Even as recently as twenty years ago, the water front of a great seaport like New York, viewed from the harbor, showed a towering forest of tall and tapering masts, reaching high up above the roofs of the water-side buildings, crossed with slender spars hung with snowy canvas, and braced with a web of taut cordage. Across the street that passed the foot of the slips, reached out the great bowsprits or jibbooms, springing from fine-drawn bows where, above a keen cut-water, the figurehead—pride of the ship—nestled in confident strength. Neptune with his trident, Venus rising from the sea, admirals of every age and nationality, favorite heroes like Wellington and Andrew Jackson were carved, with varying skill, from stout oak, and set up to guide their vessels through tumultuous seas.
[Illustration: “THE WATER FRONT OF A GREAT SEAPORT LIKE NEW YORK”]
To-day, alas, the towering masts, the trim yards, the web of cordage, the quaint figureheads, are gone or going fast. The docks, once so populous, seem deserted—not because maritime trade has fallen off, but because one steamship does the work that twenty stout clippers once were needed for. The clipper bow with figurehead and reaching jib-boom are gone, for the modern steamship has its bow bluff, its stem perpendicular, the “City of Rome” being the last great steamship to adhere to the old model. It is not improbable, however, that in this respect we shall see a return to old models, for the straight stem—an American invention, by the way—is held to be more dangerous in case of collisions. Many of the old-time sailing ships have been shorn of their towering masts, robbed of their canvas, and made into ignoble barges which, loaded with coal, are towed along by some fuming, fussing tugboat—as Samson shorn of his locks was made to bear the burdens of the Philistines. This transformation from sail to steam has robbed the ocean of much of its picturesqueness, and seafaring life of much of its charm, as well as of many of its dangers.
The greater size of vessels and their swifter trips under steam, have had the effect of depopulating the ocean, even in established trade routes. In the old days of ocean travel the meeting of a ship at sea was an event long to be remembered. The faint speck on the horizon, discernible only through the captain’s glass, was hours in taking on the form of a ship. If a full-rigged ship, no handiwork of man could equal her impressiveness as she bore down before the wind, sail mounting on sail of billowing whiteness, until for the small hull cleaving the waves so swiftly, to carry all seemed nothing sort of marvelous. Always there was a hail and an interchange of names and ports; sometimes both vessels rounded to and boats passed and repassed. But now the courtesies of the sea have gone with its picturesqueness. Great ocean liners rushing through the deep, give each other as little heed as railway trains passing on parallel tracks. A twinkle of electric signals, or a fluttering of parti-colored flags, and each seeks its own horizon—the incident bounded by minutes where once it would have taken hours.