It was said that customs officials suffered insomnia because “it was generally conceded that once she spread her wings nothing on the high sea could catch her”.
If ever a haunted lady darkened Pacific Northwest waters, it was the ghost-ridden schooner Casco.
Haunted she must have been: by the memories of a distant maidenhood when she’d known respectability — even fame — to the moonless nights of middle age when she’d descended to the iniquity of smuggling and murder.
Even had Dr. Samuel Merritt been blessed with the gift of prophecy and a vivid imagination it’s unlikely that he’d have foreseen the remarkable career his palatial yacht was to experience in 41 adventurous years.
A wealthy Oakland physician who practised in San Francisco, Merritt had 85-foot Casco designed along the lines of the famous tea clippers for idle cruising and racing in San Francisco Bay. Casco soon proved herself a worthy descendant of the swift clippers by showing winged heels to all challengers. It was this extraordinary grace that eventually brought the beautiful yacht notoriety and disaster.
Below decks, Casco was almost a miniature palace. Every luxury of that gilt age was to be found: intricate panels of imported hardwoods, carved by hand; bulkheads lined with pure silks; mirrors complete with tassels; velvet drapes. Even her ballast was of the best — solid copper. Dr. Merritt, for 10 years the mayor of Oakland, enjoyed his expensive hobby and captured every speed laurel the Bay City yachting fraternity had to offer. That is, until one day in 1888 when he was asked to charter his pride and joy to a special party for a cruise to the South Seas.
Merritt was understandably hesitant. After all, weren’t writers rather eccentric, even irresponsible? And who was Robert Louis Stevenson, anyway? So maybe he’d scribbled a few successful books, what did he know of sailing a queen like the Casco?
Finally, however, Merritt succumbed to the satin arguments of Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, on two conditions: first, he must meet her famous husband and judge his character for himself. Secondly, he’d name the temporary master. Fanny quickly agreed and the meeting was arranged. Apparently Stevenson shared his wife’s charm, for he soon had the physician convinced that he was quite “sensible” and the $500-a-month fee was settled.
On the morning of June 28, 1888, Capt. A.H. Otis sailed Casco out of San Francisco Bay with her illustrious passenger and his guests, wife Fanny, her son and maid, and his mother, bound for the gentle climate of the South Seas. Stevenson, ravaged by tuberculosis, was trying to steal a few more months, perhaps even a year or two, before his pen was forever stilled.
The voyage proceeded smoothly, Casco logging 356 miles in the first 24 hours through calm seas. Aboard ship, all went well, also, Stevenson seeming to breathe new life from the balmy Pacific air. As he later wrote: “I had come to my own climate.”
There had been one chill moment at the start, when Capt. Otis coolly informed his passengers that there’d be no discussion of Stevenson’s literary works in his saloon. He’d read Treasure Island and observed its “seamanship” to be somewhat “faulty!”
The stern mariner doubtlessly wouldn’t have been pleased had he known that Stevenson was even then measuring him for the role of Nares in a forthcoming book, The Wrecker.
After pausing at the Marquesas, Casco continued on to Tahiti, arriving three months after clearing San Francisco. Here dry-rot was found in Casco’s masts and Capt. Otis sailed to Papeete for repairs, leaving the passengers to enjoy the interlude among Tahiti’s friendly natives. Shipshape once more, Casco returned to pick up her party and continue to Honolulu, where Stevenson bade fond farewell to the yacht.
When Stevenson died, at his Samoan retreat four years later, his frail body was draped in Casco’s ensign.
With Dr. Merritt’s death his prized schooner was placed on the block; it was the beginning of the end for Casco’s pride and reputation.
Bought by a Victoria syndicate headed by Capt. Dick Folger, she headed north for the grim business of sealing. Casco had cost $40,000 to build and furnish. Folger’s company picked her up for a paltry $7,000. Little did the sealers care for her plush interior, stripping it to meet the Spartan requirements of a sealer; even some of her hand-carved bulkheads were razed to enlarge her hold.
Casco now sailed from Stevenson’s exciting fantasy into the rough, often terrifying reality of sealing in the stormy arctic seas, braving gales, fog and Russian and American coast guard cutters.
But she did well in her new occupation, claiming more skins than any of the more than 100 ships engaged in the bloody trade. In September 1897, now the property of “Landowner” George Collins, Casco was the first sealer home to Victoria, with 1,064 pelts, even though she’d been overtaken and passed during the return voyage by the Carlotta G. Fox.
Perhaps the Fox enjoyed a lucky tail-wind that day; it wasn’t often that Casco was outrun, a talent she’d soon put to darker use.
In 1898 she again became an American “bottom,” being sold to J. Matheson of Anacortes for “a handsome figure,” for conversion to the passenger and freighting business in northern waters.
After this, Casco tried her hand at a trade less honourable than those of sealing or freighting. This was the black period in which she caused customs officers from B.C. to California “restless nights.” It was no secret that her midnight departures from Victoria’s Inner Harbour and west coast ports were connected with illegal commerce in opium and Chinese immigrants. Apparently customs officials suffered insomnia because “it was generally conceded that once she spread her wings nothing on the high sea could catch her”. (Perhaps the authorities should have chartered the Carlotta G. Fox!)
On rare occasions when a treacherous breeze becalmed Casco within reach of the law, her suspected cargoes vanished over the side. Several times, it was rumoured, Chinese were blackjacked unconscious, weighted with chain, scrap iron and lumps of coal then slipped over the rail just as a coast guard cutter ordered her to heave to for boarding.
In November 1900, Casco returned to Victoria, now owned by famous sealer Capt. Victor Jacobsen who’d lost his own schooner, the Minnie, in the Bering Sea. For 12 years, the former yacht worked for Jacobson until he traded her for shares in the Victoria Sealing Co. When the firm foundered, the Borealis and old opponent Carlotta Fox joined Casco under the house flag of wealthy Kansas City businessman J. Sidney Smith for use in halibut fishing. Casco was converted and completely overhauled in Seattle, Smith having much of the ornate cabin fittings still remaining removed and installed in his Prince Rupert home.
Records yield few and conflicting details of her activities up to 1919 although it’s assumed that she did fish for a while before being laid up in Coal Harbour. There was talk of starting a fund to preserve her as a museum but the money wasn’t forthcoming.
In the opening years of the First World War, Casco’s once-gleaming decks again echoed to the light tramping of carefree feet when scores of sea cadets used her as a training ship in and about Vancouver. Then the urgent war demand for shipping of all types and sizes saw her again employed along the coast. With Armistice she was tied up in her old home port of San Francisco.
The South Seas beckoned again. This time, Capt. H.O. Wicke combined business with pleasure, collecting copra on his honeymoon. The year 1919 brought new owners — and disaster. Once again Casco headed into the frigid North Pacific. This time, instead of hunting seals, she was seeking a lost gold mine in Siberia. Despite her 41 years, Casco was still “a splendid ship in perfect condition,” one of her adventurers recalled in 1953.
“She was the most beautiful vessel I was ever in,” Kenneth Leuty told Norman Hacking of the Vancouver Province. “She was a lofty two-masted schooner, and she could do nine knots in a light breeze.”
But, of a 29-man crew, only two were seamen. While Capt. C.L. Oliver was up on his navigation, he’d never been to sea before. The motley complement experienced one incident after another as Casco beat ever northward. Fist-fights became the order of the day, and Mr. Leuty “always kept his gun handy”.
Somehow Casco made it beyond Nome, in the amazing time of 42 hours, into the ice-choked Bering Straits. By then Mr. Leuty had had his fill, noting in his diary: “I have thought things over and decided to get back to Nome, as the bunch are about crazy. They want to winter in the ice, and I know what that means. The skipper does not know the first thing about sailing, and when he gets into ice he’s done, so I told them I am going back.”
When they met the schooner Belvedere, Mr. Leuty beat a hasty retreat from poor Casco. When he gratefully saw Nome again, he learned that Casco had come to the end of her long, hectic career in the ice off King Island, on Sept. 9, 1919.
When the last crewmen had been removed to a coast guard cutter, tragic Casco’s teak hull, once hailed as a “silver bird,” was slowly ground to pieces — far from the romantic South Seas and the glory days when she’d skimmed the waves for Robert Louis Stevenson.