(Featured Indie Book Review of the Day)
Capt. Asa Eldridge gazes phlegmatically from the frontispiece of this debut biography by Miles (Boys of the Cloth, 2012). Before the author began researching Eldridge’s career, the old seafarer’s name existed only as a morsel of trivia. In 1854, Eldridge crossed the Atlantic by sail, leaving from New York and arriving in Liverpool 13 days later, establishing a speed record that’s yet to be broken. It would be sufficient if Miles contented himself with telling the story of that single feat, but he’s done far more than that in this thorough yarn. Eldridge was born at the dawn of the 19th century in the town of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, to a family that had been on Cape Cod for 200 years, quite a few of them spent seafaring. Coastal trade among Colonies (and, later, states) proved to be an occupation both profitable and adventuresome. It also taught seamen how to sail very fast: “Customers may not have cared too much about an hour either way on the voyage time, but rival captains most certainly did—especially on those frequent occasions when they decided to turn the coastal run into a race.” Eldridge learned to rig a sail and make seconds count under the tutelage of his uncle and, later, as a captain in his own right, helming ships all the way to India, Russia, and, in pre–Panama Canal days, San Francisco. Miles expertly describes the life of a sea captain in Eldridge’s day, calling his subject a thoughtful and spirited leader “capable of cajoling the thuggish deckhands into giving of their best.” Later, Eldridge became a steamship entrepreneur, redesigning the provisions on his vessels out of “humanitarian interest in improving the lot of those emigrants who could only afford passage in the steerage” and at one point helming a ship for Cornelius Vanderbilt. Readers already curious about the trans-Atlantic trade, the early days of steam shipping, and all that rigging and hauling should learn a lot from this deeply researched book. An absorbing and comprehensive study of a sea captain and place largely forgotten by history.
There is little primary source information to go on when researching the life of Asa Eldridge. Yet, by piecing together the scant data Eldridge and his family left behind, the numerous newspaper reports that locate him at different points around the globe between the 1830s and 1850s, and the general status of the vocation in which he worked at the time, the author deftly creates a ‘life and times’ of Asa Eldridge that stands in requiem for not only Eldridge, but for a wider class of forgotten heroes of the pre-Civil War era.
Miles argues that because of the tremendous impact they had in helping to build the country’s economic infrastructure, Eldridge and the other American sea captains of his generation deserve greater standing in American history than they now have, and he is correct.
The Lost Hero of Cape Cod is both a fascinating true-life history and a glimpse into the all-too-perilous world of the 1800’s mariner. Meticulously pieced together from exhaustive research, Eldridge’s story is a tale of war, peace, extraordinary heroism, and heartbreaking tragedy. Of particular interest is the recounting of notable nautical disasters of the time. (Tragically, the RMS Titanic was not the first case in which a sinking ship carried far too few lifeboats to save the majority of its passengers and crew; just one of the most notorious.) Highly recommended, especially for public library, nautical and biography collections.
Liverpool native Vincent Miles was intrigued to find himself living in a Cape Cod house that was once inhabited by Cape native Asa Eldridge who, more than two centuries after his birth, still holds the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by a sailing ship. (It was an 1854 run from New York to Liverpool.) Miles’ research took him beyond Eldridge and into the effects his seamanship had on America’s maritime trade. With historical drawings and notations, The Lost Hero of Cape Cod is a great read for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the peninsula’s history and its impact on the nation.