January 1999 News & Comment for and by the Fishermen of Maine SUBSCRIBE NOW!!
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
by Mike Crowe
Shipwrecks along the coast of Maine are said to number in the thousands. From the arrival of cod boats nearly four centuries ago, through colonial development, revolutionary war, booming expansion of trade and fishing in the 1800's, to the evolution of steamships and huge freighters, ships have wrecked on Maine's rugged coast.
Winds, fog, tidal currents, high seas and human error are usually the causes. The circumstances of the shipwreck vary more - from total loss to refloating a grounded vessel - from the granite schooner that could sink in a couple of minutes taking all hands with it, to a ship that catches fire, burns for hours to the waterline, then sinks with no loss of life.
John Daley and his wife of Sullivan, are divers who have compiled a list of Maine shipwrecks. They are publishing maps of the Maine coast indicating the locations of nearly 400 shipwrecks. They will print two maps, one with wrecks before 1900 and the other with those since 1900, with 200 wrecks on each.
There are places along the coast where shipwrecks have been more common. Among the most noted for wrecks are Libby Island, near Jonesport, where the Maine lighthouse keepers records show 35 shipwrecks. A few others are Quoddy Head, Ram Island and Petit Manan Island.
The strong currents at Petit Manan Island make it particularly treacherous; factor in the often foggy day and, of course, human error. East bound ships would misread their location in attempting to sail over the bar below the mainland and Green and Petit Manan Islands. The ledge around these islands is where a number of ships went down. A lot were colliers, hauling coal from Pennsylvania to coastal ports, including the iron works at Pembroke.
William West, 81, a fisherman from Milbridge, recalled the wreck of a steamer, the Lucie P. Miller that struck the westerly ledge and remained aground there until heavy weather forced it off into deeper water. Divers have since seen that she was spread out along the bottom after breaking up. Mr. West also recalled the wreck on the eastern ledge of a wooden ship carrying pulp. This ship broke up spreading its cargo along the shore, leaving little more than a length of chain. Another ship that struck the eastern ledge while sailing west was the New York. It was one of the first ships with a steam engine. This sail and steam ship with sidewheel sank on August 22, 1826, apparently under the influence of currents and the misreading of the bar's location. The C.P. Gerrish, Traveler, Valdare, C. Liza Sawyer, L. Standish and the Lillian B. Jones are some of the other identified wrecks at Petit Manan.
When ships are found by divers, they are often spread out along the bottom, many times some distance from where they went up on the rocks. The majority of the wrecks divers find were colliers. Divers have also found bottles with notes in them, the notes being someone's last statement, a last will and testament of sorts. They sometimes described what caused the disaster before them that they believed was about to end their life.
When ships along the coast were as common as semis are along the interstate today, ship wrecks were also much more common. In addition to the greater number of ships, before GPS (Global Positioning System), sonar, radar and engines, the risks were considerably greater. The popular belief that whoever got to the wreck first could claim salvage rights was apparently not the reality. Many coastal towns had an auction salvager who would auction the cargo and ship separately in the town square. In some cases, the ship was sold for a couple hundred dollars. Whole ships might be bought by someone who only wanted a few parts, chains, a bowsprit or mast, etc.
Another common ship in the 19th century was the granite carrier. Usually old worn out boats carried the very heavy cargo and wrecks were common. Once grounded they were grounded. After the hulls were opened by an obstacle, these ships dove for the bottom. There are quite a few famous buildings all over the U.S. made from granite quarried from the islands in Penobscot Bay. Begun in the early 1800's, the business later boomed until the development of concrete just after 1900.
Many wrecks were not formally recorded, some marked only by the end of tax payments to the town where they were registered. Many are only known today by a local elderly person who saw the wreck or heard stories as a child of a wreck in their area. The more spectacular events, with more people who were witnesses or where there was press coverage also create a record. The details of the event, the cause, the effects on crews, etc., can be warped by the intensity of the circumstances.
The Royal Tar was a new Canadian-built steamer carrying a circus, menagerie, a brass band and passengers. It was bound from St. John, New Brunswick to Portland, Maine in October 1836, with a cargo of animals which included horses, camels, lions, an elephant and a tiger. En route the Royal Tar sought shelter at Eastport and later behind Fox Island in Penobscot Bay. On October 25, while anchored two miles off Fox Island Thoroughfare, a series of decisions and events would compound the problem those on board would face that day. The pilot's son found the boilers dry, but he was not believed by the second engineer. While it seems like it would be worth checking out, he didn't and ordered the boilers fired up. An empty boiler heated to red hot and started a fire in the elephant stall. The fire was soon out of control.
The stern boat was lowered, loaded with men and then blown to a distant shore. The revenue cutter Veto in the area, sent a gig to rescue passengers, but the pilot in charge, seeing people dangling from ropes over the side and leaping overboard, feared getting close to the burning ship and fled. A group of men constructed a raft out of deck boards and managed to launch it. But just as they were about to push off from the ship, the elephant appeared above them. Struggling to maintain its balance it tumbled over the rail, smashing the raft and drowning the men.
Meanwhile Captain Reed of the Royal Tar took over the revenue cutter whose regular captain was not on board. Its captain had feared bringing the cutter close to the burning ship because there was gunpowder stored on deck. Captain Reed brought the cutter close enough to rescue passengers, saving many. Thirty-two of the nearly 100 on board died. All the animals perished. The Royal Tar continued to burn and finally sank.
A different kind of collier, in a different time, wrecked in the same circumstances that sank many of its predecessors. The wreck of the 5,284 ton Oakley L Alexander on March 3, 1947 at Cape Elizabeth occurred in gale winds, high seas and a snow storm. High seas tore 150 feet off her bow and the captain managed to beach her on the rock ledges. Although only a few yards from shore the ship and its crew of 34 were stranded by the churning surf. They were all rescued by the Coast Guard when a shot-line was fired to the collier from the rocks. The crewmen were brought to shore one at a time by a breeches buoy with the help of volunteers.
Before 1874, the rescue of the crew of a ship wrecked on the coast of Maine was carried out by volunteers. The Revenue Cutter Service aided vessels in distress. There was no established rescue service along the coast until 1873 when Congress appropriated funds to build five lifesaving stations along the coast. In the 125 years since its inception, over 200,000 lives have been saved by the Revenue Cutter and the Life Saving Service. In 1915 the two organizations merged to become the U.S. Coast Guard.