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Brotherly Love

From the 1897 issue of The San Francisco Call newspaper: “The old-time clipper Three Brothers has come to her last notch. At one time a warship, then one of the largest and fastest clippers in the American mercantile marine, she was finally sold to an English firm and passed under the English flag.Months ago she outgrew her usefulness and is now serving as a coal hulk for the English government at Malta.”

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A laconic report, to be sure. For Capt. George Cummings, it read like the obituary of an old friend. Cummings was a young Navy officer in the early days of the Civil War when he first laid eyes on the ship he would one day command. She was a 14-knot side-wheel steamship owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt and built to rival the Cunard Line for the Atlantic steam packet trade. The tycoon had just given her to the Union Navy. Cummings admired the sleek privateer, named USS Vanderbilt, and her heroic mission: to capture the Confederate raider Alabama.

Less than a decade later, he had the job of refitting her as a sailing ship for new owners in San Francisco. He was made skipper, and her owners — the three Howe brothers — put her in the grain trade between San Francisco, the East Coast and Europe. “In October, 1873, we sailed for Havre with a cargo of wheat, [a] Mr. Howe accompanying us. The voyage was made in 108 days.”

For the next six years, Cummings took the “world’s largest sailing vessel” —renamed the Three Brothers — back and forth, averaging just over 100 days for the passage. In 1879 she was sold in Liverpool for a “mere trifle,” Cummings wrote. “She is now a coal hulk at Gibraltar, the strongest old vessel ever built.”

Cummings commissioned a painting of the Three Brothers, for which he paid $250, a princely sum. The old skipper had it hanging in his house and, noted The San Francisco Call, “no visitor calls without admiring the vessel.”

February 2013 issue