Thomas W. Lawson
  • Type: Seven-masted schooner
  • Hull: steel
  • Dimensions: 385 x 50 x 35 ft.
  • Displacement: 5,218 grt  4,914 nrt
  • Masts: Fore, main, mizzen, no.4, no.5, no.6, and spanker -- all 193 ft.
  • Sails: 26 (3 per mast + 5 head sails)
  • Cargo: 11,000 tons coal or 60,000 bbls. of oil
  • Crew: 17

The Thomas W. Lawson was a seven masted steel-hulled schooner designed by Bowdoin B. Crowninshield, a naval architect known for his racing yachts.  Built by the Fore River Ship & Engine Building Co., Quincy, MA, in 1902 for Coastwise Transportation Co. (John G. Crowley), Boston, at a cost of $258,000. The contract was signed on June 25, 1901, and the new ship was launched on July 10 1902.  Designed as a coal ship for moving cargoes of coal along the East Coast, the Lawson could deliver 11,000 tons of coal a trip.  Her design was an extreme attempt to keep sail viable in the coastal trade against competition from steam vessels.

 She had the distinction of not only being the only seven-masted schooner built but also the largest schooner ever built.  The ship was named after the Boston millionaire stockbroker and yachtsman Thomas W. Lawson.  Her ship handling was stated to be sluggish and difficult to maneuver, best stated as being "like a beached whale” and had "the lines of a canal barge, and about as sweet as a bath tub”.

Her masts, each of which was 193 feet high were called fore, main, mizzen, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, and spanker.  She carried 26 sails in all, 7 gaff sails, 7 topsails, 7 staysails and 5 jibs, with a total area of 43,000 sq feet or approx. one acre of sail. The sails were made by the sailmaking firm E.L. Rowe & Son of Gloucecester, MA and weighted 18 tons.  To handle this large quantity of canvas the Lawson had a crew of only 16, aided by a steam donkey engine that drove the hoisting winches and assisted with the steering.

She was a very unique vessel.  The lower parts of her seven masts were of steel while the upper parts were of pine.  She had a double cellular bottom, that was 4 feet deep that held 1,000 tons of water ballast plus a trimming tank at each end of the vessel.  Could this have been the first double-hull tanker?

The schooner however proved so unhandy because she drew too much water for the ports she was intended to serve.  In 1906 she was refitted at the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. for use as an oil tanker under charter to Sun Oil Company, to haul bulk oil from Texas to the Eastern Seaboard.  The topmasts were also removed at that time and the lower masts were used to vent oil gases from the holds.

On November 19, 1907, while chartered as an oil tanker to the Anglo-American Oil Co. (part of the Standard Oil conglomerate), she sailed from Philadelphia for London with 58,300 bbls. of parrafin oil. Caught in a succession of winter gales, her hull and masts provided so much windage that she reportedly made twelve knots under bare poles. On December 13, she was riding out a gale off the Scilly Isles (south of England) when she dragged her anchors and broke up on western rocks of Hellweather's Reef, with the loss of 15 of the 17-member crew.  Captain George Dow and engineer Edward Rowe were the survivors.  Also lost in this mishap was pilot William Thomas Hicks.

This grounding resulted in the first case of oil pollution in the Channel, exactly 60 years prior to the ‘Torrey Canyon’.



Copyright ©2004 by Minor W. Kates, Jr. - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED