Abaco Life Magazine

Abaco Life, An Island Magazine

 
   
       

The Way It Was

When they sailed to Key West
Green Turtle homes went too

(from the Spring, 2005 issue of Abaco Life)

By Jim Kerr

At age 18, John Bartlum of Green Turtle Cay was already a captain. His wrecking vessel, Wanderer, slid into Nassau on February 7, 1832 with a cargo of candles, butter, dry goods and oil that Bartlum and his crew had salvaged from the line ship Dewitt Clinton, which had recently wrecked on the reef at Elbow Cay.
Like most men on Green Turtle, Bartlum was a loyalist descendant. His parents, John Bartlum and Mary Curry, had come to Abaco in the 1780s looking for a new life after the American Revolution. Their youngest son and his crew were part of a sturdy breed, religious and hard-working, resilient and durable; much like the native madeira wood that went into their vaunted wrecking schooners, laboriously crafted at Green Turtle Cay. They would have been Bartlum House Stamphappy to stay and work in Abaco the rest of their lives, except for the law. But when it changed, requiring goods salvaged from U.S. ships to be brought to a salvage court in a U.S. port, John Bartlum moved to an obscure little island at the tail end of a series of islands at the tip of Florida known as Key West.
He became a shipwright there in 1835, and with financial help from a fellow Green Turtle Cay native named William Curry, he built a 10-ton sloop called the Mary McIntosh, described by the Key West Enquirer as “the first boat of her size built here, being about 32 feet keel.” A couple of years later, Bartlum was back in Green Turtle Cay where, on July 29, 1837, he married Sarah Lowe, daughter of William Lowe and Eliza Albury. For the next eight years (long enough to have the first four of their nine children) they settled into the house Bartlum had built there. But in 1845, lured by opportunity, Bartlum and his growing family moved back to Key West, where he proceeded to put both himself and his adopted new home on the map.
Engaged as a shipwright for Browne and Curry, Bartlum constructed a flurry of large sailing schooners of more than 100 tons each between 1848 and 1859. He had never served a day as an apprentice, learning from reading and hands-on experience, and while he would become a U.S. citizen in 1853, and would turn down many offers to leave Key West and relocate his work elsewhere, he chose to stay in this growing island town. After all, it was almost an extension of his homeland. The population of around 3,000 was 40 to 50 percent Bahamian, with about half of that number originating in Abaco. It was, in those days, more of a Caribbean island port than a city in Florida.
Besides, Abaco was only a few days sail from Key West, and like other Bahamians, Bartlum could easily visit folks back home. It was in 1847, however, that he returned to claim his most important possession - his house.
It was the year after the most devastating hurricane in Key West’s history. The town had been substantially flattened. In a scenario still familiar to hurricane victims everywhere in Florida and the Bahamas, no carpenters or other workmen were readily available to repair or rebuild, except at outrageous prices. So Bartlum came home, dismantled his house in Green Turtle, loaded it aboard ship, and reassembled it on a lot he had purchased in Key West from his brother, Joseph.
He wasn’t the only one from Green Turtle Cay to do this. Capt. Richard “Tuggy” Roberts did the same, buying a piece of Bartlum’s land in November, 1847 and reassembling his own Green Turtle house in Key West. Like Bartlum, he was a wrecker, but as a southern sympathizer and entrepeneur during the civil war, he used his ships to run Union blockades.
Both men, talented and successful as they were, were eclipsed by yet a third Green Turtle native, William Curry, a merchant and businessman extraordinaire, who became Florida’s first millionaire. He too had been a wrecker, but his subsequent mercantile businesses extended into ship provisionings, farm stores and ship building. In 1854, a year after he had become an American citizen, John Bartlum, working under the auspices of Curry’s company, built the clipper ship Stephen R. Mallory. It was the crowning acheivement of his career - 959 tons, 164-feet in length with a 35-foot beam, built from the mahogany known as “madeira” and capable of carrying up to 50 percent more cargo than any other ship its size. The ship was named for a U.S. senator who became secretary of the Confederate Navy, and she sailed for the next 14 years, including two trips around Cape Horn, until foundering off the Irish coast in 1870.
The Mallory cemented John Bartlum’s reputation and guaranteed his legacy in shipbuilding history in Key West. He lived there until he died in 1871 at age 57. His mentor and financier, William Curry, who had been born on Green Turtle Cay in 1821, died in Key West in 1898 at age 77. Together with Capt. Tuggy Roberts and many other Abaconians, they left behind a legacy of family and accomplishments that can still be seen today in the flourishing city of Key West. Curry’s house still stands, as do the Green Turtle Cay homes of Roberts and Bartlum, the latter now restored but still side-by-side, as they have been on the corner of William and Eaton Streets for the past 158 years.
Meanwhile, this year’s Island Roots Festival on Green Turtle Cay, scheduled for May 20-22, continues the Key West connection, featuring activities commemorating the ties. New Bahamian stamps, scheduled for release May 17, feature paintings by artist Alton Lowe of Bartlum, Curry and the houses brought to Key West. For more information on the Island Roots Festival, call 242-367-3067 or 242-367-4336. For information on acquiring the stamps, write Philatelic Bureau, c/o GPO, P.O. Box 8302, Nassau, Bahamas.

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©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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