Admiral of the Eastern Seas? – Leo Frank and the Santa Maria

Santa Maria

Columbus’s flagship Santa Maria with the smokestacks of Chicago in the background

Frank and the Foxes

Dr. Leo Frank was an exotic creature for Prince Edward Island.  Arriving with an obscure past and with few, if any, connections to the Island Frank’s chief attribute was his entrepreneurial spirit and his ability to take advantage of opportunity. Originally from New York, in 1914 he was living in Montreal and first appeared in Island newspapers as Vice President and General Manager of the R.J. McNeill Black and Silver Fox Company. The company had an office in the prestigious Birk’s Building in Montreal and authorized capital of one million dollars but its only assets were a ranch and foxes in McNeills Mills near Tyne Valley PEI.  How Frank linked up with a P.E.I. venture is a mystery but he followed the money. Today it is difficult to comprehend the boom that the silver fox business had brought to the province, especially to the chronically depressed western part of Prince County, but the early successes had the impact of a gold rush. Within a year Frank had moved to Prince Edward Island and his ranch, Rosebank Fur Farms, was under construction on the south bank of the Hillsborough River directly across Charlottetown Harbour from Government House. The ranch was to prove one of the most successful of the hundreds of operations which grew out of the fox boom of the 1910s and 20s.

Bee Hive001

Leo Frank with one of his prize Rosebank foxes. Keystone- Mast Collection University of California at Irvine

Leo Frank was an intriguing, if not suspicious character. Born in 1881 in Scotland to Lithuanian Jewish parents, he emigrated with them as a child to New York.  It was not clear what, if anything, gave rise to the title of “Dr.” and one suspects it could have been self-applied. Frank may have had legal training but he had continual problems maintaining his U.S. citizenship even though he spent part of each year there, had property in New Jersey, and had business contacts and relatives in New York. Finally in 1942 he took out Canadian citizenship.  In the 1920s Frank travelled to both Japan and the Soviet Union to make sales and provide technical information regarding the development of the fur industry. At its height in the 1920s Rosebank Fur Farms was a showpiece ranch, and Frank, who was a superb promoter, entertained a steady stream of visitors there. Although the ranch was operated longer than many others on the Island by the late 1950s it was closed and the property divided and sold. Leo Frank died in Florida in August 1965.

The Santa Maria in Northern Waters

If Leo Frank had looked out over his harbour-side ranch on 4 October 1916 he would have seen an odd sight. A tug had come into the harbour and trailing behind it was the Santa Maria, the flagship of Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Western Seas.  Not the 400 year old vessel of course, but a replica which had been built in Spain in 1892 for the Columbus anniversary, sailed across the Atlantic, and presented to the City of Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in that city the following year.

Columbus' Chicago fleet in happier times

Columbus’ Chicago fleet in happier times

The ship along with the accompanying Nina and Pinta  competed with the White City and the Midway for the title of centrepiece of the exhibition. But as is the case with many anniversaries, the legacies did not age well.  By 1913 the maintenance and repairs had been forgotten and the ships had become useless forgotten hulks and the Chicago Parks Commission gladly agreed to loan the vessels for the 1915 Panama-Pacific World Exposition in San Francisco. Originally the plan was to taken them down the Mississippi but when they left Chicago in 1913 they were heading east for the Erie Canal. A year later the Santa Maria had made it only as far as Boston and the other two ships were on their way back to Chicago. In August 1915 the ship was tied up in New York and was deemed not fit to make the passage down the Atlantic Coast, through the Panama Canal and up to San Francisco without at least $18,000 in repairs.

Santa Maria awaiting sale at Buntain & Bell wharf, Charlottetown PAROHF.86.39.3

Santa Maria awaiting sale at Buntain & Bell wharf, Charlottetown PAROHF.86.39.3

After minimum repairs the Santa Maria headed back to Chicago. Neville Canneries Limited got the towing contract and the ship started up the Atlantic Coast heading for the St. Lawrence, the canals and back to the place of commencement.  From the start the venture had never been successful financially. The costs of towing and for the crew were supposed to have been recouped by charging admission at the many stops between Chicago and San Francisco but it was not a paying proposition and by the time the Santa Maria reached Charlottetown the money was long since gone. For a time the replica was an exotic addition to the waterfront and it was opened for tours but the costs were mounting. The few photos we have of the ship in Charlottetown are from family albums

Santa Maria in Charlottetown. From the Rogers Family Album, courtesy of Ian and Daphne Scott

Santa Maria in Charlottetown. From the Rogers Family Album, courtesy of Ian and Daphne Scott

Seeing that they were unlikely t/o be paid by the ships owners Neville Canneries sued for their fees and expenses in Admiralty Court in P.E.I. The Santa Maria was arrested at the wharf and ordered to be sold.  At a public auction on 23 October ownership of the questionable asset passed to Dr. Leo Frank for $800. Within a few months, and partly through his efforts, the Chicago Parks Board was shamed into re-purchasing the ship from him for $3000 which was raised through a public campaign.

By July 1918 the Santa Maria was back in Jackson Park, Chicago but the vessel was soon alone at her mooring. The Pinta had finally succumbed to lack of care and sank in 1918 after 25 years of being ignored. The Nina did not last much longer, burning to the waterline in 1919. An embarrassed Parks Board invested $90,000 in a re-build of the Santa Maria in 1920 using only the keel and metal work from the 1892 replica but by 1946 even these parts were unusable. By 1951 the back of the ship was broken and the timbers were completely rotted. The next year a crane on a barge removed the crumbling remains of the replica.

Sources

This is a follow-up to my article titled “The Island Cruise of the Santa Maria’ which appeared in The Island Magazine #31, Spring/Summer 1992. That article deals primarily with the arrest and sale of the ship. Those wishing more information concerning the Chicago end of the story should consult these history blog entries from Chicago  and  Erie, PA.

The sad story of the Santa Maria replica has a present day reflection in the attempts to “restore” the Bluenose II using only a few sticks from the replica of the original ship which itself, like the Santa Maria was wrecked in the Caribbean. As with the Santa Maria the costs have spiralled out of control and the results have been questionable.

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One thought on “Admiral of the Eastern Seas? – Leo Frank and the Santa Maria

  1. Pingback: Tugging and Towing – The Story of the William Aitken | Sailstrait

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