The sunken treasure of the Kennebunk brig Columbia

Brig Columbia and her treasure sank in fifteen minutes
Brig Columbia and her treasure sank in fifteen minutes

United States Congress had little choice but to pass a May 15, 1820 bill authorizing construction of a wooden pier on the western side of the mouth of the Kennebunk River. At least two local trading vessels had met their end trying to navigate the dangerous harbor entrance during the two preceding years. According to Shipping News, both were very familiar with its hazards.

 A sandbar outside the mouth of the river was only two to three feet deep at low water. Navigation guides instructed sailors to anchor between the Fishing Rocks and the mouth of the river, to await high tide. Larger trading vessels were forced to load and unload part of their cargo outside the sandbar.

The 139 ton brig Merchant, Captain Emery, had been built way upriver by Kennebunk shipbuilder, Nathaniel Gilpatrick. She was launched October 13, 1804 and after a West Indies trading career, was cast away on the Kennebunk Bar upon her return from Havana, Cuba at the beginning of April 1820. All her cargo, sails and rigging were reportedly saved.

The 160 ton Brig Columbia, launched upriver just a week after the Merchant, was owned by Joseph Moody, Richard Gilpatrick and Jeremiah Paul. Like the Merchant, she was engaged in West Indies trade with Cuba and Porto Rico.

It was reported in the Daily Advertiser that on her first voyage in January of 1805, the Columbia was boarded and robbed. “Captain Mason in the brig Columbia, was brought to by a privateer schooner under English colors,” read the headline.

The privateer captain ordered Benjamin Mason to come aboard with some of his crew but most of his men being sick, he was unable to comply. Mason was physically forced aboard the privateer by her captain, leaving the Columbia at the mercy of the privateer crew.

The English flag on the raider was immediately pulled down and replaced by Spanish colors. All the Columbia’s fresh supplies, extra canvas, spun yarn and tools were stolen. After being held for two hours and “much abused,” Capt Mason and his sick crew were released and allowed to sail away in the brig Columbia.

An 1807 foreign trade embargo and the War of 1812 crippled shipping in the District of Kennebunk. Local vessels were stored upriver to keep them out of enemy hands and a fort was built on Kennebunk Point to protect the river.

Local businessmen needed loans to endure the financial challenge and protect their shipping investments. The Kennebunk Bank was built in Arundel. Joseph Moody, principal owner of the brig Columbia, was elected President of the institution. National banking regulations requiring that capital be backed by specie (gold or silver) were relaxed during the war but once peace was restored the regulations were enforced. The Kennebunk Bank was forced to reduce its capital by $20,000 and to rent the upstairs of the bank building – now the Louis T. Grave Memorial Library -to the U. S. Government as a Customs House. The Kennebunk bank was repeatedly embarrassed, not having specie sufficient to cover the money it had printed.

On November 17, 1818, the brig Columbia, owned by bank President, Joseph Moody, returned to Kennebunk 28 days from Ponce, Porto Rico with a cargo of molasses, sugar, lignumvitae, and hides. She also had over $1000 specie aboard, likely in the form of gold and silver coins. Captain Lord anchored her outside the Kennebunk sandbar to await the tide and went ashore. It was reported in the Essex Register that Lord returned with one of the owners, a pilot, and some additional hands to get the vessel into the River.

“In beating into port, to windward of the Fishing Rocks, the wind took her aback, and not having room to wear, she struck on one of the rocks, but immediately floated off – no danger was apprehended, but shortly after a Spanish passenger, who was confined to the cabin by sickness, came running on deck and informed that the vessel was half full of water – the people had just enough time to take to the boats losing all their clothes etc. before she sunk, leaving only the ends of her topgallant masts out of water.”

Captain Lord managed to save one small bag of coins but many newspapers reported that up to $1,000 in specie went down with the brig Columbia. Joseph Moody sold what he could salvage from the wreck the following February and collected $5,000 insurance money but it was not reported if the sunken treasure was ever recovered.

Several times in the past 70 years an old wreck has been briefly uncovered at the eastern end of Gooch’s beach. The Brick Store Museum owns an aerial photograph of it taken after a September 1978 storm. It could be the Merchant or the Columbia but like most shipwrecks of the Kennebunks, its identity cannot be verified without archaeological investigation.

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