The Great Republic & Half Moon

Jun 6, 2011

by Jonathan Thayer, Associate Archivist

Great Republic

SCI’s largest ship model at Port Newark is of the mighty clipper ship Great Republic. Designed by renowned shipbuilder Donald McKay, the actual Great Republic launched from Boston Harbor on October 4, 1853, weighing 4,555 gross tons. Measuring 334 feet in length and with a 53-foot breadth of beam, it took 1,500,000 feet of hard pine, 3,500 feet of white oak, 326 tons of iron and 56 tons of copper to build her. Celebrated as the largest wooden ship ever built at the time of her launch, the Great Republic lasted just two months before tragedy struck in New York Harbor. Early on the morning of December 27, 1853, a building fire broke out in downtown Manhattan, quickly spreading along Front Street and eventually reaching the deck of the Great Republic. The enormous ship was heavy with cargo and poised to make her maiden transatlantic voyage to Liverpool when the flames swallowed her whole. A New York Times article from the day of the fire breathlessly describes the event:

FOURTH DISPATCH—3 o’clock, A. M.: The fire is still raving with unabated violence. The sparks and burning cinders are falling in showers upon the Piers between Peck Slip and Catherine Ferry. The mammoth clipper, the Great Republic, is on fire, and will in all probability be totally destroyed! The packet ship Joseph Walker, at this port, a Liverpool packet, is also in flames, and will prove a total loss. The clipper White Squall is being floated down the stream, enveloped in flames.

The eerie image of the burning White Squall slowly drifting away from the pier with showers of fire raining down on Peck Slip captures what must have been a surreal and terrifying scene.

McKay rebuilt the Great Republic over the year following the harbor fire, significantly reducing her tonnage to 3,357 tons. She returned to sail in February 1855 and was eventually chartered by the French government for service during the Crimean War. The Great Republic was sold in 1869 to the Merchants Trading Company of Liverpool and renamed Denmark, remaining in merchant service until 1872 when she was abandoned during a storm off Bermuda.

Half-Moon (Halve-Maen)

In 1609, Henry Hudson set out with his crew to explore the New World frontier of what is today known as New York Harbor. The ship he sailed on was the Half-Moon, a Dutch East India Company vessel commissioned by the Dutch government and entrusted to Hudson, who was charged with the task of finding an eastern passage trade route to China. Hudson’s crew came upon the coastline where present-day New York meets New Jersey and, on September 3, 1609, sighted the river that today bears Hudson’s name. The explorers encountered a rich landscape covered in thick forests teeming with wildlife.

Hudson’s crew also encountered the Native Delaware, also known as the Lenape, initially establishing friendly relations by exchanging everyday items onboard the ship for tobacco, currants, and hemp. This initial peace was short-lived, however. On September 6, just three days after the Half-Moon reached the coast, a group of Munsee in canoes ambushed a small English scouting party, killing veteran crew member John Coleman in the melee. With conditions tense, Hudson decided to turn the Half-Moon upriver in search of a passage through the interior, continuing north possibly as far as Albany. Eventually the river narrowed to the point where Hudson was forced to acknowledge the futility of his search and turn the Half-Moon around.

Before Hudson and the Half-Moon returned to Europe, the crew once again came into hostile contact with the Natives. On October 1st, Hudson hosted visitors from an unspecified inland Native population onboard the Half-Moon. Allegedly in response to a theft, the European crew opened fire on their guests, chasing them off their ship and killing several in the process. As the Half-Moon made its getaway downriver, it was met with the wrath of hundreds of Natives who had heard of the incident upstream. Three days later, leaving a wake of violence in their path, the crew of the Half-Moon abandoned New York Harbor and began their journey home.

Hudson attempted to return to America in 1610 onboard the Discovery, but his fate was sealed by a mutinous crew that abandoned him in the icy waters of James Bay off Quebec. He was never heard from again.

Read more about Henry Hudson’s early American expeditions from Peter C. Mancall’s article “Strangers in a New Land”, published on americanheritage.com