Barons of the Sea: Watching New York-built ships cross the oceans in record time

During the early 19th century, the eastern shore of Manhattan — mostly concentrated near Corlears Hook — was lined with ship building factories, crafting vessels bound for far-off places. New York’s dominance as a port city relied not just on trade with Europe or other American states; it soon needed to stay competitive in truly far-off destinations.

The most valued product exported from Asia was tea, and a handful of New York merchants were determined to build their professional empires on this hot commodity, using on a trade route that took several months to complete. This would require an entirely new way of thinking about international travel.

Barons of the Sea
And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship
by Steven Ujifusa
Simon & Schuster

Barons of the Sea is a true adventure story. It’s got everything — wars, races, treasure and shipwrecks. Ahoy! But at its core, Steven Ujifusa’s thrilling book really a tale about practical invention. The needs of long-distance travel to China (and eventually, after the Gold Rush, to California) required shipping vessels of an entirely new design. Along the way, these new clipper ships gave American merchants the advantage over international competition.

Most of these new crafts were built in New York Harbor for a handful of local merchant families with last names that may be familiar to you. Abiel Abbot Low would be a dominant player in trade with Canton (the port city in China that became the crossroads for both legitimate and illicit trade). His son Seth Low would later become the mayor of New York.

Warren Delano became one of New York’s wealthiest men by dabbling into the opium trade, a devastating scourge on China that lead to the First Opium War. Less than a century later, Delano’s grandson Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be president of the United States.

Their families would amass their fortunes — not without great tribulation and set-back — by working with ship architects on an evolving series of clipper ships, cutting down the duration of a once-impossible voyage from New York and through the Pacific.

Barons demonstrates how international diplomacy was shaped by a few intrepid New York merchants, dabbling in trading concerns we might find deplorable today. (Although you might drink a cup of tea with more reverence after reading this.) And these merchants also helped shape life in the future western states, providing overpriced goods to eager prospectors brimming with freshly panned gold.

Below: South Street in 1835

Anton Joseph Friedrich Schutz, courtesy Museum of the City of New York