Published in The Seattle Times online on August 31, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Sept. 3, 2023
A rehabilitated ‘brute’ finds respect via a celebrated windjammer
By Jean Sherrard
The city of Troy. King Tut’s tomb. Sunken Spanish Armada gold.
The efforts of historians and explorers compelled to discover lost treasures are the stuff of legend — as well as popular film and fiction.
For Bremerton-born Michael Jay Mjelde, a passionate maritime quest began at age 17. That’s when he stumbled upon a yellowing periodical recounting the intentional burning of Glory of the Seas, a legendary windjammer just off the shore of West Seattle at Fauntleroy one century ago. The story of that immolation fueled his lifetime of research and writing.
The majestic 1869 clipper ship, constructed by renowned Boston shipbuilder Donald McKay, spanned an impressive 300 feet. Celebrated for its size, speed and beauty, it served faithfully for 40 years, hauling cargo across the world’s oceans under multiple masters.
One figure stood out in its eventful history: Henry Gillespie, the last captain to helm the ship during its final voyage as an American flag vessel.
In 1874, Gillespie (also at age 17) ran away to sea, bluffing his way aboard a New Bedford, Mass., whaler with false claims of experience. When the truth emerged, he faced relentless bullying and beatings from the crew, leading him to desert the ship the first time it reached port.
The big, burly youth had learned a rough-and-tumble lesson aboard the whaler. “A product of brutal times,” Mjelde says, “he became a brute.” But what most intrigued the longtime writer, editorial board member and former editor of The Sea Chest, journal of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, was the story of Gillespie’s gradual evolution to civility.
Mjelde’s meticulously researched, 456-page biography, “From Whaler to Clipper Ship” (Texas A&M University Press) details the seafarer’s career straddling decades of technological change, from wooden sailing ships to propeller-driven, steel-hulled schooners.
With wide-ranging primary sources, Mjelde charts Gillespie’s transformation “from a profane, brutal and sadistic chief mate [who used] belaying pins to enforce discipline … to a highly respected shipmaster fully suited to command.”
Mjelde credits much of Gillespie’s rehabilitation to his wife, Catherine, a Liverpool-born milliner “who helped him change his violent ways.” Within three years of their marriage, the reformed sailor was appointed to his first captaincy in 1895.
His three-year tenure (1906-09) with Glory of the Seas, then consigned to “the boneyard” of Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor, proved bittersweet. Despite the ship’s continued seaworthiness, it was converted to a barge then burned for scrap metal.
Undaunted, Gillespie became captain of a U.S. Navy tanker during World War I. The helmsman made repeated trips across the Atlantic through submarine-infested waters. Eat your heart out, Indiana Jones.
To see our 360 degree video of the Eagle Harbor boneyard site, please click here.