon in 1889. Falls of Clyde was a bigger ship, about 2000 tons, according to Mr. Egilson (or similar in size as Jamestown). His description of this grand and gallant ship racing through the waves with full rigging is very illustrious.

An excellent seaman

"Captain W.E. Whitmore was born in Arrowsic, Maine in 1834 son of William Whitmore. His mother was Phoebe Hayden of Bowdoinham, a cousin of the late John Hayden, a shipowner of Bath. Capt. Whitmore's father was himself an old time West India captain whose home was in Arrowsic. He was disabled at sea and retired to Arrowsic where he varied his farm life with school teaching. He taught navigation and it was of his father that W.E. Whitmore at the age of eighteen learned the art after having been at sea as a sailor four years9 ".

From the obituary in Bath Daily Times we also read that W.E. Whitmore signed on as a cabin boy at age of fourteen on the bark Globe where his brother, P.M. Whitmore was captain and sailed two seasons. At the age of eighteen having learned navigation from his father he signed on as an ordinary seaman on the sailing ship Delaware, owned by the rich firm of George F. and John Patten of Bath, where he sailed for three years under command of Jarvis Patten and worked his way up to the position of third mate. (Capt. Jarvis Patten became later the first U.S. Commissioner of Navigation). W.E. Whitmore followed Capt. Patten when he took command of a larger sailing ship, Falcon (1100 tons), where he started out as an able seaman, then second mate and then promoted to chief mate. Falcon sailed between the U.S, France and England with a cargo of cotton and tobacco. It ran aground in thick fog at Bretagne, France.

Then Capt. Jarvis Patten took command of a new-built sailing ship, John Patten, owned by his own shipping company and hired young Whitmore as chief mate. It made news in those days that the ship paid for herself on a trip to Kronstadt, Russia with cotton. But before departure from Konstadt Jarvis Patten was called home to take command of his firm's new ship, the Transit. Whitmore remained on the John Patten for a time but later joined his former chief as mate of the Transit. That was in year 1861, says in the obituary in the Bath Daily Times.

At this time, year 1861, the civil war is being fought in the U.S. (until spring 1865) and it was dangerous for a Yankee to be seen in the South and sailing the eastern seaboard waters was not as natural as before. The firm Patten & Co was building the steamers Idaho and Montana, a fact which had much to do with the fortunes of the Transit's youthful mate. In the meanwhile the Transit made a trip to Uleaborg, Finland. She was the first American ship to arrive there and her advent was to open up new shipping routes within Europe.

The famous tea-clipper Thermopylae, mentioned in this article, was built 1868 by Walter Hood in Aberdeen, Scotland. Thermopylae was known as one of the fastest clipper ever. An awesome competition was between Thermopylae and Cutty Sark, another famous British tea-clipper of similar size. After the opening of the Suez-Canal in 1869 steamers took over from the sailing ships carrying the tea from India to England. Thermopylae was then used for transport of lumber and one of its voyages from London to Melbourne, Australia, took but 59 days and another, between Newcastle, England and Shanghai, China, took 28 days - both a record that stood for a long time. Theropylae could reach a speed of 20 miles per hour - no steamer could match its speed but in dead calm wind. A legend told that Thermopylae did not require but such a light breeze to reach 7 miles speed that it was possible to walk the deck with a burning candle. The Portuguese Navy bought Thermopylae and used it as a training-ship for a while or until it was destroyed by a torpedo in an exercise in 1907. This picture is of a painting by the Dutch artist Cornelis de Vries as printed in the book "Great Classic Sailing Ships", by author Kenneth Giggal. That book, in a grand format and with English text, is of exceptional quality containing the brief history along with remarkable illustrations of many of the grandest sailing ships until the third decade of the 20th Century.

Eight years endurance

When Transit arrived at London after the Finland-voyage, Capt. Patten got a message to come home to take command of the new steamer Idaho. The young chief mate, Whitmore, then 25 years old, was promoted to captain of Transit - a command he held for seven and a half years time without ever coming nearer to his home ground than London, Glasgow or Liverpool - all that time in long distance voyages between continents. Eventually, after almost eight years constant endurance, Mr. Whitmore happened to meet an American captain in Antwerp, Belgium, Mr. Ellis Percy from Phippsburg, an acquaintance of his, whom he could hand over the command of the Transit, he then was able to take a leave and visit his homeland in Bath and Kennebec, Maine.

A coal-merchant

After some time resting at home this prominent sailor decided to go into the coal business to which he devoted his attention for several years. But the longing for the sea had prevailed and when Capt. Guy C. Goss had a special ship built for him, the Belle of Bath, a real beauty and a great ship of 1400 tons, he could not refuse, joined the shipping company and took command of the ship. The Belle of Bath was a piece of art with elegant cabins and the famous carved figure of a stunning girl in ball costume, most artistically chiseled in wood by Bath's great artist in marine sculpture, the late Col. Charles A. Sampson. Capt. Whitmore sailed six years with Belle of Bath then sold out and came home for a much needed rest, which he was still enjoying when James M. Hagar of Richmond wanted him to go to Philadelphia and take command of the ship Jamestown, a 2000 ton craft.

An ill-fated ship

After inspecting the new ship in Philadephia and observing that the accommodations were extraordinary (as a matter of fact a whole house on deck rather than a cabin made the captain's lodgings) he accepted the offer. With his infant daughter Jenny and wife, whom he had married in 1861 and sailed many voyages with him on the Belle of Bath (her maiden name was Miss M.J. Swett, daughter of E.P. Swett, a shipbuilder of Arrowsic and Bath) and had with her two children, Fred E. Whitmore and Jenny, he went onboard at St. John, NB and sat sail for Bristol, England with a cargo of lumber. On a passage from St. John, NB, for Liverpool, England the ship's rudder was torn away by the heavy seas. The ship was tossed and battered by the waves until the crew with Capt. Whitmore and his family, were finally rescued by a passing steamer. William E. Whitmore returned to Bath and resumed the coal business from which he retired only few years before his death in 1905.

At the stranding location in 1881

Bath Daily Times of December 2nd. 1881 published an article "The Wrecked Jamestown". It says that in the summer of 1881 an U.S. steamer, Alliance under command of Commander George H. Wadleight , had anchored at Reykjavik, Iceland. Commander Wadleight had traveled from Reykjavik the 30 miles to Hafnir where Jamestown was still aground. After inspecting the wreckage Commander Wadleight made a report, dated October 12th 1881, he delivered to the U.S. Navy Department. The report says: "The ship Jamestown from Boston, loaded with lumber, stranded on rocks on June 26th 1881 north of Cape Reykjanes, at Thorshaven, approximately 30 miles from Reykjavik. I herewith describe all information I have gathered about this ship and its condition. Polar ice had been excessive last winter and reached farther to the south than usual. He estimates the size of Jamestown to be 1200 tons and mentioned that the mizzenmast had been cut away close to the deck and that there had been axe marks on the mainmast. The rudder with all its attachments was missing and most of the ship's rigging hung over the side and was in poor condition. The report continues telling that on the bow it had been possible to read the name Jamsetown and in smaller, almost obliterated letters, "Boston, Mass". On a brass plate over the cabin was the name Jamestown again and on one of the three windlasses found was the inscription "Improved, 1869, H.W. Stone" and on another "Edison's patent, Aug. 21st. 1856, H.N. Stone, Boston".

All the hatches were open and all loose articles removed with the single exception of a small piece of spoiled pork. Before the ship stranded, her decks had grass growing on them, which led one to believe that the ship had drifted about for a long time on the ocean. In the sale of lumber that was brought on shore, one third was allowed to the wreckers, and the remaining two-thirds sold at auction bringing about 10.000 kronors. It is estimated that only one-half of the entire cargo had been secured. Capt. Severnasen, master of the Copenhagen schooner Nancy, reported that he boarded the ship on the 20th or 21st of June, 1881, about 21 miles south of Orebak, and found no traces of people, or papers, or articles of clothing; all the fancy woodwork of the ship had been removed, and there were no articles whatever lying about. Here we end quoting from this report.

To this a newspaperman at the Bath Daily Times has added: " The above report is incorrect in some particulars. The Jamestown, which was commanded by Capt. W.E. Whitmore of this city, and which sailed from St. John, N.B. for Liverpool some time last winter, was 1600 (sic) tons instead of 1200.The three windlasses spoken of must be an error, possibly the windlass capstan and the pump gear. The hailing port, "Boston" was on her stern only. The Jamestown was abandoned last February (1881) in the North Atlantic, having lost her rudder and become unmanageable. Several attempts to tow her into port failed, and she remained a floating wreck for months."

Among what is still left of the great sailing ship Jamestown is this anchor now displayed in the center of the small village Hafnir in southern Iceland. This was one of the ship's 6 anchors rescued from bottom of the sea some years ago. Part of the anchor cable (chain) was for a long time used as a fastener for fishing boats in the harbor of Westmann Islands.

The end of story

As before mentioned the salvaged lumber from Jamestown was well received by a small nation of less that 73 thousand people in a country with no forests and no building material but stone. Beside the local people in Sudurnes next to the stranding, farmers came long way to buy lumber in Hafnir and carried it in bundles hooked on the small but tough Icelandic horses for hundred miles or more over a country with almost no roads fit for wagons or buggies.

Now (2005) there are still buildings in function built with Jamestown-lumber and until recently there was a bridge still in use with the main rafts of quality lumber from this stranding 124 years ago. In the center of the small village Hafnir one can see a big black anchore. It is one of Jamestown's 6 anchores, It was lifted from the bottom of the creek Kirkjuvogur some years ago.

1) Leo M. Jonsson, born 1942 in Reykjavik, Iceland, is an Automotive and Industrial Engineer educated in Sweden. He has been a part time free-lance journalist and a history enthusiast since 1975. e-mail address:

2) Skjoeldur Issue No. 34. Vol. 10. No. 4, 2001: A literary magazine in Icelandic published by Sleipnir in Reykjavik. Editor Pall Skulason.

3) Suðurnesjaannall. Sigurdur Brynjolfsson Sivertsen (1808-1887) a former parish priest at Utskalar for more than 50 years. The annals is printed in "Raudskinna" a book in Icelandic by Rev. Jon Thorarensen. Published by Thjodsaga, Reykjavik 1971.

4) Sunnlenskir sagnathaettir. Book in Icelandic with short sagas collected by Gunnar S. Thorleifsson. Published by Bokautgafan Hildur, Reykjavik 1981. "Silfurfarmur á sjavarbotni i Hoefnum" by Olafur Ketilsson.

5) Richmond is in the Kennebec-river tidewater area in the State of Maine - a navigable river which source is lake Mooshead and mouths into the Atlantic Ocean. The Kennebec was the center for shipbuilding from wood and a big trade already in 18. Century. The most important shipyards were in the towns of Dresden, Richmond, Bowdoinham and Bath. Richmond, where Jamestown was built, is a small town of 3.500 inhabitants but Bath is a town of 10.000 people. The shipbuilding culminated in the years 1860-1890.

6) Olafur Ketilsson b. 1864, d. 1947, a parish sheriff in Hafnir for 40 years . Mr. Ketilsson collected and documented many local sagas and wrote articles in different magazines and books.

7) Sveinbjörn Egilsson. "Ferdaminningar" Book in Icelandic. 2 volumes. Published by Isafoldarprentsmidja h.f., Reykjavik, 1949.

8) Latinuskólinn: A Latin-college in Reykjavik where Mr. Egilsson had his matriculation in year 1884.

9) Bath Daily Times Nov. 13th. 1905. Obituary.

10) Faxi. Icelandic magazine. Publisher: Malfundafelagid Faxi, Keflavik. 230 Reykjanesbaer. Editor: Helgi Holm.

Other references: The newspaper clippings quoted in this article are from Bath Daily Times 1880-1905 and in this chronological order:
December 2nd. 1880
December 2nd. 1881
February 10th 1881
February 18th 1881
April 8th. 1881
July 25th. 1881
November 21st. 1881
November 13th. 1905

Icelandic edition of this article

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