Category Archives: Kennebunkport

Six rescued from the Kennebunk River in 1800

Cards and Trefethens in the Kennebunk River

Kennebunk clergyman Rev. Nathaniel H. Fletcher wrote a letter to the Humane Society of Massachusetts recommending that Capt. James Perkins Sr. and Capt. James Perkins Jr., of Arundel, be decorated for heroic efforts in rescuing and reviving six people from drowning in the Kennebunk River. His letter described the harrowing events of November 29, 1800 and was later published in its entirety in the Salem Gazette.

A few days before Thanksgiving, six members of the Card and Trefethen families of New Castle, N.H., sailed up the Kennebunk River to visit relatives living in Lyman, or Coxhall, as it was then called. Mr. Trefethen, his 15-year-old son, Mr. and Mrs. Card and two of their children, navigated up the river in a small two-masted schooner. They got as far up as the bridge near the head of the tide — about where route one crosses the Kennebunk River today. There they tied up the boat and continued on foot to Coxhall, 12 miles further inland.

Saturday afternoon, Nov. 29, they returned to the boat with an additional child added to the party. One of Mr. and Mrs. Card’s children had been living in Coxhall and was returning home to New Castle with the rest of the family. They sailed downriver — to about where the locks would later be installed — but grounded out on some rocks on the eastern bank. There they sat in a colder-than-usual November wind, waiting for the tide to float them off.

After about two hours the stranded travelers got restless and decided to cross the river and await the tide with their friends, the Webbers, whose house was on the western bank. They all climbed into their canoe, which was way too small and unstable to hold seven people. It immediately tipped all seven of them into the freezing water, just a bit upriver from the Perkins house.

James Perkins Jr. had been butchering meat at his father’s house when the sound of an unfamiliar female voice in distress set him running through four inches of ice and snow toward the river, throwing off his outer wear and calling to his father for help.

The younger Capt. Perkins waded into the river up to his chin to reach the nearest floating person. Mr. Card, who was “in the agonies of drowning,” grabbed Capt. Perkins with such violence that when he finally disengaged himself from the drowning man and made it to shore, his shirt was ripped to shreds. James Perkins Sr., who was by now at river’s edge, took charge of Mr. Card while James Jr. returned to the depths of the river to rescue another victim.

One by one, five more downing persons were brought to the shallow water by the younger Capt. Perkins and dragged onshore by his father. The last to be rescued was Mrs. Card, who, with her two-year-old baby clutched to her chest, had sunk to the bottom for the last time. Every one of the victims were “senseless and speechless,” except Mr. Card.

Capt. Perkins asked him repeatedly “if six were the whole number” and repeatedly he answered in the affirmative, even after seeing his unconscious family members laid out on the bank. Apparently, in the fright of the moment, he had forgotten that they brought an additional child home from Coxhall.

According to Rev. Fletcher’s letter:

“These six were conveyed to the house of Capt. Perkins, Sen. where their wet clothes were taken off and dry ones procured. But, alas, three of them, Mr. Trefethen, Mrs. Card, and one of her children, upwards of two years old, were apparently dead and irrecoverable. To resuscitate these, the upmost exertions were made by Messrs. Perkins, and the likeliest means used that lay within the sphere of their knowledge and recollection. The persons were gently rolled, bathed with brandy, rubbed with warm flannel, and the like till the whole were joyfully restored to life. Before this took place, the means were incessantly continued till 3 o’clock, Sabbath day morning.”

The last victim to be revived was Mrs. Card. She immediately looked around the room and discovered that her eight-year-old daughter was missing. Young James Perkins rushed back out to the river and eventually found the girl but not soon enough to save her.

The various methods used to resuscitate the Cards and the Trefethens were precisely those recommended by the Humane Society of Massachusetts thus making the heroes eligible for commendation by the Society. Capt. James Perkins Jr. and Capt. James Perkins Sr. were each awarded a silver can and their names and remarkable deeds were published.

This was not the first time that sacrifices had been made by James Perkins Sr. for the good of others. In 1787, he had volunteered his house for use as an inoculation hospital. It had been his vessel that brought Small Pox to Arundel from the West Indies. When Dr. Thatcher Goddard asked him to offer up his house to the cause, Perkins willingly complied, even though most people in town were horrified by the idea of purposely infecting their loved ones with the dreaded disease.

The Perkins house, site of resuscitations and inoculations, still stands set back from Oak Street by the Kennebunk River. Built by Captain Thomas Perkins Jr. in 1724, it is said to be the oldest house in Kennebunkport.

Wiswall family of Arundel survived shocking occurance in 1786

A lightning strike for the annals

A bolt of lightning nearly destroyed the home of Thomas Wiswall in 1786, knocking his family temporarily insensible.

Thomas Wiswall had arrived in Cape Porpoise from Newton, Mass. in 1752. Two years later he purchased a blockhouse that was built by Rowlandson Bond in 1743 and moved his family to the banks of the Kennebunk River. There were only nine buildings in the Kennebunkport Village area between Lock Street and South Street in 1786. Wiswall’s blockhouse stood at what is now the corner of Union Street and Ocean Avenue.

His wharf was the first one built on the eastern side of the Kennebunk River and from it he engaged in fishing, coasting and lumbering. Wiswall’s sloop was the first from Arundel to sail to the West Indies, though that first voyage was a financial failure. Most of the cattle that was on deck as cargo fell into the ocean within hours of being loaded onto the vessel. Wiswall persevered with West Indies trade and by 1764 he was one of the wealthiest citizens of Arundel.

Slavery was tolerated in Massachusetts until the Revolutionary War. One of the five slaves listed in the 1764 census of Arundel, a West Indiesman, belonged to the Wiswall family. Though Bradbury writes in his “History of Kennebunkport” that the last two slaves in Arundel died in the poorhouse shortly before 1837, there were West Indiesmen listed as servants in Kennebunkport households as late as 1860.

During the American Revolution, Wiswall was an inspector for the war effort in Arundel. His two cannons were the ones used in the Battle of Cape Porpoise in 1782. (See Cape Porpoise in the American Revolution at

Reports of the lightning strike in Arundel appeared for months in newspapers from South Carolina to Boston and New York. The home of Thomas Wiswall, who had previously been referred to in Boston papers as “Innholder of Arundel,” was struck on the evening of June 8, 1786.

His 20 x 25 foot main house had two stories and a garret. An attached one-story el contained the kitchen and a dairy or milk-room. The only chimney passed through the roof at the end of the house nearest the kitchen.

Lighting struck the chimney, de-nailing all the roof boards around it. Iron curtain rods sitting on the attic floor near the chimney directed electricity into the closet of a bedchamber directly below. Wiswall’s gun was leaning in the corner of that closet wrapped in woolen cloth. The stock of the gun broke away from the barrel and the muzzle was instantly melted, setting the woolen cloth case on fire.

Five people were in the house at the time. All of them were in the kitchen except one daughter who was working in the milk-room. All were knocked insensible. When they came around a few minutes later, none could recall the shocking event, though its results were immediately evident.

Every room was affected. The breastwork over every fireplace in the house was torn apart and every window in the house was broken except one that had been left open. Details of the damages were conveyed in an article in the Massachusetts Gazette on July 10, 1786.

“The frame and sashes of one of the kitchen windows, against which a young man was leaning his arm, together with 4 feet of the plate above, were thrown into the yard before the house. In the milk-room, all the shelves were removed from their supporters, and every earthen milk-vessel broken to pieces, out of one of which a daughter was lading milk into a pewter vessel in her hand. In the same room a cheese-tub was overset, and the cheese in a pickle thrown to the other side of the room. The glass bottles, in several cases in the chamber were broken. Four doors in the house were unhinged. The cellar door was burst open, and a dog was found dead in the cellar.”

The Wiswall family regained their senses just in time to extinguish the fire in the bedchamber closet, which had by then, communicated from the gun case to the light clothing hanging above it.

The incident is probably what inspired Thomas Wiswall to start building a new home for his family next door in 1786. The elegant new house, which still stands on Union Street and now houses Ben & Jerry’s, was finished in 1789.

The old blockhouse, a little worse for the wear, was sold to Nathan Morse but was torn down in about 1807. Its cellar hole was still visible across from Silas Perkins’ store in 1837 when Bradbury wrote his “History of Kennebunkport.”

The “Jinxed” Career of the Ferryboat Kittery

Troubled launching, troubled career.

A vessel that “stuck on the ways” at launching was considered by superstitious sailors to be forever jinxed. The faulty launching of the ferryboat ‘Kittery’, built by David Clark of Kennebunkport, for the directors of the Portsmouth, Kittery & York Street Railway Company (PK&Y) in 1900, lent credence to the notion.

PK&Y started offering ferry service across the Piscataqua River in 1897. The line ran from the old Spring Market building in Portsmouth to the Badger’s Island ferry landing on the Kittery side.  An old steam ferryboat, ‘Mystic’, was purchased from Captain Horatio W. Trefethen of Kittery, who by then had already been piloting her back and forth across the river for some 15 years. A second ferryboat, the  ‘Newmarch’, was purchased from the Middleton Ferry Company of Connecticut. After the ‘Newmarch’ burned to the waterline on December 1, 1899, a committee was formed to procure a new ferryboat to replace her as soon as possible.

The ‘Newmarch’ could accommodate 200 passengers and six heavy teams at once. PK&Y sought to acquire a larger, more commodious vessel that could accommodate many more horse teams and the vehicles they pulled.  In January of 1900, the company announced that a suitable ferry had not be found. They intended to contract for a new vessel and had already requested bids from a number of shipbuilding firms. The winning bid came from David Clark of Kennebunkport. Though he had built several steamers by then Clark had never before built a ferry.

The new ferryboat would be christened the ‘Kittery’. According to a report in the Portsmouth Herald, she was to be launched on June 29, 1900 but there were delays in her construction. The promised launch date, highly anticipated in Portsmouth, came and went. Shipbuilder, David Clark announced that her new  launch date would be July 14th. Events of that day were covered in the Eastern Star. “A large crowd assembled to witness the launching but to the disappointment of all she did not go wholly off the ways.” Spectators murmured about bad omens as they wandered away from the riverfront shipyard behind South Congregational Church.

‘The Kittery’ was gotten off in the dark of that night without ceremony. She was towed to the Perkins Wharf where she awaited the arrival of steam engine inspectors. On July 20th it was announced in The Eastern Star that no further delays were anticipated. The inspectors had arrived and the ferryboat would likely be leaving Kennebunk within a few days under her own steam.

But the engine inspections, conducted across the Kennebunk River at the Emmons Littlefield wharf, did not go well. It was later reported in Portsmouth that “the steamboat inspectors had ordered some alterations in the piping of the new ferryboat ‘Kittery’.”  Other problems with her construction were identified in the meantime and it was determined that she would have to be towed to Portsmouth. On July 27th, the tugboat Piscataqua arrived at the Kennebunk River to pick up the troubled new ferryboat. The President, Treasurer and Superintendent of PK&Y were all on board to take possession.

After a brief stop in Portsmouth to satisfy the crowds that watched for her arrival from the Kittery Point bridge, the new ferry was towed to Boston. It was reported in the Boston Daily Globe that the ‘Kittery’ had to be hauled out on the marine railway there “to receive a new keel and other important repair work.”

It was the middle of August before she was put into service and within a month the she was hauled again to undergo a major design change to her steam reversing apparatus. This alteration reportedly cost PK&Y $800.

The ‘Kittery’ never performed satisfactorily. She used five times as much coal every day as did the other ferry on the line, steamer ‘Alice Howard’, which had replaced the ‘Mystic’ in 1901. The beleaguered ‘Kittery’ hit the bridge in 1910 when her engines died mid-stream. She broke down several times during 1911 and was taken out of the water again to be repaired. Another overhaul was required in 1913.

The Atlantic Shore Railway, which had absorbed the PK&Y in 1906, entered federal receivership on November 1, 1915. When the ferryboat ‘Kittery’ was finally sold to New York parties in 1918 for $6,000, it was reported in the Portsmouth Herald that proceeds of the sale would figure as assets of the troubled trolley company.

It was also reported in 1918 that the ferryboat ‘Kittery’ had “not been used much for the service for which it was built owing to the fact that it could not be operated with as much speed as other boats in the unusually strong tides of the Piscataqua River.”

Though the original design of the ferryboat was likely inadequate, old-timers often blamed her many misfortunes, with a knowing nod, on her interrupted first launching.

A Kennebunkport man for all seasons

James A. Benson had a taste for variety

When studying family history, one often finds a character whose experiences earn him the label of family adventurer. The Benson family history is full of strong men and women, but only the mostly documented story of the life of James A. Benson, born in Kennebunkport on Dec. 4, 1840, reads like historical fiction.

Uncle Jim, as family members still refer to him, was reportedly fearless, even as a boy. He starred in a plethora of Benson-family legends beginning in his teenage years. One such legend, submitted to a local paper for publication by Melvin Landon many Halloweens ago, painted a vivid picture of Jim’s youthful bravado. After his chores were done, Jim would walk down to the Port to go see the girl he was smitten with — a girl who was at the time being courted by several young men. She lived alongside the cemetery and Jim was in the habit of cutting through to save time.

One night, after seeing Jim cross the cemetery, one of his frustrated rivals hatched a sinister plan to scare Benson off. He dug a grave right in the middle of the path he knew Jim would traverse again later that night. After sweet goodbyes were uttered, Jim took off light-footed into the night. Before a moment had passed, the ground opened up under our hero, plunging him into the freshly dug grave. Just then his rival jumped out of hiding wrapped in a sheet and in his spookiest voice chanted, “What are you doing in my grave?” Jim reached up, grabbed the ghost by the ankles, pulled him in and scrambled out. “What the hell are you doing out of your grave?” roared Jim, as he shoveled dirt onto his stunned opponent. Like most spooky graveyard tales, this one cannot be verified, but if anyone ever lived such an adventure it might well have been James Benson.

Uncle Jim volunteered, at the age of 20, to serve in the Civil War. He was sent to Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Va. He was working there as a teamster in 1861 when Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and offered Union Army Teamster jobs to many fugitive Virginia slaves.

Letters addressed to Jim at Fortress Monroe from his father in Kennebunkport have been preserved by his descendants. In them and in the regimental records we learn that after his first term as a teamster expired, Benson enlisted in Company D of the 27th Maine Regiment on Sept. 30, 1862.

Enlistment in the 27th Maine was intended to be a nine-month commitment, but as Jim’s relatively uneventful second term of service was coming to an end, President Abraham Lincoln asked members of the regiment to volunteer for an extra week of active service to defend Washington from Robert E. Lee’s army, which had recently invaded Pennsylvania. Less than half of the soldiers volunteered to stay on and the ones that did were promised the Medal of Honor.

By some bureaucratic mix-up, medals were prepared for the entire regiment and many of the medals were distributed before the mistake was discovered. The rest were later stolen from Col. Mark Wentworth’s barn, where they were being stored. In 1917, Congress ruled that only those 27th Maine soldiers who had served the extra week were eligible for the Medal of Honor. James A. Benson must not have been one of them because his name appeared on the list of soldiers whose medals were revoked.

After the war Uncle Jim travelled out west to find his next adventure. He married Irish-born Margaret Kelley in Oregon, but by the time the 1870 census was taken, Jim and Margaret were living in San Francisco, Calif. He listed his occupation as drayman; a drayman was a driver of horse or mule teams that delivered goods and supplies.

Uncle Jim’s descendants still own the whip that he is said to have handled with great skill. On one of his trips home to Kennebunkport, Jim wanted to demonstrate that skill for his family. While his aunt scolded him for wasting her time he shredded her apron with the snapping tip of his driving whip. The Bensons returned to California and by 1880 Jim was a San Francisco policeman.

He was also employed for a while as a dog sled driver in Canada. Family legend says that Benson found himself in dire straights one night having frozen several toes while he was out on a sled run. Rather than let gangrene invade his foot, he instructed a friend to cut off the discolored toes with a knife after he had consumed enough whiskey to render himself unconscious.

Sure enough, records from the Togus Maine Disabled Soldiers Home, where Uncle Jim passed away in 1907 after a thrilling 67 years, indicate he was missing three toes on his left foot and one toe on his right.

Many thanks to Frank Landon for his Benson family records. Like his mother, Ruth Landon, did before him, Frank devotes immeasurable personal time to preserving the history of Arundel and Kennebunkport.

Capt. Joseph Brooks, the Kennebunkport Storm Tracker

Forewarning favors the odds
Capt. Joseph Brooks of Kennebunkport earned his nickname “Old Probabilities” by pioneering in the field of weather forecasting. His persistence in the face of skepticism, even among his co-owners at the Portland Steamship Packet Company, preserved profit and lives.
Capt. Brooks was of Portland, Maine. It was 1837 when he took Sarah Coes as his wife. She was the daughter of Kennebunkport sail maker, Benjamin Coes, who around 1795 had built the Federal house on Pearl Street now known as Tory Chimneys. Brooks worked in Portland and later in Boston, but he would call Tory Chimneys his home until his death in 1894.
Born in Auburn, Maine, in 1806, Brooks was an intellectually curious individual. In an interview conducted for the press in 1882, he related an early memory that illustrates his determination to learn. Proudly calling attention to a coverless copy of the New Testament, he told the reporter that he had used it to teach himself to read at the age of 12. He found the tattered bible on a beam in a sail loft where he worked as a child. “He rubbed the dust from it, put it in his pocket and in due time absorbed its contents into his mind and heart.”
He became especially interested in weather prediction in 1841 after attending a lecture given by Professor James P. Espy, the United States Government’s first official meteorologist and author of “Philosophy of Storms.” Espy theorized that storms advance eastward across the country and that a storm reported in New York could be expected on the Maine coast within a period of one to three days. Advances in telegraphy soon made it possible for weather reports to be received in good time for astute mariners like Brooks to pay heed to their warnings.
In 1844, when he co-founded the Portland Steam Packet Company, operating two propeller-steam freighters running opposite directions between Boston and Portland, storms were the greatest financial challenge he had to face. His insurance burden cut deeply into his profits. Within a few years commodious new side-wheel passenger steamships with cabins, finished in cherry and mahogany, were added to the line. They ran at night between Franklin Wharf in Portland and India Wharf in Boston and coincided with railroad schedules at either end. Brooks even had a piece of the Grand Trunk Railroad Station business before all was said and done.
Before 1850, against the better judgment of his business partners, Brooks had employed agents in New York, New Haven, Springfield, Boston and Portland to make observations of the state of the wind and weather and to send their findings to him every day over telegraph wires. If the weather looked bad in the morning up to three additional reports were made each day.
Brooks soon got a test case that brought them all around to his way of thinking. He later recalled the incident to a Boston reporter.
“On a certain Monday in the month of February 1852, I sent a telegram (telegrams on this subject passed daily between the Boston and Portland offices of the company) to the agent in Portland at 12 o’clock noon, to the effect that a heavy snow storm was raging in New York but that the weather continued fine in Boston. At four o’clock in the afternoon another telegram was sent, stating that the storm had reached Springfield, and the Boston boat would not leave her dock and that if the St. Lawrence (then a new boat) left Portland, she would find herself in the midst of the storm before the passage was half completed, Now sneers and jeers were in order. The Portland agent came to the conclusion that storms in New York had nothing whatever to do with the weather in Boston and Portland, or in between those points and sent his ship to sea.”
The St. Lawrence left Portland with a full freight and 307 passengers. The howling nor’easter Brooks had predicted met her off Portsmouth, N.H. Conditions grew worse and worse and by the time she reached Boston Harbor she was in serious trouble. She was adrift for three days losing her rudder and most of her cargo, but fortunately all her passengers were spared.
In fact, during the course of 37 years under the management of Brooks, the Portland Steamship Packet Company transported millions of passengers and not one was ever hurt or lost. The line had the best safety record by far, even though they carried much less insurance than any of the other companies and retained a higher percentage of their fares. By the time Brooks retired to Kennebunkport his system of using weather observations to reduce losses had been widely adopted by most Steam Packet Companies.

Harness Racing in Kennebunk

Sulky Racing on Kennebunk Ice
Sulky Racing on Kennebunk Ice

Southern Maine has a long and varied history of horse racing. The first standardbred horse from Maine to run for a stake was Zuarrow, a chestnut gelding from Waterville. He was entered in a Massachusetts race in 1819, just one year after the first professional American Harness Race. Zuarrow trotted one mile across the Charlestown Bridge in 2 minutes, 57 seconds. Trotting hit its stride in 1835 and steadily grew in popularity in Maine throughout the remaining years of the 19th century, even in Kennebunk.

The secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture was alarmed to report in 1866 that horse-racing formed the most prominent feature at agricultural fairs. He quoted from a document written by the editor of the “Canadian Farmer,” who stated, “There was a trot each day and purses to the amount of $1,000 were offered by the society out of its funds. The excuse for this is that the people will not come out in sufficient numbers to pay expenses, unless racing is provided for.”Horse racing was embraced in York County with astonishing enthusiasm given the sway that propriety was said to carry here in those days. Gambling on the horses was considered good clean fun and was enjoyed by the staunchest of moral policemen. York County race results appeared on the front page of the Eastern Star in 1877.

Any straight stretch would do for a track. In Kennebunkport, heats were run on North Street and what is now known as Ocean Avenue. Racing on town streets became so prevalent in Maine that a law was passed stipulating that anyone using a regular roadway as a race track could not sue the town in the event of an injury.

Sulky races were featured at every county fair and most municipal celebrations. They were primarily run on the beaches by 1900, but occasional winter heats on the frozen Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers were reported in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.

In 1904, it was reported that Dr. Merrill, Professor Wheeler, Ernest Benson, Freeman Seavey and Mr. Robinson, all of Kennebunkport, regularly raced their horses at Kennebunk Beach. Mr. George Bayes was the starter and Dr. Merrill and Edward Bryant judged the heats.

A new track was prepared by the Kennebunkport Driving Club for late winter racing in 1919. Permission was granted by Kennebunk Lower Village landowners to dam up the outlet at the road and allow the marsh inland of Western Avenue to freeze solid. Two or three sulkies were pulled around the ice track in each heat and kids entertained themselves between races by letting their kites pull them across the slippery track. The ice was so thick that spectators could drive their automobiles all the way to the end of the marsh. The new track, dubbed Lake Speedway, was a roaring success.

The following May, a meeting was held at the Mousam House in Kennebunk to form a combined Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club. Freeman Seavey was elected secretary and treasurer; Roy Taylor, Ernest Walker, Harry Washburn, Harry Day became assistants; and Earnest Benson was named president and manager of the club.

Benson, whose pristinely cared for racing silks were red and white, was uniquely qualified for the top position. As a Kennebunkport blacksmith, he boarded horses for fellow club members and made special racing shoes for the contestants. The club raced in the winter at Lake Speedway and the rest of the year on Gooch’s Beach. Popularity of the sport quickly grew in the Kennebunks.

In March of 1922, the Biddeford Weekly Journal printed a rumor that the West Kennebunk Grange was thinking of leasing the local deputy sheriff’s training track for a fairground and possibly, a venue for harness racing. Sure enough, on July 22, 1922 the West Kennebunk Grange Trotting Park was established for summer racing on Constable Edwin I. Littlefield’s land. Heats were held every Saturday afternoon.

Fiske, Benson, Maling, Taylor, Smith and Jenney of the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club and Matt Bowden, L E Wiggin and others of Biddeford, agreed to trot their 20 or more horses for 40 percent of the gate receipts. The Grange received 60 percent to be invested in maintenance on the track. The trotting park accommodated crowds of 3,500 within the first two years, but maintenance of the park was not adequately performed by the Grange and the track fell into disrepair.

On Nov. 15, 1929, it was reported in the Lewiston Evening Journal that the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club had purchased 22 horse sheds at the West Kennebunk Trotting Park as well as the judges stand and ticket office. Edwin I Littlefield, by then a senator, retained ownership of the land. Sheriff Ernest L. Jones was elected manager and treasurer of the Driving Club.

The West Kennebunk Trotting Park was used mostly as a training track after 1930. Local races continued to be run on Lake Speedway and Gooch’s Beach. World War II put an end to the regular races, though occasional heats were run until 1948.

Little remains of the West Kennebunk Trotting Park, which now lies under the turnpike garage. Few people still remember the horse racing years in the Kennebunks. Fortunately, Cecil Benson does and his help with this column was greatly appreciated.


People of Cape Porpoise witnessed battleship trials and war games

A right of way contest
A right of way contest

Around the turn of the 20th century, Cape Porpoise residents had a front row seat to watch the official United States Battle Cruiser speed trials from Seavy’s lookout up on Crow Hill.

Each trial consisted of 2 trips over a carefully measured course that ran 41.65 knots at sea from Cape Ann, Massachusetts to Cape Porpoise, Maine. The battleships would circle for a few hours at Cape Ann to give their boilers time to build up a head of steam before screaming across the starting line at top speed.

The stakes were high for the first trial in May of 1893. Philadelphia shipbuilder Edwin S. Cramp had a contract to deliver a cruiser that could maintain an average speed of 20 knots per hour for four consecutive hours. Every quarter knot by which the requirement was exceeded was worth another $50,000 from the Government.  Members of the Naval Board of Inspection looked over every bolt and rivet from stem to stern and remained on board for performance assessment. Edwin S. Cramp himself supervised the trial and Capt. R A Sargeant took command of the vessel. A ship’s company of no less than 400 men were required for the trip that cost approximately  $30,000.

May 22, 1893 was a beautiful calm day. Thousands of giddy spectators decked in Sunday finery turned up at Cape Ann to witness the start of the race. A reporter for the Boston Daily Globe described a carnival atmosphere that spread all the way up the coast to Cape Porpoise. The trial was a triumph. After just under four hours – with a clock stop in off Cape Porpoise to get the massive vessel turned around – the armored cruiser New York averaged 21 knots per hour earning her shipbuilder a $200,000 premium.

Several trials were conducted each year from 1893 through 1907. The Biddeford Journal posted expected times of arrival and no matter the weather, the folks in Cape porpoise were watching from Crow Hill when the battleships came into view.

The October 2, 1895 trial of the Steamer St Paul for a coveted US Mail Carrier contract seemed doomed from the start. She got under way to build steam at 9:45 am but shipbuilder Cramp didn’t like the way her boilers were running. To make matters worse she had been sitting in brackish water in the Delaware River during a long drought and her bottom was foul. At the last minute Cramp decided to put off her official trial and proceed with a preliminary run.

Not far out of Cape Ann the boilers began to “prime” and the boat’s speed perceptibly decreased. “Priming” meant that the water in the boiler was not made into steam rapidly enough. Bubbles containing a large percentage of water were carried into the cylinders with steam.

Eight miles from the finish line in Cape Porpoise the steamer was further delayed when the captain of a local lumber schooner refused to yield right of way.  The schooner was directly in the ship’s path. Captain of the St Paul ordered the whistle blown for her to sheer off but the Cape Porpoise lumberman held steadily on. The big racer barely avoided cutting the schooner in halves.

The official trial was run the following day after brackish water was cleaned out of the boilers but even then she beat her 20 knot per hour minimum by only .50 knots. The St Paul was immediately taken to New York and placed in service on the line. Despite a slow start she proved to be a splendid transatlantic mail carrier.

August 20, 1902 spectators at Cape Porpoise were treated to a full scale war game. The Blue Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Higginson was charged with defense of the U.S. coast from Cape Cod to Portland against attack from Admiral Pillsbury’s White Squadron.

Higginson’s fleet consisted of nine battleships, seven torpedo boats and a converted yacht, the Mayflower. The White fleet was ordered to attempt to reach Portland, Rockport, Portsmouth, Salem or Provincetown without getting caught by a superior vessel.

The War Games were an exciting spectacle for the people of Cape Porpoise, who this time came down off Crow Hill to get a closer look.

Blue Squadron Cruisers, Brooklyn and Olympia, the Mayflower and the torpedo boat Shubrick arrived off Cape Porpoise just before 3 pm. The larger vessels remained well off shore, but the torpedo boat ran in and anchored near the cape for about a half an hour. The fleet proceeded eastward after that but not before the torpedo boat Shubrick steamed in and put a marine ashore.

Interview with a 19th-century Kennebunk shipbuilder

A familiar event at Littlefield's Yard
A familiar event at Littlefield’s Yard

Most of the ships launched on the Kennebunk River before 1840 were built at the Landing. By the time the river locks were constructed in 1849, Clement Littlefield, in company with George Emmons, had already built some of the largest vessels launched on the river.

Mr. Littlefield was making hay in a grass plot on Chase Hill Road, adjoining his home in 1887 ,when correspondent Jules Righter of the Biddeford Journal made his acquaintance. The reporter was hoping to learn about the early days in Littlefield’s shipyard.

“I came here when I was 16-years-old and went to work, learning my trade, at the Landing up there,” the retired shipbuilder said, pointing upriver. “When I was 21 years old I had acquired sufficient proficiency in my trade so that I was made foreman of the yard, where I was at the time. Shortly after that I bought this field down here and had a shipyard of my own. This was a splendid place, you see. We could haul our lumber over to this high ground and then chuck it right down over the bank to the craft we happened to be working on. Out there down by the railroad track, and up here on the bank, where you see that stone, I had a steam mill where we used to cut all of our lumber.”

“How did you get your lumber?” asked the correspondent.

“Our big sticks came in from the country. Many a time have I seen the road blocked with teams loaded with lumber. There used to be a great deal of rivalry between the different teams. Our planking and light timber used to come in from the South — Southern Pine and the like. It came by ship. We would unload the timber right into the water and then duck it so that it wouldn’t be carried away by the tide. You can see some of the dock piles down there to the right of the coal shed now,” Littlefield responded.

The reporter then inquired about the workmen hired by the various yards, asking, “You used to employ more men down here than at the Landing, didn’t you?”

“Oh yes;” was his response. “Up there we only had about 20 men at work on a vessel at a time. Down here we used to employ over 100. Sometimes we built two or three vessels at a time.”

When asked about the consumption of rum by his employees, Littlefield replied, “Up to the time when I came down here rum was a common thing for the men to have in their chests. But after I had been here at this yard for a few years, the temperance movement started and from that time on we didn’t have it.”

The Emmons & Littlefield Yard began operations in the early 1840s. Shipbuilders David and Abner Clark and George Christenson all learned their trade under the tutelage of Clement Littlefield before opening shipyards of their own. The year 1856 was a tough one for area shipbuilders. D&S Ward in Kennebunkport folded on Oct. 21, 1856, and the Emmons & Littlefield Yard was assigned the following day. Landing shipbuilder Nathaniel Lord Thompson, who had contracted the yard to build ships for him since 1854, purchased what was left of the failed business in 1858 and sold part of the property to the Clark brothers.

As master carpenter, Clement Littlefield built ships for N.L. Thompson and for his son-in-law David Clark for many years after selling his business. He also took on construction work around the Kennebunks.

Andrew Walker wrote about one such project in his 1882 diary.

“During the past summer Charles Parsons has had a wharf 119 feet in length by 40 feet in width built at the head or mouth of the Mousam River, but a short distance from his sea-side cottage. The wharf was built by Clement Littlefield in 23 working days. In its erection he drove 75 piles and then planked it on the inside and filled in solid with about 4,000 loads of rock and earth. The beach in this vicinity was formerly called Hart’s Beach. Mr. Parsons has recently renamed it Parsons Beach and the new wharf, Parsons Wharf. Mr. Parsons thinks the wharf may be used as a landing for vessels laden with coal and as a shipping place, to which farmers may haul wood and lumber which they wish to send to other places.”

Clement Littlefield and his wife, Mary Thompson, raised an extended, multi-generational shipbuilding family at their home in Lower Village and occasionally housed employees of the Emmons & Littlefield Shipyard. According to a new sign at the corner of Chase Hill Road and Western Avenue, that home is soon to become “The Shops at the Grand.” No assurances can be offered by the developer that any of the original structure will survive the renovations as the building is in pretty rough shape. Its historical significance should be acknowledged before the circa 1808 house becomes a memory.

Kennebunkport mob was judge and jury

Tar & Feather Justice
Tar & Feather Justice

Ethical, virtuous, honorable; all are generally accepted synonyms for the word moral, but when self-appointed moral authority mutates into mob mentality, as it did in Kennebunkport on the night of June 28, 1900, definitions get murky.

Barber Effel Sidelinger came to Kennebunkport alone in 1898. The widow Abbie Brown rented him a room in her home — now the Captain Fairfield Inn on Pleasant Street — and the barber shop in the Brown Block, next door to the shop where she and her “spinster” daughter Carrie worked every day.

Sidelinger was not well liked in Kennebunkport. He drank too much and he spoke his mind rather more freely than did most God-fearing Kennebunkporters. When he started walking the single, 30-year-old Carrie Brown home from work, tongues started wagging.

Constable Lemuel Brooks repeatedly warned Sidelinger to “leave town or else,” but he was repeatedly ignored. The most respectable businessmen in town decided something needed to be done as an “example to all immoral people.” A reporter for the Biddeford Weekly Journal was apparently apprised of the plan, because he was on the job in Kennebunkport when the dirty deed went down.

Effel Sidelinger was “caught” lurking around Miss Brown’s home that evening, never mind that it was actually his home, too. He was dragged down into the middle of what is today called Ocean Avenue. Meanwhile, someone was sent to the South Congregational Church to ring the town bell.

As if they knew what was up, at the sound of the bell, nearly a hundred of Sidelinger’s neighbors gathered in front of Ham Littlefield’s house to watch the barber get what was coming to him. There, a fire was being stoked. Balanced over it sat a kettle of tar just then reaching the optimal sticky softness necessary to make feathers stick to human flesh. Sidelinger was stripped of all his clothing except for his shirt.

“One of the men put his hand into the bag of feathers and announced he was ready to put them on as soon as the tar was warm enough,” wrote the Biddeford reporter in an almost exuberant style. “‘I’m ready,’ shouted the man with the tar. ‘Pull off his shirt so we can plaster it all over him.'”

“‘Don’t leave a dry spot on him,'” shouted someone else in the crowd.”

Sidelinger promised to never again give them cause to disapprove of his private life, but the sound of his cries was drowned out by the jeering mob. Someone called for the pole to ride him on. When Sidelinger saw the men start from the fire with the pail of tar he gave a tremendous jump and got away from the two men holding him, but not before the tar man had a chance to lunge at him, applying hot tar to his shirt.

He ran for his life, across the bridge to Lower Village Kennebunk. It wasn’t until he collapsed at Constable Shuffleberg’s door that he became aware of serious injury to his knee. Doctors Prescott and Langdon were called to attend him. They estimated the barber would be unable to walk for at least eight weeks.

Within a few days, Sidelinger had filed suit against five prominent Kennebunkport men for instigating the attempted tar and feathering: the chairman of the Board of Selectmen; a well-known, civic-minded artist; a canoe builder; a grocer; and a blacksmith. Each time the case was to come before an Alfred Judge, some technicality or other delayed the hearing.

Twice, Constable Brooks arrested Sidelinger for public intoxication in an effort to impeach his character before the hearing, but twice he was released when no evidence of intoxication could be found. The barber filed suit for false arrest, but again, there was no room on the docket to hear the case.

Three months after the attempted tar and feathering, Effel Sidelinger and Carrie Brown were arrested and jailed for adultery. Sidelinger’s wife, with whom he had not lived for years, had been found and enticed to testify against the couple. There were no delays in the proceedings and the salacious testimony was the Biddeford Journal reporter’s dream come true.

The four neighbor ladies who testified had been together at a house across the way from the Brown house on the evening of June 19, 1900. They happened to be looking in that direction and reportedly could see Sidelinger and the attractive Miss Brown in a bedchamber together. She moved about, scantily clad, and he undressed near the window just before the light was turned out. In another instance, one of the ladies just happened to be walking very near the Brown house late at night. She heard the accused conversing just before the squeaking of bed springs offended her auditory sensibilities.

One of the neighbor ladies sent her young son up an apple tree to obtain a better view of the upstairs bedchamber. What the boy subsequently witnessed made quite an impression on him because he had no trouble recalling every vivid detail for the court and the Biddeford Journal reporter.

The Jury quickly returned a verdict of guilty against Effel Sidelinger and Carrie Brown. The case against the Kennebunkport businessmen was again delayed. Abbie Brown paid surety for both defendants while they awaited sentencing, and when Carrie Brown and Sidelinger slipped out of town in the middle of the night, they were not pursued. Their departure had been the end game all along.


The sunken treasure of the Kennebunk brig Columbia

Brig Columbia and her treasure sank in fifteen minutes
Brig Columbia and her treasure sank in fifteen minutes

United States Congress had little choice but to pass a May 15, 1820 bill authorizing construction of a wooden pier on the western side of the mouth of the Kennebunk River. At least two local trading vessels had met their end trying to navigate the dangerous harbor entrance during the two preceding years. According to Shipping News, both were very familiar with its hazards.

 A sandbar outside the mouth of the river was only two to three feet deep at low water. Navigation guides instructed sailors to anchor between the Fishing Rocks and the mouth of the river, to await high tide. Larger trading vessels were forced to load and unload part of their cargo outside the sandbar.

The 139 ton brig Merchant, Captain Emery, had been built way upriver by Kennebunk shipbuilder, Nathaniel Gilpatrick. She was launched October 13, 1804 and after a West Indies trading career, was cast away on the Kennebunk Bar upon her return from Havana, Cuba at the beginning of April 1820. All her cargo, sails and rigging were reportedly saved.

The 160 ton Brig Columbia, launched upriver just a week after the Merchant, was owned by Joseph Moody, Richard Gilpatrick and Jeremiah Paul. Like the Merchant, she was engaged in West Indies trade with Cuba and Porto Rico.

It was reported in the Daily Advertiser that on her first voyage in January of 1805, the Columbia was boarded and robbed. “Captain Mason in the brig Columbia, was brought to by a privateer schooner under English colors,” read the headline.

The privateer captain ordered Benjamin Mason to come aboard with some of his crew but most of his men being sick, he was unable to comply. Mason was physically forced aboard the privateer by her captain, leaving the Columbia at the mercy of the privateer crew.

The English flag on the raider was immediately pulled down and replaced by Spanish colors. All the Columbia’s fresh supplies, extra canvas, spun yarn and tools were stolen. After being held for two hours and “much abused,” Capt Mason and his sick crew were released and allowed to sail away in the brig Columbia.

An 1807 foreign trade embargo and the War of 1812 crippled shipping in the District of Kennebunk. Local vessels were stored upriver to keep them out of enemy hands and a fort was built on Kennebunk Point to protect the river.

Local businessmen needed loans to endure the financial challenge and protect their shipping investments. The Kennebunk Bank was built in Arundel. Joseph Moody, principal owner of the brig Columbia, was elected President of the institution. National banking regulations requiring that capital be backed by specie (gold or silver) were relaxed during the war but once peace was restored the regulations were enforced. The Kennebunk Bank was forced to reduce its capital by $20,000 and to rent the upstairs of the bank building – now the Louis T. Grave Memorial Library -to the U. S. Government as a Customs House. The Kennebunk bank was repeatedly embarrassed, not having specie sufficient to cover the money it had printed.

On November 17, 1818, the brig Columbia, owned by bank President, Joseph Moody, returned to Kennebunk 28 days from Ponce, Porto Rico with a cargo of molasses, sugar, lignumvitae, and hides. She also had over $1000 specie aboard, likely in the form of gold and silver coins. Captain Lord anchored her outside the Kennebunk sandbar to await the tide and went ashore. It was reported in the Essex Register that Lord returned with one of the owners, a pilot, and some additional hands to get the vessel into the River.

“In beating into port, to windward of the Fishing Rocks, the wind took her aback, and not having room to wear, she struck on one of the rocks, but immediately floated off – no danger was apprehended, but shortly after a Spanish passenger, who was confined to the cabin by sickness, came running on deck and informed that the vessel was half full of water – the people had just enough time to take to the boats losing all their clothes etc. before she sunk, leaving only the ends of her topgallant masts out of water.”

Captain Lord managed to save one small bag of coins but many newspapers reported that up to $1,000 in specie went down with the brig Columbia. Joseph Moody sold what he could salvage from the wreck the following February and collected $5,000 insurance money but it was not reported if the sunken treasure was ever recovered.

Several times in the past 70 years an old wreck has been briefly uncovered at the eastern end of Gooch’s beach. The Brick Store Museum owns an aerial photograph of it taken after a September 1978 storm. It could be the Merchant or the Columbia but like most shipwrecks of the Kennebunks, its identity cannot be verified without archaeological investigation.