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Building Fame

Our Fame was launched in 2003 by National Heritage Fellow Harold Burnham

February 2002

Preparations for the construction of Fame began in February 2002. Boatbuilder Harold Burnham, whose family has been building boats in Essex for over 350 years, 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, which as used for the frames and planks.

Summer - Fall 2002

Over the summer, 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.

Construction began in earnest in October as the keel was pieced together. 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.

Winter, 2002-2003

New Year’s Eve found Fame fully framed, and an evergreen bough was placed atop the stem.

Burnham explained, “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.”

In the background you can see the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag that flew throughout the build.

January 2003

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 - May 2003

April and May saw Burnham’s crew swell from three to five workmen to eight, ten or even more on any given day. 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 Essex Shipbuilding Museum, work continued on the sails and rigging.

Spring 2003

By June, Burnham and his boatyard were working 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 vessel into the water.

Essex shipbuilders developed the “side launch” technique for launching their schooners into the shallow Essex River. Vessels were heeled over onto a greased skid, so they required less depth for launching. This also led to unpredictable results. Weddings, funerals, and launchings were always the big events in this small town.

June 14th, 2003

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.

July 4th, 2003

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 the State Pier in 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.

July 25, 2003

Fame sailed first to the Maritime Heritage Center in Gloucester. There, her fitting-out continued, and she was certified to carry passengers by the US Coast Guard.

She was brought to Salem on July 12. On July 25, 2003, she sailed with passengers for the first time.