The camels were a sort of floating dry dock devised to lift heavily laden whaleships up and over the sandbar at the mouth of Nantucket Harbor.
As whaling voyages became ever longer, and whaleships necessarily bigger and heavier, the bar presented an impediment to the use of Nantucket as a port.
In mid-January 1842, Peter F. Ewer “and others” petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts to be incorporated “for the purpose of constructing camels to lift vessels over the bar at Nantucket.” A month later the House passed the bill, and in March potential investors were invited to an organizational meeting of the Marine Camel Company in the insurance office of Phillip Folger.
The building of the camels began immediately, with the launch of the first half on July 21, 1842, and the second a few days later. The Inquirer and Mirror reported on July 23, “These are the first Camels ever launched in America. The Master Builder is Mr. John G. Thurber, who deserves no little credit for the excellent manner in which he has discharged his trust—having no former experience in this singular architecture and having never seen one of these huge machines before he constructed this one.”
The camels consisted of two parts, each 135 feet long by 19 feet deep by 29 feet on the bottom tapering to 20 feet on the deck, and connected by fifteen chains. Water could be pumped into “raceways” running from the stern to the bow of each camel, in order to sink them so a vessel could enter. Then pumps, driven by a steam engine, would expel the water, raising the vessel in preparation for a tow over the bar. It was estimated that the camels would be able to bear as much as 800 tons.
Once a vessel was securely sandwiched between the camels and lifted, a steam vessel took the whole thing in tow over the bar. The steamers used for this purpose were the passenger steamers Telegraph and Massachusetts.
The first trial of the camels was made in September 1842, when the Phebe was brought into the camels. Unfortunately, the trial was a failure. It took three more attempts before the Constitution was finally successfully cameled.
Operation of the camels was fraught with breakdowns and near disasters. The last vessel to be cameled was the incoming whaleship Martha in 1849. In 1854 the camels were broken up on Francis Street Beach. Four large timber sections were planted upright in the back yard of Orin Coffin’s house on the south edge of the Lily Pond, and in 1937 the Inquirer and Mirror reported that these “four junks of timber in the Coffin yard on North Liberty Street are the only pieces of the ‘camels’ that can be found today.”