eBay Tuesday: Steam Yacht Starling Letter

Former chief engineer gets a recommendation from New London ship master back in 1892

Odds are that if you're out searching for a job, potential employers are going to ask for a few references to vouch for your skill and expertise. Clearly this is a long-running practice, as today's almost 120-year-old eBay auction item can attest.

Seller kiwihola is offering a letter from New London dated Aug. 26, 1892. In it, the master of the steam yacht Starling, William E. Withey, gives his opinion of former chief engineer Robert Bellevue. It's a glowing review describing Bellevue as a man well-acquainted with his work. "I have found him a most genial shipmate, perfectly honest and of temperate habits" Withey writes. "I hereby recommend him to any one who may be in need of his Service."

The online resources of the G.W. Blunt White Library are unfortunately coming up dry on this particular vessel as well as both individuals named. The only thing it pulls up are a few listings in the Record of American and Foreign Shipping, describing the 121-foot yacht as being owned by William Lockhart and dating back to its construction in East Boston in 1888.

The Staling's unique history can be pieced together with other sources, however. C.P. Kunhardt's largely technical volume Steam Yachts and Launches; Their Machinery and Management describes the sport of coal-powered yachting as one that made great strides between 1877 and 1887. In fact, Kunhardt declares that "we may look for constantly augmenting accessions to the steam pleasure fleet, until it shall pass in number and variety the combined fleets of other nations."

The Starling itself was built for E.C. Seccomb, who was "well-known in New London" and used the yacht to visit his summer home on Fishers Island. Newspaper archives include incredibly detailed accounts of the whereabouts and activities of high society folks, which is how we know that, among other trips and races, Lockhart and four others once toured along the Maine coast in the vessel and passed Kennebunkport in August of 1897.

Though the Starling's ultimate fate is unclear, it eventually found itself put to work instead of pleasure cruises. The Quincy, Mass. division of Electric Boat bought the yacht from Lockhart's estate in 1907, installed a new boiler, and used it as a submarine tender. The Starling was specifically detailed to the USS Octopus, and in May of 1907 it assisted with the submarine's 24-hour submersion trial.

From here, the Starling was purchased by Charles R. Stickney of Eastport, Me. Withey, 22 years removed from his letter of recommendation for Bellevue, "felt as if he was meeting an old friend" when he made the necessary inspection of the yacht at Groton. Under Capt. Guy S. Cummins, the yacht then steamed up to its new home in Eastport for conversion to a fishing trawler and a future of dredging scallop beds and bottom trawling.

As always, information on the boat is much easier to come by than information on the people who once served on her. Robert Bellevue is an elusive name, and no other resources I checked gave any more information on his service on the Starling or elsewhere. Here's hoping he indeed did have a bright future and a new job based on this letter.

The seller notes that there is a large tear along the letter's fold and a small piece missing from the upper left hand corner. The price has been reduced from $20 to $13, and anyone interested also has the option of making an offer. Shipping from Collegetown, Pa. is an extra $1.85. The auction ends at about 8 p.m. tonight.

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