Category Archives: 2011 Old News Column

Engine No. 3666 plunges into the Piscataqua

The Piscataqua River claimed her victims

When the first teamster drove his horses over the newly-built Portsmouth Bridge in 1822 he could scarcely have imagined the horrible fate that would befall the last two men to try to navigate across the interstate span in 1939.

After the railroad built its adjoining bridge on the same superstructure in 1842 and until the Memorial Bridge opened in 1923, terrified teams of horses and screeching steam locomotives crossed the 1650-foot wooden Portsmouth Bridge side-by-side. Teamsters were required to pay for the dubious privilege.

The old bridge was closed to all but railroad traffic in 1923 and it was still being used by the Boston & Maine Railroad in 1936, when a committee consisting of residents from both Maine and New Hampshire agreed to build a new bridge – some 60 feet downstream, to address the growing traffic between Maine and New Hampshire. Construction of the new bridge progressed nicely through the summer of 1939 and the scheduled Spring 1940 completion target seemed well within reach.

On Sunday evening, Sept 10, 1939, local passenger train No. 2024 left North Berwick, Maine on schedule for Boston, Massachusetts. Only 12 passengers and a crew of five were onboard as engine # 3666 pulled very slowly onto the wobbly wooden bridge –suspended 40 feet above the raging Piscataqua River tides. A speed limit of 3 miles per hour had been imposed since the Norwegian Freighter, Lynghaug hit the bridge in 1937. Twenty pilings were torn away in the incident. Repairs were hurriedly made for $5,000 but the weakened bridge was never again the same.

According to a report in the Portsmouth Herald on September 11, 1939, local 2024 was still on the eastern span when the locomotive, the tender and empty first passenger car plunged into the river “as if thrown from a catapult.”

Fireman Charles D. Towle, 49, of Exeter, NH, who was probably standing to the rear of the cab when the bridge collapsed, could be heard screaming as the exceptionally strong Piscataqua tide carried him upstream and into the night. His lifeless body was recovered later that night near Dover Point.

Engineer, John Beattie,68, of Somerville, MA, was presumed dead as, based on the location of his post, he would likely have been trapped inside the submerged locomotive. After a sweep of the area by two Coast Guard vessels the search for Beattie was called off for the night. His body was finally found ten days later, floating near the back channel buoy, a half-mile downstream from the splintered bridge.

The passengers had all been saved from a similar fate when the coupling between the first and second passenger cars parted, causing the airbrake hoses to tear away and the brakes on the occupied cars to be automatically applied. The coaches jolted to a stop but remained upright on the tracks. In fact, most of the passengers had no idea of the gravity of the accident until they were loaded onto handcars and transferred to the Kittery side of the bridge.

Within an hour of the accident, 500 curious Portsmouth and Kittery residents had gathered along the river, but there wasn’t much for them to see. The first three units of the train had been immediately swallowed up by the black swirling river.

Everyone assumed the railroad bridge had collapsed because of its age and condition, but the Boston & Maine Railroad representatives insisted the bridge had recently passed inspections. While there had been a bridge at that location for over 100 years, they argued, the structure had been entirely rebuilt several times and all parts had been repeatedly renewed. Their investigation indicated the bridge failure was caused by equipment used for building the new bridge.

A $150,000 lawsuit was filed by the railroad company against the construction contractor, Frederick Snare Corp. Objective investigations confirmed that the bridge had been damaged when a large caisson used in the construction of the new bridge broke loose and cables attached on the caisson pulled a piling of the railroad structure out of place.

Plans were made to repair the railroad bridge but this turned out to be far too expensive and impractical for a few months of use. Railroad traffic was diverted to the Western Division until the new bridge opened to traffic with train tracks running below the road.

Projects to raise the 125-ton locomotive have been considered several times since the accident, most recently in 1995, but each time the costs were deemed prohibitive. Instead,the cars were twice moved farther out of the shipping channel to prevent them from impeding navigation.

Engine #3666, builtin 1913 by the American Locomotive Company of Schenectady, NY still rests in her watery grave, not far from where the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge spans the Piscataqua River.

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.

Sparhawk Hall in its heyday


Sparhawk Hall loses a bit of roof
Sparhawk Hall loses a bit of roof

Nehemiah P. Jacobs first opened Sparhawk Hall for business in Ogunquit, on June 20, 1897. It was advertised that summer as “one of the largest and finest modern hotels on this part of the coast.” It boasted “magnificent ocean views; fine boating, bathing and fishing; private grounds, pure water and perfect drainage.”

After just two seasons a chimney fire totally destroyed the elegant hotel. The fire, which started around 2 p.m. on Oct. 2, 1899, was reported in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.

“About forty representatives of the Sanford and Cape Porpoise Railroad and Portsmouth, Kittery and York railroad with citizens of York and Wells had just finished their dinner and were about to take buckboards that awaited them at the door for a drive to York when one of the party glancing upward admiring the beauty of the hotel, discovered fire around the chimney.

“Immediately the guests organized themselves into a fire company and with the greatest difficulty saved the surrounding buildings, with buckets and by putting wet blankets on the roof.”

Work began immediately to reconstruct Sparhawk Hall. It reopened the following season without interruption on June 20, 1900. The new hotel offered the same opulent accommodations regular summer waterers had come to expect. Families typically stayed at Sparhawk Hall for extended vacations. Upon their arrival, each family was assigned a waitress who would serve them throughout their stay. The experiences of one such waitress were detailed in charming letters published by Smith College in their student publication.

Betty, a schoolteacher who had wished to further her education at Smith College, had found herself short of tuition funds in the summer of 1901. She accepted the waitress position in Ogunquit even though she was not accustomed to a lifestyle that exposed her to “such a conglomeration of nationalities and characters that compose the happy family known in Ogunquit as the ‘Sparhawk Help.'” Betty advised the recipient of her letter to “get your smelling salts and your fan ready” before reading about her provocative daily conversations with a surprisingly bright Irish bellboy named Ben who fancied himself a future writer.

Even before the hotel opened for the season, Ben had caught Betty’s eye. She mentioned him in her letters far too often and described the witty, familiar way he had addressed her with far too much detail for the reader not to assume she had developed a certain affection for the young Irishman. Another bellboy at the Sparhawk that season was Jimmie, an amateur prize-fighter. “He is a little cockney Englishman and good as gold when he is out of the ring,” she wrote. The chef, she believed, was a real Frenchman. The awe he inspired among the female employees was rivaled only by that of the headwaiter, a Brown University junior.

“My costume,” wrote Betty, “is a study in black and white. Dress and tie black, apron with bib, turn over collar and bow in hair white. I look very fetching in mine,” she boasted.

The Sparhawk Hall Orchestra was second to none. Top-notch musicians were recruited from the best colleges and concerts were performed at the hotel every night, promptly at 10 p.m. The orchestra continued to be advertised as one of the best in Maine for many years, long after Betty’s employment adventure had come to a satisfactory end.

The elegant hotel was again threatened by fire in 1906 when a gas explosion caused considerable damage on Aug. 11. “An explosion of gas in one of the rooms in the tower of Sparhawk Hall at Ogunquit at 6:30 Saturday evening wrecked the room and blew a hole through the roof of the tower,” wrote a reporter for the Biddeford Weekly Journal.

“The tower immediately caught fire and the damage by the flames and water will amount to more than $1,000. It is thought that one of the guests at the hall had left the gas burning in the room where the explosion took place and when it was turned on again it filled the room,” the reporter continued. “A man named Livermore, from Boston, entered the room and struck a match to light the gas. When the explosion came Mr. Livermore was thrown through the door and badly shaken up, but was not seriously injured.” The damaged tower was rebuilt before the 1907 season opened.

Hotel owner N.P.M. Jacobs was plagued by lawsuits during his proprietorship. He was in and out of court for several years after one of his patrons accused him of expropriating her diamond ring that had been placed in his possession for safekeeping. Jacobs admitted to having the ring but refused to return it claiming it as collateral for a hotel bill he said she owed. In another lawsuit Jacobs was accused of being in possession of silverware, for which he had not paid. All of the lawsuits went on for years, costing everyone involved far more than the original harms in attorney fees. The conclusion reached in each case was that Jacobs the hotelman was overeager to collect but reluctant to pay his bills. He continued to manage the Ogunquit hotel until his death in 1931.

Sparhawk Hall’s initial grandeur had already started to wane under Jacob’s management, but it continued to serve summer visitors to Ogunquit until October of 1968. Russell Ireland and Jules I. Voignier Jr., co-owners of the hotel since 1964, sold all the furnishings of the 80-room grand old hotel at liquidation auction and razed the building to make way for the Sparhawk Resort Motel that stands in its place today.


The trials of the Webber brothers from Wells

A Badge of Shame
A Badge of Shame

Counterfeiting was a huge problem in Colonial America, so much so that it was considered a capital offense in the 17th century. By 1752, the year the Webber brothers of Wells were accused of the crime, the death penalty was no longer enforced but the sentence did stigmatize perpetrators for life.

The Webber family of Wells had settled near Kennebunk Beach around 1722, on what is today known as the Sea Road. Neighbors were still few and far between in 1724 when Indians killed three of them at Gooch’s Creek. By 1752, John Webber and his wife, Abigail Harding Webber, had raised at least two daughters and five sons there. Most of the men in the family were mariners, coasting frequently to and from Boston on their own vessels built in Wells. The perils of a frontier and seafaring life must have been acutely familiar.

John and Abigail Webber gained some notoriety with local historians for being shunned by their neighbors at the Second Parish Church. A sailor in their care had reportedly died from injuries he sustained in a shipwreck at Iron Ledge about 1750. Daniel Remich wrote in his “History of Kennebunk” that parishioners judged the Webbers to be neglectful caregivers and therefore responsible for the sailor’s death.

Two of the Webber’s teenage sons, Jonathan and John Jr., sailed to Boston on a new coasting sloop in late October 1752. They spent a few days in Boston and Cambridge “conducting their business.” At dusk on Monday, Oct. 23, they were apprehended for the crime of knowingly passing counterfeit Spanish pieces of eight and were confined to prison in Boston to await trial.

Evidence against the boys was pretty strong. Some of the suspicious coins were found on their persons as was a lump of the composite metal from which the coins were fashioned. The police told a reporter for the Boston Post-Boy that the material was likely a blend of hard pewter or tin, since with some strain it could be bent. Jonathan, 19, and John Jr., 14, were clumsy counterfeiters. Their coins were not of the proper weight and their artistry was sorely lacking.

“The stamp is thick and obscure and the decoration round the edge very uneven and irregular,” wrote the Post-Boy reporter. Further investigation revealed more raw materials stashed away on their new coasting sloop.

Two months after the Webber brothers’ arrest, it was reported in the Boston Gazette that they had appeared before a judge and pleaded guilty to “forging and uttering a piece of pewter and other mixed metals to the likeness of a Spanish milled piece of eight.”

On Jan. 4, 1752, according to the Boston Gazette, “John and Jonathan Webber, own brothers of Wells, were sentenced at Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, to be set in the pillory for the space of an hour to have each of them one of his ears cut off, to be publicly whipped twenty stripes and then to be committed to the house of correction and there kept to hard labor for three months and to give bonds for their good behavior for a year.”

Both young men served their time and were married within a year of their release from prison. Jonathan and his wife moved in with his parents at Kennebunk Beach. No record has been found of Jonathan’s children, but he and his wife still owned the family homestead in 1760. John Jr. and his wife Mary had a large family. They moved for a time to land on the banks of the Saco River, but had returned to Wells before the start of the Revolutionary War. Both brothers were middle-aged in 1777 and of Wells, when together they enlisted in Capt. Daniel Wheelwright’s company to fight for American independence.

Wheelwright’s company marched as rear guard with Col. Ebenezer Francis’s regiment in the retreat from Fort Ticonderoga that left Lake Champlain, the coveted highway between the colonies and Canada, in the hands of the British. On the morning of July 7, 1777, while the colonial soldiers were eating their breakfast, British forces caught up with them and attacked.

The Webber brothers were in the second line of defense. Their company resisted valiantly but in the end the British forces prevailed. Some 300 American soldiers died that day. Among the casualties was Jonathan Webber of Wells. For a time it was believed that his younger brother John Jr. had suffered the same fate. He had in fact been captured by the British and taken to Quebec. From there, he was carried to Great Britain where he remained a prisoner in the goal until Dec. 15, 1781. At that time, he was exchanged for a British prisoner and sent to France. John Webber Jr. arrived home in Wells on April 28, 1782, and filed with the General Court of Massachusetts to have his back wages granted.

Life in Colonial Wells was hard. The Webbers and their neighbors faced harsh treatment from the unforgiving environment, the Indians, the law, the war and each other. If the Webber family was shunned at the Second Parish Church in Kennebunk as has been claimed, the fact that their two sons Jonathan and John Jr. were each missing an ear for their youthful crime of counterfeiting might have had something to do with it.

Special thanks to Hugh Spiers for his assistance with the confusing Webber family genealogy!

Yellow journalism in 19th Century Biddeford, ME

All the Fitted News to Print
All the Fitted News to Print

The term Yellow Journalism was coined to describe a sensationalistic style of reporting that was typically unfettered by facts. It was popularized by the likes of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst at their competing New York newspapers in the 1890s. The provocative style was already entertaining Biddeford Daily Times readers in 1872.

Marcus Watson revived the daily paper in 1872. It had been introduced in 1868 but had lasted only 14 days. Watson acquired the right to use the name and hired two talented young writers, Phillip McIntyre and Francis Goodwin, to be his co-editors. In 1906, Phillip McIntyre, who was by then a seasoned newspaperman in Portland, recalled the early days at the Biddeford Daily Times.

“Francis Goodwin and I did not exactly paint Biddeford red during our connection with the Times, both of us being young men of abstemious habits, but we did give the paper a saffron hue. In fact we were undoubtedly the pioneers of “yellow journalism” in this state long before that term of reproach was coined.”

McIntyre fondly recalled one piece of juicy news that was of his own making. While he lived at the Biddeford House during the summer of 1872, the big front door of the Main Street hotel was always securely locked at 10 pm. McIntyre often arrived home long after lock-up time. Normally, he would rap on the lamppost in front of the hotel to summon Amos Brackett, the beat cop who carried the key to the hotel. But in this instance Brackett seemed to have either fallen asleep or deserted his post.

Finally, out of patience, the newspaperman picked up a loose brick from the sidewalk and smashed the window just over the bunk where the hotel night watchman slept. The brick dropped on the poor man’s head causing him to bolt up yelling “Burglars!” The whole house was aroused and someone rushed out the front door to find Officer Brackett. McIntyre quietly passed amid the commotion and went to bed. “The next evening the Times contained a thrilling account of an attempted burglary at the Biddeford House,” reminisced the journalist, “foiled by the bravery and presence of mind of Patsy, the wakeful and intrepid watchman.”

Watson sold the Biddeford Times in 1876 to Andrew J. Small, who ran a most dignified paper until his death in 1885. His sisters Josephine and Addie Small took over and continued in his responsible journalistic style. The Smalls also started the weekly edition of the Times and a summer paper, Old Orchard Sea Shell, in the mid-1880s.

Wishing to retire after working hard all their lives, the Small sisters sold all three papers to Francis L. Finch in 1894 for $10,000. Finch had only just graduated from Thornton Academy in 1892. When he came of age he inherited $70,000 from a guardian but being immature the boy ran through the money at once. He spent it on a fancy Saco estate, servants, horses, a grand European tour, and investments in business ventures he didn’t have the wherewithal to maintain. The Small sisters were forced to repossess the newspapers within a few months.

The final publisher of the Biddeford Daily Times bought the distressed paper at a bargain price in 1895. William A. Roberts had for many years been a life insurance man and then the proprietor of the Biddeford House that had by then been renamed the Thacher Hotel. He did not take possession of the newspaper until January 1896 because he was deeply embroiled in a court case that year over the death of his 26 year old stenographer. She had died in his company after an illegal operation in Boston.

This wasn’t the first time Roberts had been to court and it was far from the last. He was also sued for the damages caused by his passenger paddleboat in the Saco River. He had built it to run paying customers out to Biddeford Pool but he soon had several law suits on his hands when the unstable vessel ran into about every boat it passed. Roberts was also the edge-dwelling local politician who eventually settled in a campaign finance embezzlement case in 1899.

His proprietorship at the Biddeford Daily Times however was well received. One reviewer raved that Roberts had “converted the paper into one of the warmest little sheets that ever “sassed the mighty” in the State of Maine.” Another journalist wrote, “As Editor and Publisher, he pens editorials that curl the hair. He isn’t bashful and never a man walked the earth who could make him cast down his eye or check his speech.”

Roberts did seem to love to stir up trouble, especially against his political opponents but sometimes it was just to entertain his readers and probably himself. He later recalled that on one particularly slow news day he bought a skeleton from a local doctor and had one of his reporters “dig it up” to furnish the paper with a local sensation for the day. After a few years Roberts lost interest in the daily news business and allowed the paper to expire in 1897.

Throughout the 25 or so years the newspaper was in existence it was also known as The Biddeford Times and The Evening Times. Though relatively short-lived, The Times played a significant role in the history of Maine journalism, especially during the Yellow years of 1872 and 1896.

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.

Ogunquit dodged a chemical threat in 1950

The day white houses turned brown in Ogunquit
The day white houses turned brown in Ogunquit

A heavy odor of rotten eggs hung over the mouth of the Ogunquit River for a week in the autumn of 1950. Nobody could figure out where the smell was coming from but it got so bad that businesses were forced to close. On the morning of October 2, 1950, house painters Leavitt Wyman and Maurice Littlefield arrived at their jobsite to find that the house they had been painting white had turned brown overnight. In fact, more than 20 light colored buildings along the shore, for 1,000 feet, from the bridge to Sea Chambers Motel had changed color overnight.

War was raging in Korea. A rumor started to circulate that the North Koreans had floated barrels of poisonous gas toward the United States, which had ruptured on the rocks off the York County Coast. When five York Beach cottages were affected by the same color change phenomenon the following day, speculation hit a fever pitch.

“It looked as though there had been a fire in each of the buildings” explained Mrs. Althine B. Wyman to a reporter for the Portsmouth Herald, “and the outside had been stained by smoke and rust-colored water.” William Ferguson owned 11 of the affected buildings. The Old Wharf Inn and The Beach House were damaged as were the Methodist Church and the Surf Side Pavilion.

Town Manager Ernest C. Marriner was inundated with calls. “We want to get at the cause of the thing first,” he told the Herald reporter. “First, it must be halted. Then any worry about the house damage spreading past the waterfront area and into other sections of the town can be averted.”

Henry Mullen, a chemist for a Boston paint concern, was summoned to identify the source of the potentially costly brown scourge. Mullen ascertained that the mysterious transformation was caused by a chemical reaction between lead paint on the buildings and Hydrogen Sulfide Gas. Further investigation revealed that the gas was emanating from seaweed decaying in the Ogunquit River and on York Beach. Much to the relief of the residents, Mr. Ferguson in particular, the brown coloration was removed by washing the buildings with a neutralizer like Hydrogen Peroxide. Fire Chief Robert W. Ellis was charged with neutralizing the foul smelling seaweed. Fears of chemical warfare in southern Maine were assuaged.

Hydrogen Sulfide Gas does occur naturally when organic materials rot in stagnant water. The distinctive odor is well known to those living near tidal flats and is usually harmless when it occurs naturally. Fortunately, an overwhelming smell of rotten eggs is evident long before the toxins reach dangerous levels. But in high concentrations Hydrogen Sulfide Gas is as deadly as carbon monoxide or cyanide.

A near-fatal incident in France during the summer of 2009 drew attention to the dangers of this toxin. Vincent Petit was horseback riding on the beach at Saint Michel de Greve when his horse slipped and fell into some smelly slime, suddenly breaking the crust that contained the poisonous gas. The horse died immediately from inhaling the fumes and his 28-year-old rider lost consciousness. Onlookers rushed Vincent to the hospital where he was able to make a full recovery. News of the incident spread worldwide and beaches in the area were closed. France’s national institute for environmental threats, INERIS was called in to address the hazard.

A recipe for making Hydrogen Sulfide Gas out of household products was posted on the internet several years ago. It was used in a bizarre rash of suicides in Japan and more recently, cases of “Detergent Suicide,” as it has come to be known, have been reported in this country.

Lead in paint is now outlawed as a neurotoxin. The chemical reaction that darkens its color in the presence of Hydrogen Sulfide Gas is sometimes used as an inexpensive method for detecting unacceptable lead levels in old buildings. The people of Ogunquit had no idea what they were up against in 1950. Not only was the lead paint that covered so many of their buildings dangerous to their health, the level of Hydrogen Sulfide Gas emanating from the Ogunquit River had to have been dangerously high to change the color of the paint on dozens of buildings.

Newspaper reports covering the 1950 incident in Ogunquit focused on the potential cost of repainting the buildings. Unbeknownst to them, they had also dodged a much deadlier bullet.