Go See Harold… He Can Do It

The building of the THOMAS E. LANNON
Wooden Boat Magazine
Issue #143
July/August 1998

The schooner THOMAS E. LANNON under construction at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum.
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In the late winter of 1997, I was traveling through Essex, Massachusetts, for some reason or other, when I remembered that the marine surveyor Paul Haley had told me of a schooner being built there. He said that the builder, a 29-year-old descendant of a whole slew of Essex shipbuilders, was probably reincarnated – a latter-day version of a long-dead shipwright. Paul meant it, because there was absolutely no way, he said, that a man of this age and experience could lay the keel of a heavy sawn-frame vessel the day before Christmas, build it outside with no roof and no prior experience on such a job, keep it running on a six-month schedule, and do a good job of it to boot. Yet here was Harold Burnham doing just that.

Being in that area and recalling Paul’s comments, I found my way to the job site and the archetypal Essex image: a schooner perched on the building ways, her husky frames reaching for the sky. Such a thing had not been seen in Essex for 50 years. At 65’, this new boat, to be called the THOMAS E. LANNON, was a half-size version of the archetype, but the boat was all business nonetheless: heavy sawn oak frames, locust trunnel fastenings, oak bottom planking.

Harold Burnham was there, and we talked briefly, but I recall only clips. “I’ve got to get a line on the boat before lunch…,” he told me, and he moved on in a very controlled, hurried manner, eyeing a line of topside planking. He didn’t stop once, as he was only steps ahead of a man with an adze who was waiting to dub where Harold marked the frames. There was, clearly, no time to talk that day.

I made a note to return. Then winter turned to spring, spring became summer, and other projects intervened. In July, I made another unplanned swing through Essex and met Tom Ellis, whose newly launched schooner, the THOMAS E. LANNON, had, in short time, become a raging success with his charter guests. Later I visited the boat, which was docked at neighboring Gloucester. Nobody was aboard, but it was clear from even a cursory inspection that her young builder was wise beyond his years. I really must, I thought, go have a talk with Harold.

Rewind. In the middle 1600s, a man named Burnham launched a boat into the salt marsh that connects Chebacco Parish, Ipswich, Massachusetts, to the Atlantic Ocean. No one knows for sure what kind of boat it was, although speculation has it that it was double-ended and built in an attic. Likewise, no one knows for sure whether the story is true that two men sailed the boat all the way to the Bay of Fundy and back, although anyone with Chebacco blood would like to believe that. In fact, no one knows whether any of this story is true at all, because the record is just too scant. But, since nobody’s protesting this local legend, it seems an appropriate point at which to introduce Harold Burnham’s background.

This boat of legend, the first built at Chebacco by European settlers, and this Mr. Burnham gave rise to decades, and then centuries of shipbuilding. Chebacco Parish became Essex – a town in her own right – during this time, and thousands more vessels were launched into the salt marsh there, a body of water known as the Essex River. The yards where these schooners were built were often not much larger than the vessels themselves.

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The place was rife with Burnhams. Like many small towns years ago, there was a paucity of surnames in Essex; most people were called either Story, Andrews, or Burnham. Despite common ancestry, relationships among people today possessing the same last name are considered so tenuous, so obscure, as to be nonexistent. “I only know back to my great-great grandfather, Oliver Burnham,” Harold Burnham told me last February, when I finally caught him between boatbuilding projects. We were sitting in his shop, which occupies the loft of a barn that looks across a small creek near the sit where the LANNON was built. Harold was relaxed that day, and as intent on our conversation as he had been on building a schooner the year before. “He built this barn. His son, also Oliver Burnham, build boats in the 1860s. This Oliver’s son was O.P., and O.P. worked for A.D. Story building fo’c’s’les and doing carpentry. His brother Alden worked for A.D. as a foreman. And my grandfather worked for A.D. Story as a kid in the 1920s.” In the index of Howard Chapelle’s The American Fishing Schooners: 1825 – 1935, 12 Burnhams are listed. All of them were shipbuilders.

“When my grandfather was getting started in boatbuilding, the unions were getting started, too. He gave up boatbuilding to go to work as a union carpenter in Quincy, which was a pretty radical thing to do. Alden Burnham, who was his uncle, bet him five dollars that he’d be back building boats in a few weeks. My grandfather didn’t come back for 40 years, and Alden never paid the bet.”

So the family drifted from boatbuilding – professionally at least. But it seems to have remained in the genes. “My father worked at Massachusetts General [Hospital] designing machines that take pictures of people’s brains,” Harold told me, “and that’s about as accurate a description as I can give you of his job. But when he wasn’t in Boston working, he was home building boats.” This boatbuilding, however, was far from the typical hobby. His attitude, says Harold, was “Let’s get it done.” And indeed he did, for one year Harold’s father built a Friendship sloop in nine months of part-time labor – he worked weekends and evenings, after 12 hours on the day job. “When I was growing up,” laughed Harold, “if I wanted to be with my father – if I wanted to see him at all – I had to go over and build boats with him.”

Harold started building small boats when he was in grammar school, and made his college money re-building Beetle cats and selling those. He attended Massachusetts Maritime Academy, got his merchant papers, and went to sea. His plan was to ship for half of the year and build boats for the other half, but hanging out in union halls waiting for jobs wore awfully thin. And then came love, then came marriage, then came Harold and the baby carriage. A shore-based job looked better and better, and building boats was the thing to do. His recent projects include the rebuilding of a 1953 Crosby Striper, a new bow for a local lobsterboat, and work on the rebuilding of a SPRAY replica. He also took – and continues to take – paying guests lobstering in his rebuilt Friendship sloop.

Although he never paid the bet, when Harold’s uncle Alden died he left to Harold’s grandfather the site of the former Burnham family shipyard. The land sits on a small creek that feeds into the Essex River, and on the land today are a house and a barn. And in the barn is Harold Burnham’s shop. You can lob a rock across the creek and into the yard of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, which is the former site of the A.D. Story Shipyard.

Shipbuilding at Essex had reached its crescendo as the 19th century turned into the 20th, and the legendary Story yard, under Arthur D. Story, led the way (see WB No. 61). The significance of A.D. Story’s property as a shipbuilding site goes way back, for the Parish of Chebacco, in 1668, had decreed that a portion of land alongside the Essex River be made available “to the inhabitants of Ipswich for a yard to build vessels and to employ workmen for that end.” Arthur D. Story’s yard was adjacent to that land, which must be crossed every time a new hull is launched. A.D. built vessels at that site beginning in 1870; he built more vessels than anyone else in the three-plus-century Essex tradition, beginning in a partnership with Moses Adams at the age of 17, and working on his own by the time he was 25. His son Dana continued the business after buying the shipyard property from his brother’s widow in 1944. He built draggers there, but eventually the business fell victim to a deadly combination of fixed-price contracts and post-World War II inflation. Dana met his contracts but lost everything. He rebuilt his life with a yacht service yard, which he sold in 1985. The yard eventually because the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, and in the spirit on that 1668 decree, that’s where the THOMAS E. LANNON was built.

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Dana Story’s position in this history is unique. He was born in 1919 when his father was 65 years old, so you might say he has a foot in both the 19th and the 20th centuries. Few people, if any, will argue with the statement that Dana Story has a more intimate grasp of shipbuilding at Essex than anyone else alive. Naturally, I wondered what he thought of Harold Burnham’s work.

“I just laughed,” said Dana of his initial reaction to a vessel being built in Essex after the trade’s nearly 50-year dormancy. (The last schooner to slide into the Essex River had been the 50’ yacht EUGENIA J., in 1949.) “Articles would come out in the local paper saying that the boat would be launched in June, and I would look at them and laugh, and say, ‘They don’t know what they’re getting into. He’s not going to build that boat outdoors starting from nothing.’ And time would go on; September came and October came and nothing was happening down there, and I thought…if they’re going to get that thing done in June…Well, I just laughed.”

Actually, although there was nothing happening outside at the future job site, there was plenty happening on the project. For, Tom Ellis had commissioned Harold Burnham to build him a schooner to be used in the charter trade, and Harold was in the loft of his barn tearing out his hair.

“Tom Ellis is a smart man,” Harold told me. “He’s determined. He decided what he wanted, and he started taking the steps to make it happen. And in the process, he came up with a design that had nothing to do with Essex.” For this early design, Ellis had asked a local engineer and Coast Guard inspector to shrink a 120’ McManus design, with the emphasis being a safe vessel that would pass inspection. The inevitable distortions changed the boat’s character.

“I had been talking to Brad Story about building the boat for a couple of years,” said Ellis. Brad Story, Dana’s son, is a will-known and respected Essex boatbuilder; Harold Burnham had worked under him on various projects. “I was hoping Brad would hire Harold to help on the project. But when I finally went to Brad and said, ‘Let’s go; let’s build it,’ he said, ‘Whoa! I thought you were kidding!’” Brad Story had just completed the construction of two 60’ motoryachts, and he had a contract to build a lobsterboat. It was August, and Tom Ellis wanted his boat for the following summer. Ellis recalls Story’s answer: “Go see Harold…he can do it.”

“Tom wanted a boat in which he could take people out and show them what a fishing schooner is all about,” said Harold. “So I told him that his original design was good but it wasn’t a Gloucester fishing schooner. And so he said, ‘You seem to know more about boats and about history than I’ll ever know. Why don’t you just design me something and build it?”

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Ellis had been a successful purveyor of antiques in Essex. After that, he and a partner ran a kayak livery that became the largest one on the East Coast. He sold that, took all of his money, mortgaged his house, and put it all up for the construction of a large wooden schooner, to be designed and built by someone who had done neither before. This raises some large questions: Why the leap of faith? Was Tom Ellis daft?

Harold is characteristically candid about his reaction to Tom Ellis’s proposal: “I would say it was a leap of faith. And I was a little bit mortified. I was hired as a builder, and one week later I became the designer by default. I had never designed a boat of that magnitude, but I knew what a good boat was. So I went through Chapelle’s American Fishing Schooners and studied all of them. I picked two designs that I brought to Tome, and said ‘Look, we can do this clipper-style one, or we can do this FREDONIA-style one that’s a little later.’” The clipper was the 54’2″ RIPPLE, built in 1856; the Fredonia type was NOKOMIS, a 57’ McLain model built in 1903. Ellis said something about wanting to take the boat around Cape Horn, and that cinched it. “He needed something very seaworthy,” said Harold. “So we went with the Fredonia style”.

If all this sounds a little presumptuous on Harold’s part, it isn’t. For although he is extremely confident in his ability to move a project along, and although he has spent most of his life building and rebuilding smaller boats, raging ego does not appear to be one of his traits.

He is lucky enough to be surrounded by some very knowledgeable people, and when he needs advice, he’s not afraid to ask for it. “I cut a model of my design,” Harold told me. “I was kind of timid to show it around at first, but it became obvious to me that when the boat was done, everyone was going to see it anyway. So I brought it to Erik, and he made some suggestions.” Erik is the historian and modelmaker Erik A.R. Ronnberg, Jr., whose ship models (see WB No. 121) are among the best in the world. “I had put a knuckle in the transom rather than have it follow the line of the horn timber. I had changed it because I’d added to the freeboard in order to make the biggest 65-footer I could. Erik didn’t like that at all; he said the transom should fair into the horn timber – that that was one of Burgess’s trademarks. I took it home and fixed it, but I would up getting a hard curve in the buttock lines. And then Erik came by and said that it was better, but that the buttock lines should be straightened out. So I continued to fiddle with it, and finally he said, ‘Now you’ve got it.’”

Likewise, Maine boatbuilder Ralph Stanley chimed in on the design. “One of the things I’d noticed about McLain’s designs [see sidebar],” said Harold, “was a hard turn of the bilge that followed right to the transom, and I’d always liked that and I thought I’d put it in this model. Ralph thought that would be awfully hard to plank. I didn’t need any added challenges, so I took it out.

“Since I had little experience lofting – let alone designing a boat – I sent my model to a naval architect. He put the design in his computer and faired it and sent us the offsets for the stations. In a late-night check, we put the buttocks down, and found they went like this,” he said, waving his hand, “like the bottom of the ocean. I didn’t tell Tom, but while he was out cutting trees, I had this mess on the floor. So I came into the barn one morning at three, and said ‘I’m going to stay here until it’s done.’ And by the time I left the next day, I was finished.

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“I trusted,” he said, “that I was going to do whatever it took to get it done. I stalled on the actual start of the project as long as I could, working out the design.”

The keel was laid December 24, 1996, and the project was in high gear from then until June. It was all-consuming for Harold; his young family – wife Kim, month-old daughter Perry, and two-and-a-half-year-old son Alden – barely saw him for 10 months. His mind, he says, was always on the LANNON, which he looks at as a gateway to a new career – an education.

“The thing I wanted out of this was a reputation,” said Harold. “And I wanted the tools to build boats like this. I knew what I was getting into; I knew it was going to be an incredible task. But I’d built my little KIM (another Friendship sloop) in much the same way as I built the LANNON. I knew that as long as I kept moving and thought about it as much as I could, I’d come up with something and finish it. And I knew I’d finish it in time if I just left myself no other option.”

“I watched as he proceeded,” said Dana Story. “I was absolutely amazed at how he solved problems. The boat that he built is strong. He did things that we didn’t do in the old shipyard – like put mortise-and-tenon joints on the forward cant frames, and put floor timbers across those forward frames. A stern is not an easy thing to build; building an oval transom is the thing that separates the men from the boys. Harold figured out how to do it, and he did a splendid job.” Story shook his head in awe.

Harold credits his early boatbuilding experience for helping get that stern right. He’d been studying bent, raking, elliptical transoms with his father since he was a kid; the LANNON’s was the third project he’d built on his own – the first, he says, that he’d got right – and the fifth he and his father had worked on together.

There’s scant information on techniques for building a vessel like the LANNON, but there are clues, and these are in old photographs. Dana Story was instrumental in helping Harold figure things out, for he has a remarkable archive of photographs of Essex shipyards. Harold studied hundreds of these, slavishly. “The thing that I think is most important to this story,” said Harold, “is that I used all the techniques, methods, and finish as on the old boats. And the way I did that is by studying photographs.” And for that reason he finds Lew Joslyn’s photographs, which illustrate this article, particularly compelling.

Joslyn is a photographer from Ipswich who became fascinated with the LANNON project through his son, who owns one of the only logging trucks in the area so was called upon when it came time to harvest timber. (The timber in the LANNON is almost all local – save for the mahogany topside planking and the plywood deck – and was donated by two conservation organizations, The Essex County Greenbelt Associations and the Trustees for Reservations.) Lew documented the entire construction, from tree to sea, and his LANNON collection comprises 3,800 photographs. “Maybe,” said Harold, “someday someone will look at those photographs to figure out what I did.

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“I wouldn’t have built the LANNON the way I did if I didn’t think it was the most practical way,” he continued. “Why reinvent the wheel? It’s actually a pretty efficient way to go about it. In 1903, six guys could finish a boat in six months – one twice as big as the LANNON. And they didn’t have power tools. They were a smart six guys. And probably two of them were really smart.”

Harold employed six to eight workers at any given time throughout his project, too. He says that a large part of his role was to stay ahead of everyone else so he could provide answers at the appropriate times. And some jobs, like planking, he left for himself; he did all of the lining, spiling, beveling, and cutting. “I had two people dubbing ahead of me,” he said, “Jimmy Lower and Peter Little. They could, obviously, dub faster than I could plank. When they got ahead of me, I had them do something else, like put stringers in or caulk.”

“They did it,” said Dana Story. “And I have a very high opinion of Harold’s work. The degree of workmanship is excellent. I’m glad Tom Ellis recognized that Harold knew what he was doing and left him alone.”

Ellis’s leap of faith was obviously the right move, and he knows it and knew it all along: “I’ve never met anybody in my life that works as hard as Harold Burnham,” he said. “Harold is a hard worker, and he’s a smart worker. And he’s got boatbuilding in his genes.”

Likewise, Harold has tremendous respect for Ellis, who knew how to keep the construction moving despite occasionally tight finances. “Everyone was always paid, and on time,” said Harold. “And that was key.”

Was the new schooner a stirring sight for Dana Story? “Oh, I tell you,” he said. “I’d walk downtown and come around the corner…. I thought I’d never see that sight again…a vessel in frame. Little or not, she is the real thing. It was remarkable that a man having had no experience in building a heavily framed vessel could start in from bare ground and build the boat that he did…. I think it’s one of the most remarkable things I ever saw. It’s a total credit to Harold, and to the men he worked with.”

To hear Dana Story call the LANNON a “vessel,” said Harold, was the ultimate compliment.

The 17th of June was the designated launching date, and Harold finished the boat, capping the taffrail, at noon on that day. The town was abuzz with anticipation. The first new schooner in 50 years was about to slide into the Essex River, and people were ready to celebrate.

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“My thought with the launching,” said Harold, “was the same as everything else on the boat. I tried to do it the way they had leaned to do it over thousands of vessels.” Harold wanted a traditional Essex side launch by which the vessel is leaned over on her side, her weight is transferred to a greased skidway, and she is then released and allowed to slide into the water. The process can be a bit of an adventure.

Tom Ellis, however, had different ideas. He was concerned about damaging the vessel – breaking the rudder. Harold said, So what?, he’d build Ellis a new rudder, but Ellis wasn’t swayed. He hired Francis Burnham, described by Dana Story and Harold Burnham, as a “local mechanical genius,” to launch the boat. Francis’s idea, which I don’t understand entirely, not does anyone else I interviewed for this article, was to build a skidway of channel iron and slide the upright boat down it.

So June 17th arrived. In attendance were: Francis Burnham, working on his launching device; Harold Burnham and crew: families and friends; TV crews: and two to three thousand other people. The fire department rigged floodlights as night fell.

Francis worked all day, and then, since the launching rig was not yet complete by the end of the day, he left. The boat stayed put that night.

“Francis is the kind of guy who isn’t swayed by other people’s opinions,” said Harold, who is not related to Francis. “He didn’t care that the TV cameras and everyone else in the world were there. He had all kinds of steel underneath the boat, and there was nothing I could do. So I gave up. I went home, took a shower, and came back for the festivities. We had a good ol’ time. But I was a little disappointed, because I had to go to New Orleans to a wedding, and I didn’t see the launch. It didn’t matter, though. It launched fine. Francis’s system eventually worked. All’s well that ends well, and Tom’s happily in business, and I’m building another boat.” The new boat is a 32’ double-sawn-frame, trunnel-fastened Chebacco boat replica, which Harold is building for the Essex Shipbuilding Museum on the same ways as he built LANNON.

Tom Ellis is tickled with his new boat, and so are his guests. “We’re doing recreational things and fun educational things,” he said. “We had Fred Dodge do ‘Bert and I’ stories; Sebastian Junger came aboard and gave a reading from The Perfect Storm.

On Wednesday nights we had cigars and single-malt scotches.” Ellis is possessed of an infectious enthusiasm, and he knows how to have fun. That’s what built his kayak business, and that’s what’s keeping people coming back to the LANNON.

Harold Burnham is well pleased with the result, too: “When I drew it up in the loft and drew 49 asses on the deck plan, which I did often, I thought it was going to be tight. But, having sailed it, I can say that 49 people on that boat is as comfortable as you can imagine. It works.”

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Harold Burnham is well pleased with the result, too: “When I drew it up in the loft and drew 49 asses on the deck plan, which I did often, I thought it was going to be tight. But, having sailed it, I can say that 49 people on that boat is as comfortable as you can imagine. It works.”

Harold did find toward the end of the construction that he needed some perspective on the intensity of the job. “There got to be a point,” he said, “where I had to step away from it after the launch. I told Tom, ‘This is your game now.’” The boat nevertheless seems almost an extension of Harold: “When I build a boat,” he told me, “I think of every strain that could possibly be applied to it. And when I’m on the boat underway, every piece of my body feels every strain that’s in that boat, and I just want to pop.”

Harold Burnham does not view the LANNON as a historical vessel; he sees it as a purpose-built modern-day passenger-carrying charter schooner that evokes a Gloucester fishing schooner. He’s even named the type, Passenger Fisherman. “I started with a historical design and made all of the modifications necessary to make this boat inspectable,” he said. “That was a lot of work, a lot of thought, and a lot of study.”

There are no hard feelings between Harold and the engineer who drew Tom Ellis’s original design. “His name is David Fulsom,” said Harold. “He wasn’t at all upset that I was going to change his design, because he’s not a historian. He didn’t care that it would sail better, because he’s not a sailor. What he is is a Coast Guard inspector. So I started with a historical design and used the Coast Guard information David gave me.” Fulsom, says Harold, encouraged him and was invaluable in getting LANNON through Coast Guard inspection. Harold envisions building a fleet of Passenger Fishermen for the Gloucester charter trade.

Dana Story predicts that there won’t be “may people coming along who’ll want sawn-frame wooden boats,” and Harold realizes that the industry will not become what it once was. But he is from Essex, his name is Burnham, and he is now, after last year’s rite of passage, a builder of large wooden vessels. He is optimistic about his future. “I think that as long as the river flows out to the ocean,” he said, “it’ll carry a boat down it.”

The End