New Content Added for Over a Dozen Titles

Recently, I’ve been preparing a lot of new content to add to the database. The first evidence of that went into the database today. Ships mentioned in the indexes to the following resource were added to the subscription database today:

This is just a start; many more, including several multi-volume sets, will be added very soon.

Applying Old Data to New Technologies – The Quasi-War

Here is a very cool combination of early modern historical data and very modern technology. ShipIndex exhibited at the American Historical Association conference in New York City at the very start of 2015, and while there I met Abby Mullen, a graduate student at Northeastern University, studying with William Fowler.

At the conference, I learned that Ms. Mullen has an interest in maritime & naval history, as any right-minded person should, but after the conference I learned she’s done some really cool work in tracking naval battles and the taking of ships by privateers during the Quasi-War of 1798-1800. She took all of the information she’d gathered, and mapped all of it, then put it all online at


As she explains in her description of this image, “This screenshot shows most of the encounters between American and French vessels. Green is a French capture; red is an American; brown is an encounter that did not result in a capture either way.” Note the grey almost-rectangle in the left-center. That’s a separate chart, from the late 18th century, which she has adapted and stretched to reflect our improved geographic knowledge of the region.

Plus, she wrote up how she collected the data, she posted the data on her page, and talked about the challenges of converting historical data — especially the historical map/chart she chose to plot the data upon — to a modern format and with modern specificity. She also highlighted the limitations of the data she collected, and described other activities she’d like to see done, if possible.

This is a great application of historical data in a modern setting. Check it out!

How do you get a 458′ long, by 50′ wide, ship through a 270′ long, by 45′ wide, canal?

So many ships have so many great stories. I’d like to start highlighting a few of them. Here’s a start:

Toward the end of World War I, the US government needed all the shipping tonnage it could obtain, to move resources to Europe. It looked to the Great Lakes for freighters available there, and among the ones it found there, the last it took was the largest of all, the Charles R. Van Hise. The Van Hise was built in 1900, and was 458 feet long, and 50 feet wide. To get any of these ships from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic meant taking them around Niagara Falls, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. The way to do that is through the Welland Canal . At the start of the First World War, the Canal had 26 locks, each 270 feet long and 45 feet wide. Most ships that were taken by the US Shipping Board were too long to travel through these locks, so they were cut in half amidships, each end had a bulkhead added to the cut side, and each half was towed through the locks separately. They were then put back together once they’d arrived in Lake Ontario, before heading up the St Lawrence Seaway and on to the Atlantic.


The Van Hise, however, was not only too long, but also too wide: the locks were 45 feet wide but the Van Hise measured in at 50 feet. In a remarkable feat of engineering that has not been repeated, the ship was first cut in half admiships, like previous ships had been. Then she was rotated on her side, using some internal tanks and added pontoons. Since she wasn’t particularly deep, she could be turned on her side, and with her port side now acting as her keel, she was narrow enough to fit through the locks.

This excellent story (via Google Books) in the March 1919 issue of Popular Science describes how the process was done. The forward section passed through the first lock, as a test, in early December 1918, and the aft section, which was at this point waiting in Buffalo, was to follow in the spring of 1919. Each piece would then be towed through the other locks of the Welland Canal, to get to Lake Ontario. But hostilities had ended, and the need for the ship was negated. So the bow was towed back through the southern-most lock, back to Lake Erie, and the two halves were rejoined at Ashtabula, were the ship was also extended in size.

PopSci VanHise ArticleVan Hise went back to work, and then went through a variety of name changes – A. E. R. Schneider, S. B. Way, J. M. Oag, and finally, in 1936, Captain C. D. Secord. More work continued to change her profile, but she kept working the lakes, up until 1967. In 1968, she was sold to a Montreal scrapping firm who resold her, and in August 1968 she was towed to Spain to be broken up.

So how did she get through the Welland Canal to head out on her final voyage? Canal construction, running from 1913 to 1932, had reduced the number of locks from 26 to eight, and significantly increased them all in size, to 766 feet long and 80 feet wide – plenty wide enough for the Van Hise’s trip to the breaking yard, nearly 70 years after she’d been launched.


Sources: The story of this remarkable ship first appeared on the MARHST-L discussion list in January 2015. Posters included links to the Popular Science article (linked above), and this extended history of the ship’s life, on the Maritime History of the Great Lakes site. This page from the Great Lakes Maritime Database came via, and has this image of a dozen or so men standing on the Van Hise’s starboard-side-acting-as-deck. tbnms1ic_0146613_005_F_VANHISECHARLESR_375_229_full_0Other links from within led me to an entry at Bowling Green’s Great Lakes Vessel Online Index, as well as manuscript records for Captain C.D. Secord at Milwaukee County Library System, an image hosted by York University.

(For information on how I tracked down those manuscript records — which is not a simple process — read my entries on making the most of WorldCat record, here.)

Tracking Shipwreck Survivors

I got a note the other day from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, directing me to a resource about tracking shipwreck survivors. It’s an online publication, titled The Shipwrecked Passenger Book: Sailing Westbound from Europe for the Americas, 1817-1875, by Frank A. Biebel. It’s available for free here, hosted by FamilySearch. It will also be available on the NYG&BS website soon, in the members area.

The publication tracks 339 identified shipwrecks, and, to the best of the author’s ability, includes as much information as can be found regarding the wrecks and the recovery and repatriation of those on board. Biebel provides citations for whatever he was able to find, in newspapers, books, and more.

He also provides a few fascinating stories. In the case of the William Nelson, sailing to New York in the summer of 1865, a violent fever passed through the immigrants on board, while off the coast of Newfoundland. The captain decided to fumigate the areas where the sick had been by dipping red-hot irons in tar, and then swinging them around the space. Somehow, this was supposed to clean the air. Near the completion of this project, an iron fell into a tar-pail, and it caught fire. The passenger overseeing this fumigation process tried to smother the blaze with a mattress, but it exploded (!) and with each roll of the ship flaming tar spread throughout the area belowdecks. In moments flames raced up the hatchway, “running up the mainmast and rigging like fiery serpents.”

The captain got a number of boats launched, but only about 87 passengers, from among 448 originally on board, survived. Survivors were picked up by the steamship Lafayette and a Russian bark, and eventually taken to New York.

While this story and others in the volume are fascinating, one of the most important contributions is in the discussion toward the very end of the book. The author, after looking through so many records and tracking down all kinds of data, provides the following very useful synthesis (p. 616):

Survivors were often picked up at sea or otherwise came aboard a vessel that reached a U.S. port; for that, they were likely deeply grateful. At port, the rescuing captain or master filed a manifest as required by law. But, the survivor’s ancestors, the family historians of today, may sometimes not be pleased.

The U.S. Passenger Act of 1819 which required the recording on an arriving ship manifest of those passengers who boarded at a foreign port made no provision for shipwrecks, including possible survivors. Nor, do I know of any (U.S.) legislation prior to 1875 which accounted for this gap. And, apparently, contemporary social norms did not touch upon the subject. Thus, adding survivor names to his manifest was solely at the whim of the rescuing captain.

The result is that in doing this work, I encountered the full range of possibilities. A rescuing master’s manifest may have nothing at all of the shipwreck and its passengers, the only confirmation of survivors aboard coming from newspaper accounts (strangely enough, sometimes from an interview with the rescuing master himself). At the more desirable extreme, a captain may have mentioned the shipwreck and recorded survivor information as ifthey were his own passengers.

It may be of little help, but even though there was ”nothing at all,” if the name of the rescuing ship was known, it is included in the shipwreck information found when accessing any of the 339 listed wrecks.

I added the ships mentioned in this book to the database yesterday, but I particularly wanted to point out the value that Biebel provides by offering some analysis of what happened, across many different situations, with regard to shipwrecked immigrants.

Giving as a Gift

Looking for a last-minute gift for a maritime historian or a genealogist?

Consider access to the nearly 3.4 million citations in!

You can give a genealogist three months of access to the premium database for just $22. Or give a historian access to the premium database for six months for $35. Or give a maritime history fanatic access for a year, for just $65! This is a one-time payment, via PayPal (and yes, you can use a credit card through the PayPal site).

To make it happen, send a note to We’ll need the following information:

  • The recipient’s email address
  • When you’d like access to begin, and for how long

We’ll create a pdf certificate that you can print out or email to the recipient. It will include a username and a temporary password, plus information on how to access the database.

This can be a great gift, for any occasion — from a holiday or birthday gift to a retirement or ‘Thank You’ recognition.

A New Space for

As of today, has a new home. We are going to be working out of Rev Ithaca, a brand-new co-working/incubator startup supporter, funded by Ithaca’s three higher ed institutions: TC3, IC, and CU.

Rev had a grand opening this morning at 8:30, and the presidents of the three institutions were all present, and each shared a few words about Rev and its expected impact on their institutions and the Ithaca area. Rev will provide some great services to local startups, from seminars and connections with entrepreneurs-in-residence, to 3-D printers, laser cutters, and tools for creating prototypes of physical objects. Connections with other entrepreneurs will be vital; we had already created a number of useful connections while working out of the downstairs space before the grand opening.

After that, four companies that will be working out of Rev were highlighted, and we spent some time talking with folks from local and national news outlets. Here are a few stories I’ve seen so far; I’ll add more as I learn about them:

During the question session, a correspondent for Entrepreneur magazine asked a question about the “maker space” lab that is in Rev, and Tom Schryver, Executive Director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell, had an excellent response. He pointed out that Rev is not a “maker space”; Ithaca has a great maker space in the form of Ithaca Generator. Rev is different; it’s designed to help people who are prototyping products to produce and sell. President Skorton of Cornell followed up on that to emphasize that the space is not meant to compete with other services in the region.

I spoke with folks from Time Warner Cable news, Ithaca Journal, Ithaca Times, The Ithacan (from Ithaca College), American Entrepreneurship Today, Entrepreneur magazine, and got photographed by the Cornell Daily Sun (Cornell’s newspaper). We’ll see what comes from all that!

Then, after everyone left, we all got down to work. It was a true Grand Opening; no one could have worked in the space before 8:30 this morning, and lots of people were at work after the media left at 10:30!

New feature: Introducing stopwords

One of the neat things about having an online database is that one can study data to figure out how to make the system work better. This wouldn’t be the case if this were, say, a CD-ROM product.

I can look at all the searches that have been done on the site in the past year or so. In doing this, it’s clear that a lot of people include terms like “USS”, “HMS”, “USCGC” and other descriptive terms in front of the ship name. Others include vessel descriptors, such as “schooner” or “steamer”. For a long time, I’ve wanted to have a way of ignoring those terms, because it will get users to the content they really want more quickly. However, as with most things, it’s not as easy as it seems.

It’s easy to have a list of stopwords — words that are ignored in searches. Many search tools do this, so when you include “the” or “an” in a book title, Amazon doesn’t bother to search for these words. Of course, they still need to make exceptions to deal with searches for the band “The The”, and the like. And in the case of, one still needs to be able to search for “HMS” in a name, since some ships do have that as a legitimate part of their name – though none of them are part of the British Royal Navy.

So anyway, I reviewed the list of search terms, and came up with specific words or phrases that need to be ignored. Then we (and by “we” I don’t mean me – I mean the excellent development team that turns these ideas into reality) created the tools to ignore these words, and also show a results message that says, basically, “We ignored this term, but you can repeat the search without ignoring it if you like.”

The result will be a significant improvement in the results that people see when doing their searches. Let me know if you like it or if you don’t.

Most popular ships in libraries, from OCLC

Not long ago I analyzed information about vessels registered in the US and found a list of the 100 most common ship names in America. Folks at OCLC, the online library cooperative, did something somewhat similar lately – and found the 10 most common ships in library collections.

Thom Hickey, Chief Scientist at OCLC, had put together a list of about 50,000 authority records for ships, for me – which went in to the free part of the database. To be clear, an ‘authority record for a ship’ is a record that defines a ship as an entity, not unlike a record that defines a person. Ships can be subjects of books, of course, but they can also be authors of books. As an example, the logbook of a vessel is “by” the ship, in addition to being by the person or people who recorded the information – though often their names may not be known.

This new set of 50,000 authority records was a great enhancement to (see my blog post about these records, and see an earlier post about how best to use them). It updated a set of about 40,000 records that had been put together for me five years ago, and also gave me a chance to correct, improve, and update this information in the database. Again, all of this information is in the free portion of the database. These authority records make a great way of finding books about, say, the Titanic or the Lusitania, and are particularly valuable when one is searching for a whole book about a particular ship.

The folks at OCLC then went one step further, and decided to see what ships were most popular in libraries around the world. They took the list of ships they’d generated, then looked at how many library holdings were noted for each ship. This is a great way of measuring popularity: you’re not looking just at how many books (or movies or other works) have been created about a particular ship, you’re also looking at how many libraries own each of these works.

The results are here; I think it’s no surprise that Titanic tops the list. I will admit I was quite surprised about the rest of the top five: Mayflower, Bounty, Amistad, and Endurance.

Ship name Number of holdings*
  Titanic 260,693
  Mayflower 48,657
  Bounty 35,382
  Amistad 32,464
  Endurance 27,877
*as of 11 July 2014

The OCLC Blog entry has great examples of resources about each ship (check out the image of a Titanic made from dried apples!), findable through WorldCat, and is very much worth a close read. Take a look at the next five most popular ships, too – you might be surprised at what is most popular in libraries.

Maritime history is everywhere – Mark Twain as an example

One of my biggest challenges comes in making clear the role of maritime history in American history and life, and in world history and life. In a way, I think vessels are so ubiquitous that they’re not even noticed. But for most of recorded history, news and information (and with it, human connections) used ships to travel long distances. If you look, everywhere you turn you will see a maritime impact.

I noticed that again today, when I went visited the many Mark Twain sites in Elmira, NY. Elmira is not far from where I live, but I don’t go there often. I knew there were connections with Mark Twain, but I did not realize how many. As it turns out, Twain’s wife and family lived in Elmira for many years, and Twain (well, Sam Clemens) regularly spent summers there.

Sam Clemens’ sister-in-law owned an estate about two miles outside of town (and Twain’s father-in-law was the richest man in town and owned the largest house in town), and she built a small rectangular study for Twain in 1874, which he loved and used extensively, writing much of many titles there in the summertime. The study was moved to Elmira College in the 1950s (Twain’s wife attended the college, and the family had many other connections there as well), and is now open for visits in the summertime, and by appointment other times of the year.

Where’s the maritime connection – other than water weaving its way through all of Twain’s work? Sam Clemens met Olivia Langdon through her younger brother, Charles. Many signs told me that Charles and Clemens met on board the steamship Quaker City, in 1867 in the Mediterranean, where they struck up a conversation, and eventually Charles showed Sam a picture of his sister, and Clemens was immediately taken with Charles’ sister. It took some time before they actually met, and then before Olivia accepted Clemens’ marriage proposal, but it all went back to the Quaker City.

Of course, has entries on Quaker City – more than 80 of them – and not all are about the ship that Clemens and Langdon sailed together on, but if you want to know more about that ship, I can’t think of a better place to start.

After visiting the sites at Elmira College I stopped at Twain’s gravesite in Woodlawn Cemetery, where he’s buried with his wife’s ashes (she died in Florence, in 1904), those of his children, and his only known grandchild.

In the end, water matters. Whether you’re studying the life of Sam Clemens or the writings of Mark Twain, water had a huge impact on his life. I’d argue it has that impact on the lives of many, many people, and I will keep trying to convince the world of that.

New content, through early June 2014

I’ve been writing a lot about the 38th Voyage, but in fact I’ve also been working on new content for the database. Here’s a list of content added since the last time I posted such a list:

New content:

Updated content:

So, we’re still plugging away at getting new content into the database, even while preparing for the sail. The free database grew by over 20,000 citations. And right now, the subscription database is at 3.36 Million citations.