The American Clipper Asterion running before the wind on the open ocean.

The American ‘medium’ clipper Asterion was built by J.T. Foster at Medford, Massachusetts for David Snow & Associates of Boston and launched on 28th June 1854. Designed to be “a good carrier with fair speed” and “an economical ship to operate”, she was measured at 1,135 tons and had cost $67,000 by the time she was ready for sea. Capable of carrying 1,600 tons of cargo fully laden, she was 188 feet in length with a 36 foot beam and proved an excellent investment for her owners from the outset.

Her maiden voyage – a round trip to Liverpool for which she was chartered for $17,000 – was highly profitable, but by 1857 she had transferred into the very lucrative Peruvian guano trade. Sold to Bucklin & Crane of New York in 1860, her new owners kept her in the guano business until, in September 1861, she was very nearly captured by the infamous Confederate raider Alabama after she seized the New York-bound Joseph Parkes which revealed Asterion’s course and position. In the event, Captain Semmes (Alabama’s master) decided that the risk in chasing her was greater than the value of her hull so Asterion escaped and arrived safely in Hampton Roads on 16th October (1861). After a successful return passage to San Francisco, Asterion then cleared New York on 2nd January 1863 on what proved to be her final voyage; eventually reaching Howland’s Island, in the Pacific, via San Francisco, to load guano that September, she sailed with a full cargo within days but, on the 24th of the month, was wrecked on Baker’s Island some fifty miles away. Although the ship’s officers and crew all got ashore safely, they were marooned there for over two months and were in a pitiable state when finally picked up by chance by the crack U.S. clipper Herald of the Morning. It was an epic rescue and yet one which has been largely omitted from the innumerable works which chronicle the shipwrecks of the nineteenth century.

 

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