The Previous Life of the José Gaspar - The William Bisbee

We are indebted to Captain William H. Davis, commander of the William Bisbee on her last trip from Rockland, Maine to Tampa,  Captain G.A. Hanson, commander of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla of Tampa, the records of the U.S. Customs office and logbooks of the vessel for information regarding this vessel.


The William Bisbee fully laden with a cargo of lumber, sitting low in the water somewhere off the coast of Maine.

The William Bisbee was built at Rockland, Maine by J.L. Snow and Co., in 1902.  She was designed for the coastwise trade and operated successfully in and out of the Atlantic coast ports from Nova Scotia to Central America, also Gulf of Mexico ports.  She competed successfully with power-driven vessels showing exceptionally fast time between ports of call. 

She was named for U.S. Army Brigadier General William Henry Bisbee (1840 - 1942). 












The SS Furnessia after her 1891 refitting and renovations.
Previously she had two funnels.


        Published May 16, 1904













Published May 20, 1904




















In 1904, while in route from Virginia to
Rockland, Maine, the Bisbee was sold
to R.K. Snow for $7,000.






District Court, S. D. New York. May 4, 1905
Collision—Steamship And Schooner Crossing—Excessive Speed And Want for Efficient Lookouts In Fog. A steamship approaching New York at night in a fog came into collision with a crossing schooner 15 miles east of Fire Island Lightship. Both vessels were sounding fog signals. The steamship was admittedly going at a speed of six knots, and had a lookout on the forecastle head, and another in the crow's nest on the foremast, but neither saw nor heard the schooner until she was seen from the bridge, when quite near. At this time a white light was seen on the schooner nearly ahead, which was mistaken for a stern light, and the steamship changed her course, but had been little affected thereby at the time of collision. Held, that the steamship was In fault for excessive speed and want of efficient lookouts; that the schooner would not be adjudged in fault because the mate, in the extremity of the collision, set out a false and misleading light, it being doubtful whether or not it contributed in any way to the collision, which was fully accounted for by the plain faults of the steamship.


In Admiralty. Suit for collision. MacFarland, Taylor & Costello, for libellants. _ Robinson, Biddle & Ward and W. S. Montgomery, for claimant.
ADAMS, District Judge

This action was brought by John Bernet and Richard K. Snow, the part owners and agents of the schooner William Bisbee, to recover the damages arising from a collision between the schooner and the steamship Furnessia about 1:45 o'clock A. M. of the 15th day of May, 1904, some 15 miles east of Fire Island Lightship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Bisbee, loaded with oak timber and a small amount of general cargo, was bound from Gallick's Landing, Virginia, to Rockland, Maine. The steamship, with passengers and general cargo, was bound from Glasgow to New York. The weather before and at the time of collision was foggy, dense according to the steamship's contention, but light according to the schooner's.

The schooner was on the starboard tack and carrying full sail, fore sail, main sail and spanker, with 3 top sails, 4 stay sails and 3 jibs. She was not making very much progress, however, probably 3 knots at the utmost, as there was a very light wind from the eastward. The mate was steering and a lookout was stationed on the forecastle head. The latter was using a mechanical fog horn, of a proper size and type. She also had her lights duly set and burning.

The steamship ran into a haze shortly after midnight which thickened into a fog about 20 minutes before the collision. Her compass course was West by North, 2 degrees North, which allowing for deviation, gave the steamship practically a West course. She was at first proceeding at her full speed of 14 or 15 knots but reduced her speed twice, so that, it is claimed, she was going at the rate of 6 knots at the time of collision. She had a lookout stationed on the forecastle head and another in the crow's nest on the foremast. The fog whistle was duly blown. According to the testimony of the navigating officers, the first knowledge they had of the vicinity of the schooner was seeing a white light, less than a point on the steamship's port bow, in close proximity, which they took to be a ship's stern light. The wheel was put hard-a-port to clear the vessel which was supposed to exhibit the light, and when the steamship was beginning to feel the influence of the helm, a green light was seen on the port bow, whereupon the steamship was reversed at full speed, but it was too late to check her headway materially and she struck the schooner a hard blow a little abaft amidships on her starboard side, which turned her over.


Deck view looking aft aboard the three-masted schooner William Bisbee.
The broad, wide decks, massive bulwark stanchions, and raised quarterdeck surrounding an after deckhouse are typical of American vessels.

The members of the schooner's crew were obliged to take to the boat which hung at her davits astern. They thus reached the steamship and were taken aboard and brought to New York.

The schooner's contention is that the steamship was solely at fault for the collision, principally in that she did not have sufficient lookouts and was proceeding too fast in a fog.

The steamship's contention is that the collision was solely produced by the schooner exhibiting a false light which misled the steamship into changing her course, bringing about the collision.

The steamship did not take the testimony of her lookouts but they were hunted up by the schooner and examined on her behalf. Their testimony does not seem to be of much importance, as there are circumstances which tend to discredit the witnesses and I do not consider it necessary to resort to their statements in disposing of the case, as taking the steamship's own testimony, she should , be condemned for proceeding at an undue speed in a dense fog and in not having sufficient lookouts. If her speed was only 6 knots, it was too much in such a fog, and the fact that she claims the first knowledge she had of the presence of the schooner was by observation from the bridge, suffices to condemn her navigation jn such respect. The schooner had a mechanical fog horn which she was using some time before the collision, but it was not heard on the steamship until the collision was imminent.


The difficult question in the case is concerning the exhibition of an irregular light by the schooner. When the steamship's presence became known to those on the schooner, the mate, who was then in charge and steering her, took the light out of the binnacle, and set it on top of the house, where it remained until nearly the time of the collision, when it was put back into the binnacle. The mate explains this by stating that he was afraid of steamers and always used this precaution. It was very bad practice on his part and if it had any effect in producing the collision, the vessel should be condemned for it. The steamship claims that she supposed that the light was one of an overtaken vessel shown in conformity with Art. 10 of the sailing rules.

The steamship's change of course to starboard tends to show that she was misled by the white light, but she was then apparently herself in fault, in that she had, by reason of her excessive speed of 6 knots as admitted, and it was probably more, and want of efficient lookouts, approached too close to the schooner. The change of course on the steamship's part was slight, said by her wheelsman to have been less than a point and by her officers between 1 and 2 points. The wheelsman was probably correct. If it had been made in the other direction, the steamship would have gone astern of the schooner and the collision been avoided. Without any change, the collision would probably have taken place by the steamship striking further aft on the schooner, but it is not profitable to speculate about what might have taken place, if something else had been done. What was done, was a steamship striking a sailing vessel in a fog, proximately through her own excessive speed and want of efficient lookouts. The schooner exhibited a false 'and misleading light in the extremity of the collision. The effect of such exhibition is too doubtful to make the schooner bear any part of the loss therefore. The collision is too well accounted for by the steamship's plain faults to allow a division of the damages. Decree for the libellants, with an order of reference.


Mutiny on the Bisbee

In March, 1915, according to her log, the Bisbee was made ready for sea at Rockland, Maine, when the crew requested shore leave and were refused.  They mutinied and refused to work.  The sails were hoisted by the captain, mate and cook, who manned the ship.  The wind blew a gale in the night as the vessel was rounding Cape Cod.  It was necessary to shorten sail quickly but proved impossible for three men to do so.  The mate prevailed upon the crew to assist, which they did to save their lives, thus averting a serious disaster.


Mother Nature vs. the Bisbee

On March 2, 3, and 4, 1927, while on a voyage from New York to West Point, Virginia, she encountered a northeast gale.  Sail was shortened.  Spanker and all sails were reefed.  She ran before the wind.  At 10:30pm the port anchor was dropped about 20 miles southeast of Hog Island.  All of her anchor chain was dropped about 20 miles southeast of Hog Island.  All of her anchor chain (about 75 fathoms) was run out.  A tremendous sea was running throughout the night.  At 1:00am the anchor chain parted and she drifted helplessly in the gale.  Her distress signals were seen by the steamers Halifax, Allegheny and Philadelphia.  The Allegheny wirelessed the revenue cutter Manning to take the vessel in tow.  The Philadelphia tried to tow the vessel but parted two tow lines.  While trying to get a line aboard, the steamer collided with the jib boom, carrying it away together with the bowsprit and all head gear and put the windlass out of commission.  The Philadelphia then stood by until the Manning hove alongside about 11:00pm.  Early in the morning of March 4, the Manning succeeded in getting a line on board and took the vessel in tow proceeding to Cape Henry where she was anchored at Lynhaven Roads where repairs were made.  The steward, while assisting the sailors in handling the lines, fell overboard and drowned.

The William Bisbee Becomes the José Gaspar

The Bisbee continued to operate in the coastwide trade until 1932 when she was sold to Captain Charles Taylor of Eastport who operated her in the offshore trade until 1936 when she was sold to Victor B. Bendix, a ship and freight broker who bought her in the interest of Tampa's Gasparilla Festival.  The Bisbee hoisted sail and headed south toward Tampa, smashing into another ship off Ambrose Light near New York harbor.  She reported in at the Tampa Customs House on Nov. 21, 1936.  Bendix resold her "as is" for $3,150 to Captain G.A. Hanson of Tampa who was commander of Ye Mystic Krewe.  She was soon transformed into the pirate ship, José Gaspar.  This began a new chapter in the history of the William Bisbee.





The William Bisbee in Tampa before undergoing renovations and conversion into the Jose Gaspar, circa 1936


Photo from State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,


State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,


Notice the patch repair work on the bow hull.


State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,








The Gasparilla ship in 1914.



Early Gasparilla History

The public show had started in 1904 with pirates mounted on horses invading the city. In 1905, there was a triumphant parade of all the city's automobiles – all sixty of them. In 1911, for the first time, a ship was used to invade the city. Very quickly, the celebrations, which were initially an entertainment for the city’s elite, evolved to become grandiose festivities for popular consumption. Nevertheless, the festival did not lose its initial character since ordinary townspeople were but spectators in a show given by Tampa’s elite. “Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla,” the quasi-religious society that organized the annual celebration, symbolized the social division that separated the festival’s participants from spectators. Only members of Tampa’s elite were selected to join the exclusive society.

1903 Cadillac in the first Gasparilla parade, 1905


From 1922 (left, Lafayette St. Bridge) to 1924 (right), the C. H. Hackley was used as the Gasparilla pirate ship

The C.H. Hackley was built in 1868 at Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was listed under sail vessels but later may have added steam to help in propulsion as the stack in the forward in the photo below may suggest. She was abandoned around 1916 but apparently, according to the Burgert Brothers photos above, went into service as the Jose Gaspar in the early 1920s.  The smokestack would have been removed, as all the Gasparilla ships were towed by a tugboat.

The C. H. Hackley at sea, circa 1910s
See full size
From Digital Resource Commons

History of the C. H. Hackley
1868 Built for booming lumber trade.
1882 Owned John Botcher, Chicago;  207 gross/197 net tons.
1899 Owned Herman Oertling, et al, Milwaukee.
1906 Owned Win Schlosser, Milwaukee.
1911 Owned Chicago Transportation Co., Chicago.
1916 Owned Ole Hansen, Milwaukee.
1916, Apr 4 Paul E. Chalifoux, Birmingham AL; taken to New York, NY via St. Lawrence River.
1916, Jun 12 Owned George Berg, New York City to run Caribbean & Central America.
1920 Owned Wm. Fielder, Tampa; in lumber trade; Florida & gulf coast to Cuba & other islands.
1928-33 Laid up on Hillsborough River, Tampa.
1933 Sunk.
1933, Aug 21 Documents surrendered; vessel abandoned.


Gasparilla cancelled 10 times
The City of Tampa has kept up the Gasparilla tradition every year with only ten exceptions since the first invasion.
Before World War II, the Gasparilla festival had taken place every year with but two interruptions, directly related to financial and political crises. The festival was not organized from 1907 to 1909 as a result of “the Rich Man’s Panic” which brought a downturn in the nation’s economy. During 1918-19, following American entry into World War I, the festival was also not celebrated. In spite of these two lapses, the Gasparilla celebration became more elaborate every year. The celebration was also not held during the World War II years 1942 - 1946.

This 1925 photo shows a three-masted galleon was being
used for the Gasparilla celebrations before the William Bisbee.



Above:  The William Bisbee, as the José Gaspar, sails up the Hillsborough River through the Lafayette St. Bridge, 1938
Below:  The José Gaspar approaching the Platt St. Bridge, 1938




See an actual movie film of this 1938 invasion which shows the celebrations and the William Bisbee as the José Gaspar sailing up the Hillsborough River.

Go to and do a search of the complete database for this number: 253658-1   The result will appear as you see at left.  Then click the "i" button under the video (shown at left in the red square) to open a larger video window and details about the film.




The old ship served the Krewe well but by 1942 during World War II, dry rot had set in on her.  Gasparilla was cancelled from 1942 to 1946. Late in 1946, she was overhauled at a cost of $7,500.  In midsummer of 1947, the foremast was splintered by lightning while the vessel was waiting for repairs in a Tampa shipyard.  The following December, two steamships rammed her in Ybor Channel and she began to leak.  The leaks were caulked and the Gaspar carried the Krewe through the 1952 Gasparilla invasion. 


Left:  Pirate revelry on the José Gaspar, 1948
Below: José Gaspar docked on Bayshore at night, 1949
Below Left: Pirates and ladies on the José Gaspar, 1950

The José Gaspar docked on Bayshore Blvd. circa 1940s

The William Bisbee makes it's way up the Hillsborough River as the José Gaspar, circa 1947 to 1952.

The End of the Road for the Bisbee as the José Gaspar


June 6, 1952 Sarasota Journal

In February 1952, the Bisbee saw her final voyage as the José Gaspar.   She was declared unseaworthy and was sold to become a dine-and-dance boat, towed up the Hillsborough River, jabbed a mast into a raised drawbridge, was freed after much exertion, and tied to the bank on the east side of the river next to a chain store parking lot.  The plans to fit her as a restaurant-pleasure boat were soon abandoned. Ye Mystic Krewe had to borrow ships until 1954 when the new José Gasparilla was christened with a bottle of Jamaican rum. 


In 1955, the abandoned Bisbee as the original José Gaspar, mysteriously burned and sank against the Hillsborough River bank.
She made like a pirate before her last port of call. 












The SS Ybor cruising down Ybor Channel, circa 1958

The Ybor City Navy consisted of one ship, this 60-foot cabin cruiser the SS Ybor. 

First used in 1956 as a prelude to the annual Gasparilla celebration on Gasparilla eve, the SS Ybor would seek support from the US Navy in defending Tampa from the attacking Jose Gaspar and flotilla.  Feb. 5, 1956 article: "Ybor City Navy Ready For Gasparilla Pirates."   By 1958, it seems that the SS Ybor took a different side--against Tampa.  A Feb. 1958 article says that the crew of the SS Ybor (a host of admirals and a few seamen) would attack the US Navy who was defending Tampa.  After successfully disabling the US Navy by pelting them with old Cuban bread, they would board the destroyer and its escorts and triumphantly raise the flag of Ybor City on them, in view of thousands of cheering spectators.  See Feb. 10, 1958 "Ybor City's Navy In Attack On Destroyer".   This 2009 article "Ybor Naval Invasion Clears Way for Pirates" seems to support the 1958 scenario: The Ybor City Naval Invasion has been part of Gasparilla week since 1954. Pirates hire the mayor of Ybor City and flotilla to get the navy out of the way for the invasion while the [US] Navy and Tampa try to fight off the Ybor City forces. Meanwhile, the Tampa Fire Department is supposed to help defend Tampa but gets paid off by Ybor City and turns on Tampa.  After a wet hour that littered Garrison Channel with chunks of bread and left most participants soaked, a ceremonial truce was reached. The [US] Navy will withdraw and pirates will meet little resistance invading Tampa. Read a Feb. 10, 1958 newspaper article about these festivities


The new José Gasparilla, 1955

1911 witnessed the first invasion by boat.  In 1954 Ye Mystic  Krewe commissioned the building of the world's only fully rigged pirate ship to be built in modern times. Named the "José Gasparilla," it is a replica of a West Indiaman used in the 18th century.  She is constructed of steel at 165' long by 35' across the beam, with 3 steel masts standing 100' tall. The ship sailed up the river for last time in 1975, as the new Crosstown Bridge is too low for its 100-foot masts. During the year she was docked at the Tarpon Weigh Station on Bayshore Blvd. for public viewing enjoyment, then later at the Tampa Convention Center.   In the past, Gasparilla has been celebrated on the second Monday in February.   A break in tradition came in 1988 with the move to a Saturday festival. The change allows surrounding communities to take part in the celebration. In 2002, the festival was moved to the last Saturday in January. In addition to the traditional invasion and parade, the Gasparilla celebration encompasses a full week's worth of activities held throughout the city.

Some information in this feature comes from "THE LEGEND OF GASPARILLA: MYTH AND HISTORY ON FLORIDA’S WEST COAST" by André-Marcel d’Ans Translated by Marie-Joèle Ingalls. 1-1-1980 Tampa Bay History 02/02


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