Almost all of the last big sailing ships were rigged as four-masted barques. These ships had three square-rigged masts (foremast, mainmast, mizzenmast), and one schooner-rigged mast aft (the jigger mast). They were also the largest successful carriers built. (Some square-riggers were built with five masts, of which only the Germans Preussen and Potosi were successful, and some schooners were built with as many as seven masts, but these didn't do too well either.)

The barque rig had several advantages over the ship rig, where all masts carried a full set of sails. A barque was more economical to operate (vs. a ship with the same number of masts), as fewer sails were needed, and therefore fewer sailors. Barques also generally sailed better and faster than ships.

The first ship to carry this rig was the wooden barque Columbus, built in 1824 by Charles Wood of Quebec. The Columbus, a giant of 3690 tons, was wrecked homeward bound from London less than a year after she was built. Wood built an even bigger barque, Baron of Renfrew, a year later. She did even worse, stranding outward bound, while being towed in to London. Lars Bruzelius, in the Maritime History Visual Archives, states that these ships were built with the intention of carrying one cargo and being taken apart and sold for timber at their destination.

The next attempt at a four-masted barque was Donald McKay's Great Republic of 1853. The Great Republic was the only four-masted clipper. She caught fire while loading for her first voyage in New York City, but was rebuilt, and sailed for several years before being rigged down to a three-masted ship. She is credited with two New York-San Francisco voyages of three months while rigged as a four-masted barque.

Between 1876 and 1884, there was a brief vogue for the four-masted ship, of which the Falls of Clyde in Honolulu, Hawaii is the sole survivor. Most of these ships would later be rigged down to four-masted barques. By 1884, the four-masted barque had become the primary rig for new sailing ships. Steel also replaced iron as the primary material for hull construction around this time. Examples of successful iron four-masted barques from this period include Routenburn of 1881 (lasted until 1932 as the Swedish Beatrice), and the Marlborough Hill of 1885. (Both of these ships would later win the Australian "Grain Race", Beatrice twice.)

By 1892, the British were building 3000-tonners out of steel. These ships, and the Germans of a few years later, represented the pinnacle of bulk-carrier sailing ship design. They were not as fast as the clippers of the 1850's, but could carry much more cargo and were less expensive to run. And some of these ships were pretty fast in their own right-- the German Pitlochry once sailed from Chile to Hamburg in 63 days; Reuben de Cloux sailed the then 30-year old Parma from Australia to England in 83 days. Among the 3000-tonners of the early 1890's were Lawhill and Olivebank, later Finnish, and Juteopolis, which, as Garthpool, was the last British square-rigger left when she was wrecked in 1929.

The Germans got into the act late, but they built them as good, if not better, than the British. Of the seven surviving four-masters (see Preserved Cape Horn Sailing Ships), five were German-built, and four were operated by the Laeisz Line of Hamburg. The Germans also bought a large number of nearly-new four-masters when the British began to discard them in the early 1900's.

The largest four-masters ever built were the British case-oil haulers Brilliant and Daylight, of almost 4000 tons. Built in 1901 and 1902, these ships had rather checkered careers. Brilliant became the Laeisz Line's Perkeo for a month in 1914 before she was claimed as a prize of war. Ironically, a German sub would sink her two years later. Daylight was rigged down to a barge in 1924, and during WWII, was pressed back into service as an auxiliary four-masted barquentine, lasting into the 1950's under that rig.

The last British-built sailing ship was a four-master named Archibald Russell in 1905. She lasted until 1949 as part of Gustaf Erikson's fleet of Finnish sailing ships. The Germans built their last ship, also a four-master, the Padua, in 1926. Notable German four-masters include the Herzogin Cecilie of 1902, and the surviving Laeisz liners Passat andPeking. Another Laeisz four-master, the Priwall of 1917, once rounded Cape Horn in the record time of five and a half days.

The last working square-rigger under sail was also a four-masted barque. She was the Peruvian Omega, built in 1887 as an iron four-masted ship of 2525 tons, and originally named Drumcliff. Omega became a German, and then after WW1, was given to Peru as war reparations. She was used to transport guano from offshore islands to the Peruvian mainland, and was still working at that trade in 1958, when she sprung a leak and sank at sea with a hold full of bird shit.

List of surviving four-masted barques:

Pommern (1903)-- Mariehamn, Aaland Islands
Moshulu (1904)-- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Viking (1907)-- Gothenburg, Sweden
Passat (1911)-- Travemunde, Germany
Peking (1911)-- New York City
Krusenstern (ex-Padua, 1926)-- Kaliningrad, Russia.

Sources: (Maritime History Virtual Archives)
Alan Villiers, The War With Cape Horn