October 13, 1842

In 1842, the vessel Peru was the first fully loaded Nantucket whale ship transported over a sandbar using devices designed by Peter F. Ewer called “camels.” As the ship glided into Nantucket harbor, it was welcomed with cannon fire, steam whistles and the ringing of church bells.

The constantly moving sands around Nantucket had slowly placed a shoal at the mouth of Nantucket Harbor, and Ewer, a Nantucket native who made his fortune in the maritime trades, decided to reproduce a device he had seen in Holland. He designed and created floating dry docks, which he called camels, that lifted heavily laden ships and floated them through the shallow water.

Ewer’s camels were two 135-foot pontoon-like hulls, shaped to conform to a ship’s hull. The camels were partitioned into sections, filled with water, sunk below the ship and secured to it with heavy chains.

Ewer’s venture began taking ships in and out of the harbor and had some success when the island was hit hard by the Great Fire of 1846. The fire sped up the island’s already declining whaling industry and proved to be the end of Ewer’s camels. Historian Edouard Stackpole noted, “Had this device been adapted earlier to Nantucket whaling procedures during the critical 1835–1855 period, the whaling merchants of Nantucket might have been enabled to keep the industry in competition with its rivals for a quarter century more.”

Excerpted from On This Day In Nantucket History
By Amy Jenness
The History Press
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The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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