The lobstering industry did not become organized in Maine until around 1830. Cape Porpoise lobsters were first shipped out of state in the 1840s. After just a few decades, state laws designed to protect the quickly diminishing lobster population on the Maine coast exacerbated acrimony between Cape Porpoise neighbors.
The invention of the well-smack, a boat with a tank built into the hull through which salt water could flow, made it possible to keep lobsters alive long enough to transport them from the Maine coast to Boston and New York. New Haven, Conn. entrepreneur, Captain Chapell, sailed his 50-ton smack “Hulda B. Hall” back and forth between Cape Porpoise and Boston Harbor in the early 1840s. According to U.S. Fisheries Commission reports, Chapell made about 15 trips each season and was supplied by four Cape Porpoise fishermen using dories and hoop nets.
The Bangor Daily Whig reported that Stephen Hutchins and Edmund Ridlon had been the only Cape Porpoise men engaged in the lobster business during the 1850s and that between them they had managed 20 pots. Lobsters were very plentiful then and on average much larger than the ones caught today. The claw of a 51-pound Cape Porpoise lobster was donated to the Essex Institute in 1868. Fifty-pound lobsters were already an oddity, but specimens weighing 20 to 30 pounds were commonplace.
After the Civil War the lobster business exploded. Traps much like the ones in use today were tied together into bunches of 50 that could be worked by one man. Resort hotels and big city dealers bought all the large lobsters they could get their hands on and the canneries in Eastport paid good money for lobsters weighing as little as ¾ pound.
In 1877 Cape Porpoise fishermen were working 1,100 traps, shipbuilder Charles Ward was manufacturing lobster pots on the side, and Langsford had shipped 40,000 lobsters from Cape Porpoise to Boston’s Lewis Wharf in one season. The same kind of growth was occurring in the industry all along the coast of New England to the extent that the lobster population started to dwindle.
Conservation laws were passed restricting the sale of lobsters under a certain length, but they were not easily enforced. Many families relied on lobster income and it was getting harder and harder to find lobsters of any size. To make non-compliance even more enticing, each state had different rules. If a short Maine lobster could be secreted out of New England it brought a good price.
On Christmas Day 1894, a headline in the Boston Globe announced “A lobster war is going on at Cape Porpoise.” The Globe’s Biddeford correspondent reported, “Since the recent big seizure of short lobsters there by a Saco officer, Daniel Wagner has been openly accused of being a spy.” Wagner’s boat was sunk and the argument escalated into a physical altercation in Cape Porpoise square. Austin L. Sinnett was arrested for trying to ship 500 short lobsters out of Kennebunk Depot in an unmarked barrel and for assaulting Daniel Wagner.
The court case was covered in the Biddeford Journal. On Dec. 15, Wagner was passing the post office on his way home from Pinkham’s Store. Sinnett came out of the post office, saw the man he believed had turned him in to authorities, and sarcastically inquired if Wagner had been “up to Saco studying the law?” Someone threw a punch. Someone else punched back and the two men ended up on the ground. Wagner, who had a good 25 years on Austin Sinnett, bore the brunt of the beating. Deputy Sheriff Small testified in court that when he arrested Austin and was transporting him to the Saco jail, the young man was contrite. ” I’m a damn fool; I’m just like my father; he’s got an awful temper and I’m just like him,” admitted the 25-year-old lobsterman.
George Wakefield, the lighthouse keeper and Austin’s future father in-law, testified that Wagner had told him he planned to lick Sinnett first chance he got, but the judge made an example of Austin and fined him $10 for the fistfight and $50 for shipping short lobsters.
The defendant’s lawyer appealed to the Supreme Court and the assault charge was dismissed, but his short lobster fine was upheld. Two months after Austin’s trial the state of Maine declared it illegal to possess any lobster shorter than 10 ½ inches and appointed an army of wardens to enforce the new law. The conservation measures clearly worked. Today’s lobstermen willingly protect the future of their industry.