In the early to mid-nineteenth century, the heroes of our young American country were the sea captains who navigated the perilous waters, constantly breaking records and setting new courses. Their names were as familiar to the populous back then as the name Neil Armstrong is to us now. The Lost Hero of Cape Cod: Captain Asa Eldridge and the Maritime Trade That Shaped America is a historical account of the man who set the sailing record across the Atlantic and one who was deeply entrenched in the most influential industry of the times. Historical Society of Old Yarmouth | Paperback | November 15, 2015 | 198 pp
Asa Eldridge began working on ships at an early age, as did many of the boys from Cape Cod. The goal was to become captain, a rare accolade which Asa eventually achieved. Author Vincent Miles collates vast amounts of references from shipping logs and newspaper articles to create a highly detailed account of Captain Asa Eldridge’s life and accomplishments. While there were many references to the Eldridge name (his other two brothers were also captains), errors were often recorded. But the author was able to pinpoint those errors through timelines, a feat which displays the meticulous nature of the author’s research.
Entwined around the story of Asa is the milieu of a shipping industry empire that exploded along America’s eastern seaboard, and its competitive nature with The United Kingdom. Each ship built was bigger than the one before, each one trying to break records from New York to Liverpool or other set courses. Ship line owners competed for government funding on both coasts by attempting to establish regular schedules for mail service. Packet ships dominated the waters until steamships became popular, and then there was the rise of the clippers for a short time. Asa had captained of all three.
The industry is discussed in detail and is paired alongside historical events such as the California Gold Rush. During this time, Cornelius Vanderbilt was in the shipping industry and due to the high demand of people wanting to get to California, he took advantage of the opportunity by advertising a quicker passage via Panama. When his inaugural ship didn’t turn up in San Francisco, it was Asa who went looking for it and aided in a rescue. I mention this occurrence in the book because it displayed the amazing research of the author who posed this question:
“Why did Asa Eldridge arrive in San Francisco just as his former ship was in need of a rescue? This was too much of a coincidence to have been one. And in fact, a careful reconstruction of his movements and those of the Pioneer strongly suggests it was not.”
Vincent Miles was able to describe with great detail how the events unfolded which placed Asa where he was needed, without any explanation or direct reference provided by Asa himself. His actions definitely played a part in securing his next role which was as a private captain for Vanderbilt’s family and friends. Taking a giant steamship, Vanderbilt outfitted it into a luxurious floating home – the world’s first yacht? They traveled the world for months with Asa at the helm and made headlines at every port.
“What seemed to puzzle all was the fact that a private individual, of a nation dating from but yesterday, should conceive and have the means of carrying out the idea of constructing such a magnificent floating palace, and for the express purpose of giving his family an opportunity of seeing the world comfortably and safely: this not one of the visitors could understand.” – a correspondent for the New Orleans Daily Picayune.
By this time, Asa Eldridge was already a common name. Before he would take command of another commercial steamship, the super fast clipper ships were all the rage and Asa wanted to get in on the action. It was on a clipper when he made his incredible record-shattering crossing of the Atlantic, making headlines everywhere.
Among the numerous references of seaports, Portsmouth was destined to be mentioned (note: this was not Asa’s run):
“Any clipper that did make her way across the Atlantic was therefore guaranteed to attract attention. That was certainly the case for the Typhoon which in March 1851 sailed from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Liverpool in thirteen days and ten hours – the fastest crossing of the Atlantic that had ever been recorded by a sailing ship.”
Vincent Miles reconstructs the time period of a fledgling country with an industry and its heroes that led to the rise of a superpower, yet it is this piece of history which is rarely told. Have you ever heard of Captain Asa Eldridge?
“Sadly, the skill, courage and achievements of this model man have largely been forgotten. So too have those of his brothers, and of the hundreds of other American shipmasters who played a vital role in the early history of their country.”
The Lost Hero of Cape Cod is an intellectually stimulating read for any history buff, nautical adventure lover, and the casual reader. Filled with historical facts and fascinating tidbits of early American trivia, it should be included in every town library. Highly recommended.