Alden Besse, photographed by Asahel Curtis, Wikipedia Commons.
Surviving tempests, fires, illness, auctions, lawsuits, and salvages, the old whaling ship Alden Besse saw many an exciting adventure over more than 59 years. A magnet for disaster, accidents, and adventure, the ship even served as a set for many an early Hollywood silent film. The history of the Alden Besse seems as exciting as any adventure story or film.
Built in Bath, Maine, out of stout oak by the company Goss and Sawyer in 1871, the 840-ton, narrow-hulled, slender clipper Alden Besse was named after sea captain Alden Besse of Wareham, Massachusetts. Upon completion, the ship hit the high seas, sailing around the Horn of Africa to California, to the Orient, and every place in between. Besides serving the whale trade, the Alden Besse carried all manner of cargo, including lumber, rice, scrap iron, bricks, coal, sugar, beer and coffee.
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The vessel passed its first decade indifferently, traveling back and forth across the waves heavy laden with cargo. In 1881, however, the Alden Besse brought smallpox with it to Oregon after sailing from Hong Kong. Newspapers reported, “The state health officer took steps at once to relieve the sick and distressed, and has established a quarantine station on the hill just outside the city….” From this point forward, the clipper passed from owner to owner, dodging sea winds, legal challenges and a watery grave.
Some stories claim in the late 1880s through to 1900 that the old bark served the pirate trade and as Japanese naval training ship, plying the ocean seas. Even as more state-of-the-art, faster steamers replaced veteran clippers, the beautiful Alden Besse sailed on, as busy as ever.
California, however would serve somewhat as a nemesis to the old bark starting at the turn of the twentieth century. Wire stories reported that the Alden Besse survived harrowing storms traveling from San Francisco to Honolulu in October 1900. “Decks were swept by three tremendous seas that broke in the coops and washed every movable article overboard.” For forty-eight hours, sailors and ship battled howling winds and waves, losing two sails and seeing the main top sail slashed to ribbons. Cargo shifted as well, listing to port, with the Alden Besse fighting not to capsize. A further tempest two days from reaching Hawaii pushed its haul starboard, almost completely righting the ship. The old bark would survive leaks, storm damage, and wear and tear for the next decade.
In 1909, the Alden Besse found itself tied up at San Pedro harbor for months over libel suits and disagreements among owners and managers dealing with misappropriation of fees. The old war horse arrived in San Pedro unable to pay its fees after unloading and loading freight, with the owner charged with embezzling funds from a cargo of beer transported to Hawaii. Two Japanese stowaways were also discovered below deck and stealthily escaped when the captain lacked money to feed them. Though it returned to sea, the grande dame was put up for auction in November 1910 in order to pay off creditors.
New owners fell into financial straits by the next year, putting the Alden Besse up for lease. In September 1911. The Selig Motion Picture Company rented the clipper and another wooden vessel to employ as sets for naval and pirate stories. Stripping the barks down and outfitting them with cannons, the company hired 300 costumed actors and sailors to shoot a variety of seaworthy tales.
Looking to market its product before filming even began, Selig purchased ads in newspapers announcing filming of “Blackbeard and his Blood Thirsty Crew” Saturday and Sunday, September 9 and 10 in Redondo Beach Harbor. Declaring “It is all free, and plenty of view points available,” ads suggested taking binoculars or opera glasses to view every moment of the action. Viewers could catch such scenes as pirates boarding the ship, battles between English sailors and the pirates, “walking the plank,” burning flames and extinguished fires, per the September 8 Los Angeles Times. Selig even arranged with Pacific Electric Railway Company for excursion cars to transport guests from Hill Street or Spring Street stations in Los Angeles to Redondo and back.
The December 9, 1911, Oakland Tribune noted, “The old ‘Alden Besse,’ an 840-ton vessel of unsavory name because of its recent difficulties with our government over suspected smuggling and near piracy, was charted for the purpose and entirely outfitted for the occasion” of making movies. The Santa Cruz paper declared, “The famous old American bark ‘Alden Besse’…is spending her declining years as a subject for the motion camera and recently has been the scene of some thrilling melodramatic performances in which pirates are the central characters. The pictured attacks of the sea rovers will hand the old windjammer down to posterity as has been the experience of but few vessels of her class now in existence.”
Director Francis Boggs filmed the rousing story of “Blackbeard: A Tragedy of the Sea” starring Hobart Bosworth, Tom Santschi, Herbert Rawlinson, and Bessie Eyton for Selig, released in late 1911. The pirate Blackbeard and his marauding men attack the island of Martinique, capturing the governor and his family. The governor walks the plank, but finds himself saved in the sea by his wife’s brave maid (Eyton). Making his way to an English Man-’o-war, the governor leads the vessel to attack the pirate ship, freeing the prisoners and capturing and killing the notorious pirate.
The old bark “Alden Besse” found itself a movie star. Ads declared the film, “the tragedy of the Spanish Main, showing a thrilling episode in the life of the notorious pirate, produced by the Selig Company in the old pirate ship, “Alden Besse.”
Happy with the film, Selig kept a crew on the ship filming scenes off the coast for other seagoing tales, such as “The Old Captain” (1911), “Pearl Diving” (1912), “The Little Widow” (1912), and “The Mate of the Alden Besse” (1912) starring Bosworth. Written and produced by the actor, the story featured the elegant vessel, helmed by a drunken, brutal tyrant of a captain who is killed by the rebelling crew despite the pleadings of his daughter and first mate. Marooned at sea, the two overcome danger and find happiness.
In 1913, the glamorous ship took once more to sea, returning to its lowly duties as freight hauler. Selig rented it again early that year, towing it to Portuguese Bend to film “The Landing of the Pilgrims.” They also towed it away from the wharf and then set smudge pots afire, bringing fire tugboats and San Pedro fire engines to put down the flames for a film called “Daphne.” Influenced perhaps by its illustrious film career, writer Charles E. Van Loan wrote a story featuring the old bark for Saturday Evening Post.
While working as a coal barge in San Pedro Harbor January 2, 1914, the Alden Besse sank, with only its masts and spars visible at high tide. While loading 300 tons of coal into its hatch, the weather-beaten hull’s head above the water line opened and water slowly filled in. Most felt the veteran craft could be easily raised and salvaged.
The veteran ship sat for six months, with many worried that the longer it sat, the holds would break upon raising, sending it to a permanent watery grave. Salvage was successful, however, with the old bark repaired and restored to seaworthiness. Early in 1915, however, the Alden Besse broke its lines at the wharf, drifting into the stream before it could be rescued to ride out howling 50-mile gale winds The tide pushed it back to the wharf after calm descended.
By that fall, the graceful lady found herself once again up for auction, with Fox Film Corporation winning it for $1,200 after feverish bidding. Restored with new sails and rigging, the Alden Besse was towed to Santa Catalina Island in December to be employed by various moving picture companies. The Mack Sennett Company leased the ship in August to film “She Loved a Sailor,” with papers claiming that actor Willie Gilbert plunged 110 feet from the yardarm of the ship into the sea. Blue Bird shot on the Alden Besse as well, filming Myrtle Gonzales and George Hernandez aboard the ship for a picture under the working titles “The Bondage of Fear” and “The Curse of the Alden Besse,” finally released under the title ”Mutiny.”
After this small respite, the old bark was once again sold and returned to sea, desperately needed for freight with ships pulled aside for the war effort. Requiring more frequent repairs, the little ship that could continued plying Pacific waters. The Alden Besse traveled up and down the California coast for more than a decade, before finally succumbing along with twelve other vintage ships in a wind-driven fire in Oakland harbor.
With a story as romantic and tragic as any daring knight, the Alden Besse’ remarkable story and short but popular film career provides it a dramatic place in history.