The Building of Fame
Our Fame was built by National Heritage Fellow Harold Burnham. The Burnhams have been building boats in Essex for over 350 years!
Preparations for the construction of Fame began in February 2002. Boatbuilder Harold Burnham started carving half-hull models, working up drawings, and hunting for wood. Thanks to the generosity of the Trustees of Reservations, we were allowed to visit pristine Hog Island in the Essex River and cut down spruce trees for the masts, gaffs, booms, and bowsprit. Burnham was also able to locate some good sources for New England white oak.
prevent them from drying out. On the design front, Burnham worked his way through several drafts of the profile and sail plan before it was time to clear out the loft of his barn and paint the floor white for the lofting of the lines. Over the summer of 2002, Burnham completed the lofting. He also shaped and finished the spars. The lead casting for the keel arrived in late August and a keel-laying ceremony was held on Labor Day.
By the spring, the spruce trees had been cut down, trimmed, dragged out of the woods, rolled down to the river, and towed upstream to the Burnham Boatyard in Essex, across a small inlet from the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. Two large piles of oak logs were delivered, and their ends were promptly sealed to
Construction began in earnest in October as the keel was pieced together. The hefty sternpost went up on the 18th and the first frame was raised on the 25th. By Thanksgiving there was already snow on the ground — the forerunner of an unusually harsh winter — but most of the frames were in place by the beginning of December.
New Year's Eve found Fame fully framed, and an evergreen bough was placed atop the stem.
"It's not a Christmas thing, although that's what most people think," explained Burnham. "Whenever you finish framing a house or a boat out of timber, you always put up a tree to thank the woods. It's a pagan thing."
"Actually," Burnham confided, "that's the top of my Christmas tree. We had it in inventory, so to speak, so I figured, what the heck."
January was bitterly cold and the planking of the schooner fell behind schedule. It took three months to plank Fame and the 'whiskey' or 'shutter' plank, symbolizing the completion of the process, didn't go on until March 30. An impromptu celebration broke out, at which whiskey was consumed and chanteys were sung.
April and May saw Burnham's crew swell from three to five workmen on any given day to eight, ten or even more. The deck went on, the stanchions went in, the engine was installed, and the hull was caulked and faired. Across the creek from the boatyard, at the Shipbuilding Museum, work continued on the sails and rigging.
By June, Burnham and his boatyard were in overdrive. Work went on from dawn to dusk so that the vessel could be launched on the June tides. By June 12, the vessel was painted and ready, and Burnham got down to the serious business of preparing to slide the 30-ton schooner into the Essex River.
The launch itself, on June 14th, did not go smoothly. A crowd of 2,000 had gathered by high tide at 11:48 AM, but Fame wouldn't budge. A couple of times she was induced to slide a few feet toward the water, eliciting shouts from the onlookers. But each time she stopped short. It wasn't until nearly two hours after the high tide that Burnham and his crew, after laboriously jacking up the bow, were able to persuade Fame to take the water.
The schooner remained in Essex for the next few weeks as work progressed on her systems and rigging. She made a short trip under power to Gloucester to have her masts stepped, and was finally ready to sail on the Fourth of July. At high tide, the crew stepped aboard, cast off her lines, and sailed her down the Essex River to the sea.
Fame sailed first to Gloucester, where her fitting-out continued, and then made her return to Salem on July 12th. On July 25, 2003, she carried passengers for the first time.
For much, much more information on the building of our Fame, as well on the career of the original Fame, privateering, and the War of 1812, be sure to check out the book Fame: The Salem Privateer and the DVD Fame: A Portrait of Craftmanship and Patriotism, both of which are available from our Ship's Store.