Cape Porpoise Gold Rush

Extracting gold from seawater
Extracting gold from seawater

Tiny Fort Island, connected at low water to Stage Island, has a rich and colorful history. Cape Porpus Settlers huddled behind the fort there during a 1689 Indian attack. In 1894, Harvard student, Henry F. Knight described colonial artifacts he had collected on the island at a meeting of the Maine Historical Society and again to an audience of summer visitors at the Langsford House.

Melville Freeman, in his History of Cape Porpoise writes “Fort Island was also at one time the scene of considerable granite quarrying”. The Cape Porpoise Land Company purchased it on July 2, 1897. During the year that followed, frenzied activities there were shrouded in secrecy.

The United States had suffered high unemployment rates, recession and bank failures during the 1890s. Alaska’s Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897, offered a glimmer of financial hope to many desperate Americans.

One Martha’s Vinyard born Baptist Minister in Middletown, CT alienated his congregation by making Catholic-like noises from the pulpit and thereby joined the thronging ranks of the unemployed. Reverend Prescott Jernegan saw a solution to his financial woes in the new public obsession with bling. He claimed to have invented a process for extracting gold from seawater by some secret combination of electrical and chemical reaction.

Several capitalists were invited to accompany Jernegan to a little shack at the end of a deserted wharf on the Rhode Island coast. There he promised they would witness the first test of his mysterious “Accumulator”. The apparatus consisted of a box containing mercury. Two platinum wires ran under water from the box to a homemade battery at the wooded shore. In the presence of the capitalists the accumulator was lowered into the water through a trap door in the floor of the dark little hut.

The minister had enlisted the help of experienced diver and childhood friend, Charles Fisher, who hid nearby in his diving suit until candles were lit inside the shack. Then he slipped into the water and using the platinum wires as his guide found the box, replaced the mercury with gold and returned to the shore undetected.

At sunrise the box was examined and a jeweler in the party certified that the accumulator indeed contained grains of real gold. The capitalists in attendance became excited and begged the minister to let them invest in his invention. With feigned reluctance, he accepted enough money to set up a full scale operation in Lubec, Maine. The 20 foot tides at the easternmost town in the United States would maximize their gold collection opportunities, Jernegan said and security would be easier to maintain at such a remote location. The Electrolytic Marine Salts Company was incorporated with a capital stock of $10,000,000 in shares of $1 each.

Several of the capitalists who witnessed Jernegan’s successful demonstration were summer residents of Kennebunkport. Rather than purchasing expensive shares of his company they made plans to reproduce his apparatus on Fort Island. May B. Whiting, regular contributor to Henry Ford’s publication, The Dearborn Independent, wrote about the Stage Harbor Gold Rush in 1926.

“On Fort Island, off Cape Porpoise, they erected a clubhouse but instead of the customary furnishings they installed pumps of the largest and most expensive make. For a week they pumped. They pumped the ocean side and they pumped the harbor side, but mud remained mud and sand remained sand with never a gleam”.

Melville Freeman wrote “The little building which now stands on the island was built around the turn of the century to house the large water tanks belonging to a corporation which was formed to extract gold from sea water. It was found that gold could indeed be obtained in this manner but at a cost of about five dollars for every dollar’s worth of the precious metal”. In the August 1898 Wave it was reported that the furnished cabin at Fort Island was a perfect picnic retreat. Clearly, all gold prospecting had ceased.

The Lubec Gold Plant proved no more successful. Reverend Jernegan and large amounts of his stockholder’s money disappeared In July of 1898. He was never tried for his crimes but paid for it in a bizarre twist of poetic justice. The swindler discovered a British company that claimed to have found the secret of extracting gold from seawater. Believing the process to be genuine, Jernegan invested his entire fortune in the fraudulent company.

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