One hundred and seventy five years ago, on May 20, 1841, spectators crowded both sides of the Bluefish River in Duxbury, Massachusetts, their attention focused on the towering ship poised on the river’s south bank. She sat atop the ways, on the sloping bank of the tidal river as it reached an astronomical high tide. The yard workers had painted her in the fashionable mode of the day, her hull jet black to the waterline, a bright white stripe around her waist painted intermittently with black squares, mimicking the gun ports of naval vessels. She dwarfed the shipyard buildings on either side of her.
The yard belonged to Duxbury’s maritime magnate, Ezra Weston II, known as “King Caesar.” One of New England’s most successful merchants and shipbuilders, at 67 years old, his health was failing. He lived to see but one more vessel launched from his “Ten Acre Yard” on the shallow Bluefish River. His poor health did not stop him from forging ahead, in his final years, with the boldest plans of his career.
On the ship’s deck, now filled with men preparing for the launch and boys whose hard work or good luck had earned them a spot on board, stood young John Bradford. He was seventeen. Having been to sea twice he considered himself “pretty salt” and a step above the small lads on the deck with him. His first time to sea, back in 1839, had been on board Ezra Weston’s ship Oneco. His father, Ephraim Bradford, superintended Weston’s ropewalk, a key part of Weston’s maritime industry. John had labored many a day there under his father’s direction, lugging bundles of hemp to the spinners as they strung out long threads like so many spiders. It was perhaps his hard work in the ropewalk that earned him a spot on the deck of Ezra Weston’s new ship during her launch.
Many of those assembled had seen vessels launched from Duxbury shores before, in the 1830s at a rate of roughly one every 45 days. But this one was different. A ship of 880 tons, 150 feet in length, she was a titan—the largest vessel ever built on the South Shore and the the largest merchant vessel launched in New England up to that time.
Despite the worst depression in the nation’s history due to the Panic of 1837–a depression that killed most Duxbury shipyards–Weston pushed ahead on a grand scale, constructing eight vessels during the five year economic downturn, many of them his largest and best. And now here sat the largest of them all. With other shipyards closing, Weston had built a giant. Surely there were some who shook their heads.
It may have seemed as if the old man had gone mad. He was indeed taking a tremendous risk, placing his faith almost exclusively in the ailing cotton market, its crash currently one of the causes of depression. His fleet, which had once been diverse in its cargo and ports of call was increasingly focusing on a single trade route: cotton from New Orleans to Liverpool. With the launching of his recent giants, bigger than any of Boston’s freighters, Weston was poised to conduct the trade on the largest possible scale. The launching of this vessel, then, was not the result of madness or pride, but a daring optimism.
John Bradford, standing on the deck of the Hope, was probably unaware of the greater plan for the vessel. Like most, he was caught up in the grandeur of the occasion. He later wrote that during ship launchings, he was most enamored of the individual who had the privilege of standing on the bowsprit as the stern plowed into the water of the Bluefish River. The man, usually the master carpenter of the vessel, held a bottle of wine tied to the bow with a small lanyard. As the ship hit the water, steadying himself on his precarious position out on the bowsprit, he let the bottle loose. Back it swung against the bow and smashed, the master carpenter shouting words to the effect of, “Here’s to the success of the good ship Hope!” And with that followed great cheers from the crowd.
The Hope, once launched, must have made an odd sight wedged into the shallow inlet. The Bluefish at highest tide has a depth of about 12 feet. With a depth of just about the same, the Hope’s keel must have dug deep into the bottom as she came off the ways. And as the tide went out, exposing the mud flats of the river, the Hope was left dry, sinking into mud. Bradford wrote that it typically took three or four days to maneuver a vessel out of the river. In the case of the Hope, it took more than a week.
First, the ship had to be positioned so that she could be pulled out. This involved securing hawsers to each quarter of the vessel. At the next high tide, four teams of men on the banks of the river would heave and pull until she was faced downriver. John Bradford was on one of those teams. Next would come the difficult task of hauling her around the curve of the river, again, conducted by rope teams from the shore. Often empty casks were lashed around large vessels to aid in floating them. Even with that assistance, there would only be a short time during each high tide when the Hope could be moved.
Once out into the harbor, Weston vessels were typically brought to his wharf near the mouth of the river to be fitted out with upper masts, rigging and sails. The shallow water at the wharf’s edge could not accommodate the Hope. She was instead brought out to the Cowyard, an area of deep water in Duxbury Bay west of Clark’s Island. There she was fitted out by a crew who lived on board during the three month operation, John Bradford among them. He must have proven himself a capable hand. When the Hope sailed for Boston, her first master, Capt. Freeman Soule, permitted young Bradford to stay on board for her first run.
The Hope remained in Boston nearly two months as she was provisioned and a freight of sundries for New Orleans procured. She left Boston on October 15, 1841 and after a swift trip of 15 days went up river to New Orleans, there to begin a remarkable career bringing financial success to the firm E. Weston & Sons.
For John Bradford it was just the beginning of a long association with the Hope. Perhaps he dared to dream it as a seventeen year old helping to rig Ezra Weston’s finest ship. Nine years later, he would be her master.
[This article is an excerpt (here slightly edited) from King Caesar of Duxbury by Patrick Browne, re-printed with permission of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the Hope’s launch]
 Dispatches from the American Consul in Liverpool 1845, National Archives and Records administration. Port entries for the latter half of that year show that only 12 vessels involved in the Liverpool cotton trade, all registered in New York City, were larger than the Hope.
 John Bradford, “A Vanished Industry,” Old Colony Memorial, June 1, 1895.
 Bradford, “A Vanished Industry.” For further description of maneuvering vessels in tidal rivers see L. Vernon Briggs, History of Shipbuilding on the North River.