The Great Kennebunk Fire of 1903

Kennebunk 1903 Fire Whitcomb

In the wee hours of May 3, 1903 the town fire alarm startled the people of Kennebunk awake. The immense shoe factory at the Mousam River bridge was ablaze. James Day, the night watchman, had extinguished a small shaft machinery fire at the factory around midnight but shortly after 2 am he and Officer George Wentworth were eating their lunch in the boiler room when they heard a crackling sound coming from the same part of the building. This time the flames were out of control. The fire alarm was sounded at once. The Kennebunk fire company was unable to stop the fire and companies from West Kennebunk and Biddeford were called. Portland eventually sent their steamer by rail but it did not arrive in time to help get the fire was under control.  The town of Kennebunk had no insurance on the factory building and the electric light plant, which were valued at $35,000. Rice & Hutchins, the former tenants of the building, had shut off the water to save money. The town authorities who had taken over responsibility for the factory had not yet had it turned back on. Had the water been on the fire could have been isolated to the factory but as it was the flames spread and eventually destroyed many buildings at that intersection. The fire had consumed the largest employer in town and the light plant along with other businesses listed below the photo. No lives were lost but the impact on the economy of Kennebunk was significant.  Byron J. Whitcomb, a photographer who had recently set up shop in Kennebunk, was at the scene of the fire and artfully captured the devastation with his camera.  The drama of those photographs would ensure his reputation in Kennebunk as a gifted photographer.   He also offered portraits of a cat that had miraculously survived the blaze who became a symbol of hope for the future of Kennebunk. Sales of the views were brisk.

Bartholomew Gosnold’s encounter at Cape Neddick, 1602

copyright Artist Frank Handlen
Gosnold’s Encounter at Cape Neddick

Bartholomew Gosnold: First European to “smell the earth” at Maine’s southern coast. (Or was he?)

Bartholomew Gosnold  was born in 1572 with a silver spoon in his mouth and a passion for adventure in his heart. His parents, Anthony and Dorothy (Bacon) Gosnold, were both of notable families in England during the reign of the “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth I. Anthony Gosnold had a royal descent from King Edward III of England. Bartholomew’s mother was of the same gene pool that produced Lord Francis Bacon. In fact, the branches of the Bacon and Gosnold trees crossed more than once.

Young Bartholomew was trained as a lawyer, attending Cambridge University and Middle Temple. While at school he was inspired by a lecture given by the Geographer of the day, Richard Hakluyt, whose The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation was published in 1600. Gosnold was so inspired, in fact, that he lost all interest in practicing law. When Sir Walter Raleigh invited him on a voyage to the new world, he eagerly agreed. The voyage failed to meet its mission but there was no turning back for Batholomew. He continued to sail as a privateer chasing Spaniards and dreams of glory across the Atlantic.

Gentlemen explorers like Raleigh and Gosnold did not venture forth to uncharted territory to escape religious persecution. Nor were they wholly altruistic in their efforts on behalf of England. They were interested in money, power and immortality; real people with still familiar, human motivations.

In 1602, Raleigh was falling out of favor in England. His failure with the lost colony of Roanoke had offended many of his supporters and the Queen. Queen Elizabeth encouraged adventurers to search for a Northwest Passage. This presented a loophole to Raleigh’s 1584 patent to colonize North America. Bartholomew Gosnold, at just 30 years of age, seized this entrepreneurial opportunity to sail stealthily through that loophole.

Plans for a voyage were hastily made. It would be financed by William Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southhampton. The mission was meant to discover a route to America on a more northerly tract as allowed by the Queen’s decree but there was a secondary mission. Gosnold intended to establish a small colony in the “North part of Virginia”.

The barque Concord departed from Falmouth, England on March 26, 1602 with a crew of 8 and 23 “Gentleman Discoverers”, some of whom intended to remain in the new world. The Concord was in poor condition and dangerously small for such a voyage but in spite of some contrary winds, she made the trip in a record breaking 49 days. Gosnold and his crew could “smell the land” at Cape Porpoise by May 14.

Two of the gentlemen along for the voyage, Gabriel Archer and John Brereton, journaled their impressions of the trip to the “North part of Virginia”. These firsthand accounts have been invaluable historical research sources ever since. Both diarists described an encounter with Native Americans at “Savage Rock”, calculated by scholars to be near Cape Neddick. A Basque Shallop, with sails and oars, carrying 8 natives, boldly approached the Concord. Archer writes of the encounter,

“One that seemed to be their commander wore a waistcoat of a black wool, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band, one or two more had also a few things made by some Christians; these with a piece of chalk described the coast thereabouts, and could name Placentia of Newfoundland; they spoke divers Christian words, and seemed to understand much more than we, for want of language could comprehend.”

Gosnold’s company proceeded southward with confidence relying on the chalk map for navigation. They established a temporary settlement at what is now known as the Island of Cuttyhunk. Gosnold called it Elizabeth Island in honor of Queen Elizabeth whose edict had made his voyage legal. Marthas Vinyard was named after Gosnold’s recently deceased infant daughter. He named Cape Cod for the abundance of fish that virtually “pestered” the Ship. The naming of the area seems at first glance to be sentimental but it was probably more territorial than sentimental. Gosnold was naming territory that was part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s patent. Meanwhile, Raleigh was back in England worrying about his lost colony of Roanoke and totally ignorant of Gosnold’s voyage.

Gosnold traded with the Natives in Raleigh’s patent for sassafras and supplies. Sassafras was considered the new wonder drug in Europe. Profits from a good sized cargo would be considerable as the Americas were the only available source of the plant.  When the Concord’s hold was full the “Gentlemen Adventurers” could not agree upon a fair division of profits or of supplies between the colonists and those returning to England.  In fear of being unfairly compensated or worse, of suffering the same fate as the lost Roanoke colonists, all those who had intended to remain at Cuttyhunk could not be persuaded to stay.  The entire company returned to England with the undivided provisions.

The return trip to England was accomplished in only 37 days with the help of prevailing winds and the fact that they had cut their Shallop loose to lighten the load on the Concord. This was a common practice and may explain how the Native Americans at Cape Neddick came to be in possession of such a boat.

Once Bartholomew Gosnold returned to England, damage control with Sir Walter Raleigh commenced. Raleigh discovered the patent infringement as soon as the sassafras market was flooded by Gosnold’s cargo.  He wrote a letter to the Queen’s Principal Secretary demanding that Gosnold’s portion of the cargo be seized and given to him.  Brereton’s account of the trip was then “edited” to include a glowing dedication to Raleigh.  This account was published and at once became a bestseller.  Archer’s account would not be published until 1625.

Bartholomew Gosnold had not established the first permanent English settlement in New England as was his intention but his bold ambitions had changed the course of our history. Had his voyage in 1602 not inspired Martin Pring to make a proper discovery of the Kennebunk River in 1603, French explorer Samuel de Champlain would be credited for discovering our coast in 1604.

Read Gabriel Archer’s account of the 1602 voyage here.

Read John Brereton’s account of the 1602 voyage here.

Condition of Goat Island light and dwelling in 1842

Alarmed by the increase in annual maintenance costs for lighthouses and associated dwellings, the Treasury Department appointed Civil Engineer, I.W.P Lewis to conduct a survey of the condition of the lighthouses on the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.  The Treasury Department presented a report on the progress of the survey to date to Congress on February 25, 1843. Mr. Lewis had concluded that the skyrocketing maintenance cost indicated some defect in the customary system of building lighthouses and associated dwellings. He traveled to all the lighthouses along the coast and took reports from the various lighthouse Keepers. Below is the report for Cape Porpoise, Maine. Goat Island Lighthouse keeper, Thatcher Hutchins was interviewed August 15, 1842. He reported the buildings to be in a deplorable state of disrepair less than a decade after they were first erected.

Condition and description of house and towerCondition and description of house and tower 2

Kennebunk Port High School

Kennebunk Port High School was built in 1891. The students were moved to Kennebunk in 1947 and for 6 years the building served as a consolidated 8th grade. It was finally torn down to make way for the Town Office in 1959.
Kennebunk Port High School was on Elm St where the Town Office now stands.

Kennebunk Port High School was built on Elm St in 1891 at the location of the old Spring Hotel, which had burned in the 1887 Skating Rink Fire. The high school building also housed a grammar school. In 1946, the town voted to pay tuition to Wells and Kennebunk High Schools rather than continue to maintain the Elm St school. The high school students moved out in 1947 and for 6 years the building served as a consolidated 8th grade until Consolidated School was built in 1953. The 1891 building on Elm St was finally torn down to make way for the Town Office in 1959.

North St/Maine St Kennebunkport Village

closeup 1805 Map
1805 changes to what is now known as North St and Maine St Kennebunkport

North St/Maine St  Kennebunkport Village

When North St/Maine St was laid out in 1755 there was already a bridge over Perkins Tide Mill Creek.  It was located just above the mill dam and was then known as the ‘Long Creek Bridge’.

From Arundel Town Book I March 18, 1755 (with spelling corrections made for readability)

“Voted the road from Goff’s Mill so-called to Harding’s Ferry as it is laid out : beg. at the lane that leads from ye Town Road to the Widow Merrill’s house and so down as the road now goes to the dividing line between lots that were formerly Esq. Hill’s lots and Col. Storer’s then S.E. and by E. to Mr. Rhodes field or house and from said Rhodes to the first brook where the road crosses the brook and from said brook on a S. course 42 R to head of Bass Cove and so crossing cove by an old hemlock tree over to a pine stump then S.W. and by S. 100R and then S.W. to Long Creek Bridge and from said bridge along by Mr. Eliphalet Perkins fence to the N.E. end of said fence then on a direct course along by and near ye N.E. corner of the little house where Mr. Shackford Sr. lived and from thence to the back side of Gideon Walker’s barn and so on to Saml Perkins land then down as the old road goes to the old mill brook so-called and 7 R over said brook as the road now is and from there on a S.W. course 32 R to the old road then as the old road goes to the head of Harding’s Cove so on the lower road or way. Road to be 2 Rods wide.”

When that road was expanded and straightened in 1805 a map of the original course and proposed changes was filed with the York County Court of Sessions.  See full 1805 Sessions Record below.Full 1805 Map Page

Narrative from York County Court of General Session Records

Full 1805 Map Narrative Page

Island Ledge House Scandal Wells Beach

Island Ledge Hotel and mapThe ever-fuzzy line between visionary business savvy and blind greed besmirches the brief history of the 1871 Island Ledge House at Wells Beach.

Boston & Maine Railroad Company built the Wells Beach station in 1872 after much advance press.  Anticipating improved access to “watering” summer folk, resourceful businessmen Harrison B. Davis, his brother Alfred, and William A. Worster, started quietly buying up parcels of land in 1870.

A large, opulent hotel was erected in 1871 at the ocean end of what is today called Mile Road.  Over 1400 guests were entertained there during the first season.  The proprietors celebrated by adding an ell that contained sixty additional rooms which were occupant-ready by June of 1872.  Island Ledge House was advertised to have large airy single and en suite rooms, wide halls lighted with gas, extensive verandas with unobstructed sea views on three sides, a billiard hall, bowling alleys, a croquet lawn, sailboats with skillful skippers and a quadrille band in constant attendance.  For the first few years the day to day operations of the hotel were supervised by the Davis brothers.

William A. Worster took over in 1874.  He placed a new ad that described the hotel as having “four stories with a mansard roof and about 200 rooms.”  Such abundance could be enjoyed for just $3 a day.  In contrast to the success enjoyed during its first few seasons the hotel was losing money under Worster’s management.

When the vacant, heavily insured complex of buildings burned to the ground on February 15, 1878, after five short years in operation, Worster was accused of incendiarism; a charge he denied.  The case was settled out of court but further investigation uncovers the fact that another heavily insured building owned by Worster had burned in 1870 just months before he invested in the hotel development.

Worster married Berwick widow Juliette Ricker in 1875.  She was a pretty well connected young lady.  Her brother Sherman A. Ricker, known as the “Corn King” of the Chicago Board of Trade, was living in a wildly reckless manner and his siblings were his only known heirs.  When the “Corn King” died in 1882 his estate was vast.  William Worster’s bride stood to inherit hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The millionaire’s girlfriend, Elizabeth House, delayed disbursement of the funds by claiming that she and the deceased had been secretly married.  Ultimately she was unable to prove her claim and Juliette Worster received her inheritance in 1885.

In the meantime, William Worster found himself in more legal trouble so he transferred all his assets into his wife’s name.  The Boston Daily Advertiser reported the story on March 27, 1886.

Strafford County Jail tonight contains an exceptional prisoner – William A. Worster of Great Falls.  Worster is reputed very wealthy and has lived in Berwick, ME most of his life.  His father died some years since leaving him a large fortune. The prisoner was proprietor for many years of the Island Ledge House, a large Hotel at Wells Beach, ME and married a lady worth $250,000.  The Hotel was burned several years ago and there has been constant litigation ever since.  Two years since the Grand Jury of York County Maine found an indictment against him for obtaining $900 by false pretenses from Sewell I. Cowell of Berwick.  He then changed his residence to Great Falls, NH and the indictment still hangs over him.  The Supreme Court at the February term, 1885, rendered judgment against Worster for $6054 in favor of his uncle, William A. Lord of Berwick, since deceased.  Worster placed his property out of reach of the Sheriff who then had him arrested on suspicion of an intent to leave the State.  J. Bagley and Charles Jones of Great   Falls went bonds, Worster’s wife placing $6000 to their credit to guarantee them against loss.  Worster declared he had no money and wanted to take the poor debtors’ oath, thinking plaintiff would not push the case any further.  He came to jail this afternoon and surrendered himself and was astonished to find the council for the plaintiff there, who lodged $1000 in the jailer’s hands which is guarantee for the prisoner’s board for eight years.  Worster declares he will stay, if necessary, rather than pay.”

Worster served five years.  His stubbornness had been based on the assumption that his wife would continue to fund his litigation but it didn’t work out that way.  Julliette ran off to Europe with prominent Somersworth, New   Hampshire business man Emery J. Randall in 1888 leaving William A.Worster the pauper he had claimed to be.