Sailing Bark Trajan: The Sinking and Discovery of A 19th Century Lime Carrier

By John Stanford

The discovery and identification of the shipwreck Trajan in Newport Harbor on December 6th 2008 was the culmination of luck, perseverance and research by Divers/Maritime Historians John Stanford and Mark Munro. This is the story of the lost Lime Vessel, Trajan.

The Trajan was a Bark rigged sailing vessel. A bark is a sailing vessel with three masts, the fore and mainmast square rigged and the mizzen fore and aft or gaff rigged. The Trajan took her name from the Roman EmperorTrajan.   In the words of the Chronicler Thomas Higginson:

The face of the benign Emperor (Trajan), her namesake, was on the stern; with the carven beard, then the rather mutilated nose, then the white and staring eyes.  The figure-head was Trajan again, at full length, with the costume of an Indian hunter, and the face of a Roman sage.1

The Trajan was built in 1856 at the yard of H. Merrian in Rockland Maine, not far from where the summer tourist schooners still ply their trade today. She was constructed of Oak and Hackmatak (Larch) with a length of 125’, a beam of 29’ 6” and a draft of 13’. According to The American Lloyds register, she had been “metaled” last, in 1862. Her home port was New York City. All in all the Trajan was a fairly typical deepwater square rigger engaged in the freight hauling trade. Several excerpts from the Marine Intelligence section of the New York Times indicate that from 1856 to 1864 she made several passages between New York, Cuba, England and other ports while engaged in the sugar trade under the commands of Captains Conant and Babbidge. By 1867 she was engaged in the Rockland Lime Trade under the command of Captain W. Sleeper.

At the time of the Trajan’s loss, she was on a voyage from Rockland Maine to New Orleans carrying a cargo of lime. Lime was used extensively in plaster and mortar and was produced from limestone (calcium carbonate), a sedimentary rock formed from the calcified remains of ancient marine animals. When burned, it produced lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide.  The Maine lime industry, based on a narrow three-mile long stretch of land running from Thomaston to Camden, typically produced more than 1.1 million casks of lime per year and the industry peaked in 1892 with more than 1.4 million casks produced.  After being burned the lime was then taken from the kiln and loaded into casks. Large lime companies owned schooners that would carry these casks to Boston or New York.  Lime was a dangerous cargo: if it got wet, a chemical reaction created heat and sometimes caused the schooner to catch fire. Water could not put it out; the only way to save the vessel was by smothering the fire (Note 3). This was to be Trajan’s undoing.

The actual details of the sinking are probably best described by one who was a witness to the event, Thomas Higginson author of Oldport Days:

I see only the lighthouse gleam and the dark masts of a sunken ship across the neighboring island. Those motionless spars have, after all, a nearer interest, and, as I saw them sink, I will tell their tale. That vessel came in here one day last August, a stately, full-sailed bark; nor was it known, till she had anchored, that she was a mass of imprisoned fire below. She was the “Trajan,” from Rockland, bound to New Orleans with a cargo of lime, which took fire in a gale of wind, being wet with sea-water as the vessel rolled. The captain and crew retreated to the deck, and made the hatches fast, leaving even their clothing and provisions below. They remained on deck, after reaching this harbor, till the planks grew too hot beneath their feet, and the water came boiling from the pumps. Then the vessel was towed into a depth of five fathoms, to be scuttled and sunk. I watched her go down. Early impressions from “Peter Parley” had portrayed the sinking of a vessel as a frightful plunge, endangering all around, like a maelstrom. The actual process was merely a subsidence so calm and gentle that a child might have stood upon the deck till it sank beneath him, and then might have floated away. Instead of a convulsion, it was something stately and very pathetic to the imagination. The bark remained almost level, the bows a little higher than the stern; and her breath appeared to be surrendered in a series of pulsations, as if every gasp of the lungs admitted more of the suffocating wave. After each long heave, she went visibly a few inches deeper, and then paused. The face of the benign Emperor, her namesake, was on the stern; first sank the carven beard, then the rather mutilated nose, then the white and staring eyes, that gazed blankly over the engulfing waves. The figure-head was Trajan again, at full length, with the costume of an Indian hunter, and the face of a Roman sage; this image lingered longer, and then vanished, like Victor Hugo’s Gilliatt, by cruel gradations. Meanwhile the gilded name upon the taffrail had slowly disappeared also; but even when the ripples began to meet across her deck, still her descent was calm. As the water gained, the hidden fire was extinguished, and the smoke, at first densely rising, grew rapidly less. Yet when it had stopped altogether, and all but the top of the cabin had disappeared, there came a new ebullition of steam, like a hot spring, throwing itself several feet in air, and then ceasing. As the vessel went down, several beams and planks came springing endwise up the hatchway, like liberated men. But nothing had a stranger look to me than some great black casks which had been left on deck. These, as the water floated them, seemed to stir and wake, and to become gifted with life, and then got into motion and wallowed heavily about, like hippopotami or any unwieldy and bewildered beasts. At last the most enterprising of them slid somehow to the bulwark, and, after several clumsy efforts, shouldered itself over; then others bounced out, eagerly following, as sheep leap a wall, and then they all went bobbing away, over the dancing waves. For the wind blew fresh meanwhile, and there were some twenty sail-boats lying-to with reefed sails by the wreck, like so many sea-birds; and when the loose stuff began to be washed from the deck, they all took wing at once, to save whatever could be picked up, – since at such times, as at a conflagration on land, every little thing seems to assume a value, – and at last one young fellow steered boldly up to the sinking ship itself, sprang upon the vanishing taffrail for one instant, as if resolved to be the last on board, and then pushed off again. I never saw anything seem so extinguished out of the universe as that great vessel, which had towered so colossal above my little boat; it was impossible to imagine that she was all there yet, beneath the foaming and indifferent waves. No effort has yet been made to raise her; and a dead eagle seems to have more in common with the living bird than has now this submerged and decaying hulk with the white and winged creature that came sailing into-our harbor on that summer day.3

My interest in the Trajan began when I saw her listed on an old shipwreck chart overlay.  This overlay was produced by Brad Luther in the 1960’s and showed the rough location of the Trajan in Newport Harbor. Additional information on the Trajan was supplied by Jim Jenney, a local diver and Marine Historian. A few attempts had been made to find the remains, if they still existed, since research from Newspaper accounts stated that she would probably be raised.  These early attempts at recovery, however, usually proved fruitless.   During the initial search my dive partners, Al Langner , David Knibbs and I were unable to locate the Trajan but we did locate a stone ballast pile which may have been part of the Scuttled British Transport Fleet sunk in Newport during the Revolutionary War. A break occurred in the search when I located a news item in some old files that simply said “…the hull of the old Rockland Lime Schooner, sunk west of the Torpedo Station in 1868, was yesterday blown up by the station force. Just how thoroughly the job was done is not known…”3 Another news article was found that indicated a boat had hit the hulk a few weeks before. Could this have been the Trajan? The evidence sure pointed that way.

Armed with these bits of evidence, I suggested to Mark Munro that we undertake a Side Scan Sonar and Magnetometer Survey of the approximate area where the wreck of the Trajan should be situated.  On a Saturday in September 2008, Mark and I set out on a dreary but calm day to see what we could find.

On our fist side scan sonar pass, west of Goat Island, a large prominent target was observed.  During post processing, Mark found that there was also a significant magnetometer reading associated with this target. The dimensions from the sonogram were also consistent with what might be expected if this were the shipwreck of the Trajan. Of all the data recorded from that day this target looked the most promising. We thought that it could have been one of three things: a mound of dumped debris/rock, a Ballast Pile or the Lime Cargo of the Trajan.  Not wanting to wait until spring to see what the target was, we decided to make an exploratory dive on Saturday December 5th 2008. The day dawned to a sunny sky, very little wind and a warm forty degrees. We motored to the site in my AVON and using a depth recorder located a rise on the bottom at the predicted location of the target, we then anchored over the site. The anticipation of what we would find was building, as it always does when exploring a new shipwreck. When we reached the bottom we were greeted by a large pile of concreted Lime. Some of it was in layers, resembling Peanut Brittle and some still in the shape of the casks that once contained it. We knew now that we had indeed found the long lost remains of the Trajan. The pile measured approx. 114’ X 55’ and stood 8’ proud of a sloping bottom. There wasn’t very much left of the actual vessel, a futtock or two and some timbers could be seen in certain areas. There was an anchor off one end of the wreck which may or may not be part of the site, but it was still quite a thrill to see what remained after all of these years.

1 Wentworth, Thomas Higginson. “Oldport Days” 1823-1911. Lee and Shepard; Charles T. Dillingham Boston; New York 1888, 4 p. l., [11]-268 p. front., plates. 18 cm.

2 Wentworth, Thomas Higginson. “Oldport Days” 1823-1911. Lee and Shepard; Charles T. Dillingham Boston; New York 1888, 4 p. l., [11]-268 p. front., plates. 18 cm.

3 Penobscot Marine Museum [Online] Available, December 18, 2008