The Exotic History of the Schooner Casco

by John M. MacFarlane 2012


The fore-and-aft schooner Casco at Bamfield BC in 1903 during her fur sealing days. (MMBC Photo P166.01)

Of the thousands of vessels that have called British Columbia a home port the Casco had one of the most exotic backgrounds of any of them. Maritime heritage knows no boundaries and this story ties in themes from California, the South Seas, Alaska and Siberia.

The Casco was a fore–and–aft teak–hulled schooner (90’ x 25’ x 12’) built c1878 in California as a yacht for Dr. Samuel Merritt of Oakland CA. She was opulently fitted out and "The Turner Model" sail plan using Bermuda–rig sails without a gaff made it easier to bring down sails during sudden Pacific squalls.

Dr. Merritt (1822–1890) was a San Francisco physician and the 13th Mayor of Oakland, California from 1867–69. Originally from Maine (Casco Bay is in Maine), when he moved to California he bought land in what is now the city of Oakland in 1852 and moved there in 1863. As a young physician in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Merritt attracted the attention of Daniel Webster when he successfully performed a difficult operation on Webster’s neighbor. Webster encouraged him (like Horace Greeley) to come to California, saying, "Go out there, young man. Go out there and behave yourself, and free as you are from family cares, you will never regret it." Merritt bought a ship, loaded it with general cargo, and set sail from New York for California at the end of November in 1849.

His arrival in May, 1850, was opportune, right after one of the fires that razed San Francisco to the ground. Merritt made a large profit on the goods he had brought out. With these funds he chartered a brig and put her in the lumber trade run. He made a fortune in San Francisco real estate. Merritt served as a member of the Vigilance Committee of 1856, and was a San Francisco Supervisor, elected as Mayor in Oakland in 1868. To celebrate his successes he built a luxurious yacht for himself – the Casco.

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island was touring the world with his wife Fanny Osborne. He wrote In "The South Seas": "For nearly ten years my health had been declining; and for some while before I set forth upon my voyage, I believed I was come to the afterpiece of life, and had only the nurse and undertaker to expect. It was suggested that I should try the South Seas; and I was not unwilling to visit like a ghost, and be carried like a bale, among scenes that had attracted me in youth and health. I chartered Dr. Merritt’s schooner yacht the Casco, seventy–four tons register; sailed her from San Francisco towards the end of June 1888, visited the Eastern Islands, and was left early the next year at Honolulu."

Captain A.H. Otis, the Master had read "Treasure Island" (first published as a book in 1883). He apparently forbade the crew to discuss the story while on board as he found fault with Stevenson’s literary descriptions of seamanship. Stephenson repaid the sentiment by using him as the model for the character Arty Nares in The Wrecker. Stephenson sailed in the Equator from Honolulu, another fore-and-aft schooner.

In 1892 she was bought by a syndicate headed by Captain Dick Folger, as a sealer. In 1897 she was taken over by George Collins. She sailed under Captain Otto Buchholtz as Master between San Francisco and the Orient. Buchholtz claimed that she made the voyage from Yokohama to Cape Flattery in exactly 20 days – a record which is supposed to have never been equalled. She is said to have operated on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the coastal freight trade for several years but her activity during that time is not well documented.

In 1898 she was returned to American ownership when sold to J. Matheson of Anacortes. She is reputed to have carried a cargo of thirty-two illegal Asian immigrants and a cargo of high grade opium. Off the southeast coast of Vancouver Island she was pursued by a US Revenue cutter. In a shocking episode, rather than face justice, the crew murdered the immigrants and put their bodies over the side eliminating evidence when they were eventually boarded.

In 1900 the Casco was bought by Victoria’s Captain Victor. In c1912 Captain Victor Jacobsen traded her for shares in the Victoria Sealing Co. She participated in hunting fur seals in the North Pacific for several seasons.


The crew of the schooner Casco in her sealing days. (MMBC Photo P1356.01)

When the Victoria Sealing Co. was wound-up she was owned by Mr. J. Sidney Smith of Kansas City as a yacht. In 1914 she was laid up at Coal Harbour, Vancouver BC. Mr. Smith made announcements that he intended to have her put back into original condition and to sail her back to the UK around the Horn. But the outbreak of the First World War made the luxury yacht travel business impossible. These plans were never executed. In 1915 she was used briefly by Vancouver Sea Scouts as a training ship. In 1916 she was sold to Captain H.O. Wicke as a South Seas Trader but she appears to have lain at anchor until the end of the War.

It is recorded that there were still remnants of her lavish original interior fittings still in place. She was fitted out with hardwood finish inside, her railings and in the cockpit. Newspaper reports stated that even at her advanced age her hull was sound although when she was converted to a sealer her hull was covered with a skin of greenheart wood "to a couple of feet above the waterline." This was to protect her from damage from ice–floes in northern waters.

Press reports on the little vessel were picked up around the world in 1912 and again in 1919 when she changed hands and the new owners announced impending refurbishments. Her association with Robert Louis Stevenson kept a huge focus on her throughout her life which turned her into a ‘celebrity ship’.

In 1918 at the end of the First World War she was purchased by Captain Harry Crosby (a Puget Sound Master) who intended to refurbish her. She wasn’t big enough for serious freight and needed expensive work to convert her back to a yacht. Anticipating her use in the coasting trade an engine was installed at Ballard Washington. A group of adventurers lead by Leon McGurk (the Northern Mining and Trading Company) chartered her for a voyage to Siberia. McGurk claimed to have discovered gold on the Kolyma River (which empties into the Bering Sea) in Siberia. In 1915 McGurk and three other prospectors mined $110,000 worth of gold and were unable to return until after the War.

The Casco left San Francisco carrying McGurk and 28 other passengers (apparently all miners and support workers). Sailing up the coast of Alaska they reached Nome under Captain C.L. Oliver. In 1919 she was reported grounded on King Island AK. The hull of the Casco was quickly ground to pieces by the waves of the Bering Sea and the crew and passengers rescued by the USCGS cutter Bear. They never got to their mine on the coast of Siberia. The name Casco was later picked up by an American steel-hulled freighter which itself had ties to Vancouver BC and the Siberian fur trade.

Author’s Note: The use of the images in this article from the collection of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia is gratefully acknowledged.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) The Exotic History of the Schooner Casco. 2012.

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