Maritime History of the Great Lakes
"Kaiser" of 1813 Built Warship in Three Weeks: Schooner Days DLXII (562)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 7 Nov 1942
Full Text
"Kaiser" of 1813 Built Warship in Three Weeks
Schooner Days DLXII (562)

by C. H. J. Snider


Forty Days From Growing Tree To Fighting Force Was Enough For Henry Eckford—-Story Behind The Schooner "Sylph" on Lake Ontario.


THE FINEST two-master Henry Eckford built for Commodore Chauncey during the War of 1812 was the topsail schooner Sylph, which mounted fourteen guns. She was handier than the brigs, like the Oneida and Jones and Jefferson, or the three-masted square-rigged ships like the Madison, Pike, or Superior. What became of her is not known for certain; but a recent call at Sodus Point, N.Y., where Commodore Yeo landed and burned the buildings and plundered the place of provisions on June 20th, 1813, produced a suggestion.

Before venturing on it listen to a little more about Henry Eckford and the Sylph:

Commodore Isaac Chauncey, who owed the best of his fleet on Lake Ontario to Henry Eckford's skill, paid him this tribute in a letter to the Secretary of the United States Navy in 1813:


"His exertions here (at Sackett's Harbor on Lake Ontario) were unexampled. The Madison (a full-rigged ship of 20 guns, Chauncey's first flagship in the War of 1812) was built in 45 working days, in a new country, where everything was transported from New York (over terrible wilderness roads) except the timber.

"The General Pike (another full-rigged ship, larger than the Madison) would have been launched in 40 days, except from the circumstances of my being obliged to send Mr. Eckford with thirty-five of his best workmen to Black Rock, where he rebuilt and fitted out (for war) five (commercial) vessels in less than 30 days; returned to this place, and launched the General Pike in 62 days, from the time her keel was laid." The 62 days must have included the month in which Eckford was absent at Black Rock.

"The Sylph, a schooner of 340 tons, was built in 21 days."

This seems incredible. Twenty-one days, three weeks, to build a man-of-war from wood, by hand, in a port which was merely a bay in the backwoods of New York State! It sounds fantastic, but it is a matter of record, even if the date of the laying of the Sylph's keel is not determined. The twenty-one days may have been "working days," although there is a suspicion that Eckford did not stop for Sundays and a certainty that he never took a holiday or had a strike.


Eckford was just a good shipwright of his time. Apart from Chauncey's appreciation he received little public notice, but the fame of his achievements, like Henry Kaiser's in 1942, could not be kept from the world. He was called on to provide a new navy on the Black Sea for the Sultan of Turkey, after the War of 1812 was over—and he did it.

Few "lines" of the ships he built survive, although he was no rule-of thumb trial-and-error craftsman. Howard Irving Chapelle, present day naval architect, has done well to preserve the lines of Eckford's large corvette or sloop-of-war Saratoga, in his monumental work "History of the American Sailing Ship." She was Commodore Macdonough's flagship in the Battle of Lake Champlain.

The lines, reproduced with gratitude to Mr. Chapelle in this article, show a severely plain, straight-sheered vessel, without figurehead, scrollwork, badges or quarter galleries, capable of carrying and working a maximum of guns on a minimum of draught, and able to sail and handle reasonably well. Lake Ontario did not impose the same draught restrictions as Lake Champlain, so the Sylph was probably narrower and deeper in proportion, and therefore faster.

Mr. Chapelle believes that the American war vessels built for the lakes were probably all plain like the Saratoga. So his lines of that ship may give a good general idea of the Sylph. The picture of a schooner under sail, shown above them, is also reproduced from Mr. Chapelle's work, with some adaptations, from a sailmaker's advertisement of the American revenue cutter Forward.

The sailmaker apparently pioneered the now common cross-cut sails, with strain-bands like St. Andrew's crosses reinforcing the square ones. His picture of the Forward gives an idea of what the Sylph must have looked like, with her square foretopsail and topgallant-sail and enormous squaresail. Her fore-and-aft foresail and her fore staysail would be loose-footed and have bonnets, or lower sections which would be detached, as in the picture. Her jibs may not have been arranged the same way as the Forward's, but the dashing picture gives a good general impression of what she looked like storming after those poor transports she rounded up off the Ducks, so long ago.


Eckford's objective was to launch a lake warship every six weeks, once he got started, There was plenty of good timber around Sackets Harbor—oak for keels and ribs and planking, pine for decks and "accommodations" that is, the living quarters, and cedar for fillers and upperworks where lightness was needed.

Capt. Nelson Palmateer gave the writer a walking stick from Eckford's largest vessel, the three-decker New Orleans, bigger than Nelson's Victory. She was never launched, for the war was ended about the time her keel was laid, although it took months for the news to reach Sackets Harbor from across the seas and over the wilderness trails.

This walking stick tapers from an inch and a half at the head; it looks like a heavy cudgel. But it only weighs seven ounces. It was made from a deckbeam under the spardeck carronades. That deckbeam, high above the water, where every useless ounce of weight involved compensating pounds of ballast below, was of red cedar, the lightest wood — for its strength and bulk - in the country. Hon. John Richardson, who built the Nancy twenty-four years before Eckford built the Sylph, used the same system. White oak in the keel; red cedar in the coveringboard. Both woods are yet to be found in the Nancy's remains at Wasaga Beach.


Eckford would set his whole gang to work in the woods before sunup and work them while ever there was daylight, until the ship was launched. The first would begin chopping the chosen white oak tree for the keel. In a few moments it would fall and a dozen men would lop the limbs, and a hundred, if he ever had that many, would fall to adzing the timber square where it fell in the woods. So it would be hauled to the nearby shipyard at a minimum of effort. That hour or that day the tree might be on the keel blocks in the shipyard, with trees that had surrounded it in the woods accompanying it in the yard and rising up on their late neighbor as stem and sternpost, floor-timbers, frames, keelsons, aprons, sternsons, clamps, shelf-pieces and all the members of a ship's skeleton. Other trees, felled on the same site, would be ripped into plank in sawpits dug around their roots, and might be spiked to the ribs the next day or the next.


Eckford wasted no time in seasoning, when production was the prime requisite. His shiptimber got wet breasting the waves of the lake before it had time to get dry from the forest. It was not intended to last. If the ship lived to the end of the war, she had fulfilled all Eckford's purpose. If she was sunk or captured first, so much less value fell into the hands of the enemy. But, strangely, some of Eckford's handiwork is still to be seen in Sackett's Harbor. White oak cut a hundred and thirty years ago, and still undecayed.

This is typed on a desk with some of that "green" shiptimber in it. It is beautifully hard furniture wood, white oak, black now as bog oak and taking as fine a polish.

So it is quite possible that Eckford's Sylph survived into our times, although nearly all the eighteen-twelvers had been condemned as useless a hundred years ago. Usually the unseasoned timber decayed rapidly. Eckford theorized that it was better to let it decay in a few years than season it for a few years and lose the war doing it.


Ironically, his greatest work, this New Orleans, rotted and fell apart without being launched. Old Never-wet they called her. She was completely housed over but dry rotted and was broken up sixty years ago.

The Sylph was launched on August 18th, 1813, and in ten days despite a shortage of boltrope for her new sails, she was outfitted and ready for battle. They used old running rigging out of the Madison to finish her sails. She had only ten guns at first, later fourteen, and still later twenty-eight, if the project of turning her into a heavily armed brig was carried out. She was the largest schooner yet launched on Lake Ontario; a large schooner, for her time, anywhere in the world, for 300 tons was considered the maximum size for this rig. She was about 100 feet long on deck.

Twenty-four days off the launching ways she fought and fought well in the running fight known as the Burlington Races, Sept. 11th, 1813, and saved the disabled American schooner Tompkins from capture. Three weeks later she chased a fleet of transports down the lake and helped capture them. Next year she drove the British brig Magnet ashore near Niagara. She was so fast that she acted as a tug for the slow little converted merchant schooners in the American war fleet, but even when she had one or two vessels in tow the others could not keep up with her.

She would correspond to a 10,000-ton fast cruiser in a modern war fleet, a vessel which a modern shipyard would do well to turn out in a year in normal times. Under the pressure of war production this could be accomplished in less than a year now - but not in three weeks!

Without running foul of security controls one has only to note how long it takes to get a subchaser, minesweeper or corvette into commission. Yet in the same month that a tree was standing in the forest around Sackett's Harbor that same tree could be furrowing Lake Ontario in the keel of the U.S.S. Sylph.


WHAT became of Commodore Chauncey's fleet that took part in the "Burlington Races" against Commodore Yeo's Slippery Six a hundred odd years ago?

After the War of 1812 ended the fleets on both sides were laid up, ours at Kingston, theirs at Sackett's Harbor. The Rush-Bagot agreement of blessed memory ended the necessity of navies on the lakes, and many of the warships rotted at their moorings. Only one British war vessel can definitely be traced as having had a commercial career afterwards, with one or two other "possibles." Of the American fleet, the brig Oneida became a timber draugher, and was doing good work in 1828. The schooner Lady of the Lake is said to have reached Grand Haven, Mich., after the opening of the Welland Canal, and to have been in the lumber trade for years afterwards, very fast and very leaky. The brig Jefferson launched the year after the Sylph, lies sunk at Sackett's Harbor, but her gunport are still discernible among the weeds.


There is a mention in the old Toronto Leader in 1866 of a schooner Sylph of Oswego, of 96 tons. The old Leader was far from infallible in marine and other matters, but 96 tons would be too small for Chauncey's fourteen-gun schooner. Her measurement would be more like 196 present day tons, although it may be remembered that the system of measurement of American vessels has, like our own, varied from time to time. Commodore Chauncey reported the Sylph as 340 tons at the time of her launching. A French spy who reported that the Americans were building schooners of up to 300 tons burden was disbelieved because the figures were thought too high. The schooner rig, a little over a century ago, was generally reserved for vessels of 100 tons or less.

Claude T. Doville, whose grandfather Henry had a shipyard at Sodus Point in the 1850's and possibly earlier, recollects that one of vessels his grandfather rebuilt was a schooner named the Sylph. She was so far gone that she required a very thorough overhaul, coming out with everything new, from the letters on her nameboard inwards to her ribs and backbone. She had new decks, new planking, and a new name, being rechristened the Wanatee. The fate of the Wanatee is unknown. From the extent of the rebuilding, the original Sylph would be at the time, about forty, there seems an even chance that the Wanatee was the surviving veteran of the War of 1812 herself. Either that, or that she had been name Sylph after the most popular member of Commodore Chauncey's mixed flotilla of schooners, brigs and ships which once thundered destruction against the checker-sided British ships that raided the Genesee and Olcott, burned Sodus and stormed Oswego so long ago.

Peace to all their bones!


Modern-ancient topsail schooner of 1942, the SWIFT, designed by H. I. Chapelle, naval architect, from the lines of the British sloop SWIFT of 1783. She is 79 feet long and has proved an excellent cruising yacht. Somewhat like the SYLPII of our story, smaller but much more decorative, as was her original, which is supposed to have been captured from the French first and is known to have been captured from the Americans later.

HENRY ECKFORD'S MASTERPIECE, the three-decker NEW ORLEANS, 187 feet on the keel, 30 feet deep in the hold, 3,000 tons burden, pierced for 120 guns, largest wooden ever built for Lake Ontario. She was ready for caulking in ninety days from the laying of her keel, but was left unfinished, the War of 1812 being over. This rare photograph, years after her building, shows her falling to pieces in Sackets Harbor. The black clots fringing the water around her are the heads of the ribs of her smaller sisters sunk before their upperworks having been used for firewood.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
7 Nov 1942
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.94617 Longitude: -76.11909
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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"Kaiser" of 1813 Built Warship in Three Weeks: Schooner Days DLXII (562)