Although some readers may not recognize the names Alford and Cornelius Butler, most people who have lived in South Portland are very familiar with the name of one of the ships that they built, the Snow Squall. We’ll take a look this week at the Butler Shipyard that was located on Turner’s Island in South Portland (then known as Cape Elizabeth).

The remains of the Snow Squall in the Falkland Islands, taken by military historian Nicholas Dean while he and others were examining the hull to determine if it could be rescued and returned to South Portland. South Portland Historical Society photo

Turner’s Island today is a residential neighborhood, tucked away with some beautiful waterfront homes in there. To reach it, you would drive north on Elm Street (which crosses Broadway). Once you drive over the railroad tracks, you can probably tell you’re on Turner’s Island. It actually was once a separate island.

It was connected to the mainland around 1841, when the Portland, Saco & Portsmouth Railroad was constructing their railroad and filled in the area as a base for their tracks. The railroad line crossed Turner’s Island, then went across a railroad trestle to the Portland waterfront and Commercial Street.

In December 1848, Alford Butler purchased 1.5 acres of land at Turner’s Island, including a half-interest in the buildings and wharf there, and the tide flats, for $600 from Samuel Dyer of Westbrook. Alford also owned a clothing factory on Fore Street in Portland at the time. His younger brother, Cornelius B. Butler, was a ship carpenter and designer, and is believed to have designed some or all of the four ships produced at the yard.

The first ship built at this yard was the three-masted ship Butler, 445 tons, in 1849. She was built for a Portland merchant, Charles Richardson, who immediately put her up for sale. She was an ill-fated ship, however. On her very first voyage, she sailed in 1850 for San Francisco with about $100,000 worth of cargo on board. She went aground in a fog, roughly 20 miles from Cape San Antonio in Argentina, and was declared a total loss.

In 1850, the Butlers had 12 men employed in their shipyard. In October of that year, the Butlers launched a 420-ton, three-masted clipper bark, the Black Squall, also built for Charles Richardson. In a news article that appeared in the Portland Weekly Advertiser on Dec. 3, 1850, her speed was already being acclaimed, noted in a trip she had just made through Vineyard Sound. She was under the command of a Capt. Knight.

Clipper ships were made with narrower dimensions than many other sailing ships, which reduced the size of the cargo hold, but allowed for faster speed. If you were first into a port with your cargo, often you would get a better price than a larger ship that arrived later.

South Portland Historical Society photo

In July of 1851, the Butlers launched another clipper ship, this one much larger at 742 tons, named the Snow Squall. She was three-masted as well, but rigged as a ship (with square rigging on all three masts). She was built mostly of white oak. The interior was described in detail in a news article: “Her cabin is furnished with polished mahogany, rose and satin wood, with coving, and caps and bases to the pilasters of burnish guild; the floor is carpeted with rich tapestry carpeting, and the cabin furniture is to be of a style in keeping. Between decks she is finished in better style than it was formerly the practice to finish the cabins of most of our shipping.”

The Snow Squall was a beautiful ship with her mast rising 142 feet above the deck. The article describes her exterior, as well: “She is entirely painted white with the exception of a vermilion streak along her gunwales; and when at sea under full sail, must remind one of a snow cloud, if not a snow squall.”

After her launch, she was sailed by Capt. Silas D. Gregg to New York where she was put up for sale. The Butlers sold her for nearly $40,000 (a large sum at that time). In December of 1851, she was registered by her new owner in New York, and her sailing days began.

There is a great description of her in Nicholas Dean’s book, “Snow Squall:” “Snow Squall was both a China and a California clipper, sometimes calling at both in the course of a round-the-world voyage by way of Cape Horn, or sometimes bringing cargo to Australia by way of the Cape of Good Hope on her way out to the Orient.”

She was indeed a very fast ship, making a record-setting run from New York to Australia in 79 days. In 1864, however, the Snow Squall ran aground northeast of Cape Horn in the Falkland Islands.

The Butler brothers produced memorable ships, but just a few. Besides the Butler, the Black Squall, and the Snow Squall, the only other ship that they are known to have launched from Turner’s Island was the clipper bark, Warner, of 500 tons, that was launched late in 1851.

In a news article from December 1861, we learn that Cornelius Butler had sailed on the schooner Melrose out of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, on Oct. 28, headed to Boston, but the ship is believed to have gone down with no survivors. The article stated that he had been in Canada for several months on business, but was returning to Portland to see his wife Catherine and their two children. He was only 38 years old.

Catherine Butler put the shipyard up for sale in 1864. We get a good description of the yard from a sale notice: “That very desirable piece of property in Cape Elizabeth known as Butler’s Ship Yard on Turner’s Island, adjoining the P.S. & P. Railroad, containing twelve acres – 10 acres of flats and two acres of upland. There is on it a dwelling house, a blacksmith shop and a large and heavy timbered building of about 80 by 180 feet for purposes connected with ship building…Bounded by the railroad on one side and the harbor with fine water on the other…”

Today, Turner’s Island has a continued element of its commercial/industrial past, in that it is still home to Turners Island, LLC, a business owned by the Hale family where they still use those railroad tracks to bring materials to their yard where they can load and unload ships at their dock. The area is also home to the ship chandlery business, A.L. Griffin, Inc.

Note to readers: The South Portland Historical Society needs your financial support, especially at this time with the museum closed and our events continuing to be postponed due to the pandemic. We encourage you to find a way to help. Membership information is available on our website at (a family membership is $25) and you can donate online at our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.

The society can also be reached at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106, by phone at 207-767-7299, or by email at [email protected] Thank you.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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