Shipwrecks

Charles Cooper (1856-1866)

The wreck of Charles Cooper is famous because it was once the only surviving wooden-hulled American Packet Ship of her type (before it began to fragment).

She found her way to the Falklands by way of Philadelphia, where  she  had picked up a load of coal bound for San Francisco.  In September 1866, she tried to round Cape Horn, but was beaten back by severe storms which damaged an already weakened hull.  In those days, there was no Panama Canal.  Her captain had no alternative than to put into Port Stanley, where she arrived on 25th September, 1866, to be judged “leaking beyond repair”.  In those days, the Falklands were known as “The Graveyard of Sailing Ships”.  The condemned ship was bought by the Falkland Island Company, stripped of her rigging and, for almost 100 years, was positioned prominently in the middle of the port and used as a floating warehouse.

Key Facts:

fully rigged ship icon

Fully-rigged, wooden packet ship

Last of a kind

Size: 977 tons, 166 ft
Launched: Black Rock, Connecticut, 11th November 1856
Fate: Storm damaged “beyond repair”

Video footage © 2023 Mark Spicer

For most of the time, she was not alone.  Back in the day, Stanley’s narrow three-mile-long inner harbour was dotted with the remains of about a dozen square-riggers and at least 16 other shipwrecks were spread around outlying beaches and inlets. Many maritime archeologists believe the close proximity of the Falklands to Antarctic waters has helped preserve so many wrecks for so long because there is an absence of marine borers and moderate climate swings between winter and summer.

It has also been said that, for many years, sailing ships that managed to make it safely round the treacherous Horn, faced another “threat” when they made Stanley – the local insurance agent was also the town’s leading businessman, who would condemn ships as “unseaworthy” and then buy them himself, turning most into ‘inexpensive’ dockside warehouses.  The lack of trees on the islands made  imported wood very expensive, so “hulks” provided a far cheaper option.  But, the vast majority of stricken ships never made it into port – over time, it’s been said, locals have identified at least 118 shipwrecks.

Charles Cooper was built in Black Rock, Connecticut, USA in 1856. A wooden, square-rigged merchant ship made for New York’s South Street packet trade, which dominated transatlantic travel. For the first time, passengers could rely on a regular schedule of sailings, rather than departing only after cargo had been fully loaded.  They got their name after the postal packets the ships also carried.  The vessel ferried many European immigrants to the New World and was once dubbed “The Last Emigrant Ship” for her work in carrying people to what they saw as a better life in the United States.

She sailed the high seas for a decade, in what became known as “the golden age of sail”, mainly carrying cotton to England, salt to India and “ingredients to make gunpowder” to the Northern States during America’s Civil War, between 1861 and 1865. The outbreak of that war put paid to Charles Cooper’s lucrative fixed passenger schedule between New York City and Antwerp in Belgium, and she was forced to become a ship for hire for merchants in Europe and Asia.

Her maker, William Hall, described her as an “exceptional ship”, solid and sturdy, with a heavily reinforced hull.  She was larger than average, weighing 977 tons and 166 feet long, with three large square full-rigged masts. Reports from the time say there were miles of thick rope and hundreds of block pulleys to control her three massive cotton canvas sails.  Her bowsprit (the wooden ‘pole’ that extends forward from the front of the ship) was made from a whole tree.  Her frame was American chestnut, her hull of oak and her beam was Norwegian pine.  Between voyages, her hull was “coppered” to inhibit marine decay.

Charles Cooper made news from the time she was launched.  In November, 1856, the New York Herald reported: “Mr. Wm Hall will launch this morning at 10 o’clock, from his yard at Black Rock… she is intended for Messrs Laytin & Hurlbut’s line of Antwerp packets”. 

In January 1857, it was reported that Charles Cooper had departed on her very first voyage from New York: “It took seven weeks to cross the Atlantic Sea and arrive at Antwerp. The vessel carried cotton, flour, pearl ash, rosin, logwood, hogsheads of tobacco, bacon, coffee, lard, beeswax, barrel staves, and nails. It stayed in Antwerp for seven more weeks while goods were removed and new cargo loaded.”

When it left Belgium to return to America, in April 1857, the cargo included Belgium glassware, wine, hair for wigs, tin, lead, zinc and chloride. There were 287 German passengers onboard, a number that was never exceeded, even though she was licensed to carry 488. 12 of her cabins were First Class and in the back of the ship was a central saloon.  What were called “less well off” passengers travelled in the lower deck – “steerage”.

After lying in Stanley harbour for more than 100 years, the wreck was bought by New York’s South Street Seaport Museum for $5,000 US dollars.  The plan was to move her to the US museum, but she was deemed too fragile to survive the journey.  In 1991, ownership of the vessel was returned to the Falklands. In 2003, an account of the ship’s history was published by Liverpool’s Merseyside Maritime Museum and the Falkland Islands Museum and National Trust began removing the ship from Stanley harbour.  As of December 2020, elements of her stern assembly could still be seen in the harbour in front of the West Store.

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