Monday, August 15, 2016

From Down East Maine to Panama: Capt. Gardner Emerton Sukeforth

SS Ancon in the Culebra Cut
Today's Genealogy Blogging Beat post, noting the anniversary of the official opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914, inspired me to write this profile of a relative who played an important – though largely unheralded – role in that opening: as captain of the SS Ancon, the steamer that made that historic passage.

Gardner Emerton Sukeforth was born 22 July 1849 in Washington, Waldo County (now Washington, Knox County), Maine, the seventh and last child of William Sukeforth and Ruth Emerton. Before his seventh birthday, his father had died and his mother had remarried, to Isaiah Pert, a sailor some 17 years her junior, and in 1860 Gardiner and three of his brothers were living with the Perts and their two-year-old half-brother in Sedgwick, Hancock County, Maine.

Gardner is nowhere to be found in the 1870 census, but according to a 2013 article1 in Discover Maine magazine by Charles Francis, he
... left home while still a teenager2 to live in the Penobscot Bay town of South Penobscot. His early years were spent working on a variety of ... fishing vessels and coastal schooners....
About 1872, Gardner and his older brother George were both living in Portland, Maine (though not at the same address), and working as coopers, a trade George no doubt learned from their father and passed along to his brother. George remained in Portland and married in 1874, while Gardner is found briefly coopering in Cambridge, Mass., then disappears until about 1880, when he was enumerated in Liberty, Maine, with his now-widowed mother, brother John, and half-brother Melvin.

He also shows up in the 1881 Portland directory at his brother's address, and may have used that as a home base for his sailing voyages, as he listed Portland as his residence when, on 7 February 1884, he married Clara L. Sargent in Lynn, Massachusetts. Although Clara and her parents, Thomas C. and Louise (Tribou) Sargent, had been residents of Lynn since about 1863, Clara had been born in Surry, Hancock County, Maine (not too far from Sedgwick or Penobscot), and the Sargents had lived there until at least 1860. Perhaps Gardner met the Sargent family before they removed to Lynn (though Clara would have been only a child), or later when they possibly returned to visit relatives.

The couple moved in with Clara's parents3 and remained in Lynn through about 1890, presumably sailing – then steaming – out of Boston-area ports. During this time they had two daughters, Annie in 1887 and Marion in 1889.

Then, in 1891, the Lynn directory says Thomas Sargent has "removed to New York city," and there is no listing for Gardner, but neither appears in New York – or anywhere else that I could find – until they both turn up at the same address in Brooklyn in 1894. I believe the explanation for that roughly four-year disappearance may be found in Francis's Discover Maine article:4
With the decline of the golden age of sail, Sukeforth switched to steamships.... [His] apprenticeship with steam came with the Red D Line.... For some five years beginning in 1886 [he] served on Red D ships operating between New York and South America. Then he moved to the West Coast, working the San Francisco to Japan Red D run. In 1896 he went to work for the Panama Railroad Steamship Company.
Though some of the details seem a little off – would he have been working a New York to South America run while living in Lynn? – this account has him moving to the west coast around 1891, exactly when he disappeared from Lynn. The fact that there are no San Francisco city directories on Ancestry between the 1891 and 1896 editions might explain my failure to find him there. (His appearance in Brooklyn in 1894 may mean that was when he worked the New York-South America run.)

His new employer, the Panama Railroad Steamship Company, was in effect owned by the U.S. government, which bought up most of the company's stock in 1897. The company's flagship, the SS Ancon, was in fact owned by the United States War Department and only leased to the company. And of course, the U.S. government was in charge of the construction and operation of the Panama Canal, along with everything else in the Canal Zone.

Capt. Gardner E. Sukeforth
By the time the Canal was finally ready to open in 1914, Gardner Sukeforth was the most senior captain in the company, and was selected to command the Ancon for its historic passage. As the largest vessel to pass through the canal until then,5 the Ancon would be tricky to navigate through the lakes along the canal, and there were no pilots specifically trained for the task. Although pilot John Constantine was technically in charge of the Ancon for the trip, the successful passage, in a record time of 9 hours and 27 minutes (they were planning for an 11-hour passage), was made under Capt. Sukeforth's direct supervision and command, using the canal blueprints and charts of the lakes as a guide – he himself had not previously made the passage. For a man who grew up sailing schooners along the rocky Maine coasts, it was probably a walk in the park.

Gardner Sukeforth continued to captain various ships for the Panama Railroad Steamship Company until his death from Bright's disease on 19 May 1920 in Dayton, Ohio, where the Sukeforths had lived since about 1917. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.

Gardner Sukeforth is my first cousin three times removed; our common ancestor is Robert Sukeforth.

  1. Charles Francis, "Gardner Sukeforth Opens The Panama Canal," Discover Maine, 2013, vol. 10, issue 5, pp. 81-83; digital images, ( : accessed 6 Dec 2014).
  2. His leaving home may have had more to do with family turmoil than anything else; it appears that after a stint in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, Isaiah must have divorced Ruth, as he married again in 1868 and in 1870 was living with his new wife in Sedgwick, next door to Ruth's son Andrew. Ruth, meanwhile, had moved to Liberty, where she was enumerated under the name Ruth Sukeforth, along with her sons John (Sukeforth) and Clarence Melvin (Pert), and next door to her oldest daughter Martha and her family.
  3. Gardner and Clara continued to live with her parents throughout their lives. No doubt his career as a steamship pilot and captain took him away from home enough to make it more practical for Clara and their children to live with her parents instead of keeping a separate household. 
  4. Francis, "Gardner Sukeforth Opens The Panama Canal."
  5. The Ancon's sister ship, the SS Cristobal, made the first unofficial passage on August 3rd.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Saturday Night Genealogy Fun – Male Ancestors' Age at Death

Once again I'm accepting Randy Seaver's Saturday Night Genealogy Fun mission, this time "Male Ancestors Age at Death", as follows:
  1. Review your Pedigree Chart (either on paper or in your genealogy management software program) and determine the age at death of your Male ancestors back at least five generations (and more if you want to).
  2. Tell us the lifespan years for each of these ancestors.  Which of your male ancestors in this group lived the longest?  Which lived the shortest? 
Like Randy, I used Ahnentafel numbers to identify my male ancestors:

2. Roger Marchant Kirk (1919-1979) – 60 years

4. Chester Frank Kirk (1857-1939) – 81 years
6. William George Murphy (1886-1946) – 60 years


8. Silas Kirk (1827-1909) – 82 years (exactly – he died on his birthday)
10. Silas Marchant Hillman Hodsdon (1847-1911) – 64 years
12. Dominic Murphy (1854-1914) – 59 years
14. Peter Louis Rabideau (1870-1946) – 76 years

2nd Great-Grandfathers:

16. Jabez Bradbury Kirkpatrick (1800-1884) – 83 years
18. Simon Sukeforth (ca 1813-1874) – abt 61 years
20. Isaac Hodsdon (1812-1890) – 77 years
22. Nahum Alonzo Rand (1813-1884) – 70 years
24. William Murphy (1830-1909) – 78 years
26. Neil McIntyre (1814-bet 1881 and 1891) – >67 years
28. Louis Rabideau (1850-aft 1913) – >63 years
30. Uriah Sawyer Woodward (1847-1881) – 33 years

3rd Great-Grandfathers:

32. John Kirkpatrick 2d (1773-1825) – 52 years
34. Edward Faulkner – unknown
36. Robert Sukeforth (ca 1780-88 - bet 1860 and 1870) – >72 years
38. William Miller (est 1794-aft 1837) – >43 years
40. Jacob Hodsdon (1787-1879) – 91 years
42. Guy Green (1778-1850) – 72 years
44. Joshua Rand (1779-1852) – 73 years
46. Enoch Brister (ca 1770-1853) – abt 83 years
48. Michael Murphy (ca 1800-bet 1861-81) – >61 years
50. William McDonald – unknown
52. Angus McIntyre (est 1785-bet 1840 and 1851) – >55 years
54. Alexander McLellan (ca 1786-1867) – abt 81 years
56. Louis Robidas (ca 1832-1921) – abt 89 years
58. Unknown
60. Royal Woodward (ca 1802-08 - 1879) – >71 years
62. Samuel Orcutt Washburn (1798-1850) – 51 years

My third great-grandfathers list is a little more complete than the one for their wives: there's only one I don't have a name for, and two more for whom I have a name but no dates.

For those I have at least reasonably good dates for, the longest-lived appears to be 3rd great-grandfather Jacob Hodsdon, at 91 years. The shortest-lived was 2nd great-grandfather Uriah Sawyer Woodward, who died at 33, leaving his wife, Mary (Washburn) (Yates) Woodward, a widow for the second time.

The average age at death for the 28 male ancestors for whom I have data is about 68, with a range of 33-91. Leaving out Uriah Woodward's atypical early death brings the average for the remaining 27 men to over 69; also leaving out William Miller's possible death by 43 raises the average to over 70. Averages and ranges by generation:
  1. Father: 60 years.
  2. Grandfathers: average 70.5 years (60-81).
  3. Great-grandfathers: average about 70 years (59-82).
  4. Second great-grandfathers: average 66.5 years (33-83). Omitting Uriah, the average for the other seven is about 71 years.
  5. Third great-grandfathers (13 out of 16): average about 69 years (43-91). Again, omitting William Miller, the average for the remaining 12 is nearly 71.
Clearly my female ancestors were a much more robust bunch than their mates, with every generation of women averaging 3-6 years more than the men!