It turns out that Capt. T. C. Conwell’s 1966 self-published book, Ships and Men of the Broadkill, is not only a treasure chest of great information about the subject in its title; it is also launching me down dozens of different rabbit holes in search of the stories behind the stories. The last post about the Marie Thomas was just the beginning of a series I have planned about the ships and men (and women!) of the Broadkill.
Capt. Conwell’s story of the Florence Creadick is one of the longest and most detailed in his book. The vessel’s long service life, unusual design, and astounding ability to survive mishaps are some of the reasons that so much has been written about her.
The Florence Creadick, built in the Milton shipyards in 1889 and registered in 1890, is unique in several respects. She was the only four-masted vessel ever built in Milton, the longest of any vessel built in the yards, and she was the only Milton-built vessel ever to have been torpedoed by an enemy submarine. Only one other Milton-built vessel, the McManemy, exceeded the Florence Creadick in overall tonnage. The builder was Cornelius Coulter Davidson, described by by T. C. Conwell as “the last builder of sizeable vessels” in Milton. Davidson had in fact been on a roll; he would ultimately build six vessels in Milton between 1887 and 1891, the Florence Creadick being the largest among them.
There were 28 shareholders recorded for this ship, the size of the shares ranging from 1/16 to 1/64. Among them was Dr. Samuel Creadick of Philadelphia, a former resident of Kent County, who was among the eight investors that collectively held 50% of the shares. The vessel was named after his wife, Florence Nowell Creadick, a native of Leipsic, also in Kent County. Florence’s father, Capt. Abraham Nowell, a shareholder as well. Between them Creadick and his father-in-law controlled 1/8 of the total shares. Naming the ship after one’s wife and the other’s daughter was a no-brainer.
Dr. Creadick, a Delaware expatriate in Philadelphia, had become quite wealthy and respected. He was elected to Philadelphia’s Common Council, However, he maintained ties to Kent County and the city of Dover, from which he hailed. At the time of his death in 1898 his net worth was estimated at $100,000, consisting in the main of real estate holdings in Kent County. His funeral was held in Dover, and according to newspaper accounts was large and elaborate.
The service life of the Florence Creadick was longer than a good many other sailing ships built on the Broadkill. Skippered by skilled master Capt. William Lank, durable and fast, she was capable of international voyages, although throughout her first 24 years of sailing she mainly visited east coast ports with an occasional trip to Cuba. Profitability varied, but apparently was sufficient to keep the investors happy.
With the onset of World War I in 1914, a shortage of ships resulted in a sharp rise in freight rates; the Florence Creadick suddenly became very profitable. There are no documented reports, however, of her running the transatlantic route (and the U-boat gauntlet) until 1917, after the U. S. declared war on Germany. In June of that year, she set sail for France with a cargo of heavy oil.
One needs to pause for a moment and contemplate how a sailing ship, at the mercy of fickle winds, was supposed to outrun a diesel-powered U-boat. Slow as they were, German submarines could still outmaneuver a sailing vessel. It was probably the financial reward of doing it successfully that motivated the Florence Creadick’s owners to gamble on a transatlantic run.
On July 15, 1917, the twenty-eight year old Florence Creadick was torpedoed by a U-boat and was abandoned by her crew in the belief that she was going to sink. Incredibly, the vessel did not sink; severe damage to the bow and stern was inflicted by the U-boat’s deck gun, but the torpedo did not do enough damage to sink her.
A few days later she was towed to Brest on France’s Atlantic coast. The cargo was discharged and forwarded to its destination by rail. The ship did not return to the U. S., however; it was immediately sold to French owners, who renamed her Moise. In 1918, an American steamer collided with the moored Moise, sinking her.
Once again, the vessel cheated death; she was raised and repaired, and plied the coastal trade routes on the eastern Atlantic for another year. After nearly 30 years of service, she was abandoned at sea during a severe winter storm. The fate of the crew, none of whom were found on lifeboats or near the floundering ship, was never determined.
And what of Florence Nowell Creadick, twenty years a widow by 1919? Doubtless, her husband left her plenty to live on. She had made trips to England, France, Holland and Italy before the outbreak of the Great War. In 1921 she and daughter Elizabeth took a long trip to Europe together. In 1930, the U. S. Census lists her as living in Portland OR. She died at her daughter’s residence in New Haven, CT, after which her she was laid to rest in Dover.
Like her namesake vessel, she sailed on until she could sail no longer.
Capt. Conwell’s discovery of photo of the Florence Creadick tied up at a Christina River dock was not the only news to surface about her in 1969. On February 8 of that year, a little more than a week after the story of the photograph was reported in the Wilmington Morning News, Mrs. A. William Bower of Newark revealed she was in possession of the ship’s sea chest, handed down to her by her great-aunt Florence Creadick (not to be confused with Florence Nowell Creadick). The chest was permanently removed from the ship in 1909 during repairs, and passed into the ownership of several family members in succession until it reached Mrs. Bowers. She had never been able to locate the history of the ship, and had been using the chest as a piano bench.
Ships and Men of the Broadkill, by Capt. T. C. Conwell
Wilmington Morning News, January 31, 1969 and February 8, 1969
Milton Historical Society Collection