Category Archives: 2010 Old News Column

LAUNCH! Shipwrecks of the Kennebunks

shipwrecks Launch hi

A LAUNCH! Event presented by Kennebunkport Conservation Trust at the Clement Clark Boathouse adjacent to the site of the Old Perkins Grist Mill on Mill Lane in Kennebunkport. An Illustrated Lecture: Barbara Barwise and Sharon Cummins will share Kennebunk River Maritime History, photographs and details of local shipwrecks from 1770 to 1921. The Wandby near Walker’s Point, The Governor Robie at Timber Island, The Enpress near St. Ann’s, The Horace and The Industry at Kennebunk Beach, The limer, Carrie G. Crosby at Parson’s Beach, The Mildred V. Nunan at Turbat’s Creek – to name just a few. The Clement Clark’s Boathouse where Booth Tarkington’s 45 foot speedboat, ‘Zantre’, built by local boat builder Clement L. Clark was launched in June of 1930. The Boathouse is just a short walk from Dock Square and the Municipal Parking Lot.  Donations are requested to help save the Town House School. Please park at the Municipal Parking Lot on North Street, Kennebunkport.


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S.O.S.!!! The Save Our School Committee is making great progress saving Kennebunkport’s Town House School! An independent nonprofit corporation has been formed (Friends of Town House School), more than $100,000.00 has been raised and donations of services from local tradesmen have been overwhelming. The Committee needs all the help they can get. PLEASE save the date for at least one of these programs at THE NONANTUM RESORT this Fall.

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.

History of the Biddeford Pool Life-saving Station

Nautical Samaritans
Nautical Samaritans

Surfmen at Fletcher’s Neck Life-saving station at Biddeford Pool protected our coastline for 100 years. They rescued countless men and women from shipwrecks, searched for fishermen who hadn’t returned from their days work and brought drunken beach wanderers home to their wives. During the days of early aviation, the patrolmen even announced the comings and goings of pioneer pilots.

There had been a make-shift volunteer life-saving system since the late 1700s but in 1872, Mainer, Sumner I. Kimball was appointed by President Grant to head up the Revenue Marine Bureau of the U. S. Treasury Department. Kimball was charged with organizing and standardizing the service that would eventually evolve into the United States Coast Guard. He established life-saving stations along the coast manned with physically robust local fishermen, already familiar with the dangerous rock formations nearby.

Kimball was adamant that keeper and crew appointments should not be based on political considerations. During his long career, he frequently fought Congress to keep it that way. Much to the chagrin of a very vocal Biddeford Pool station keeper, Congress eventually won out and lifesavers were hired from a list of eligible applicants, without regard to their familiarity with local hazards.

The four original life-saving stations in Maine were established at points along our coast that were deemed most dangerous to sailing vessels; West Quoddy Head, Cross Island, Crumple Island and Biddeford Pool. Wood-frame boathouses were erected and life-saving service commenced on December 1, 1874. Each station contained a large downstairs room for a life-boat and all the necessary implements and paraphernalia. Behind it was a general cooking and off-duty room. Sleeping quarters for the Keeper and surfmen were on the second floor.

Keepers were required by law to record live-saving business in a logbook, including the direction and force of the wind every day at sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight. Once a week, the log was sent to Washington. Surfmen training was strictly regulated. Putting a lifeboat in over the breakers from the beach required great skill and timing. The men practiced all day every day, performing standardized live-saving equipment drills. At night, no matter the weather, two men continuously patrolled the coast on foot, one going right from the station and the other, left.  When a distressed vessel was spotted, wheel-mounted lifeboats weighing approximately 1,000 lbs were pulled to the shore nearest the wreck and rowed out to the rescue, sometimes over a fearsome sea.

On average, two ships were wrecked near Biddeford Pool every year. Some years, when the weather was particularly harsh, there were many more. Once the Life-saving service was established, shipwreck survival rates improved dramatically. Fletcher’s Neck surfman saved the lives of hundreds of stranded men and women over the years. They were not, however, able to save the crew of one Canadian schooner that went ashore at Beach Island in a terrible 1884 storm. The following year, the lime schooner Silver Spray of Rockland caught fire near Biddeford Pool. The over-worked employees of the Fletcher’s Neck life-saving station were accused of negligence. The vessel was a total loss but her captain testified that the Biddeford Pool men performed their duty admirably. Fortunately, a life-saving station was established at Cape Elizabeth, ME in 1888, to lighten their load. In 1904, Keeper, L. C. Totman told a reporter for the Daily Boston Globe that December 5, 1900 was as tough a night as he ever experienced in his live-saving career. That night three crews of twelve men were taken from stranded vessels at the Pool.

Larger, more modern accommodations were built next to the boathouse at Fletcher’s Neck in 1904, but the surfmen endured a very difficult winter, none-the-less. One of the men was washed overboard during a drill and was only saved by holding on to a piece of floating ice. The lifesavers all suffered the grippe that year and their mascot Fido, a handsome King Charles spaniel, had to fill in on patrol.

The Coast Guard maintained the Fletcher’s Neck station until 1973. After serving as a meeting space for York County Counseling Services the buildings were finally converted for use as a private home in 1999.

In spite of the fact that the heroic Biddeford Pool surfmen, who risked their lives for the safety of others, were initially paid only $40 a month, there was never a shortage of local men willing to perform this valiant service.

Hannah’s Bloody Wedding in Wells

Wedding Party - War Party
Wedding Party – War Party

Queen Anne’s war, (1703-1713) yet another territorial conflict between European monarchies, was played out in the colonies as a battle between pawns. The Indians fought for the French territorial interests. The colonists living on the Maine frontier fought to protect their property and their lives. On September 18, 1712, Captain John Wheelwright’s Garrison at Wells was the scene of a bloody post-nuptial ambush.

Eighteen year old Hannah, daughter of Captain John Wheelwright, was betrothed to Elisha Plaisted of Portsmouth, New Hampshire at a time when reverie and relaxation of vigilance, was ill-advised. Just two months earlier Joseph Taylor had been killed outside the Wells garrison and Capt. Wheelwright’s slave Sambo had been temporarily abducted. Evidence of several other large war parties had been observed in the woods of southern Maine, since. But live goes on, even in a time of war.

Extravagant festivities were planned to celebrate the marital union inside the Wells stockade. The bridegroom arrived from Portsmouth with a large number of friends and relatives, many of whom were colonial soldiers. Great “merry-making” ensued while the marriage was consummated, as was the colonial custom. Several historians have alluded to the liquid nature of the merry-making enjoyed that night.

At 8 o’clock the following morning Sergeant Daniel Tucker, Joshua Downing and Isaac Cole stumbled outside the garrison to find their missing horses. They were ambushed by an Indian war party waiting at the edge of the woods. Downing and Cole were killed. A seriously wounded Sergeant Tucker was captured and carried off.

At the sound of gunfire, Capt Lane, Capt Robinson, Capt Heard, Elisha Plaisted, Roger Plaisted, Phillip Hubbard and Joseph Curtis, all preparing to leave for Portsmouth, jumped on their horses and rode toward the sound. Just as they reached the edge of the woods their horses were shot from under them. Capt Robinson was killed and Elisha Plaisted, Hannah’s groom, was apprehended. A dozen other men were sent out on foot in a different direction to intercept the war party but seeing the fate of the mounted soldiers they quickly retreated to Wheelwright’s garrison.

Capt Lane and Captain Harmon rallied a company of 70 men and again fought the enemy at the edge of the woods with but little success. Lieutenant Banks of York was finally appointed to take a white flag of truce into the woods. There he met with 6 Indians that called themselves Captains.  Banks recognized two of the warriors to be Bomazeen and Capt Nathaniel and a third he had met at Casco Bay during an earlier prisoner exchange. The Indian who captured the bridegroom, Banks reported, was a Penobscot man.

Elisha Plaisted was the son of a wealthy Portsmouth merchant and his captors knew it. He would command a handsome ransom. A letter written by Elisha to his father and outlining the ransom demands was sent back to the garrison with Lt. Banks. In it, Elisha wrote that he was being held by a war party numbering 200, consisting mostly of Canadian Indians. His father was to meet Captain Nathaniel at Richmond Island within 5 days time. He was to bring supplies valuing 50 pounds ransom for Plaisted and 30 pounds for Sergeant Tucker’s return. The supplies demanded were to be “in good goods, as broadcloth and some provisions, some tobacco pipes, pomistone, stockings and a little of all things.” The letter also warned “If you do not come in five days you will not see me, for Captain Nathaniel, the Indian, will not stay no longer, for the Canada Indian is not willing to sell me.”

A shallop was sent immediately to Richmond Island to complete the exchange but as of September 25 there was still no word at Wells. Worries grew that the vessel was lost at sea or worse, that they had been duped. The Indians had been tracked southwesterly and had, on September 21, harassed garrisons at Oyster River. Another vessel was dispatched for Richmond Island on September 26th but by then the exchange had already taken place as promised.

Plaisted and Tucker were returned to their families.  A disabled Daniel Tucker, whose injuries never fully healed, received a pension of 20 pounds, less than the ransom paid for his return. Elisha and Hannah Plaisted lived out privileged lives in Portsmouth.

These events were described by Judge Edward E. Bourne in his excellent 1875 History of Wells and Kennebunk. Letters written in 1712 by Capt. Wheelwright, Governor Joseph Dudley and others involved were published in the Documentary History of Maine in 1907, long after Bourne had completed his research. These and accounts published in the 1712 Boston News-Letter provide reliable details that were not available to Judge Bourne.

York Maine Tea Party of 1774

Tea tax de jour - Avoidance de facto
Tea tax de jour – Avoidance de facto

American Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence were secret societies whose function was to muster public resistance to British taxation on the American Colonies. They burned houses and ships, caused bodily injury to those with whom they disagreed and generally incited mob rule in the name of their cause. The theatrical Boston Tea Party, at which members masqueraded as Mohawk Indians to destroy half a million pounds of tea, earned them popular support. The Tea Party in York Maine was orchestrated in the face of mounting pressure, to publically demonstrate the town’s patriotism.

East India Company, being close to bankruptcy and possessing a tremendous tea inventory, approached the British Parliament for help. In the Tea Act of 1773, the East India Company was granted an exemption from the tea tax that colonial American merchants were required to pay. They were also granted the right to bypass those colonial merchants and sell exclusively through Company sanctioned agents, thereby securing a monopoly on colonial tea trade. Some of the wealthiest American merchants, who also happened to be members of secret societies opposing taxation without representation, made a pact to boycott English tea. The general public, meanwhile, was enjoying the lowest tea prices they had seen in a long time.

A few months after the 1773 Boston Tea Party, Sons of Liberty member John Adams expressed concern in a letter to his wife about lukewarm support for the movement in York Maine. “There is, in this town and county,” he wrote, “a laodiceanism that I have not found in any other place. I find more persons here who call the destruction of the tea mischief and wickedness than anywhere else.”

He blamed Judge Jonathan Sayward, a wealthy York merchant and coastwise trader, who, at a dinner party in York Harbor in June of 1774, had good-naturedly warned Adams not to pursue a reactionary course without understanding the consequences. The two men were seated together at the table and Adams could see the subtle, effectual sway the eloquent Sayward had over his fellow diners from York.

As the months of 1774 passed, so too did the congenial acceptance of open Loyalist rhetoric. The media had taken sides. Masterful coverage ultimately convinced even the people of York that the plight of the wealthy American merchant was also their own. As Benjamin Franklin so astutely pointed out at the time, “the press not only can strike while the iron is hot, but it can heat it by continually striking.” No longer was it socially acceptable to sit amongst your peers and disagree with the “patriotic” point of view.

The first Continental Congress assembled from September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774 in an attempt to restore harmony between the colonies and the mother country. Sons of Liberty, John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams, who had been a key player in the Boston Tea Party, were in attendance. The result was an official compact to boycott all British goods effective Dec 1, 1774. But a de facto embargo was already being enforced by the less and less secret societies.

On September 15, 1774 one of Jonathan Sayward’s many vessels, the Cynthia, sailed from Newfoundland into York Harbor with the Judges nephew, James Donnell at the helm. The sloop was anchored off Keating’s Wharf for several days before it was discovered that her cargo included 150 pounds of English tea. As an approved agent of the East India Company, Sayward had not broken any laws or even any official embargos but the local Sons of Liberty regarded his bold defiance as a challenge to their de facto decree.

At an impromptu Town Meeting conducted on September 23, 1774, a committee was organized to seize Sayward’s tea. Sloop Cynthia was boarded and despite the protests of Captain Donnell, the offending commodity was forcibly confiscated. Judge Sayward’s commercial competitor in York, Captain Edward Grow, offered the use of his storehouse on the riverfront below Sewall’s bridge, for safe keeping of the tea “until further discovery could be made.”

The New-Hampshire Gazette covered events unfolding in York. “A Number of Pickwacket Indians came into the town and broke open the store and carried it [the tea] off; which has not been heard of since.”

The identity of the “Pickwacket” braves who carried away Sayward’s tea was never revealed. Press coverage of the event ended there. For all the public knew the tea was never seen again. But Jonathan Sayward recorded a different ending to the story in his diary. Once the dramatic event had delivered its desired message about York’s patriotism, the tea was quietly returned. It seems the frugal Mainers, though wishing to publicly declare their support of the embargo, were not about to destroy perfectly drinkable tea. Heroes and villains are fashioned after the fact, depending on who wins the war.

Town House Junction Haunted in 1921

A Mysterious Visitation
A Mysterious Visitation

Arthur Harriman was just settling in for his nightshift at the Town House Junction car barn one autumn night in 1921, when a blood-curdling scream jolted him to his feet. His wife Elizabeth had begged him not to work nights. Now the sound of her terror set him running as fast as he could to the house they shared across the street, midway between the Farmers Club and Town Hall in North Kennebunkport.

For about a year, the Harriman family had rented the lead color house with yellow trim from Benjamin Drown. Part of the building that is now known as Wink’s Place had been moved to that location in 1902 to make way for Atlantic Shoreline Trolley business. Things seemed perfectly normal until mid-August when Arthur took the night watchman’s position for the Railway Company. Every night that Arthur had to work, Mrs. Harriman complained of hearing a rhythmic rap-rap-rapping in the walls of the bedchamber she shared with her fourteen year old daughter Florence. Arthur feared his wife had become prone to hysterics. Florence, on the other hand, had never seemed more serene.

But on this September night, when Arthur opened the door, it looked as if a cyclone had torn through his house; curtains on a closed window were flapping, two chairs were upset, a large piece of plaster had fallen from the wall, a washstand had been toppled and all the articles on it were scattered about the room. Arthur’s co-workers, Al Potter and Everett Higgins, caught up with him just in time to see the rug on the floor wriggle and squirm as if some creature was trapped beneath it. The mistress of the house was inconsolable. Her daughter was seemingly unimpressed by the extraordinary events of the evening.

The men were convinced that some animal had been trapped in the walls and had escaped when the plaster fell.  Just then the rap-rap-rapping resumed and Harriman had to stop an unnerved Mr. Higgins from striking his wall with an ax. Arthur set up beds for his wife and daughter in a disabled trolley car in the barn but no sooner had they snuggled in, that the rap-rap-rapping commenced on the trolley car walls. Harriman brought his family into the rotary room for a few hours but nobody slept a wink that night.

The next morning Elizabeth Harriman took her daughter to stay with her sister, Mrs. Everett Rowe, who lived on Brown Street in Kennebunk, and Arthur notified the railway that for the sake of his wife’s sanity, he would have to resign his position as night watchman.

That night, while Florence was lying in bed at her aunt’s house, her nightgown was suddenly ripped from her body and large chunks of her mattress were torn out, as if by a steel claw. The little girl was taken into another room and a skeptical Mr. Mark Broadbent of Lowell, who was visiting the Rowes, volunteered to sleep in her room to watch over her. As he put his head down on the pillow it was whisked from under his head and the bed sheet was torn to pieces by some unseen force. Mr. Broadbent fled the room. Florence calmly followed her “protector” into the kitchen where her mother and aunt were huddled in fear. The girl gently patted her aunt’s shoulder as if to console her and the woman’s apron ripped in pieces, even though nothing but Florence’s gentle caress had come anywhere near her. Minutes after the child was made comfortable on the living room sofa and covered for warmth by an adult overcoat, the lining of the coat was shredded.

The following day, word was received that another of Mrs. Harriman’s sisters who had lived in Rochester, NH, passed away unexpectedly at midnight, the very same hour that Mrs. Rowe’s Kennebunk home had been so disrupted.

Somehow, a reporter for the Biddeford Journal got word of the mysterious events in the Kennebunks and after he published his first report on September 16, 1921, reporters came from as far away as and Boston and New York to get the scoop. A medium from Portland, whose name was not revealed, spoke to the girl for several hours and admitted to being completely baffled by the case. Florence’s demeanor had been perfectly normal since the death of her aunt but a spooked Mrs. Rowe insisted the Harrimans moved back to Town House Junction after the funeral. It was concluded that the haunting had been a forewarning of the woman’s untimely death.

All was quiet for a few weeks but eventually the strange visitor returned to the Harriman house in North Kennebunkport and continued to visit until late November. It was reported in the Biddeford Journal that local celebrities had taken an interest. Authors, Margaret Deland and Booth Tarkington each interviewed Arthur Harriman many times. Perhaps coincidentally, Tarkington published his one-act play, The Ghost Story, the following year.

“Frank Parsons, a member of the prominent New York family of that name which spends a good part of the year at Parson’s Beach,” wrote the correspondent from Biddeford, “is quietly investigating and trying to satisfy himself that the strange happenings at the Harriman home are due to natural causes.” A government specialist in Post Traumatic Stress or Veteran’s Shell Shock as it was called after World War I, stepped forward and offered to help cure Florence, whom he was convinced was suffering from the disorder.

When a reporter from the Lewiston Journal knocked on the Harriman’s door a cheerful Arthur let him in. He led him into the kitchen where young Florence was playing with her new Scotch Collie puppy. Arthur hemmed and hawed for a few minutes before informing the reporter that he would require a $5 stipend to tell his story. When the reporter objected he was shown the door but not before he was indignantly informed that the New York and Boston papers had happily paid $25. The Lewiston reporter wrote a rather sarcastic account of his visit to the Kennebunks and soon after, the haunting stopped without further explanation.