Imagine a carved wooden eagle figurehead with a wingspan of over 19 feet. It is in fact a majestic work of art and one of the most incredible figureheads ever created. The imposing golden eagle, which appears to be in flight, was carved to adorn the bowsprit of USS Lancaster. The USS Lancaster was a steam-powered sloop-of-war built in 1857 and launched in 1858. She was commissioned on May 12,1859. By December of 1859 she was in service as the flagship of the United States Pacific Squadron where she served protecting commerce and the mail steamers that traveled the Pacific. Years later,when USS Lancaster was at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine for repairs, a figurehead was installed on the vessel. Previously it did not have a figurehead. It is unclear why the USS Lancaster was chosen for the honor of having this incredible work of art installed on her bow.. The figurehead, that took over a week to install underneath the bowsprit of the ship while it was on the slipway, was an unusual figurehead even at a time when many sailing vessels were adorned with figureheads.
The Eagle has long been the symbol of the United States and the qualities it symbolizes: courage, liberty and immortality. To install the eagle on the ship it had to be dismantled and brought to the ship on a wagon. It was then bolted together and mounted under the bowsprit. To accomplish the task, special scaffolding had to be constructed on the slipway under the bowsprit.
The eagle figurehead has a wingspan of over 19 feet and was hand carved by John Haley Bellamy, who in 1880 was already considered to be one of America’s premier woodcarvers. It took a year to construct the Eagle between 1880 and 1881. The graceful carving is rich in details with an economy of line and attention to detail and the freedom of movement that is a hallmark of the carvings of John Haley Bellamy. The entire eagle is covered in gold leaf yet looks as if it could fly off at any second.
John Haley Bellamy was born on April 5th 1836 in the little town of Pepper Mansion in Kittery Maine. He was the son of Charles Gerrish Bellamy and Frances Keene Bellamy.
Bellamy was apprenticed to Samul Dockham, a furniture maker in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. By 1857 at the age of 21, he was working in the well-known ship’s carver Laban Beecher’s shop in Boston, Beecher gained fame for his famous and controversial figurehead of Andrew Jackson the adorned the bow of the USS Constitution. For a short time, Bellamy attended the New Hampton Institute when it was discovered in the mid-1860s that he was being paid to carve in Boston. He entered into a partnership with D.A. Titcomb in the 1860s. Titcomb managed to sell a large quantity of patented clocks. Bellamy carved clock cases between 1867 and 1871. Some of the clock cases featured masonic symbols, Knights of Columbus Emblems and the Grand Army of the Republic. Bellamy ventured in to carpentry for a time in 1872 but soon learned there was a greater demand and more money for good carvers than there was for good carpenters. During the winter of 1872 Bellamy set up wood carving shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He specialized in carving eagles of every description. Then in 1880 was commissioned to carve a figurehead of a massive eagle for the USS Lancaster. The eagle he carved for that commission is known as the USS Lancaster Eagle. It is the only known surviving figurehead of the many figureheads carved by Bellamy. Bellamy was paid the modest sum of two dollars and thirty-two cents per day for the carving of the eagle. It took about a year to complete.
The 2,362-foot steam powered USS Lancaster was decommission in 1902 and was broken up in 1933. But not before Admiral Samuel Robinson, Commander of the Boston Navy shipyard, began a search for the Lancaster Eagle to determine if it was in good enough condition to be displayed at the Boston Navy Museum. Nothing happened until December 9th 1921 when the figurehead was shipped to the Boston Nay Yard where it was set up inaccessible to public view. Exposed to the weather and very little care the Navy decided to sell it to the highest bidder., On April 4, 1925 is was purchased for $262.89 by the Atlantic Marine Exchange of Boston. The unrestored eagle was sold to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News Virginia for the sum of $2200.00. It arrived at the museum in 1934. The eagle was displayed outdoors in the brown and white colors someone unknown had painted it.
In 1964 the museum started a restoration project which included removing all of the paint down to the bare wood. Repairs were made to the damage caused by years of exposure to the elements, a base coat was applied to the entire eagle then it was covered with gold leaf. That painstaking work restored the eagle to the majestic beauty envision by Joh Bellamy. His eagle is considered to be the greatest masterpieces of a wood carver to whom masterpieces were his stock and trade.
Bellamy eagles had some telltale characteristics that separated them from carvings by other artists. The beak was generally broad and flattened along the top and front with the top part of the beak protruding over the lower beak. The eye sockets were heavily incised and there was a deep hollow beneath the wings that made the eagle to appear to actually be flying.
The USS Lancaster Bellamy Eagle now is displayed in all its golden grandeur in the lobby of the Mariners Museum in Newport News VA. It is worth a trip just to see the eagle. However, there is much more to see at the Mariner’s Museum including the recovered part of the USS Monitor and a full size replicas of the famous ironclad. For details contact the Mariner Museum at www.marinersmuseum.org
Ironically Bellamy never considered himself to be an artist. Despite the fact that his wood carvings were some of the finest ever produced, he is not known to have ever signed his work. The Bellamy eagles are collected and have sold for as much as $100,000 in 2007. At an auction in 2005 one of his larger carvings sold for $660,000.
John Harley Bellamy died in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1914. Unfortunately, most of his many works have been lost. However, if the USS Lancaster Eagle were his only work in a lifetime, it would have been a life well spent. Its sheer grandeur is breathtaking. The world is a better place for having Joh Haley Bellamy walk its roads and pathways for a short time leaving behind his beautiful carving of the USS Lancaster Eagle.
A new book by James A. Craig titled “American Eagle; The Bold & Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy”. Craig explores the methods that Bellamy used to create vast numbers of eagles in his shops which at different times were visited by such notables as Mark Twin and Winslow Homer.