America’s first ocean-going pleasure yacht sailed from the port of Salem. Salem’s harbor, north of Boston, was another hub for the Northeast’s overseas commerce. Cleopatra’s Barge, originally called the Car of Concordia, was built for George Crowninshield Jr., who came from a merchant family involved in trade with the West Indies.
Crowinshield was known for eccentrically heroic exploits. He regularly sailed out after storms to aid ships in trouble, rescued a number of people from burning buildings as an amateur fire fighter, and jumped into the ocean three times to rescue people from drowning.
Rumors circulated that the lavishly outfitted Cleopatra was intended to make Crowinshield’s most daring rescue attempt: spiriting Napoleon Bonaparte from his exile on St. Helena to the United States.
Crowinshield did set out on his maiden voyage with the Cleopatra with 100 letters of introduction, and visited both Elba and Napoleon’s family in Rome. He raised enough suspicion that his movements were monitored by the British Navy, but his trip to Mediterranean did not include any attempted prison break.
Crowninshield died of a heart attack while preparing his second trip, this time to the Baltic. Cleopatra’s Barge sold for a fraction of the cost he had built it for. It carried sandalwood as a merchant ship and was the private yacht of King Kamehameha II when wrecked off a Hawaiian island in 1824.
Many of the Cleopatra’s original furnishings–mostly acquired during the boat’s first winter, iced into Salem harbor–had been dispersed in Salem before the yacht sold. The Peabody-Essex Museum managed to reconstruct two of the Barge’s interior rooms (pictured above), on display as part of the Museum’s permanent collection of maritime art.