Rigged Model, Extreme Gold Rush Clipper Challenge

Rigged Model, Extreme Gold Rush Clipper Challenge

Usage conditions apply
The extreme clipper ship Challenge was built at New York by the famous shipbuilder William H. Webb. At its launch in May 1851, the $150,000 Challenge was the largest merchant ship ever built, measuring 227 feet in length by 42 feet in beam and 2006 tons. The high length:beam ratio of 5.4:1 was what made the three-decker an extreme clipper, and it set a few speed records over the course of its working life.
The Challenge was expected to set a record on its maiden voyage, and Capt. Robert H. Waterman was offered a $10,000 bonus if he could drive the ship to San Francisco in under 90 days. He pushed his 60-man crew hard, but poor weather and a mutiny by 50 crewmen off Rio slowed the Challenge to a 108-day trip. The mutiny and the unrelated death of seven crew on that maiden voyage gave the ship a bad reputation. Capt. Waterman was relieved of his command after reaching San Francisco, but the next master had to pay a signing bonus of $200 to lure new crewmen aboard for a China trip. Another mutiny on this second leg of the maiden voyage occurred as well—testament to how driven these men were to sail hard and fast.
Over the next decade as a China clipper, an additional mutiny, widespread crew illnesses, frequent dismastings and leaks, and other events cemented the bad reputation of the vessel. It was sold to its captain for $9,350 in 1861. The Challenge changed hands a few more times before sinking off the Brittany coast in February 1877.
Object Name
ship model
clipper ship, rigged model
Other Terms
ship; Maritime; Clipper
Date made
ship launched
ship sold
ship sank
Webb, William H.
captained the ship on its maiden voyage
Waterman, Robert H.
Arthur G. Henning Inc.
ship built and sailed from
United States: New York, New York
ship sailed to
United States: California, San Francisco
Physical Description
wood (overall material)
textile (part: rigging lines material)
overall: 48 in x 72 in x 18 in; 121.92 cm x 182.88 cm x 45.72 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Sailing Ships
Expansion and Reform
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
Nominate this object for photography.   

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.


The ship 'Challenge' wasn't a "gold rush clipper", it engaged in trade with Asian interests shortly after arriving in San Francisco. The statement that the ship was the largest merchant ship ever built is completely erroneous, and was perpetuated by ignorant people who had a personal interest in the ship and shipping in general. The S.S. Great Britain , launched almost a decade earlier, was almost 150% longer and had a tonnage of twice the 'Challenge'.

Add a comment about this object