Many times during the last 114 years the landmark pier at Old Orchard Beach has succumbed to the forces of nature. Each time it was repaired or rebuilt against significant odds. In one violent spring storm in 1909, six men spent 2 1/2 days marooned at the end of the pier. For a while it looked like they might meet their own end 1/3 of a mile from shore.
The pier was first built in 1898 by the Berlin Bridge Company of East Berlin, CT. At 25 feet wide by 1770 feet long, the original steel structure was the longest ocean pier in the world. Dedication ceremonies lasted from Saturday July 2, 1898, when ex-mayor Bradbury gave a speech, through the 4th of July when the band first played in the 75×125 foot cafe and dance hall casino pavilion at the end of the pier.
The first summer season was wildly profitable for the Old Orchard Pier Company. In an interview in the Boston Daily Globe dated Dec. 4, 1898, representatives gloated that contrary to many gloomy predictions, the framework of the pier was not bothered in the least by rough weather. “If Sunday’s storm could do no damage no other is likely to.” They had to eat their words later that night when 150 feet of the 5 month old pier and the enormous pavilion at its end were carried away by a storm. The wreckage came ashore on the beach a short distance from the pier. Damage was repaired and a new casino pavilion was open for business by the end of the following July.
The 1898 incident was the first of many. Lightning, fire and storms have battered several pier structures over the years and continue to do so. Probably the most dramatic reconstruction attempt took place during the spring of 1909.
On March 26, 1909, 300 feet of pier from the middle of its 1770 span was washed away leaving the casino connected to the shore by nothing but a lone electrical wire. One of the principal pier owners, Fred Goodwin, assured the public that work to repair the pier would begin immediately but that was easier said than done. The pier had been shortened by the storm and what was left of the casino would need to be moved nearly 1000 feet closer to shore.
Work was slow to start due to unpredictable weather. According to a report in the Portsmouth Herald, six men were sent in a boat to the end of the pier on the morning of April 30th to prepare for the removal of the casino. Among the workmen were John Freeman and Edward Charland of Old Orchard and John Foss, John Hayes, James Farley and Charles Watson of Biddeford.
Soon after they reached the end of the pier the sky thickened and the sea started churning. The workmen watched helplessly as their tender broke loose and was carried away on a wave. Several rescue parties were formed but each turned back before reaching the castaways.
It was reported in the New York Times that the next day the workmen were still “marooned with no prospect of relief until the tempest subsides.” They hadn’t had food or water for 24 hours. Finally someone noticed the electrical wire still connecting the two parts of the pier. Cans were filled with food and water, sealed up and attached to the wire. When the men at the casino got the signal they pulled the cans to their desert island of steel and wood. This bought some time but rescue was still impossible. The men took shelter in the casino and tore up some of the floorboards for a fire while they waited for the weather to break.
By the next morning the storm had finally begun to subside. More than 100 people gathered on the beach. Fletcher’s Neck life-saving station, seven miles across the bay, was wired to send a lifeboat over. Before the crew got started, however, a “hearty French Canadian boatman, Eugene Bill, dragged his dory down to the water’s edge, and shoving out, grabbed a single oar to guide her -canoe fashion-through ten foot waves.”
The casino loomed 20 feet above the surface of the water. Bill had a well-constructed rope ladder with him, which he was able to toss to one of the men on the pier. Bill struggled to steady the boat for a second while the first man quickly slid down the rope and tumbled into the dory. Each time he took a man off the boatman was obliged to pull away from the pier and then cautiously return. “The waves would allow him to remain but a second else they had dashed his little dory to pieces against the iron pilings of the pier,” wrote the Times reporter.
In this way, Eugene Bill rescued three of the men and then went back out a second time to rescue those remaining at the casino. Thanks to him, all six of the workmen were landed safe and sound after being stranded for 60 hours 1/3 of a mile out to sea.
The steel pier was replaced by a shorter wooden one in 1911. That pier sustained severe damage in several storms of the early 1930s. A stone barge severed the pier during another storm. In 1969, the shore end of the pier was heavily damaged by a fire that also burned Noah’s Ark funhouse, the coal mine ride, the slide and hand-carved merry-go-round. The casino section was torn down in 1970 after damage caused by a storm. The pier was damaged again in 1972 and it was washed away in February of 1978. The present 475 foot pier was built in 1980.
Charles A. Lindbergh completed the first solo transatlantic flight on May 21, 1927. The handsome 25 year-old air mail pilot and his single engine monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis, became world-famous, overnight. Along with fame came public adoration and the omnipresent paparazzi… even in remote Maine waters.
“Lindy” – as the press had nicknamed him- was already overwhelmed by all the attention when he flew to Maine two months after his record-breaking flight. A man had been killed by an unruly crowd during his public appearance on the Boston Common, July 22, 1927. The tragedy was fresh in his mind as thousands gathered to see him land his famous monoplane at Scarborough Airport. Pea-soup fog obscured the runway for two days and the pilot was finally forced to land at the less secure Old Orchard Beach airstrip. After dutifully fulfilling several promotional obligations to massive crowds in Maine, the pilot made his way back to his plane at Old Orchard Beach. There he found another mob pressing up against the Spirit of St. Louis as he tried to take off.
When Lindy asked Ann Morrow to marry him in 1929 the whole world speculated about the details of their nuptial plans. Rumor had it that the Lindbergh wedding would take place in late June at the Morrow summer cottage in North Haven, Maine. One Monday afternoon in late May, a small group of family and friends were invited to attend a charity event hosted by the bride’s mother at her Englewood, NJ home. After lunch, they were surprised to discover that they were all guests at a wedding. The understated affair was over in a flash. Ann wore a simple dress and carried a handful of larkspur that the groom had picked from his in-law’s backyard.
By the time the press got wind of the secret marriage the couple had slipped away on a 38-foot honeymoon yacht Lindy had purchased a week earlier. The owner of Elco Boatworks in Bayonne, NJ, resisted the free publicity as long as his professional ambitions would allow but finally gave reporters a very detailed description of the aviator’s new yacht, the “Mouette”.
The honeymooners were tracked from New London, Ct to Provincetown, MA by land, sea and air. In an effort to thwart positive identification the Lindberghs broke marine law by covering the name of the vessel with a piece of canvas. Newspapers all over the world carried a daily account of the little boat’s movements.
They were spotted off Isle of Shoals on June 6th by two New York press planes. The next day the Mouette tied up for gas and provisions at Hartley Philbrick’s fish wharf in York, Maine. Try as he might, Hartley could not engage Mr. Lindbergh in meaningful conversation. While they were loading supplies in relative silence, a 13 year old girl recognized Lindy and ran off to spread the word at the town’s high school graduation celebration. Within minutes, more than 100 people crowded onto Philbrick’s wharf to get a snapshot of the elusive aviator. Anne Lindbergh remained inside the cabin until the Mouette was safely offshore.
The boat put into Cape Porpoise Harbor and anchored very near Goat Island Light for the night. Melville Freeman wrote in his 1953 “History of Cape Porpoise” that residents of Cape Porpoise were unimpressed by Lindy’s visit and were completely discreet out of respect for his privacy. An article that first appeared in the Portsmouth Herald June 8, 1929, told a different story.
Captain Jim Anderson, keeper of the lighthouse, was offended that the little launch failed to answer his customary salute of three bells. He grabbed his powerful binoculars and was able to identify Lindy and Anne moving about the boat. Anderson called to his wife and children so that they might get a glimpse of the celebrities. The following morning, the lighthouse keeper revealed to a Portsmouth reporter that the honeymooners turned out their cabin light at 8:25 p.m.
Jack Seavey and John Martin rowed out to the Mouette under a cloak of darkness. They quietly made their way to the stern of the yacht and lifted the canvas that covered her name just as Lindbergh appeared on deck. Thinking quickly, the Kennebunkport boys claimed they were there to see if he needed assistance. After thanking them wryly for their kind offer, Lindy said if they wanted to help they could leave him alone. The boys left as requested but not before studying the woman silhouetted in the cabin door.
The Lindberghs left Cape Porpoise Harbor first thing the next morning and made their way up the coast to Cape Elizabeth, Pemaquid Point, Rockland, and Swan’s Island. Everywhere they went they were greeted with prying eyes.
On June 13th, the honeymoon cruiser was spotted offshore near Old Orchard Beach. The Linberghs witnessed the lift off of aviators, Jean Assolant, Rene LeFevre and Ameno Lotti on the first French transatlantic flight. The tail of the plane “Yellow Bird” dipped perceptibly as she became airborne. Lindbergh and the rest of the world would later discover that Arthur Schreiber, 22 year old son of a Portland fur salesman, had stowed away on the French plane and was not discovered until some time after takeoff.
Later that afternoon, the Mouette tied up at Cape Porpoise Pier for two hours to get provisions and fuel for the trip back to New York.
When the Lindbergh’s first born son was kidnapped and tragically murdered in 1932, the press mercilessly dissected the family’s every moment of grief, driving them to move to England. Lindy lost public favor for his vocal opposition to American involvement in WWII but he changed his views after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and flew many celebrated combat missions in the Pacific Theater.
World Champion wrestlers, Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko owned an old hotel called the Revere House, as well as 18 lucrative rental cottages at Old Orchard Beach during the first half of the 20th century. There, they conducted a training camp for professional wrestlers during the summer months. It was not unusual for tourists to see the massive athletes running on Surfside Beach in the morning before their daily workout at the Zbyszko private gymnasium.
When Stanislaus Cyganiewicz was a boy in Poland, his school chums nicknamed him “Zbyszko” after a fictional Polish knight known for superhuman bravery. He started wrestling at the age of 15, but being from a family of culture and refinement, Stan did not allow the sport to interrupt his education. By 1900 he had become fluent in a dozen languages and achieved degrees in both philosophy and law. But his remarkable physique was perfect for wrestling and before long he had devoted himself to Greco-Roman competitions.
In the meantime, his younger brother Wladek was pursuing his own law degree in Vienna. His godfather, the world famous piano virtuoso, Ignacy Paderewski, had taught him to play the piano and, as a boy, Wlad thought of little else. Though he was built like his brother he never intended to become a professional wrestler. As a young man, his best friends were opera singers and musicians. Wladek took his brother’s fictional surname and wrestled professionally in the United States just to bide his time during World War I. After an embarrassing defeat in 1915, he spent a summer training at Old Orchard Beach where he gained 40 pounds of muscle. Two years later, he purchased the first of nine lots at Surfside Beach and won the Boston version of the World Heavyweight Championship by defeating Ed “Strangler” Lewis.
Older brother Stanislous was held prisoner in Russia during the war. A competitor had told Russian authorities that Zbyszko was actually a spy pretending to be a professional wrestler. To gain his freedom, he was forced to beat one of Europe’s greatest wrestlers.
After the war, family friend Ignacy Paderewski became the prime minister of a newly independent Poland. Stanislaus Zbszko served as his right-hand man. When Paderewski stepped down as prime minister in December of 1919, Stanislous joined his brother in Maine and resumed his wrestling career. During the 1920s, he held the World Heavyweight Championship. With wrestling proceeds, he purchased The Revere House and additional cottage lots on Old Orchard Beach.
In 1921 Wladek was nearly undefeated on a wrestling tour of Cuba. One opponent he could not best was a 5-foot, 100-pound senorita named Amelia Diaz. She was so dainty and chic and beautiful that Wlad became obsessed with her. A fast and furious courtship culminated in a Cuban wedding. According to the manifest of the ship that delivered the newlyweds to New York, Amelia was 15 years old at the time. Her husband was 30.
Wladek took his baby-doll bride to Old Orchard. At first they appeared to be very happy. She was proud of her 6-foot, 240-pound strongman and he idolized her. When winter came, their neighbors began to suspect that the honeymoon was over. Wladek was rarely seen. When he was, he was doing the laundry and scrubbing the floors. One day a grocery boy saw the mighty Wladek Zbyszko wearing an apron and washing the dinner dishes while his tiny wife threatened him with a rolling pin.
The couple had been married for less than two years when Amelia’s mother arrived to take her back to Cuba. Wladek, the gentle giant, was granted a divorce on the grounds of cruel and abusive treatment by his much smaller wife.
Stanislous had his own girl troubles. In 1929, he filed suit against William Randolph Hearst and the New York American, claiming that the newspaper destroyed his wife Anna’s physical affection for him by printing his photograph beside one of a gorilla — as an argument for the theory of evolution. The caption read, “Stanislaus Zbyszko, the wrestler, not fundamentally different from the gorilla in physique.” Stan was awarded $25,000 by the court. Soon after, a Winnipeg music teacher successfully sued Stanislous for breach of promise to marry her. Stan had been married to his Polish wife Anna since 1917. Perhaps the music he made with the Winnipeg teacher was the real reason Anna lost interest in her husband.
Wlad and Stan lost most of their wrestling and real estate fortune during the Great Depression. In November of 1938, four of their Old Orchard Beach cottages burned in one night. The brothers Zbyszko retired to a pig farm near Savannah, Mo., where they trained amateur wrestlers in exchange for farm labor. Anna Zbyszko stayed behind to tend the remaining Old Orchard Beach rental cottages.