Terra not so firma in 1834
The slippery clay earth along the banks of the Kennebunk River has, more than once, slid into the channel changing the path it meanders.
An article in the Kennebunk Gazette described one such alteration in the river’s course. “A curious migration took place at the Landing during the night of June 11, 1834. About one-fourth of an acre of land, on the eastern bank of Kennebunk River, opposite the dwelling-house of the late Mr. Benjamin Durrell, slid into the river, carrying away nearly one-half of Durrell’s draw-bridge, and nearly filling up the channel for a rod or more. Where, on Wednesday, a ship of the largest size then built on the river might have laid afloat, on Thursday morning the river could be forded without difficulty. The land moved in a solid mass, and the apple trees upon it stood as firmly and as erect, and looked as flourishing, in their new situation as they did the previous day on the location where they were reared.”
Charles Bradbury wrote in his History of Kennebunkport that two other landslides had carried full grown oak trees, and the soil in which they grew, into the middle of the river below Durrell’s bridge.
News of an avalanche in 1670 on the western side of the Kennebunk River found its way to England and came to be known as The Wonder. The few Europeans that had settled on the banks of the Kennebunk River lived close to the ocean and did not witness the event, but it was estimated to have occurred in late June or early July. Word of the miraculous movement of earth reached John Winthrop Jr., the eldest son of the first Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The younger Winthrop was serving as Connecticut’s governor in 1670 when he asked two trusted friends to investigate Kennebunk River’s surprising rearrangement. Hartakendon Symons of Salem, who had previously lived in Wells and was familiar with its topography, and Major William Phillips of Saco, reported their findings to the Governor that he might notify the Royal Society.
John Winthrop Jr. was a founding member of The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. The somewhat secretive organization, whose Latin motto “Nullius in Verba” means “on the words of no one,” was predominately made up of Freemasons and was formed in 1660 to solve the mysteries of the 17th century world without regard to religion. Sir Francis Bacon and alchemist Sir Isaac Newton were both quiet devotees as was King Charles II.
In a letter to fellow Royal Society member Lord Brereton, dated Oct. 11, 1670, Winthrop conveyed an almost magical interpretation of the Kennebunk landslide. “There was a hill near Kennebunk River in the Province of Maine which is removed out of its place,” he wrote. “The hill being almost eight rods from Kennebunk river’s side on the West side of the river, about four miles from the sea, was removed from its place over the dry land about eight rods or perches, and over the tops of the trees also, between the hill and the river, leaping as it were over them into the river, where it was placed the upper part being downward, and dammed up the river till the water did work itself a passage through it. The earth of it is a blue clay without stones; many round bullets were within it, which seem to be of the same clay hardened.”
Charles Bradbury suggested in his 1837 book that said hill might actually have slid under the tangled roots of the trees at the river’s edge in 1670, leaving a gaping hole where the hill had been. He also offered a plausible explanation for the “round bullets” described in Winthrop’s letter. The pellets, he believed, were formed in nearby Wonder Brook when the stream “running over clayey land, caused little falls of water of a foot or more, at the bottoms of which, by the constant falling of the water, holes of some little depth were worn shaped like a mortar. Small pieces of clay being carried into these hollows were by the rotary action of the water, worn round and smooth and were baked in the summer, by the sun, when the brook became dry.”
Whether you believe, as Winthrop did, that a hill in Kennebunk leapt in the air and landed upside down in the river or that The Wonder was nothing more exotic than wet slippery clay responding to gravity, the banks of the Kennebunk River near the Landing have proved unstable and could someday slip again.
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