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.


Unknown said...

You and I are also related through Robert Sukeforth. He was my great grandfather.

Sixpence Productions said...

Captain Sukeforth was my great, great grandfather. My grandmother called him "grandpa Captain." You may find the journey she and my mother took through the canal in 1988 to commemorate his journey interesting :)