Perilous Refuge in Cape Porpoise Harbor
Cape Porpoise Harbor has always been dangerous to seafarers unfamiliar with its hidden hazards but countless vessels have ventured forth anyway, seeking shelter from countless storms. Many never made it into the harbor, others never made it out.
In October of 1804 The Salem Register reported that a Hallowell packet was lost at Cape Porpoise in a hurricane. Captain Weston sailed her onto the rocks. He, his crew and all 20 of his passengers, including twelve ladies, perished. Only the bodies of Dr. Appleton, Mrs. Appleton and their child, all of Waterville, were ever found.
The American Coast Pilot called Cape Porpoise a “bad harbour” in 1806. “It is not to be attempted unless you are well acquainted, or in distress. A vessel that draws 10 feet will be aground at low water. The harbour is so narrow that a vessel cannot turn round.” Nevertheless, it was advertised as the only refuge in a storm between Portland and Portsmouth. During the years of coasting trade it was not unusual for 100 vessels to seek shelter in one storm, bumping and battering each other in the process. To address the dangerously rocky approach, local ship owners petitioned the United States Congress, in 1831, to establish a lighthouse on Goat Island and a buoy at Prince’s Rock. The whale oil in Goat Island Light was first ignited in August of 1833 and the Prince Rock buoy was placed the following year. Unfortunately, the frequency of shipwrecks was not much abated by these measures.
Joshua Herrick, Kennebunkport’s only United States Congressman, promoted a plan in 1844 to construct an 852 foot stone pier between Savin Bush and Milk Islands, thereby blocking the surge from nor’easters and providing tie ups for vessels seeking refuge. It was proposed that the breakwater, 20 feet wide at its base and 10 feet wide on top, be built economically of stone available on an “unclaimed island” 1/2 mile east of Milk Island. The plan was perceived by Congress as an effort to improve commerce in Cape Porpoise and the bill was forwarded to the Commerce Committee. There it sat for nearly a decade.
During the tremendous storm of 1850, just before Christmas, Cape Porpoise Harbor was littered with disabled vessels. The schooner “Wave” went ashore outside the harbor late on the night of December 22nd. Captain Tolman and his crew were saved but the schooner was a total loss. A few hours later schooner “Susan Taylor” of Frankfort went ashore on Green Island. Schooner “Helen Mar” of Deer Isle, was the next to run aground on the rocks between Vaughn and Green Islands. Her bottom was knocked out and her cargo of lumber strewn willy nilly. Schooner Albert soon parted her anchor chains and drifted afoul of Schooner Elizabeth causing that schooner to go aground. No lives were lost but the crews of Helen Mar, Albert and Elizabeth all huddled together on Green Island, unsheltered from the raging weather until they were rescued late in the evening of the 23rd.
As Deputy Collector of Customs for the Kennebunk District, Enoch Cousens pleaded with Congress in 1853 to approve the Cape Porpoise breakwater project. Additionally, Cousens asked that a lighthouse be built at the mouth of the Kennebunk River. The breakwater bill was again tabled but the proposed lighthouse was approved. A 6th order lens perched atop a 21 foot white frame structure was lit for the first time on January 1, 1857 at the end of the eastern pier. The new lighthouse was unpopular. It caused a great deal of confusion among mariners being so close to Cape Porpoise Light. A storm took it away some time before 1870 and it was never replaced.
Originally most of Cape Porpoise Harbor had a depth of about 13 feet at low tide and the entrance was obstructed by a bar. Under a $70,000 harbor improvement project finally adopted March 3, 1899, the entrance of the harbor was widened to 200 feet and deepened to 16 feet at low water. An anchorage area about 3,000 feet long, 600 feet wide, and 15 feet deep at low tide was completed by the end of 1902. In 1907, the crooked entrance channel was straighten and dug to a depth of 18 feet at low tide for an additional $46,000. These improvements made the harbor much safer as a place of refuge but a few notable shipwrecks occurred during and after the project.
The number of documented shipwrecks in the Kennebunks exceeds 100. Some of the wrecks at Goose Rocks Beach, Cape Arundel and Kennebunk Beach will be explored in a free illustrated lecture at Kennebunk Library tonight, (July 22, 2010) at 7 pm.
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