The people of Biddeford began preparing for a Presidential visit as soon as William Howard Taft was inaugurated on March 4, 1909. The first lady’s sister, Eleanor More, had a summer cottage at Biddeford Pool. Her husband, the noted evolutionist, Dr. Louis T More, told the local press to expect an August visit by the first family.
Unfortunately, Nellie Taft suffered a stroke soon after moving into the Whitehouse and the family’s vacation plans were curtailed. Mrs. More stood in for her convalescing sister at all official events and accompanied her to Beverly Massachusetts for the summer. By the end of July Eleanor felt confident enough about her sister’s condition to slip away to her cottage at Biddeford Pool for a few days. To facilitate the trip, the Presidential yacht, “Sylph”, was placed at her disposal.
The impressive 123 foot vessel was anchored near the mouth of the Saco River on the evening of July, 30, 1909. As an entrepreneurial venture, Captain Earnest Vinton of Saco offered a moonlight excursion to closely view the Presidential yacht from his motor launch, the “Item”. Twenty-nine tickets were sold. Captain Vinton had to borrow extra life preservers from the Captain of the “Nimrod” to comply with federal safety regulations that he carry one for each passenger aboard.
It was reported in the Boston Daily Globe that the overcrowded little launch set out from Island Wharf at twilight. After rounding Wood Island she approached the illuminated “Sylph” and passengers gathered on her port side to get a closer look. The little party boat heeled dramatically with the shifting weight. Following an instinct to compensate, the passengers all “jockeyed about” causing the “Item” to suddenly “turn turtle” near Sharps Rocks, spilling her human cargo into the inky water.
Commander of the Presidential Yacht, Lieutenant Roger Williams, heard some of the women cry for help as they struggled to stay afloat in their heavy layers of clothing. He immediately ordered the “Sylph’s” tender, with a five man crew, to the scene of the accident and trained his searchlight on the overturned party boat.
The launch “Nimrod” was the second boat to reach the scene. She carried all the rescued passengers to Saco and Biddeford; all but Mrs. Eugene A. Cutts who had sustained internal injuries when she became entangled in the gearing of the power boat. Mrs. Cutts was taken to the McBride cottage where she died the following day. As the capsized “Item” was towed to Basket Island and beached, the body of a 19 year old Biddeford girl, Miss Katie Lynch, who had probably been trapped inside the cabin, washed ashore on the island. Her companion, Miss Margaret Harvey, 25, was later reported missing but her body would not be recovered until two weeks later.
The accident was investigated by the County Coroner’s office. Benjamin Jackson of Biddeford Pool, who had built the “Item” in 1903, testified that she was designed to carry an engine weighing over 2 tons. A few months before the accident, Vinton had replaced her original engine with one that weighed only 10% as much. While examining the “Item’s” seaworthiness one juryman stepped down from the wharf into the boat and as he did she heeled over very suddenly. “We find from the evidence and from inspection that the said boat “Item”, owing to its form, is unstable, easily capsized and entirely unsafe for the carrying of passengers,” reported Coroner Walter Dennett. Captain Vinton had fulfilled the only existing safety requirement of carrying a life preserver for each passenger so no charges were filed but the loss of three lives rocked the towns of Saco and Biddeford.
At the time of the tragic accident, President Taft was in Florida witnessing Wilbur Wright’s record breaking 10 mile flight, during which the homemade plane reached amazing speeds in excess of 42 miles per hour. Mr. Taft was a big fan of new-fangled modes of transportation. He was finally persuaded to spend one night in Biddeford Pool in 1910. He arrived on an even larger official yacht, the 275 foot “Mayflower”. After enjoying a motorcar ride through the Pool he gave an informal speech at the Abenaki Country Club. The President spent the night at his sister in-law’s cottage and sailed away on the “Mayflower” at 10 o’clock the next morning.
Taft quietly returned to the Pool to visit his family once again just before Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency away from him in 1912. Even in Biddeford, William Howard Taft came in a distant third, after Wilson and Taft’s predecessor, President Theodore Roosevelt.