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North of Boston Historical Figures – Crossing the Atlantic

September 11, 2015

Many incredible historic figures called the North of Boston region home.  From celebrities like “Lily the Pink” and the “Circus Queen” to the infamous Hatchet Gang and Informer of the Deer, we’ve come across quite a few colorful characters in reading up on local history.  This week, we’re bringing you the stories of two brave adventurers from Gloucester who, despite some personal obstacles, each crossed the Atlantic Ocean alone a combined total of three times – Alfred “Centennial” Johnson and Howard Blackburn.

1876 was a big year for the United States.  The anniversary of the country’s centennial, there was much hoopla and cause for celebration.  To celebrate this milestone, a 29-year old fisherman from Gloucester, Alfred Johnson, sought to do what no man in recorded history had done before – a solo sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

Centennial JohnsonÕs dory will be discussed in the tour titled ÒCrossing the Atlantic Alone 1876-1980 Ð The Single-Handed Transatlantic Journeys of Alfred ÔCentennialÕJohnson, Howard Blackburn and Philip Weld,Ó at the Cape Ann Museum this weekend.

The Centennial dory. Photo credit –

Allegedly, Johnson and his friends were playing cards and began to discuss whether anyone could cross the ocean alone in a small, open boat.  Spurred by this his friends’ disbelief that such a feat could be possible, Johnson declared that not only could it be done, but he would be the one to do it.  He purchased a 16-foot dory, named it “Centennial” for the country’s milestone birthday, and set sail on June 15, 1876.  After a stop in Nova Scotia, Alfred “Centennial” Johnson sailed into open water on June 25th.

Local fishermen, who heard of Johnson’s proposed trip, thought it a hoax.  Passing ships were concerned to find the solo man sailing a small boat in open water and attempted to rescue Johnson  who politely refused (much to the crews’ confusion).  A German passenger ship even threw Johnson a few bottles of brandy (this he accepted).

On August 12, Johnson arrived in Abercastle, Wales where he rested for a few days.  On August 21, he arrived (to much hullabaloo)  in Liverpool.  And so, Alfred Johnson completed the first solo sail across the Atlantic Ocean.  When later asked about the trip, Johnson replied “I made that trip because I was a damned fool, just as they said I was.”


Howard Blackburn. Photo via Cape Ann Museum

Johnson’s feat was the stuff of legend until he was overshadowed by the “Man of Iron” himself, Howard Blackburn.  Blackburn crossed the Atlantic twice – he sailed from Gloucester to England in just 62 days in 1899 and then proceeded to break that record by crossing the Atlantic again when he sailed to Portugal in a mere 39 days.

Did we mention that Blackburn had no fingers?  He had lost them in a winter storm while fishing for halibut.  His mittens fell overboard, leaving Blackburn to curve his freezing hands to allow him to hold the oars and row back to shore (a feat which took five days with little food, water, or sleep).  His hands were severely frostbitten and Blackburn lost all of his fingers, both thumbs to the first joint and a toe.

So, as he managed to cross the Atlantic Ocean TWICE without fingers or thumbs, Howard Blackburn became (and rightly so) a symbol of adventure and bravery.  “Centennial” Johnson never stood a chance against a story like that and was quietly swept into historic obscurity.

Alfred Johnson’s Centennial | Dory Man
Johnson Wanted to prove that he could do it alone | Greg Cook


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