Category Archives: Kennebunk

The Great Kennebunk Fire of 1903

Kennebunk 1903 Fire Whitcomb

In the wee hours of May 3, 1903 the town fire alarm startled the people of Kennebunk awake. The immense shoe factory at the Mousam River bridge was ablaze. James Day, the night watchman, had extinguished a small shaft machinery fire at the factory around midnight but shortly after 2 am he and Officer George Wentworth were eating their lunch in the boiler room when they heard a crackling sound coming from the same part of the building. This time the flames were out of control. The fire alarm was sounded at once. The Kennebunk fire company was unable to stop the fire and companies from West Kennebunk and Biddeford were called. Portland eventually sent their steamer by rail but it did not arrive in time to help get the fire was under control.  The town of Kennebunk had no insurance on the factory building and the electric light plant, which were valued at $35,000. Rice & Hutchins, the former tenants of the building, had shut off the water to save money. The town authorities who had taken over responsibility for the factory had not yet had it turned back on. Had the water been on the fire could have been isolated to the factory but as it was the flames spread and eventually destroyed many buildings at that intersection. The fire had consumed the largest employer in town and the light plant along with other businesses listed below the photo. No lives were lost but the impact on the economy of Kennebunk was significant.  Byron J. Whitcomb, a photographer who had recently set up shop in Kennebunk, was at the scene of the fire and artfully captured the devastation with his camera.  The drama of those photographs would ensure his reputation in Kennebunk as a gifted photographer.   He also offered portraits of a cat that had miraculously survived the blaze who became a symbol of hope for the future of Kennebunk. Sales of the views were brisk.

Bartholomew Gosnold’s encounter at Cape Neddick, 1602

copyright Artist Frank Handlen
Gosnold’s Encounter at Cape Neddick

Bartholomew Gosnold: First European to “smell the earth” at Maine’s southern coast. (Or was he?)

Bartholomew Gosnold  was born in 1572 with a silver spoon in his mouth and a passion for adventure in his heart. His parents, Anthony and Dorothy (Bacon) Gosnold, were both of notable families in England during the reign of the “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth I. Anthony Gosnold had a royal descent from King Edward III of England. Bartholomew’s mother was of the same gene pool that produced Lord Francis Bacon. In fact, the branches of the Bacon and Gosnold trees crossed more than once.

Young Bartholomew was trained as a lawyer, attending Cambridge University and Middle Temple. While at school he was inspired by a lecture given by the Geographer of the day, Richard Hakluyt, whose The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation was published in 1600. Gosnold was so inspired, in fact, that he lost all interest in practicing law. When Sir Walter Raleigh invited him on a voyage to the new world, he eagerly agreed. The voyage failed to meet its mission but there was no turning back for Batholomew. He continued to sail as a privateer chasing Spaniards and dreams of glory across the Atlantic.

Gentlemen explorers like Raleigh and Gosnold did not venture forth to uncharted territory to escape religious persecution. Nor were they wholly altruistic in their efforts on behalf of England. They were interested in money, power and immortality; real people with still familiar, human motivations.

In 1602, Raleigh was falling out of favor in England. His failure with the lost colony of Roanoke had offended many of his supporters and the Queen. Queen Elizabeth encouraged adventurers to search for a Northwest Passage. This presented a loophole to Raleigh’s 1584 patent to colonize North America. Bartholomew Gosnold, at just 30 years of age, seized this entrepreneurial opportunity to sail stealthily through that loophole.

Plans for a voyage were hastily made. It would be financed by William Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southhampton. The mission was meant to discover a route to America on a more northerly tract as allowed by the Queen’s decree but there was a secondary mission. Gosnold intended to establish a small colony in the “North part of Virginia”.

The barque Concord departed from Falmouth, England on March 26, 1602 with a crew of 8 and 23 “Gentleman Discoverers”, some of whom intended to remain in the new world. The Concord was in poor condition and dangerously small for such a voyage but in spite of some contrary winds, she made the trip in a record breaking 49 days. Gosnold and his crew could “smell the land” at Cape Porpoise by May 14.

Two of the gentlemen along for the voyage, Gabriel Archer and John Brereton, journaled their impressions of the trip to the “North part of Virginia”. These firsthand accounts have been invaluable historical research sources ever since. Both diarists described an encounter with Native Americans at “Savage Rock”, calculated by scholars to be near Cape Neddick. A Basque Shallop, with sails and oars, carrying 8 natives, boldly approached the Concord. Archer writes of the encounter,

“One that seemed to be their commander wore a waistcoat of a black wool, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band, one or two more had also a few things made by some Christians; these with a piece of chalk described the coast thereabouts, and could name Placentia of Newfoundland; they spoke divers Christian words, and seemed to understand much more than we, for want of language could comprehend.”

Gosnold’s company proceeded southward with confidence relying on the chalk map for navigation. They established a temporary settlement at what is now known as the Island of Cuttyhunk. Gosnold called it Elizabeth Island in honor of Queen Elizabeth whose edict had made his voyage legal. Marthas Vinyard was named after Gosnold’s recently deceased infant daughter. He named Cape Cod for the abundance of fish that virtually “pestered” the Ship. The naming of the area seems at first glance to be sentimental but it was probably more territorial than sentimental. Gosnold was naming territory that was part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s patent. Meanwhile, Raleigh was back in England worrying about his lost colony of Roanoke and totally ignorant of Gosnold’s voyage.

Gosnold traded with the Natives in Raleigh’s patent for sassafras and supplies. Sassafras was considered the new wonder drug in Europe. Profits from a good sized cargo would be considerable as the Americas were the only available source of the plant.  When the Concord’s hold was full the “Gentlemen Adventurers” could not agree upon a fair division of profits or of supplies between the colonists and those returning to England.  In fear of being unfairly compensated or worse, of suffering the same fate as the lost Roanoke colonists, all those who had intended to remain at Cuttyhunk could not be persuaded to stay.  The entire company returned to England with the undivided provisions.

The return trip to England was accomplished in only 37 days with the help of prevailing winds and the fact that they had cut their Shallop loose to lighten the load on the Concord. This was a common practice and may explain how the Native Americans at Cape Neddick came to be in possession of such a boat.

Once Bartholomew Gosnold returned to England, damage control with Sir Walter Raleigh commenced. Raleigh discovered the patent infringement as soon as the sassafras market was flooded by Gosnold’s cargo.  He wrote a letter to the Queen’s Principal Secretary demanding that Gosnold’s portion of the cargo be seized and given to him.  Brereton’s account of the trip was then “edited” to include a glowing dedication to Raleigh.  This account was published and at once became a bestseller.  Archer’s account would not be published until 1625.

Bartholomew Gosnold had not established the first permanent English settlement in New England as was his intention but his bold ambitions had changed the course of our history. Had his voyage in 1602 not inspired Martin Pring to make a proper discovery of the Kennebunk River in 1603, French explorer Samuel de Champlain would be credited for discovering our coast in 1604.

Read Gabriel Archer’s account of the 1602 voyage here.

Read John Brereton’s account of the 1602 voyage here.

Kennebunk Walker Family Diaries

A family of diarists

Many wonderful books have been written about the history of Kennebunk. As enlightening as they are, the historical research does not always agree from one book to another. Modern researchers trying to reconcile the differences are fortunate to have several document repositories nearby. Old newspapers often reveal long-hidden historical details, but there’s nothing like personal accounts in old diaries to animate and illuminate the facts.

Diaries were kept by many local citizens over the years. Several diaries written by members of the Walker family have survived and are available on microfilm for public use at the Kennebunk Free Library.

Our best known diarist, Andrew Walker Jr., spent the majority of his adult life as the proprietor of a furniture store in the Village of Kennebunk. When he began writing his diaries on January 1, 1851 he was also the Kennebunk Town Clerk and the Town Treasurer. In the spring of 1862 the town requested that Andrew keep a military history of each Kennebunk soldier who served in the Civil War. If ever there was a man with his finger on the pulse of Kennebunk, it was Andrew Walker Jr.

Being a record keeper by profession and by nature, he recorded events and biographical sketches with remarkable precision, including keywords in the margin of each entry that he later transcribed into an index for each of the 11 volumes. The index has since been cross-referenced and printed in a separate volume.

Andrew seemed to have an inkling of the potential value of his efforts to future historians when he claimed to be “Noting down many events in this vicinity that now seem of importance but will presently dwarf into mere littleness, other events now insignificant in our eyes, but one day will assume an air of important magnitude.” That inclination to leave nothing out no matter how insignificant it may have seemed at the time, is what makes his diaries so very useful. He also admitted to a small measure of vanity in the endeavor when he wrote, “As a woman likes to view herself in a glass, so a man likes to see himself in his diary.” Andrew Walker Jr. made his last entry on Aug. 13, 1897, two years before his death.

Andrew ‘s first cousin Tobias had started keeping a very different kind of diary in 1828. Neither meticulous nor indexed, Tobias’ journal is a record of the day-to-day happenings on his Alewife sheep and potato farm. His entries covered mostly farm business — who he traded with, who had given him a raw deal, how much he sold the butter for, and family business like who went to the meeting house, who went to the beach to “wash,” and who was feeling poorly. As the years went by more and more responsibility for the farm gradually fell to Tobias’ eldest son, Edwin.

His second son, William, who didn’t stand to inherit the family farm, married the daughter of Samuel Cleaves, a farmer from just across the Kennebunk River in North Kennebunkport. The young couple moved into a house on Curtis Road next door to Samuel Cleaves. William made the first entry in his diary on his wedding day, Dec. 15, 1846. The next day was spent setting up the furniture in their new home. William mentioned that he found the work pleasant. A few days later, Tobias surprised his son with a gift of a slaughtered pig.

The couple frequently had visitors in the early years who just stopped by to pass some jovial evening hours. Neighbors were always present to help with time-sensitive farm jobs. Shortly after William and Mary’s first child was born there was a heat wave that lasted for many days. The heat and mosquitoes were so troublesome that none of them couldn’t sleep. The whole family relocated to the barn one night and on a pile of hay and enjoyed the first good night’s sleep in a week.

Tobias Walker died in 1865. His son Edwin took over the Alewife farm. Like his brother William and their father Tobias, Edwin kept a daily diary until he died in 1891.

These farm families worked hard but they did not lead miserable lives of nothing but toil, especially when the children were young. There were family trips to the circus in Biddeford, afternoons of fishing and berry picking, clambakes, sailing excursions and sea bathing at Two Acres, Hart’s Beach and the Goose Rock Beach. Sometimes on a very hot day the whole neighborhood would caravan to the beach in 8 or 10 carriages.

The farmer diarists occasionally made note of important historical events like the tragic shipwreck of the local barque Isadore, in 1842, and the accidental death of Jesse Webster  when the cannon he was loading for the Kennebunk Centennial Celebration exploded. This is not the primary value of these journals.

They are unselfconscious accounts of the way 19th century life was in the Kennebunks; What it was like to have to go to the mills to grind your corn or to lose half of your family’s food supply in a cold snap, or to weather the loss of one loved one after another. They offer historical context, which is so hard to absorb from a history book.

The Kennebunk Racket

A Popular Violation

“NATIONAL PROHIBITION BECOMES EFFECTIVE AT MIDNIGHT TONIGHT!” screamed newspaper headlines across the United States on Jan. 16, 1920. Maine had been dry since 1851 and the Kennebunks since 1833 but a federal law against liquor caused crime rates to skyrocket.

Enforcement of the Maine Liquor Law had been intermittent at best. Federal Prohibition made smuggling alcohol by land and by sea far more profitable. Seth May of Auburn was appointed Maine’s Federal Prohibition Director. The unorthodox methods he employed to gain compliance from incarcerated informants invited corruption in county and local law enforcement.

In 1926, May’s methods were scrutinized during a corruption case against the sheriff of Kennebec County. Testimony revealed that the feds had allowed a large shipment of alcohol from a known Massachusetts bootlegger to be delivered to inmates of the Kennebec County Jail. They looked the other way with regard to gambling among the inmates. Women, who would later report relevant conversations to the feds, were procured for “private visitation” with informants.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials were expected to use all the resources at their disposal to arrest every tipsy teenage flapper doing the Charleston at the summer beach resorts. Tensions grew. Corruption spread.

On July 18, 1930, the following notice appeared in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.

“A Kennebunk Traffic Officer, who from his post of directing motorists, allegedly acted as a go-between for bootleggers and their customers, was held on a charge of violating the federal prohibition law when arraigned before U.S. Commissioner George O. Gould at Portland Wednesday.”

Officer Thomas F. Nadeau and Edward Brown, both of Kennebunk, were caught red-handed delivering a gallon of whiskey to undercover federal prohibition agents who had been posing as summer visitors at Kennebunk Beach. Also arrested were James McBride, Howard O. Hatt and George F. Clough. Edward Brown and James C. McBride were employees of the Kennebunk municipal lighting plant, where it was alleged, the liquor was being stored.

It was reported in the Biddeford Journal that Seth May had moved his men in to break up a longstanding conspiracy he called the “Racket of Kennebunk Square.”

“Federal Prohibition Director Seth May of Auburn, believes that he has broken up one of the rum rings operating at Kennebunk Beach, Kennebunkport and vicinity among the summer visitors with the arrest of the five men there Tuesday night. Director May considers that the arrest of George F. Clough, a summer resident of Kennebunkport, who he terms ‘a high hat bootlegger delivering the best that could be procured,’ to be highly important in breaking up the rum-running to the summer people at that point. Clough has been arrested by deputies on liquor charges in the past and spent six months in a Rhode Island jail for a similar offense last year. He is one of the ‘boys’ referred to on the golf links who could tell where he could buy ‘It,’ which is the high hat way of referring to liquor among the elite of the summer colony.”

May suspected that the Kennebunk ring was also responsible for the liquor supply at Wells, Ogunquit and York beaches, where canvassers made daily rounds to take orders and liquor would be delivered the same evening.

Residents of Kennebunk anonymously told the Journal reporter that most of the supply has been coming in by water through Cape Porpoise and through Fortunes Rocks and Biddeford Pool. One resident who claimed to have known the operations of the ring for some time, stated that an airplane had also been used when the water routes were too closely guarded but mostly the supply was delivered by speedboats.

Three men renting the Reid cottage near the mouth of the Saco River had been arraigned for conspiracy the previous November. Their confiscated code book contained characters and messages which indicated the place was being used as a satellite base for a large band of rum-runners out of Gun Point at Harpswell. Schooners full of European liquor were unloaded at Ragged Island. From there speedboats took the liquor in and out of  Maine coastal resort harbors delivering to go-betweens onshore. The Gun Point operation was thought to be part of an even larger crime syndicate delivering prohibited liquor all up and down the east coast of the United States.

When former Liquor Czar of the Boston Police Department Oliver B. Barrett, was on the lamb in 1930 to avoid charges that he extorted protection money from Boston hotels, Maine Prohibition Director Seth May speculated that he was the secret kingpin of the Harpswell/Saco/Kennebunk Racket. Though Barrett served time for his Boston shenanigans, no connection to the Maine Liquor Racket was ever proven.

The illegal liquor trade in Maine may seem tame in comparison to the organized crime that sprang out of Prohibition in the big cities, but there was plenty of excitement here. Seth May’s men charged with protecting his cache of recovered alcohol were armed with machine guns. An arsenal of firearms was recovered from the bootlegger’s cottage in Harpswell. Shots were fired at York Beach in 1927.

Federal agents flagged down a bootlegger driving a Packard down Main Street in Kennebunk in 1924. The car was loaded with 150 gallons of whiskey and the driver Anthony Rossi did not want to stop. Agent Ernest L. Jones managed to jump onto the running board of the car. Rossi cut in and out of side streets in an attempt to shake the agent off but was brought to a stop when Jones shut off the power and wrestled Rossi into submission.

The failed experiment that was National Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Maine held onto it for another year.

Message in a bottle

Dodging Creditors by Drowning

A scribbled note sealed in a bottle and tossed into the capricious waves was the only hope some shipwrecked sailors had of letting their sad fate be known. Occasionally, such messages did make it to shore. Sometimes they turned up many miles away and many years later but the closure they brought to loved ones was almost always appreciated.

Old newspapers are full of poignant message-in-a-bottle stories. The first Minot Ledge Light, off Cohasset, Mass., was a barrel-shaped structure held high above the waves on iron stilts. When one by one those spider-like legs snapped during the great nor’easter of 1851, lighthouse assistants Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson tossed their bottled good-byes into the sea that would soon swallow them up.

United States Navy Collier, USS Cyclops, mysteriously disappeared between Barbados and Baltimore, Md. in March of 1918. No trace of the vessel or her crew were ever found. Theories have been floated ever since that she succumbed to the mysterious forces of the Bermuda Triangle or that she sank suddenly in a ferocious storm. A message in a bottle purporting to be from the USS Cyclops washed ashore at Baltimore in August 1918. It said, “Captured by German submarine off coast of Virginia our ship Cyclops. John Ramann Chicago, Ill.” Another message in a bottle supposedly written by one of the engineers of the Cyclops appeared northeast of Cape Lookout Lighthouse near Beaufort, N.C. in 1922. This note stated that a German submarine was close by, that all hands had been ordered on board the U-boat and that the ship was to be torpedoed.

In November 1922 a message in a bottle was thrown into the surf by the crew of the schooner Lizzie D Small ashore off New Bedford, Mass. The bottle was found by Frank Columbia of Westport Point. He organized a search party and the shipwrecked crew was rescued after having been exposed to the elements and starvation for four days.

A misleading message in a bottle could occasionally provide an alibi for those who wished to disappear for one reason or another. Such was the case in 1894 when a corked bottle was found on Old Orchard Beach. A scrap of paper in the neck of the bottle had been torn from a notebook. On one side of the paper the words “Henry Schambier, Merchant of Medicine, Lewiston, Me.,” were imprinted with a rubber stamp. On the other side of the paper the following words were handwritten, “Dr. Hudson of Manchester, NH and Dr. Schambier of Lewiston, ME, lost at sea while fishing Monday Oct. 8.”

An investigative reporter from the Boston Daily Globe traveled to Lewiston to find the poor Dr. Schambier’s next of kin. There he spoke to Henry’s sister, a Mrs. Eugene Rimfret. Last she knew, the 25 year old traveling cough medicine salesman had been living in Biddeford. Though Mrs Rimfret knew Henry to be fond of fishing she hadn’t heard from him in months and could offer very little additional information about his habits.

On Oct. 26, another item appeared in the Boston Daily Globe. Dr. Henry Schambier, previously thought to be at the bottom of the ocean, is alive and well and peddling his Menthol cough drops in the peaceful little village of Kennebunk.” Diligent investigation by the reporter had revealed that Schambier had skipped out on his bill at hotels in Saco and Biddeford.

The proprietor at one of the hotels remembered that Henry and his companion did go fishing quite often while he was a guest. On Oct. 15, a full week after they had supposedly drowned but before the story appeared in the paper, a man called at the hotel and said that Dr Schambier, who was stopping in Kennebunk, had sent for his clothes. That same day, the dandy young doctor was seen in Saco.

A later update in the Globe read, “The rubber stamp that made the impression on the piece of paper found in the bottle was discovered in Dr. Schambier’s Kennebunk room today, as was the note book from which the scrap was torn.”

Much to the public embarrassment of Henry’s sister in Lewiston, all of his clothing and belongings were confiscated and divided up to satisfy irate hotel proprietors in coastal York County.

Six rescued from the Kennebunk River in 1800

Cards and Trefethens in the Kennebunk River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Rev. Fletcher’s letter:

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

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

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

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

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

Steamer Tom Thumb’s history-making career

Tom Thumb driven ashore at Boon Island 1836

The first wood-fired steamboat known to have visited Maine waters was the diminutive side-wheeler, Tom Thumb. Some 18 years later the little steamer also concluded her career on our coast.

The Tom Thumb was only about 30 feet long but upon her arrival in Bath, Maine in 1818 she made a huge impression. After arriving in tow from New York via Boston, she shocked the gathered spectators by steaming up the Kennebec River against the tide. Her newfangled machinery was all open to the elements and in plain view as she chugged along between Bath and Augusta.

She continued that route for several years, providing passenger excursions on the Kennebec River but in 1824 Tom Thumb was towed Down East and began operating between Calais, Eastport, and St. Andrews. Her comings and goings were chronicled in the Eastport Sentinel until Captain Seward Porter of Portland, ME purchased her with the intention of running trips between Boston, MA and Portsmouth, NH. His plans were foiled when the little steamer didn’t perform at sea as he had hoped. She was relegated to harbor and river work in Dover, Portsmouth, Newmarket, Hampton, Newburyport, Gloucester, Chelsea and Boston.

According to Daniel Remich in his History of Kennebunk, the Tom Thumb was also the first steamer to travel up and down the Kennebunk River. September 30, 1827 Captain Porter invited  Kennebunk and Kennebunkport citizens aboard and “made an excursion to the islands of Cape Porpoise, where the party partook of an excellent chowder and other refreshments.”

Charles W. Childs paid $4,000 for the Tom Thumb and spent another $1,000 rebuilding her and replacing her boiler during the spring of 1836. He established the tiny steamer as a regular packet on the Piscataqua River for the conveyance of passengers, transportation of freight and towing of vessels between Portsmouth and Dover, NH. Childs sank his last dime into the enterprise. He chose not to purchase insurance as he could not justify the extra investment considering the relative safety of river work.

For all his calculated risk, the young Childs was disappointed in business that summer. He had hoped to keep very busy with freight conveyance up and down the river but merchants were leery of change. Steamers were still regarded as unproven, novel technology. When the Portsmouth Iron Foundry Company offered to hire his steamboat to take a new 2 ton iron tank to Boon Island a deal was quickly struck even though the Tom Thumb had never been a reliable sea vessel.

Childs had planned to get an early start on the morning of October 28, 1836 but there was some delay at the foundry and he didn’t arrive at Boon Island until 4 p.m. The island is surrounded by rocks and should only be approached at high water. By the time the Tom Thumb reached the island the tide was about half ebb. The tank was landed with great difficulty as darkness fell upon the scene.

The events that followed were described by Charles W. Childs in a petition for financial relief to the United States Government. “Captain W. Neal, who had assisted as pilot, went on shore to assist in landing the tank and when he was thus on shore a sudden gust of wind prevented his return to the boat, the cable parted and the crew, nine in number, endeavored to reach Portsmouth Harbor.”

It was reported in the Portsmouth Gazette that the gale increased and blew with great violence. “She continued on her course to Portsmouth about five hours against the wind making in that time only 9 or 10 miles when finding that she made water fast, by which her fuel had become wet, rendering it impossible to keep up the steam, she again bore away before the wind to Boon Island and at about 2 o’clock a.m. went pell mell on the rocks.”

Maine’s first documented steamer, the Tom Thumb was a total loss at Boon Island. Young Charles W. Childs, who must have deeply regretted his decision to forgo insurance, was rendered penniless. Though the iron tank had been commissioned by the Customs District the contract for its conveyance was between the Portsmouth Foundry and Mr. Childs. The petitioner was not entitled to relief from the United States Government.

Mutiny and murder on the Jefferson Borden

The ultimate act of malcontents

The first three-masted schooner ever built on the Kennebunk River was the 533-ton Jefferson Borden. She was launched from the Lower Village shipyard of David Clark on Oct. 19,1867. After a wreck near Miami, Fla. in 1870, the Jefferson Borden was rebuilt and sold to new owners.

Her master, Capt. William Manson Patterson of Edgecomb, owned a one-third share of the schooner and he protected his investment by sailing her hard and often. On almost every voyage, the captain was accompanied by his wife, Emma. In contrast to the seamen’s quarters, the captain’s quarters onboard was reportedly as elegant as any cabin on any merchant vessel afloat. Patterson’s brother Corydon and his cousin Charles served as first and second mate, respectively.

In the spring of 1875 they sailed from New Orleans for London with a cargo of cotton-seed oil cake. Besides the usual family members the crew consisted of the German steward/cook, Albert Aiken, a French cabin boy, Henry Mailluende, and four sailors who had just been hired in New Orleans. Seaman George Miller was described in contemporary newspaper articles as a “large Russian Finn.” Ephraim W. Clark of Rockland went by the alias, William Smith, on this trip. John Glew was from Nottingham, England and Jacob Lingar was a Swede.

It was recorded in the captain’s log that Miller, the Russian, had been insubordinate just a few days out and he was clapped in irons for 48 hours. No further disciplinary measures were recorded, but on the 47th night at sea, Miller’s discontentment again came to a head — the first mate’s head, to be precise.

While Patterson, Emma and the cook were fast asleep on the night of the April 20, 1875, the Russian sailor hit Corydon Patterson over the head with an iron strap, killing him instantly. Young Henry, the cabin boy, hid below when the trouble started. Jacob Lingar was occupied at the wheel from where, he later claimed, he did not see or hear the assault.

Clark and Glew helped Miller toss the mate’s body overboard. Then Glew cut the jib sheet while Clark went to inform the second mate that the jib sheet had parted. When Charles Patterson was trying to secure the jib Ephraim Clark pushed him overboard to his death.

The captain was unaware of what had happened on deck. When George Miller knocked on his cabin door and asked him to come on deck right away, as someone had broken a leg, Emma became suspicious. Normally, one of the mates would have delivered such news. She begged her husband not to go out into the night and he locked himself in the cabin with her until daybreak.

Patterson emerged from his cabin in the morning wielding a shotgun and a revolver and demanding to know where the officers were. With the help of the steward, he succeeded in seriously wounding all three mutineers and restraining them in the forecastle. Fearing for their lives, the mutineers finally admitted to murdering Patterson’s kin.

With the assistance of a sailor from a passing vessel the remaining crew managed to sail the Jefferson Borden to London. There the prisoners were given medical attention and passage back to Boston to stand trial. Clark and Miller were convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Glew was convicted of a lesser crime, the penalty for which was 10 years in prison.

After the trial, it was revealed that the Jefferson Borden had been overloaded with cargo and was one crewman short right from the beginning. She was leaking badly and in addition to their regular duties her overburdened crew was ordered to pump her continuously — each crew member, at times, working for 36 hours straight.

The drinking water onboard was made brackish soon after they left New Orleans when a storm  splashed salt water into the casks on deck. The crewmen were allowed one cup each of the brackish water a day and very little to eat — while the captain, his wife and the two mates lived luxuriously in comparison. The crewmen had also been severely beaten by the officers almost every day for even the slightest hint of defiance.

The steward, Albert Aiken, who had been with the Pattersons for nearly two years and had testified on the captain’s behalf at trial, finally admitted to the press that it was Patterson’s modus operandi to starve and abuse his crewmen to such an extent that as soon as they made port on the way out, they would run away to avoid the return passage. This way Patterson did not have to part with their wages. In all the voyages Aiken had been on with Patterson, he had never seen a single seaman stay for the return passage.

Before the Jefferson Borden left New Orleans on that fateful voyage, customs officials had come aboard to arrest the captain for abusing the previous crew. But Patterson managed to avoid capture and as soon as the officials had left, he set sail even though the schooner was barely seaworthy.

The last straw to swing public support behind the convicted mutineers was on the Jefferson Borden’s first voyage after the trial. The vessel had to be towed into port because her crew was too feeble to sail her in, with all suffering from starvation.

A petition was drawn up and submitted to President Grant to pardon the two sailors on death row. Their sentences were commuted to life in Thomaston Prison. Miller died in confinement in 1894. Ephraim Clark’s sentence was reduced again in 1903 to time served — by President Roosevelt after the Atlantic Seaman’s Union pressed for his release.

Patterson continued as master of the Jefferson Borden until 1883 and never faced any legal consequences for his inhumane treatment of the hundreds of sailors that crewed for him over the years.