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All Aboard the Down Easter Dirigo

UNITED STATES— In February 1894, the first American steel-rigged ship, Dirigo, was built in Bath, Maine. The four-masted ship was built and owned by Arthur Sewall & Co., constructed of imported steel plates and shipbuilding labor; it was built at the Sewall Shipyard in Bath. The Sewall shipyard was the only yard in the country at the time to switch from building wooden sailing vessels to building steel vessels. 


The Dirigo was designed as a typical British design from the 1890s; while other ships had been built of iron or equipped with a screw propeller, Great Britain was the first to combine these features in a large ocean-going ship.


 Eight more steel vessels were built following the completion of Dirigo, which is the Maine state motto meaning “I lead” in Latin. 


Dirigo weighed 3,005 gross tons and registered at a length of 312 feet. Arthur Sewall & Co. owned her until 1915 when they sold her to her San Francisco owners.


Beginning in 1889, The Sewalls had started building very large Down Easters. Beginning with the launch of the Rappahannock, Sewall created a series of 300-foot, 3,000-ton ships. 


The Rappahannock was a full-rigged 3-masted ship, and the Sewalls realized that at this size, a fourth mast was necessary to make the rig manageable, just like the Dirigo. Subsequent vessels were rigged as 4-masted ships, with a fore-and-aft rigged fourth mast. These were at the limit of wooden ship size, and for this reason, they switched to the British practice of building with steel. After the mast was called the jigger, and since it was fore-and-aft rigged like a barque’s mizzen, these vessels were commonly called four-masted barques. A more unusual name for the rig was shipentine.


On May 31, 1917, while on a Voyage from New York to Havre De Grace, Maryland, the Dirigo was sunk from torpedoes by a German submarine UB-23, the SM UB-16, captained by Hans Ewald Niemer just 6 miles southwest of Eddystone, Pennsylvania. One life was lost.

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