On October 21, 1816 a curious vessel slipped down the ways of Retire Becket's shipyard in Salem, Massachusetts, arousing onlookers to push and shove for a better view. Multicolored stripes adorned her starboard side and to port there was a gay herringbone pattern. Reports of her exotic cabin fittings filtered from the initiates to further pique the interest of the crowd as they gazed with the appreciation of seafaring folk at the magnificent 83-foot, 192-ton brigantine.
The object of all this attention was America's first ocean-going pleasure yacht. Built for $50,000, it was bizarrely called Cleopatra's Barge by its owner, George Crowninshield Jr. Crowninshield was the scion of a wealthy Salem merchant family and as bizarre a spectacle as was his ship. A pudgy 5 feet 6, he habitually affected Hessian boots with gold tassels, a gaudy waistcoat and a shaggy bell-crowned beaver hat. He tied his hair in a pigtail.
In keeping with a quixotic side of his nature, after severe storms it was his custom to load whatever ship was his favorite at the time with extra stores, add to its crew and sail off to assist other ships in trouble. Crowninshield was also an amateur fire fighter of great repute, credited with a number of daring rescues from burning buildings. No man to confine his heroics to dry land, he leapt in the sea three times to save drowning men—and for one of these exploits he received a gold medal from the Massachusetts Humane Society.
Crowninshield oversaw the outfitting of the family's ships for the West Indies trade until the firm was dissolved in 1809. His brother Benjamin later broke loose from the family merchant business to become Secretary of the Navy, leaving it to George to keep the family name alive on the high seas. At the death of their father, George found himself rich, carefree and yacht-less—an earlier ship, the Jefferson, was sold in the liquidation of his father's estate. It was at this point that George, now 49 years old, decided to build Cleopatra's Barge.
Soon after its launching, the Barge was locked into Salem harbor by ice and Crowninshield utilized the delay in his sailing plans to buy lavish table furnishings and stores—and to accumulate some 300 letters of introduction to various dignitaries residing in ports of call on his itinerary. Salem's citizenry utilized the harsh weather to take a closer look at the ship. In a letter to his brother, Crowninshield estimated, "I have had 1,900 women and 700 men in one day visit my brig—or yacht, as they call her—and an average of over 900 per day for the past two weeks." There is no doubt that she was Salem's pride. Considered the best-built vessel of her time, she was designed for beauty as well as strength. Crowninshield spared nothing on her appointments.
Through a Pepys hole
William Bentley, a minister and an indefatigable diarist, noted "elegant settees with velvet cushions, chairs with descriptive paintings, mirrors, buffets loaded with plate of every name, and the best glass and porcelain." He added, somewhat wistfully, "I should have been very glad to have had an inventory of the contents of this vessel."
Awed, the Salem Gazette reported, "You descend into a magnificent saloon about 20 feet long and 19 broad, finished on all sides with polished mahogany, and inlaid with other ornamental woods. The settees are covered with crimson silk velvet embroidered with gold lace. The splendid mirrors standing at either end and a grand chandelier suspended in the center of the saloon give a richness of effect to it not easily surpassed."
The winter finally passed, the ice broke, and on March 30, 1817 Cleopatra's Barge weighed anchor for her maiden voyage. She wandered in a leisurely fashion through the Mediterranean, and at each port of call Crowninshield held open house, with the peasants swarming over the ship, carefully sniffing at this flowering of the new democracy across the sea. One of the democrats aboard, however, was the misanthropic ("Philosopher Ben") Crowninshield, cousin of George, and the hubbub was too much for him. After one open house he wrote in his diary, "What with seasickness among the ladies, the strong and offensive odors of friars, beggars and garlic, the company below is obliged to undergo a regular inquisition...."
On any tour of the Barge, the high spot came when visitors first sighted the wooden Indian, a close cousin of the cigar store variety, which stood on the deck. In the Catholic countries unsophisticated visitors kissed the feet of this graven image, thinking it was a statue of some American saint. In Marseilles, a nearsighted Mr. Magoo gravely tipped his hat to the Indian—to the vast amusement of the ship's company.