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San Francisco and the Bay Area News & History

Scuttlebutt and The Jeremiah O'Brien
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The scuttle, the precursor to the water-cooler.

Scuttlebutt is an occasional e mail publication from the National Liberty Ship Memorial

In the old sailing ship days, a cask called a scuttle was kept on deck so sailors could have a drink of fresh water while on duty. This is where the mariners would gather to talk, to tell stories or spread rumors. What they talked about was called "scuttlebutt", an old nautical term for mostly true talk about the ship. We hope to produce a bit of internet scuttlebutt about the Jeremiah O'Brien every few weeks. This is the first one. And you know how all sea stories begin: "Now listen, this no.." And stories, some old, some new, start to flow.

Something Old

There's a new historical plaque on board the ship, presented to the SS Jeremiah O'Brien by the San Francisco Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution during Fleet Week. It honors Captain Jeremiah O'Brien, the first seagoing hero of the American revolution.

We sometimes forget our heroes in the swirl of modern life. But Jeremiah O Brien was the real deal. He was one of six brothers born in Maine about 1740. He was a natural leader, "a hot-headed Irishman... a man bigger than life," according to Valdine Atwood, who wrote about O' Brien. When fighting broke out between American patriots and British regular troops at Lexington and Concord, the atmosphere was tense up in Machias, Maine, a seaport that was O'Brien's hometown. Citizens cut down a tall tree and mounted it on a tall hill to protest what they called British tyranny. They called it a "Liberty Pole." The British had a warship in the port named HMS Margaretta along with two supply vessels and the Royal Navy captain threatened to open fire on the town if the Liberty Pole was not taken down.

That was too much for the O'Brien brothers and their friends. They decided to run off the British and somehow capture the warship. They elected Jeremiah O'Brien as their leader and when they rowed out to where HMS Margaretta was anchored, Jeremiah stood up in the bow of his own vessel and roared "In America's name I demand you surrender!" When nothing happened, he yelled again: "Follow me!" He and about 20 picked men swarmed up the side of the British ship. The Americans had some shotguns, but most were armed with axes and pitchforks. One American marksman killed the helmsman, another hit the British captain. It was said that Jeremiah O'Brien himself hauled down the British flag. That was on June 12, 1775, and it was the first sea battle of the American revolution. "The Lexington of the Sea," James Fenimore Cooper called it. Cooper was one of America's great story tellers. The U.S. Navy liked the story so much five navy ships were named for O'Brien. So was the Liberty ship Jeremiah O' Brien.

Wintry Work

Winter is usually the quiet time on the ship, but the deck crew and the engine department is hard at work on the hundreds of tasks needed to keep the old ship in condition. Thursdays are usually the big workdays though there is also a crew at work most weekends.

In the meantime, docents are on duty every day but Tuesday on the Embarcadero and in the small ticket office called "the doghouse" on the apron of Pier 35. Sometimes the O' Brien shares Pier 35 with a cruise ship when the main cruise terminal at Pier 27 is otherwise occupied.

Read on:

Scuttlebutt and the Jeremiah O'Brien


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