In “Ships, Swindlers, and Scalded Hogs,” Frederick Hill told the story of W.D. Crooker and his brother Charles, at one point in the mid-19th century, the most successful shipbuilding partnership in Bath, the “City of Ships.” In that book, which I reviewed in these pages, Hill wrote, “Anyone who dares to assess generations-old events, personalities, and motivations and advance a definitive conclusion is more in pursuit of ghosts than truths.” To attempt a family story would be a “daunting guessing game.”

In his new book, “A Flick of Sunshine,” written with his son Alexander Jackson Hill, Frederick Hill does just that, and readers should be grateful. When he received a collection of several hundred letters written by his great-uncle Richard Willis Jackson, Hill discovered “a remarkable treasure trove of an adventurous life before the mast.” It was a story he had to tell. Further resources, including Jackson’s diary, fleshed out the narrative. The Hills took their title from a passage by Joseph Conrad.

“Ships, Swindlers, and Scalded Hogs” ended with Charles and W.D. Crooker laid low by various financial vicissitudes. The new book starts in the old Crooker mansion, now home to Charles’s daughter and her husband, Andrew Jackson, still struggling to get out from under the ruins of the defunct ship-building business. (The intertwinings of Bath shipbuilding families sometimes makes one’s head spin.)

Their son Will Jackson was born on July 31, 1861. The authors (descendants of aforesaid Bath families) make a point of noting that the Civil War was already three months old. Grounding the often isolated (as the story progresses) events in what was going on in the rest of the world at the time adds a valuable historical context. The authors never fail to give background information on some of the major conditions their saga bumps up against: trade routes, immigration, the change from sail to steam, intertwined families, not to mention incidental happenings ashore.

Will Jackson was a rambunctious lad from the start, some of his early exploits already making the local press. He might have been Frederic in “The Pirates of Penzance,” who “proved so brave and daring, his father thought he’d ’prentice him to some career sea-faring.” Will started at the bottom.

He had already made three voyages, as far south as Cuba and Trinidad, when he signed on to the Rainier on its maiden voyage to Japan. He was “the youngest member of the crew, and lowest paid at twelve dollars a month.” However, the captain saw promise in the young man, and he was soon promoted to steward.


One night, six months out, the Rainier struck an uncharted reef in the Marshall Islands. Pummeled by the waves, the ship started to break apart. According to the captain’s report, “the decks of the ship burst open… Then the masts went and the splendid new ship Rainier became one mangled mass of ruins.”

The Hills have nicely converted their sources into an exciting narrative as the crew faced first the sea, then the arrival of a number of native outriggers. Cannibalism was not unknown in the South Pacific at that time, but to their relief they were looked after by the king of the island, an atoll called Ujae. All twenty-eight members of the crew were saved after the immediate wreck.

In the end, only two died before they were finally rescued, and Will’s leadership undoubtedly contributed to that feat. Altogether, he spent eight months in Ujae and the surrounding area. He built boats and sailed them to nearby (relatively) islands, trying to contact the outside world. Much of the time he was alone with the islanders. It is a fabulous yarn.

Eventually returned to the United States – to San Francisco rather than Bath – Will was soon at sea again. His subsequent voyages get a rather more perfunctory treatment, presumably because their details pale in comparison. Mostly: a story in the Bath press, under the headline “You Can’t Kill Will,” describes how he and another sailor were washed overboard in a storm around Cape Horn. The authors use quieter interludes to paint a picture of the sailing industry of the period, not least the ubiquity of Bath ships and men.

Will Jackson’s life dream was to be master of his own ship. Tragically, he was killed in a freak accident, perhaps at the very moment it was being offered to him. However, “A Flick of Sunshine” manages to end on a restorative note.

At the end of the Second World War, another Jackson descendant was reporting on the Pacific theatre for a Maine newspaper. Having told the story of the shipwreck to an American admiral, he prevailed upon him to arrange a visit to the atoll, recently taken back from the Japanese. There he found an old man who remembered Will, and he declared the day Will Jackson Day. According to a more recent researcher, it is still celebrated on Ujae.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: