The Adventures of Thomas Crapo

by Malcolm Macdonald, June 7, 2017

While the current versions of newspapers in Fort Bragg and Mendocino rarely cover stories outside of the myopically local, their progenitor, William Heeser, reported on news from around the state, the nation, and the world as well as items as close to home as “The painter is beautifying the exterior of the Presbyterian Church.” (February 15, 1879)

A week later Mendocino Beacon readers were apprised that “A large beaver was trapped in the Russian River, near Healdsburg.”

Early the following month came the annual tally of prisoners held at San Quentin State Prison (1,524). Mr. Heeser also reported the average cost, to taxpayers, of keeping a prisoner each day: thirty-five and a half cents. The same issue detailed the greatest sensation in the Bay Area that week, the collision of two Oakland ferry boats, the Alameda and the El Capitan, “in consequence of a remarkably dense fog.”

The El Capitan sunk. William Heeser recorded the ensuing rescue efforts. “Except probably two Chinese, it is believed that no lives were lost. The passengers on board the El Capitan were taken aboard the Alameda and safely landed. The deliverance of hundreds of persons from a threatened watery grave is regarded as very remarkable.” Heeser's downplay of the loss of life by “probably two Chinese” was more than typical of the time. The victorious candidate in the 1879 San Francisco mayoralty race ran on the simple slogan, “The Chinese Must Go.”

Heeser's attention was often captured by the unusual, if not whimsical. Also in March, 1879, he referenced Captain Crapo and his wife. Captain Thomas Crapo and his wife, Johanna, set sail from New Bedford, Massachusetts, on May 28, 1877, in a twenty foot long dory, made of cedar. They were bound across the Atlantic Ocean for England in the shortest boat ever known to make such an attempt. The vessel was thirteen feet across and just under six and a half feet at her narrow extremes. It carried a leg-of-mutton mainsail and foresail (picture an obtuse triangle), hoisted thirteen and fifteen feet, respectively, each nine feet across; something like a whaleboat, but shorter, wider, and deeper. Completely decked over, there were two hatchways, with the helmsman seated in the after-hatch, which was hinged and could be securely fastened and battened in rough weather.

Thomas Crapo was the principal designer. He expected the craft to ride over all but an extremely capping seas without taking much water on deck. The boat was provisioned with 1,500 pounds of water as well as 500 pounds of iron ballast. Though they carried a sack of biscuits, most of the Crapos' food was in the form of canned goods. A small kerosene stove provided a means for cooking.

Three thousand folks waved goodbye as the Crapos sailed out of New Bedford. Crapo, who was thirty-five years of age, set a due east course, intendng to avoid the Newfoundland Banks. He had been at sea since his early teen years. Originally, he planned a solo adventure, but his spouse insisted on accompanying him. Johanna Crapo was twenty-three. Her sailing history appears to have been unknown.

Almost immediately the dory took on water. The Crapos were forced to pull into Chatham for repair work that lasted four days. Setting sail again, the Atlantic quickly proved too much for Mrs. Crapo's stomach. Her seasickness meant that Thomas Crapo manned the helm nearly all day and night, watching out for large ships that might run them over without noticing. Among other discomforts, their bed was too short for either husband or wife to stretch out fully on it. Whales nudged the boat so playfully and often, they were in danger of capsizing many times.

News of the Crapos progress was conveyed verbally to passing ships which in turn carried it back to port and a curious reading public. Fifty days after departing Chatham the Crapos docked at Penzance, England at eleven p.m. with no one in sight. However, the next day they were greeted as conquering heroes. They toured England for months, telling their sea tale to paying crowds before returning to New York aboard a steamer in January, 1878. They performed at Madison Square Garden and made their way into William Heeser's notice more than a year later when he reported, “Captain Crapo and wife, the New Englanders who crossed the Atlantic last summer in a dory, expect to journey up the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal next summer.”

For a first person account of Thomas Crapo's adventures readers can locate a copy of his Strange but true. Life and adventures of Captain Thomas Crapo and wife.

(Many tales of adventure reside at: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

One Response to The Adventures of Thomas Crapo

  1. George Hollister Reply

    June 7, 2017 at 3:52 pm

    Always interesting.

    And what did Johanna say when Thomas indicated they would have to return to shore for repairs? “Oh crap, Crapo.”

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