A bolt of lightning nearly destroyed the home of Thomas Wiswall in 1786, knocking his family temporarily insensible.
Thomas Wiswall had arrived in Cape Porpoise from Newton, Mass. in 1752. Two years later he purchased a blockhouse that was built by Rowlandson Bond in 1743 and moved his family to the banks of the Kennebunk River. There were only nine buildings in the Kennebunkport Village area between Lock Street and South Street in 1786. Wiswall’s blockhouse stood at what is now the corner of Union Street and Ocean Avenue.
His wharf was the first one built on the eastern side of the Kennebunk River and from it he engaged in fishing, coasting and lumbering. Wiswall’s sloop was the first from Arundel to sail to the West Indies, though that first voyage was a financial failure. Most of the cattle that was on deck as cargo fell into the ocean within hours of being loaded onto the vessel. Wiswall persevered with West Indies trade and by 1764 he was one of the wealthiest citizens of Arundel.
Slavery was tolerated in Massachusetts until the Revolutionary War. One of the five slaves listed in the 1764 census of Arundel, a West Indiesman, belonged to the Wiswall family. Though Bradbury writes in his “History of Kennebunkport” that the last two slaves in Arundel died in the poorhouse shortly before 1837, there were West Indiesmen listed as servants in Kennebunkport households as late as 1860.
During the American Revolution, Wiswall was an inspector for the war effort in Arundel. His two cannons were the ones used in the Battle of Cape Porpoise in 1782. (See Cape Porpoise in the American Revolution at www.someoldnews.com.)
Reports of the lightning strike in Arundel appeared for months in newspapers from South Carolina to Boston and New York. The home of Thomas Wiswall, who had previously been referred to in Boston papers as “Innholder of Arundel,” was struck on the evening of June 8, 1786.
His 20 x 25 foot main house had two stories and a garret. An attached one-story el contained the kitchen and a dairy or milk-room. The only chimney passed through the roof at the end of the house nearest the kitchen.
Lighting struck the chimney, de-nailing all the roof boards around it. Iron curtain rods sitting on the attic floor near the chimney directed electricity into the closet of a bedchamber directly below. Wiswall’s gun was leaning in the corner of that closet wrapped in woolen cloth. The stock of the gun broke away from the barrel and the muzzle was instantly melted, setting the woolen cloth case on fire.
Five people were in the house at the time. All of them were in the kitchen except one daughter who was working in the milk-room. All were knocked insensible. When they came around a few minutes later, none could recall the shocking event, though its results were immediately evident.
Every room was affected. The breastwork over every fireplace in the house was torn apart and every window in the house was broken except one that had been left open. Details of the damages were conveyed in an article in the Massachusetts Gazette on July 10, 1786.
“The frame and sashes of one of the kitchen windows, against which a young man was leaning his arm, together with 4 feet of the plate above, were thrown into the yard before the house. In the milk-room, all the shelves were removed from their supporters, and every earthen milk-vessel broken to pieces, out of one of which a daughter was lading milk into a pewter vessel in her hand. In the same room a cheese-tub was overset, and the cheese in a pickle thrown to the other side of the room. The glass bottles, in several cases in the chamber were broken. Four doors in the house were unhinged. The cellar door was burst open, and a dog was found dead in the cellar.”
The Wiswall family regained their senses just in time to extinguish the fire in the bedchamber closet, which had by then, communicated from the gun case to the light clothing hanging above it.
The incident is probably what inspired Thomas Wiswall to start building a new home for his family next door in 1786. The elegant new house, which still stands on Union Street and now houses Ben & Jerry’s, was finished in 1789.
The old blockhouse, a little worse for the wear, was sold to Nathan Morse but was torn down in about 1807. Its cellar hole was still visible across from Silas Perkins’ store in 1837 when Bradbury wrote his “History of Kennebunkport.”