With the California Gold Rush
at its height, demand grew for ever-faster ship
s to round Cape Horn
and grease the wheels of trade
between San Francisco
and the rest of the world. In the midst of this, Nathaniel and George Griswold
, New York merchant
s, approached William Webb
, a famous builder of clipper ship
s, and asked him to build a ship for them. They were willing to pay any sum, but the ship had to be the fastest in existence.
Intrigued, Webb took the job, and built for them the Challenge. The boat cost the Griswolds $150,000 to have built - a normal top of the line clipper went for about $60,000. When it was finished, the ship was the largest in the world - over 250 feet long, with a 97-foot mainmast.
The ship's first voyage was to be a trip from New York to San Francisco, and the Griswold brothers sought to break the record for that journey - at the point, 91 days. To captain their ship, they chose Robert Waterman, who had earned a great deal of fame (and notoreity) as the captain of the Sea Witch, with which he had set a number of speed records for sailing to China. Waterman was retired, but the Grisworlds convinced him to make the journey by offering him a bonus of $10,000 if he could break the record.
The Challenge set sail July 13, 1851, with a crew of 56. Half the crew had never been to sea before - like all clippers of the day, the Challenge relied on "crimps," who kidnapped or coerced men on the waterfront into joining the crew - once the ship put to sea, they had little choice but to serve aboard her.
Waterman joined the ship after it cast off, and his first act, upon seeing the crew, was to fire the first mate. He acquired a first mate he knew, James "Black" Douglass, whose shipboard demeanor was such that he feared putting to shore in New York, worried that former members of his crews would revenge themselves upon him.
The first member of the crew died before they even crossed the equator, while they drifted waiting for a wind to carry them out of the doldrums. Eventually, they were able to pick up a breeze and continue south, however.
Between the equator and the Cape, there appears to have been a mutiny of sorts. Douglass had built a reputation for himself as a "driver" - he was willing to use as much physical force as necessary to bully his unwilling crew into following his orders, and several crewmen tried to kill him. Waterman sprang to Douglas' aid and broke up the mutiny. One man was placed in irons, and another, who had stabbed Douglas, was missing. Eight men were flogged for participation in the mutiny, and the ship continued on its way.
Upon reaching the Cape, however, Waterman ran into more bad luck. A massive storm kept the ship from making any progress, and killed at least three more crew members, flinging them from the rigging, even as dysentery claimed the lives of two others. Another died from illness likely aggravated by being bound to the rail in the storm - a punishment conceived of by Douglass. An Italian by the name of Pawpaw died of a beating received at Douglass' hands when he refused to climb the masts in the thick of the storm. Livening up the proceedings, the missing mutineer was found hiding between decks, and tortured until he confessed his role in the mutiny.
After eighteen days, the storm broke, and the Challenge continued uneventfully to California. It arrived in San Francisco October 29, 1851 - 108 days after it had set sail from New York, having missed the record by the length of the storm. Waterman and Douglass were arrested and tried for murder and other crimes. Waterman ended up being fined $400 for cruel treatment of his crew, while Douglass was convicted of murder and assault, but only fined $250.
The ship itself, having failed to set the record, continued to sail for another 25 years, until it was lost at sea off France, February 7, 1877.
BRANDS, H.W., (2002) The Age of Gold. New York: Doubleday