The Clayton Morrissey Story
|From Out of Gloucester
July 2, 1936
Noted Skipper Dies Suddenly
of Heart Attack
On the eve of his departure for his second summer striving to wrest a golden treasure from the bottom of the sea off Lewes, Delaware, Capt. Clayton E. Morrissey, of this port, one who brought thousands of pounds of fish around Eastern Point, died "with his boots on" at Hyannisport shortly after 1 o'clock yesterday afternoon, aboard his 42-foot small trawler Nimbus, when he fell athwart the engine, from a heart attach, and expired before he could be brought to a hospital. He was 62 years of age.
Capt. Morrissey was planning to take the small trawler Nellie L. Parmenter, to Providence, R. I., within a week, where he was to join forces with Arthur Colstad and others of that city, engaged in an attempt to salvage the alleged 17,000,000 in gold coins, reported to be in the holds of the ill-fated British frigate Braak which foundered in a storm there over a century and a half ago, after taking the told treasure from ships of foreign nations. It would have been his second year in this work, and all were spurred onward in their labors by the fact that they had succeeded in unearthing several "pieces of eight" in the sands dug up by the powerful sand-sucker which was part of their equipment. To Capt. Morrissey, an adventurous type, the mission was another thrill of the sea he had lived from childhood.
After being ashore all winter, Capt. Morrissey, who had the Nimbus built by his son-in-law, Ralph Nelson, of Bearskin Neck, Rockport, decided to try his hand at fishing for a couple of trips before Delaware-bound, "just to get hardened up" as he confided to Capt. Ben Pine.
Reams of publicity have been given Capt. Morrissey for his active participation in the international fishermen's races, to wrest the international trophy from Capt. Angus Walters, skipper of the Canadian champion schooner Bluenose, in October of 1922, but these races although they served to exemplify the rugged quality of good sportsmanship possessed by the immortal fisherman, fail to properly identify him. They were child's play to the hundred and one times he had raced home to market crowding on all sail on sch. Effie M. Morrissey, sch. Electa or the pride of his eye, sch. Arethusa, acknowledged by many old salts to have been one of the "finest pieces of wood" that ever slid down the stocks of the Essex shipyards. They were races run not under schedule for a fair day, but under conditions that would have stumped any but the super-men who held thrills above money, who lived only when they were laughing in the teeth of a gale, and gave the elements a battle that asked no favors.
It was most natural thing for Capt. Morrissey to pursue the fisheries for a livelihood, born as he was in Lower East Pubnico, Yarmouth county, Nova Scotia. His forebears for generations had followed the sea, and his father, Capt. William Morrissey, was skipper out of Gloucester for years, in the salt fish game during the summer months, and making trips to Newfoundland in the winter for herring for Gloucester firms, although the skipper retained his residence in Nova Scotia,. He was, however, an American citizen by his own choice.
When Capt. "Clayt" was old enough to hold a trawl line he eagerly sought a place on his father's boat and was readily accepted as a deck boy. He was then but 13 years of age, but he was the proudest 13-year-old of his community. He learned the salt fishing industry, the "spots" where his father found the cod, and how to pick the sites, besides the intricacy of sail and how to best take advantage of every strip of canvas the masts would hold. He received a lesson in human nature and how to handle men as sea, how to win their friendship and trust and how to get the most work out of them. Throughout his life, Capt. Morrissey retained the enviable repute of being one of the squarest, fairest skippers that ever sailed out a North Atlantic fishing port. They knew Capt. "Clayt" as a man who would go through for them, if they proved to be worth their mettle. In all his days he never had any trouble in getting the pick of the fleet for a crew for the mariners knew that a trip with him meant good money beside a good berth. At the age of 16 years, when the youth of today is still in high school, he was in a storm-tossed dory on Grand Bank.
Capt. Morrissey took his first command when he was but 19 years of age. He was on the Effie M. Morrissey, named after his sister, when his father was taken sick, after the first baiting. The youthful fisherman assumed command and astonished the waterfront when he arrived after two months on the banks with a big fare of salt fish. He made good from the start and before many years had passed, ascended to the pinnacle of the slat fishing fleet of the North Atlantic. His record trip weighted out in the vicinity of 450,000 pounds, some 26 years ago, and what added to the achievements was that he clipped days off the usual time taken for salt fishing. Where even the rugged old-timers made but two trips a season, he would always make three, and in his heyday he cleared the highest for his ventures, not to mention the wealth he brought into Gloucester in furnishing such huge quantities of fish for the workers on the wharves. His best money was made in beam trawling in str. Walrus, from Cunningham & Thompson, during the World war.
The Effie M. Morrissey sailed in the salt fisheries from the old John F. Wonson Fish company wharf at East Gloucester. It was named after his sister, was later sold to Capt. Bob Bartlett, who, with his expedition, sailed her on many trips to the Arctic regions and the old-timer is still afloat doing her annual run through the ice fields.
Then came the sch. Joseph Rowe, of the old William H. Jordan wharf, a vessel in which the young skipper did more than well for those days in the fresh halibut industry on Grand bank on St. Peter bank, and Burgeo, wherever his charts led him. He had a natural aptitude for finding the fish and was willing to take any chance to get a record catch although in no instance would he think of endangering the lives of his crew.
After a try at halibuting, he switched back to salt fishing, his favorite game and brought into the sch. Electa, with Capt. Orlando VanAmburg, of Nova Scotia, whose sons are now skippers of Boston beam trawlers. The decks of the sch. Harry Nickerson outfitting from the firm of John Pew next felt the tread of his heavy boots. Capt. Morrissey in his prime was a veritable giant of a man, powerful of muscle and virile. His fondness for hard and tough wrestling, fought cleanly, was a reflection of his own ability to handle himself favorable in any physical encounter.
The finest craft in his estimation was then commanded by him when he took the wheel of the brand new sch. Arethusa, named after one of his children. The monarch of the sea, over 120 feet in length, and of more than 130-tons gross tonnage, was built for him by the Cunningham & Thompson Fish company, which operated a large plant at the Fort. Capt. Clayt was fast gaining a reputation as a high-liner in the salt bank dory trawling codfishing game, and his trips were growing so much in size, that a larger craft was imperative. The succeeding years spent at her wheel, saw old records shattered in this industry and all-time highs to be established as for three years, Capt. Morrissey added to his laurels. However, despite the vast amount of fish he landed, there was never any great amount of money earned by either skipper or his men. A man who cleared $1000 a year in salt fishing in those days was considered a king-pin. The fisherman's lot was a hard one that gained compensation in the love of the battle with the elements.
It was while skipper of the Arethusa that Capt. Morrissey demonstrated her ability to show her heels to any vessel in North Atlantic waters. The craft was on a salt fish trip and had run out of bait. Handy to Newfoundland ports, he decided to chance the rules and send dories ashore to get whatever bait they could buy. While the dories were collecting the bait, he learned that the Canadian cutter Curley, was steaming towards him and as he saw her approaching at full speed, Capt. Morrissey up-anchored and though having no auxiliary engine power, out-sped the fast cutter as the sails caught the brisk breeze. The next he saw of his men was at St. Pierre, Miq., where he took them aboard, acquired new dories, and nonchalantly resumed fishing. It was an exciting event in his colorful life, and one that he always took great pleasure in relating.
Capt. William "Bill" McCoy later secured the Arethusa and in a book of his personal reminiscences of his amazing career as king of the rum-runners during prohibition days in the states, constantly refers to her as the finest ship afloat. He was heart-broken when he learned that she had smashed to pieces off Sambro, N. S., after the government had sold it "east down east." The government had "relieved" Bill of the vessel after they caught up with him.
Then came sch. Corona in Capt. Clayt's career, a vessel he lost during one of the hazardous blankets of fog which are the constant menace of every navigator.
Capt. Morrissey was ashore haddocking in the local sch. Corona when jogging off Green island, near Clark's harbor, in a dense fog and heavy wind, the 119-ton Essex-built vessel crashed on the rocks at 2 o'clock on the morning of Saturday, February 26, 1916, and the crew of 18 men had to take to the dories. The crew were forced to stand off shore the entire night, because of the heavy breakers that would have meant sure death to them if they tried to land. Theirs was a perilous vigil as they weathered every sea, until dawn offered them a drift in the fog and pointed the way toward safe harbor. They were greeted with the sight of motor boats that had set out from Clark's harbor to aid them to land. The vessel, however, was rapidly breaking up against the jagged rocks. The craft had left Boston the previous Monday morning for the Cape Shore to try her luck. The Corona was owned by Cunningham & Thompson and had been launched from Essex in 1901 and was valued at $12,000.. At the time of their mishap, Capt. Morrissey needed only one more set to complete his trip. As it was, he and his men were fortunate to escape with their lives. The Corona was the first vessel that Capt. Morrissey had which boasted auxiliary power.
Cunningham & Thompson then built the beam trawler Walrus when such large vessels were more in the nature of an experiment. Capt. Morrissey was chosen as her skipper and here made the most money in his career. While the war lasted, the vessel was a success, but after the Armistice was signed, the Walrus proved too costly to operate considering the market conditions and she was retired.
It was in the Walrus that he made record stocks, for in 11 months during the war, his total as recorded on company books amounted to $255,902. These books are on file with Gorton-Pew Fisheries company, the concern which took over Cunningham & Thompson. From September 29, 1917, to May 24, 1918, the Walrus stocked $185,866, and from June 10 to September 8, 1918, $70,036 making a total stock for the 11 active months of beam trawling of the figure previously given.
Although he had landed vast amounts of salt fish while in that industry, the vessel stocks were comparatively small, and the skipper's reward correspondingly low. A salt banker figured an annual income of $1000 at "big money" in those days.
Capt. Clayt took the sch. Imperator halibuting after that. The Imperator is the present halibuting schooner which was used by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Moving Picture company to make scenes for their release, Kipling's "Captains Courageous" during the past year. Capt. Albert Williams is her skipper.
His next command, the 137.8-foot sch. Henry Ford named in honor of the celebrated automobile manufacturer, was launched on Tuesday morning, April 11, 1922, form the Arthur D. Story shipyards, Essex, and christened by the skipper's daughter Winnie. She met with a mishap shortly after her launching when she went on the rocks off the Hawks estate at Wingaersheek beach, and two 10-foot pieces of her shoe was ripped away by the breakers. The combined efforts of three tugs, including the local Eveleth, the Lebanon H. Jenkins and the Pallas, failed to dislodge her until some time later and old salts waged their heads as if to say she would never go to sea.
But Capt. Morrissey took her wheel and sailed her "out o' Gloucester" for six years before she met her doom off the west coast of Newfoundland in June of 1926. Designed by Thomas McManus, the Henry Ford soon gained a reputation for her speed under sail and she was chosen as the fitting rival to the sch. Bluenose, Capt. Angus Walters, for the international races in October. The first race was sailed on Saturday, October 21, 1922 when with Capt. Morrissey at the helm, the Yankee challenger easily outstripped her rival by 10 minutes off Gloucester. However, thousands who had cheered the Ford to victory were doomed to dismay when the race committee declared it "no contest due to the fact that both craft made false starts." Fishermen to whom rules of racing were always that the better man win, were very much chagrined at being confined to strict yachting rules, but Capt. Morrissey himself, simply smiled and kept on plugging.
Another black cloud darkened the hopes of the local challenger when a protest was made as to her sail area, and the Ford was forced to clip her wings, reducing the mainsail by some 57 square feet. Despite her handicap the Ford swept over the finish line Monday, victor by five minutes. Capt. Morrissey then decided to resume fishing but was prevailed upon to race the third time, when handicapped as his vessel was, the Bluenose outsailed his craft Wednesday, October 25, and again the following day, on the fourth race, but only the third official race. That ended the argument and the bog went back with the Bluenose.
A fishermen's race in honor of the tercentenary celebration of the city was held in August, 1923, when the Ford again commanded by Capt. Morrissey took the honors form her local contenders, and with victory was awarded a beautiful trophy presented by the late Sir Thomas Lipton, besides a $1000 cash award.
The ford acted as a trial horse for the ill-fated sch. Columbia in October of that year, when the latter went to Halifax in a vain attempt to regain the cup from the Bluenose. The Columbia and Ford again matched sail in he Fall of 1926 with the Columbia taking the honors.
The sad fate of the Ford, then credited to be the most famous vessel of the Gloucester fishing fleet, occurred on Saturday morning, June 16, 1928, during thick weather when under command of Capt. Morrissey, she grounded and sunk at Indreshoal or Whaleback ledge on the west coast of Newfoundland near Martin's Point, north of Bonne bay. The crew of 25 men landed safely at Gullmarsh Close, and from there made their way to Bonne bay where they received transportation that eventually landed them in Gloucester. The spars of the proud racer were above water after she had sunk in 11 fathoms. Capt. Morrissey has sailed from this port on Friday, the jinx day for fishermen, June 1, on a halibuting trip.
The Ford had seemed a "jinxed" vessel from the day she was launched from the Arthur Dana Story shipyards for then she grounded on the spit at the mouth of the Essex river while being towed here to be fitted for sea and was cast high and dry on Wingaersheek beach for nearly a week before she was finally released from her imprisonment. The old wags along the waterfront told Capt. Clayt then that that vessel would never to to sea.
Capt. Morrissey's final command in the line of large schooners was the Flora Oliver in which he went halibuting until 1931 when he stayed ashore for a year or more. Capt. Clayt never really retired in the strict sense of the word for he was too enamored of the sea to leave it for the land. He had hardly taken a year's vacation when he decided he wanted a small boat in which to go trawling offshore and had the Nimbus built by his son-in-law, Ralph Nelson, at the latter's boat year on Bearskin Neck, Rockport. He took great pride in this model craft, and for a time went trawling with his son Burt as one of the other two members of the crew. Last week he decided that he again wanted to take a couple of trips in her to get on his sea-legs, never realizing that he was sailing around Eastern Point for the final passage.
He spent last summer as commander of the old pilot boat Liberty when she was chartered out to Dr. Colstand of Providence.
The voyage appealed to Capt. Morrissey for the adventure it contained. The promoters believed they had charts showing where the old frigate Braak had sunk off Lewes, Delaware, and where in her holds allegedly lay a fabulous fortune. They had planned to start within a week to resume digging. Mr. Colstad himself had come here only a week ago and chartered the trawler Nellie Parmenter on Capt. Morrissey's advice, for an auxiliary to the expedition. They had reached the point last summer where they had brought up actual pieces of eight, olden treasure of the Spanish Main, in the sank suckers, and pieces of teak-wood which they had every reason to believe was part of the Braak's deck.
Capt. Morrissey joked a lot about the cruise in his usual witty fashion, and sent home letters telling of his long talks, yearning with the cook of the Braak, who he remarked came from the ocean bottom out of this cook's galley every night at the stroke of 12 to palaver with the old salts. To those of the Master Mariners' rooms where he was believed, the skipper's humor was most appreciated. When they heard his greeting of "Alee! Alee!" as he came up the stairs, they knew that like the cherry greeting of "Good Morning, men" of the late Capt. Frank Hall, it meant the afternoon would be complete sociability. Clayt would start spinning a yarn in fun, in which others like Bill Hadley, Capt. Jim Mason, Capt. Albert Larkin and other old cronies of the skipper would take part. A stranger might wonder what was up, but the ribbing was all in good fun. Capt. Clayt's imagination was a fertile and vivid one. He never talked about himself and woe be untot he one who tried to quiz him as to his life history. He was patient with interviewers, but dodged publicity. Many stories attributed to him were written out of the imagination of the author, and not from Clayt's offerings. Another attribute which he possessed, was his extreme tolerance in regard to others. He would believe ill of nobody and would shun any group engaged in spreading gossip. He always declared that whatever a person did that person must have had good reason for it. His company was a treasure to all who shared it.
He is survived by his widow, Mrs. Bessie (Rudolph) Morrissey, two daughters, Miss Winnie Morrissey of this city, and Arethusa, wife of Ralph O. Nelson of Rockport; a grandchild; a brother, Capt. William Morrissey of Boston; two sisters, Effie M. , wife of Charles Hunter of Natick; and Ida, wife of William Malone of this city.
His funeral will be held next Sunday afternoon at 3.30 o'clock in the First Baptist church, with burial at Beechbrook cemetery, West Gloucester.
Capt. Morrissey was a member of Gloucester ledge of Elks, Gloucester Master Mariners association, a director of the Gloucester Fishermen's Institute, and Acacia lodge of Masons, A. F. & A. M.