In “Ships, Swindlers, and Scalded Hogs”, Frederick Hill told the story of W. D. Crooker and his brother Charles, at some point in the mid-19th century, Bath’s most successful shipbuilding partnership, the ” city of ships. In that book, which I have reviewed in these pages, Hill wrote: “Anyone who dares to assess events, personalities, and motivations that are generations old and advance to a definitive conclusion is more looking for ghosts than truths. .” Attempting a family history would be an “intimidating guessing game”.
In his new book, “A Flick of Sunshine,” written with his son Alexander Jackson Hill, Frederick Hill does just that, and readers should be grateful. When he received a collection of several hundred letters written by his great-uncle Richard Willis Jackson, Hill discovered “a remarkable treasure of an adventurous life before the mast.” It was a story he had to tell. Other resources, including Jackson’s diary, fleshed out the narrative. The hills take their title from a passage in Joseph Conrad.
“Ships, Swindlers, and Scalded Hogs” ended with Charles and W. D. Crooker beaten down by various financial vicissitudes. The new book begins in the former Crooker Mansion, now home to Charles’ daughter and her husband, Andrew Jackson, who are still struggling to emerge from the ruins of the defunct shipbuilding business. (The tracery of Bath’s shipbuilding families sometimes turns heads.)
Their son Will Jackson was born on July 31, 1861. The authors (descendants of the aforementioned Bath families) would like to point out that the Civil War was already three months old. Basing the often isolated events (as the story progresses) on what was happening in the rest of the world at the time adds valuable historical context. The authors never fail to give background information on some of the major conditions their saga encounters: trade routes, immigration, the change from sail to steam, intertwined families, not to mention incidents ashore.
Will Jackson was an exuberant boy from the start, with some of his early exploits already making local headlines. He could have been Frederic in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, who “showed himself so brave and daring that his father thought he would train him for a maritime career”. Will started at the bottom.
He had already made three trips, as far south as Cuba and Trinidad, when he boarded the Rainier for its maiden voyage to Japan. He was “the youngest member of the crew and the lowest paid at twelve dollars a month”. However, the captain saw the young man’s promise and he was soon promoted to steward.
One night, six months later, the Rainier struck an unexplored reef in the Marshall Islands. Battered by the waves, the ship began to fall apart. According to the captain’s report, “the ship’s decks opened… Then the masts disappeared and the splendid new ship Rainier became a mutilated mass of ruins.”
The Hills nicely converted their source material into a gripping tale as the crew battled first the sea and then the arrival of a number of native outriggers. Cannibalism was not unheard of in the South Pacific at that time, but to their relief they were supported by the king of the island, an atoll called Ujae. All twenty-eight crew members were rescued after the immediate sinking.
In the end, only two died before they were finally rescued, and Will’s leadership no doubt contributed to this feat. In total, he spent eight months in and around Ujae. He built boats and sailed them to (relatively) nearby islands, trying to contact the outside world. Most of the time he was alone with the islanders. It’s a fabulous yarn.
Eventually returning to the United States – to San Francisco rather than Bath – Will was soon at sea again. His later voyages receive a bit more superficial treatment, probably because their details pale in comparison. Mainly: An article in the Bath press, under the headline ‘You Can’t Kill Will’, describes how he and another sailor were swept overboard in a storm around Cape Horn. The authors use quieter interludes to paint a picture of the sailing industry of the time, including the ubiquity of Bath ships and men.
Will Jackson’s lifelong dream was to be master of his own ship. Tragically, he was killed in a freak accident, possibly just as he was being offered. However, “A Flick of Sunshine” manages to end on a restorative note.
At the end of World War II, another descendant of Jackson was reporting from the Pacific theater for a Maine newspaper. After telling the story of the shipwreck to an American admiral, he asked him to show the atoll, recently recaptured from the Japanese. There he found an old man who remembered Will, and he declared Will Jackson Day. According to a more recent researcher, it is still celebrated in Ujae.
Thomas Urquhart is the author of “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands”.
OFF RADAR: a friend in literature