Governor Robie on the rocks
The Governor Robie went ashore at Timber Island in the wee hours of March 5, 1889. The Bath, Maine, built ship had sailed from Philadelphia for Hiogo, Japan on April 3, 1888 and arrived at the end of July after an uneventful voyage.
There she loaded a cargo of camphor wax, bamboo seeds, rags for Maine’s Cumberland Paper Mill and valuable Japanese curios for a New York concern; one pair of vases alone were worth $1,000.
Captain William H. Blanchard of Searsport, his wife Clara and daughter Eleanora had been away from home for nearly a year but they traveled in relative comfort aboard the 6-year-old fully rigged ship. Their cabin was elegantly furnished with some of the comforts of home, like a piano and a well stocked library. This was in sharp contrast to the quarters provided for the crew.
The Governor Robie sailed from Japan for Portland, Maine, in October. She carried 16 men before the mast, eight of whom were Japanese sailors. There were also three mates and a captain’s steward. This leg of the journey was fraught with setbacks.
One of the crewmen took sick and had to be left at Santiago, Cuba. A week before the wreck a Japanese sailor became fouled by the wheel and broke his shoulder blade, an arm and a leg. Several of the crewmen were sick but had to remain at their posts because their numbers had already dwindled to dangerous levels on the 228-foot ship.
A reporter for the Biddeford Journal interviewed Mr. Phillips, the third mate, who told him the ship was making about four knots and was under full sail when she struck the rocks at 1:50 a.m.
There was no sound in the darkness to indicate that they were near land. “Without an instant warning,” he said, “the ship struck upon a ledge glancing off for fully one hundred yards, and finally bringing up firmly upon the rocks.”
Life boats arrived from Biddeford Pool just as Mr. William Sinnett from Cape Porpoise was attempting to get his fishing dory close enough to the ship to load the people off.
The sick crewmen were taken to the Pool’s life-saving station and Captain Blanchard and his family, were delivered to the Curtis House on Timber Point. Two tug boats came out of Portland that afternoon but were unsuccessful in their attempts to float the Governor Robie off at high tide.
Samuel Adams Drake, in his book “The Pine-Tree Coast,” lamented the secret hope held by onlookers that the ship would break up.
He wrote: “Land-sharks along shore look upon a wreck as their peculiar prey. A strange sort of ethics, truly! If a man should be caught in the act of robbing a wrecked railway train, he would deserve to be lynched on the spot, and public sentiment would doubtless justify the saving of time and trouble to the state. But if some unlucky ship meets a like fate, under conditions involving peril, hardship, and even life itself, the unwritten code of the shore delivers her up to be plundered by the first comers.”
Thousands flocked to Goose Rocks Beach to witness the salvage efforts during the 10 days that followed, many of whom tried to board the disabled vessel. Daily reports in the Biddeford Journal predicted a disastrous outcome.
Two more tug boats were sent from Boston each with a lighter in tow. The marine underwriting firm of Leavitt Chase & Co. began loading the fully insured cargo onto the lighters and employed watchmen to protect the ship from looters.
Three hundred bales of rags were temporarily stored on the dock at Biddeford Pool. The people of Biddeford protested fearing that the rags carried the contagious disease that had afflicted the crew. Mayor Goodwin ordered a consultation with the city physician and based on his assurances allowed the wreckers to continue their work. At each high tide another attempt was made to float the Governor Robie off ,but even with four tugboats on the job they had no success. Between tides the underwriters worked continuously to lighten the load. Finally, on the morning of March 15, 1889, after one of the tugs had been called back to Boston the Governor Robie slipped off her bed of rocks and was towed to Portland.
Read the original newspaper accounts of the wreck of the Gov Robie