Sail Away

Born in 1922, John Haskel Kemble passed away in 1990, having spent his entire adult life immersed in maritime matters. At his death, John bequeathed materials and endowment to The Huntington to support research in sailing and shipping. The material fabric of his life festoons the Library as ship models and paintings.

And there are books, of course, as I became aware recently, while researching the history of trees used for shipbuilding, which are so much the stuff of empire and imperialism. Wondering about the value of English Oak (Quercus robur) to British maritime history, I was reminded the American tree, Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), became a valuable substitute as European forests dwindled and American sea power grew. Not only is the wood dense and strong, Southern Live Oak develops uniquely large, undulating branches that fit the need for curved pieces of a ship’s frame, specifically for futtocks (the curved ribs) and knees (brackets that support cross-beams). The wood was sought, and hard won.

People have written histories on this topic, and in the Library stacks, the very book I needed, Live Oaking – Southern Timber for Tall Ships, authored by Virginia Steele Wood, was on a basement shelf. Opening it, I saw the Kemble Collection bookplate, and realized that thanks to John Kemble, Huntington collections are rich with similar literature to plunder. Kemble acquired everything he could related to ships and shipping, books and manuscripts now harbored in the Library.

Reading Wood’s introduction, I imagined the author was extending me a personal invitation: “Old age and a generous girth are requisites for admission to the unique Live Oak Society..,” but quickly realized she was addressing majestic Louisiana oaks, specifically those with a minimum girth of 17 feet (4.5′ dbh.)

Image result for southern live oak
Southern Live Oak – Image borrowed from Web Archives, attributed to National Wildlife Federation

Indeed, the Society honors a wonderful tree, one I’ve known from childhood in Southern Alabama. In its native habitat along the US Southeastern Coastal Plain, Southern Live Oak forms remarkable groves of ancient, ethereal character, specimens that levitate side branches as large as other trees, stretching three score or more feet from the main trunk. Along the coast, the branches are populated by romantic, shaggy swags of silver-green Spanish Moss, like lingering Christmas trees in Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion.

But Quercus virginiana isn’t limited to the Coastal Plane these days. The tree was introduced to Southern California landscapes a century ago and is common throughout our urban forest. In fact the growingly-handsome tree at the West entry of the Library is a Quercus virginiana we planted in 1994.

Quercus virginiana at west Library facade, about 35 years old

Live Oaking takes its title from an occupation that emerged as America began building its own navy, a chore requiring access to mountains of timber. Someone had to move those mountains – felling, dismembering, and shipping the massive, naturally bent limbs of oak to be milled for building the skeletons of ship hulls. A frigate required trees that covered at least 60 acres of Southern Live Oak forest to provide needed timber.

Under the canopy of the Southern Live Oak at the Library entry, showing branching character
Quercus virginiana north of the Munger, showing characteristic major horizontal branching. Tree over 50 years old

We discover “live oaking” constitutes its own particular epoch in American history. Interest was peaked as early as 1682, when Thomas Ashe published his Carolina, or a description of the present state of that country, and the natural excellencies thereof…. (Huntington Rare Books 9619.) He reports “they have all such as we in England esteem Good, Lasting, and Servicable, as the Oak of three sorts, the White, Black, and Live Oak, which for Toughness and the Goodness of its Grain is much esteemed.” By 1748, Benjamin Darling had built the Mary-Anne in Georgetown, South Carolina, a 200-ton gunship with frame and 46-foot keel “all of Alive Oak.”

Persistent efforts in mining this resource launched three US frigates in 1797 – the United States in Philadelphia, the Constellation in Baltimore, and the Constitution in Boston, all with frames made of Southern Live Oak. By 1798, US Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert reported: “The live Oak of Georgia, is thought to be almost indispensable, in the Construction of our largest Ships, to be used in those portions most subject to decay…” Stoddert glossed the heavy toil, unhappy conditions, rampant disease (mainly malaria), and disappointment that plagued live oaking for ship building, grim accounts that Wood details in her narrative.

The importance of timber to shipbuilding and maritime dominance drove relentless investment in wooden fleets that demanded constant restoration. Most ships barely sailed 15 years without significant reworking. Records for the extant, famous wooden ship USS Constitution, one of the three launched in 1797, document the relentless need for maintenance. Check out that ship’s history (Wikipedia) to appreciate the number of restorations and complete rebuilds that have been required to keep it afloat.

Potential US supplies of Live Oak were bolstered with acquisition of the Louisiana delta as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the 1819 cession of Florida. Through a complex series of discussions, claims, and purchases, by 1868, the US government claimed public reserves of timber that totaled 268,000 acres.

But those extensive, yet impossible-to-protect timber reserves were superfluous at their height. The ancient era of wooden sailing ships had crested in March, 1862. Destruction of the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress by the Confederate CSS Virginia, a steam-powered iron ship rebuilt on the partially-destroyed frame of the steam-powered USS Merrimack, prompted the US Navy to abandon wooden sailing vessels, changing everything about life on the seas.

Similar histories describe timbering of many great American trees, as shipbuilders discovered the value of other native white oaks (particularly Quercus alba, which was also used in the USS Constitution), pines (for timber and for pitch), and cedars ( both Eastern and West Coastal North America). Today’s shipbuilders continue to assemble smaller craft of wood, and a few older ships are maintained in traditional manner. But in the contemporary world, great stands of great trees are more imperiled by housing construction than by the winds of imperialism and warfare.

From the 1957 USN, Wood: A Manual for its use in Shipbuilding, Vol. 1

For more info on the Kemble Collection, search KEMBLE MARITIME EPHEMERA COLLECTION for the pdf by Mario M. Einaudi

Prepping Live Oak. Mystic Seaport Museum,etal-Dendroc-Charlestown_Navy_Yard2015.pdf Dendrochronological evaluation of ship timber from Charlestown Navy Yard (Boston, MA). Pearce Paul Creasman∗, Christopher Baisan, Christopher Guiterman Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona, 1215 E. Lowell Street, Tucson, AZ 85721-0058, USA

United States. Navy Dept. Bureau of Ships January 1, 1957 Wood: a Manual for Its Use as a Shipbuilding Material: Volume 1

Wood Species Analysis of Ship Timbers and Wooden Items Recovered from Shipwreck 31CR314Queen Anne’s Revenge Site, Lee A. Newsom Department of Anthropology Pennsylvania State University; Regis B. Miller Center for Wood Anatomy Research U.S.D.A. Forest Products Laboratory, February 2009 Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project, RESEARCH REPORT AND BULLETIN SERIES QAR-R-09-01

Wood, Virginia Steele, 1981. Live Oaking – Southern Timber for Tall Ships, Northeastern University Press, Boston, ISBN 0-930350-31-6

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