Monday, February 4, 2008


On the Fourth of July 1946, hundreds watched from the Port Clinton, Ohio shoreline as one of the world’s most notorious and controversial ships burned to the waterline in a spectacular blaze. Gone for more than six decades, the ship Success remains as fascinating today as she did when she sailed the world.

Success aground at Sandusky, Ohio

Laid down in 1840 in Burma as an East Indiaman, the Success carried trade from Southeast Asia to England. Within a few short years, she was transporting settlers to Australia’s Swan River. But in 1852, the Success’ crew, overtaken by gold fever, abandoned her at Melbourne. The Victorian government soon purchased the 137-foot vessel along with four other hulks to confine its burgeoning “criminal” population.

Moored off Williamstown, the Success was fitted out with cells to hold its cargo of prisoners. Over the next years, tragedy and terror stalked her decks - first with prisoners and then with women and boys held in government detention. In 1885, when the Australian government deemed the “felon fleet” inhumane, the ships were ordered broken up. Somehow the Success escaped the fate of the others. Alexander Phillips acquired her and converted the hulk into a floating museum, featuring all the horrors of Australian prison life. Despite his efforts, Phillips’ venture was less than successful.

Purchased by a syndicate, the Success sailed to England in 1895. She toured ports throughout the British Isles, where curious visitors flocked to the ship to see her cells, torture chambers, and wax figures. In 1912 the Success crossed the Atlantic once more. This time she sailed for America, where huge crowds met her at every port-of-call.

Fact and fiction merged as her devoted crew of showmen thrilled visitors with horror stories and tours of ghoulish exhibits. Eventually, truth gave way to myth and she became erroneously known as the “Convict Ship” that had transported convicts from England to Australia.

In 1915, the Success sailed south, passing through the Panama Canal to take part in San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition. Indeed, the old ship lived up to her name; her tour of the West Coast was an unqualified “success!” Under new ownership, she returned to the Panama Canal and toured ports in the Gulf region, the East Coast, and along the Mississippi.

In 1923 she made her first tour of Great Lakes ports where thousands packed the old vessel at Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. After sailing the Great Lakes for nearly a decade, the Success found a permanent home in Cleveland.

Neglected, more than a century old, and no longer seaworthy, the Success was towed from Cleveland to Sandusky through the efforts of Harry Van Stack. A South African native, Van Stack had hired on in 1925 as a lecturer. Following a heavy storm, she settled on the bottom alongside her moorings. In 1945, her final owner towed the Success to Port Clinton, where she grounded in 16 feet of water a half-mile off shore. Fall storms and ice took their toll until only her teak timbers could be salvaged.

In 1963, the widow of Harry Van Stack donated books, pamphlets, artifacts, advertisting materials, photographs, and newspaper clippings, associated with the Success to the Hayes Presidential Center.


Rich Norgard said...

It is worth mentioning that a number of artifacts from the Van Stack collection at the Hayes Museum pertaining to the 'Success' are on loan to the Sandusky Maritime Museum so as to be more accessible to the public, including the ship's binnacle, wax figures, ship models, art work, teak from the ship, and many other items. Well worth a visit.

Rich Norgard

Nan Card said...

Thank you, Richard, for making that point. Indeed, some of the "Success" artifacts are on loan to the Sandusky Maritime Museum. Nan Card

Nan Card said...

For a detailed history of the "Success," great photos, and much more, check out Richard's website and his blog Thanks Richard for your help and your longheld interest and research into this great vessel! Your website and blog are terrific!! On the Hayes Center's website is a item-level listing of the Harry Van Stack "Success" Collection (documents, photographs, advertising materials, correspondence, etc.) This collection (and other manuscript collections) are available for research at the Hayes Center in Fremont, Ohio from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through
Saturdays. Nan