Capt. Robert Waterman had retired to his farm in Fairfield. He was raising cattle, poultry and lima beans, selling his products to the gold miners.

But then came the offer he couldn't refuse. The N.L. Griswold Shipping Co. of New York had commissioned a new clipper ship. Waterman's record speeds aboard the clipper Sea Witch had so impressed the ship owners that they offered him a bonus of $10,000 if he could get their new ship Challenge to San Francisco in 90 days.

The big problem for the captain in 1851 was the scarcity of able, experienced crew men. While Waterman did work with the designers of the ship, he left the selection of the crew to his bosses. It turned out to be a horrible mistake. Half the crew had never sailed. Most of them did not understand English. Only three were experienced. To make matters worse, Waterman himself chose a first mate who could be described as the cruelest man on the planet.

Waterman set sail on July 13. The winds were against him. The crew was inept. The punishment meted out was inhuman. By the time the Challenge reached San Francisco on Oct. 29, 10 crew members had died. A mutiny had to be put down and Waterman had missed his target date of Oct. 11 by 18 days.

The ship had been expected for days before it entered San Francisco's harbor. It would be the biggest ship to visit the city up to that time.

The lateness of the ship was explained by the Daily Alta California. "This splendid clipper ship, commanded by Captain Waterman, whose arrival has been so impatiently awaited at this port arrived yesterday at 1 p.m. She has experienced light winds on her passage and off Cape Horn had heavy gales of 12 days duration. She has also experienced an unusual mortality, ten men having died on board since she left New York."


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It did not take much in 1851 to incite a mob. Rumors about the terrible punishments handed out on the Challenge spread throughout the city.

The Daily Alta California reported on Oct. 30 that a crowd of boatmen surrounded the Challenge vowing to lynch the captain and his mate. Luckily Waterman had left the ship and gone to the custom house before the crowd arrived. And the mate managed to elude his would-be executioners.

The San Francisco Courier printed, "The ship Challenge has arrived and Capt. Waterman her commander has also -- but where are nine of his crew? And where is he and his guilty mate? The accounts given of the conduct of Capt. Waterman towards his men if true make him one of the most inhuman monsters of this age. If they are true, he should be burned alive and he never should leave this city a live man."

Both Waterman and his mate were brought to trial in December. A jury found them guilty, but the judge refused to sentence the captain and the first mate was released from prison after serving a very short time. Both men gave up their sailing careers after the trial.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.