Tag Archives: Beach

Stranded at the severed end of Old Orchard Pier


A Daring Rescue

Many times during the last 114 years the landmark pier at Old Orchard Beach has succumbed to the forces of nature. Each time it was repaired or rebuilt against significant odds. In one violent spring storm in 1909, six men spent 2 1/2 days marooned at the end of the pier. For a while it looked like they might meet their own end 1/3 of a mile from shore.

The pier was first built in 1898 by the Berlin Bridge Company of East  Berlin, CT. At 25 feet wide by 1770 feet long, the original steel structure was the longest ocean pier in the world. Dedication ceremonies lasted from Saturday July 2, 1898, when ex-mayor Bradbury gave a speech, through the 4th of July when the band first played in the 75×125 foot cafe and dance hall casino pavilion at the end of the pier.

The first summer season was wildly profitable for the Old Orchard Pier Company. In an interview in the Boston Daily Globe dated Dec. 4, 1898, representatives gloated that contrary to many gloomy predictions, the framework of the pier was not bothered in the least by rough weather. “If Sunday’s storm could do no damage no other is likely to.”  They had to eat their words later that night when 150 feet of the 5 month old pier and the enormous pavilion at its end were carried away by a storm. The wreckage came ashore on the beach a short distance from the pier. Damage was repaired and a new casino pavilion was open for business by the end of the following July.

The 1898 incident was the first of many. Lightning, fire and storms have battered several pier structures over the years and continue to do so. Probably the most dramatic reconstruction attempt took place during the spring of 1909.

On March 26, 1909, 300 feet of pier from the middle of its 1770 span was washed away leaving the casino connected to the shore by nothing but a lone electrical wire. One of the principal pier owners, Fred Goodwin, assured the public that work to repair the pier would begin immediately but that was easier said than done. The pier had been shortened by the storm and what was left of the casino would need to be moved nearly 1000 feet closer to shore.

Work was slow to start due to unpredictable weather. According to a report in the Portsmouth Herald, six men were sent in a boat to the end of the pier on the morning of April 30th to prepare for the removal of the casino. Among the workmen were John Freeman and Edward Charland of Old Orchard and John Foss, John Hayes, James Farley and Charles Watson of Biddeford.

Soon after they reached the end of the pier the sky thickened and the sea started churning. The workmen watched helplessly as their tender broke loose and was carried away on a wave. Several rescue parties were formed but each turned back before reaching the castaways.

It was reported in the New York Times that the next day the workmen were still “marooned with no prospect of relief until the tempest subsides.” They hadn’t had food or water for 24 hours. Finally someone noticed the electrical wire still connecting the two parts of the pier. Cans were filled with food and water, sealed up and attached to the wire. When the men at the casino got the signal they pulled the cans to their desert island of steel and wood. This bought some time but rescue was still impossible. The men took shelter in the casino and tore up some of the floorboards for a fire while they waited for the weather to break.

By the next morning the storm had finally begun to subside. More than 100 people gathered on the beach. Fletcher’s Neck life-saving station, seven miles across the bay, was wired to send a lifeboat over. Before the crew got started, however, a “hearty French Canadian boatman, Eugene Bill, dragged his dory down to the water’s edge, and shoving out, grabbed a single oar to guide her -canoe fashion-through ten foot waves.”

The casino loomed 20 feet above the surface of the water. Bill had a well-constructed rope ladder with him, which he was able to toss to one of the men on the pier. Bill struggled to steady the boat for a second while the first man quickly slid down the rope and tumbled into the dory. Each time he took a man off the boatman was obliged to pull away from the pier and then cautiously return. “The waves would allow him to remain but a second else they had dashed his little dory to pieces against the iron pilings of the pier,” wrote the Times reporter.

In this way, Eugene Bill rescued three of the men and then went back out a second time to rescue those remaining at the casino. Thanks to him, all six of the workmen were landed safe and sound after being stranded for 60 hours 1/3 of a mile out to sea.

The steel pier was replaced by a shorter wooden one in 1911. That pier sustained severe damage in several storms of the early 1930s. A stone barge severed the pier during another storm. In 1969, the shore end of the pier was heavily damaged by a fire that also burned Noah’s Ark funhouse, the coal mine ride, the slide and hand-carved merry-go-round. The casino section was torn down in 1970 after damage caused by a storm. The pier was damaged again in 1972 and it was washed away in February of 1978. The present 475 foot pier was built in 1980.

The sunken treasure of the Kennebunk brig Columbia

Brig Columbia and her treasure sank in fifteen minutes
Brig Columbia and her treasure sank in fifteen minutes

United States Congress had little choice but to pass a May 15, 1820 bill authorizing construction of a wooden pier on the western side of the mouth of the Kennebunk River. At least two local trading vessels had met their end trying to navigate the dangerous harbor entrance during the two preceding years. According to Shipping News, both were very familiar with its hazards.

 A sandbar outside the mouth of the river was only two to three feet deep at low water. Navigation guides instructed sailors to anchor between the Fishing Rocks and the mouth of the river, to await high tide. Larger trading vessels were forced to load and unload part of their cargo outside the sandbar.

The 139 ton brig Merchant, Captain Emery, had been built way upriver by Kennebunk shipbuilder, Nathaniel Gilpatrick. She was launched October 13, 1804 and after a West Indies trading career, was cast away on the Kennebunk Bar upon her return from Havana, Cuba at the beginning of April 1820. All her cargo, sails and rigging were reportedly saved.

The 160 ton Brig Columbia, launched upriver just a week after the Merchant, was owned by Joseph Moody, Richard Gilpatrick and Jeremiah Paul. Like the Merchant, she was engaged in West Indies trade with Cuba and Porto Rico.

It was reported in the Daily Advertiser that on her first voyage in January of 1805, the Columbia was boarded and robbed. “Captain Mason in the brig Columbia, was brought to by a privateer schooner under English colors,” read the headline.

The privateer captain ordered Benjamin Mason to come aboard with some of his crew but most of his men being sick, he was unable to comply. Mason was physically forced aboard the privateer by her captain, leaving the Columbia at the mercy of the privateer crew.

The English flag on the raider was immediately pulled down and replaced by Spanish colors. All the Columbia’s fresh supplies, extra canvas, spun yarn and tools were stolen. After being held for two hours and “much abused,” Capt Mason and his sick crew were released and allowed to sail away in the brig Columbia.

An 1807 foreign trade embargo and the War of 1812 crippled shipping in the District of Kennebunk. Local vessels were stored upriver to keep them out of enemy hands and a fort was built on Kennebunk Point to protect the river.

Local businessmen needed loans to endure the financial challenge and protect their shipping investments. The Kennebunk Bank was built in Arundel. Joseph Moody, principal owner of the brig Columbia, was elected President of the institution. National banking regulations requiring that capital be backed by specie (gold or silver) were relaxed during the war but once peace was restored the regulations were enforced. The Kennebunk Bank was forced to reduce its capital by $20,000 and to rent the upstairs of the bank building – now the Louis T. Grave Memorial Library -to the U. S. Government as a Customs House. The Kennebunk bank was repeatedly embarrassed, not having specie sufficient to cover the money it had printed.

On November 17, 1818, the brig Columbia, owned by bank President, Joseph Moody, returned to Kennebunk 28 days from Ponce, Porto Rico with a cargo of molasses, sugar, lignumvitae, and hides. She also had over $1000 specie aboard, likely in the form of gold and silver coins. Captain Lord anchored her outside the Kennebunk sandbar to await the tide and went ashore. It was reported in the Essex Register that Lord returned with one of the owners, a pilot, and some additional hands to get the vessel into the River.

“In beating into port, to windward of the Fishing Rocks, the wind took her aback, and not having room to wear, she struck on one of the rocks, but immediately floated off – no danger was apprehended, but shortly after a Spanish passenger, who was confined to the cabin by sickness, came running on deck and informed that the vessel was half full of water – the people had just enough time to take to the boats losing all their clothes etc. before she sunk, leaving only the ends of her topgallant masts out of water.”

Captain Lord managed to save one small bag of coins but many newspapers reported that up to $1,000 in specie went down with the brig Columbia. Joseph Moody sold what he could salvage from the wreck the following February and collected $5,000 insurance money but it was not reported if the sunken treasure was ever recovered.

Several times in the past 70 years an old wreck has been briefly uncovered at the eastern end of Gooch’s beach. The Brick Store Museum owns an aerial photograph of it taken after a September 1978 storm. It could be the Merchant or the Columbia but like most shipwrecks of the Kennebunks, its identity cannot be verified without archaeological investigation.

Mabel & Richard Boothby-Kennebunk Beach Pioneers

Mabel Littlefield, Skipper, Merchant, Character
Mabel Littlefield, Skipper, Merchant, Character

Mabel Littlefield was born into a Wells family of means in 1702. Her mannerisms were not delicate like her sister’s and her plain appearance was not much improved by an extraordinary fondness for jewelry. But she had the courage and adventurous character of a pioneer.

Peers mocked young Mabel’s looks, incessantly. They assured her that no amount of glittery adornment would ever disguise her obvious unsuitability for marriage. In defense of her dignity Mabel always replied that her jewelry was not worn to please anyone but herself. That was usually followed by a declaration that she intended to marry the handsomest man any of them would ever know.

For a while, it seemed like the hurtful taunts Mabel tried to dismiss might come true. Most of her peers were married and having children by by 1722. Her younger brothers, Peletiah and Jonathan, took to the sea as soon as they came of age, just as they were expected to do, first on their father’s coasting vessels and later on their own. But what was the proud but husbandless Mabel expected to do? Discard her jewels and submit to a lonely, purposeless existence.

Instead, Miss Littlefield learned to sail. She took command of one of her father’s sloops and transported lumber, fish and other merchandise to Boston, returning to Wells with goods for her father’s store. Neither her appearance nor her jewelry was a hindrance at sea. After a few years, her expert seamanship and an innate business sense had earned her a sizable dowry in her own name. When an exceptionally handsome Irishman named Richard Boothby moved to Wells Mabel won him over with her ample endowment of character, intelligence and property.

The couple married in Newington, NH, when Mabel was 28 years old; well past the age of hopeless spinsterhood in 1730. They moved to Richard’s land near what would come to be known as Boothby Beach. Like his wife Mabel, Richard Boothby was proud. Though others referred to him as a tanner and a shoemaker, he always made the distinction of calling himself a “cordwainer” in deeds and official documents. Cordwainers used new hides to make high quality shoes and considered their craft far and away more respectable than that of a lowly cobbler.

The Boothbys became citizens of the newly settled part of Wells called Kennebunk when most of it was wilderness and Indian attacks were still an ever-present threat. In 1746, Richard Boothby and his neighbors petitioned the Wells parish to allow them to be set off as a separate parish they would share with residents of Arundel that lived near the eastern side of Kennebunk River. Arundel, as Kennebunkport was then called, had its own jurisdictional issues. The only church in town was in Cape Porpoise. Those living near the Kennebunk River had a long way to travel for worship. The petition was at first ignored but residents of the Kennebunk district of Wells persisted and a parish was finally established at Kennebunk Landing on March 14, 1751.

Arundel inhabitants living near the River sometimes took communion at the new Kennebunk Meeting House even though it was not officially their parish. Richard and Mabel Boothby were highly indignant that such informal attendance should be permitted. Daniel Remich wrote in his History of Kennebunk, “They looked upon it as presumptuous, and a great offense, and were unwilling to countenance such aberration from duty by communing with them.” The Boothbys refused to attend the church they had fought so hard to establish.

Once Richard and Mabel were assured that they would no longer be required to break bread with people from Arundel they renewed their membership in the church. Perhaps they were influenced to return by the loss of five of their children during the 1754 throat distemper epidemic in Kennebunk.  When the building of a new church was proposed in 1767 Richard Boothby was one of the few who opposed it. For one reason or another, the new church building was not completed until after both Richard and Mabel had passed.

Richard Boothby died in Jan 2, 1782.   His funeral was every bit as elaborate as his wealthy father in-law, Jonathan Littlefield’s had been though the Boothbys were much less able to afford such extravagance. Special black gloves were ordered from Boston for the ladies and the pall bearers along with yards and yards of fabric and ribbon. Proud Mabel lived to be 96 years old.

Pioneers Mabel and Richard Boothby were progenitors of a large and estimable Kennebunk family. Author Kenneth Roberts found Mabel’s story so compelling he used her as a character in his historical fiction.

Steamer Clotilda ashore at Wells Beach 1870

British Steamer Clotilda
British Steamer Clotilda

Steamer Clotilda went ashore at Wells Beach on December 13, 1870.

The steamer ran into rough seas that caused her heavy cargo to move. Her Master, Captain Young, put into Dublin, Ireland where 100 tons of coal was dropped in around the cargo to prevent further shifting. As a result of the considerable delay Clotilda’s destination was changed to Portland, Maine.

Contemporary accounts of the Wells Beach accident were published in the Eastern Argus and the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier. A statement of the “material facts” is also included in a subsequent lawsuit filed against the ship and her cargo by Nathaniel Lord Thompson of Kennebunk. It appears in Volume 1 of Reports of Judgments of Hon. Edward Fox U.S. District Judge for Maine District First Circuit, “The weather at the time was stormy, dark and foggy, and blowing a double reef top-sail breeze with a heavy sea. The beach is of sand, quite flat, affording very poor holding-ground, and is at the head of Wells Bay, exposed to the full force of the winds and waves. The vessel went on at a low run of tides, near high water, and the sea broke heavily over her stern, she being fast in the breakers”. Clotilda’s stern, rose and fell digging her deeper and deeper into the soft sand.

The officers went ashore and found lodgings at the house of Mr. Owen Davis, who lived nearby. Robert Cleaves of Kennebunk approached the captain and offered his services to salvage the cargo. Young proposed to pay 1/4 of the shipped value for the discharge of the cargo on the beach above the spring tides to make the ship lighter and easier to get afloat. Cleaves accepted the proposal and the same evening a written contract was signed. Cleaves paid his men $2.00 per tide and ox teams with drivers were paid $4.00 per tide to unload all the soda, and glass, a portion of the sails and about seventy-five percent of the ferry parts. As the cargo was removed the lightened steamer moved 500-600 feet up the beach and turned broadside to the water with some of her hull being 13 feet deep in the sand. 150 tons of that sand worked its way into the ship. Having done all he could Cleaves assigned his contract with Young to Captain Nathaniel Lord Thompson of Kennebunk.

Thompson released the ship and her remaining cargo to the underwriters who, in March of 1871, hired the New York Coast Wrecking Company to get Clotilda afloat. An article in the Eastern Argus published July 7, 1871 described their Herculean task. “The wreckers first had to cut her round so that her stern would point off shore. By the aid of two steam pumps, a steam winch of great power, and four anchors weighing 4,000 pounds each, one 20 inch and three 16 inch cables they turned her and hove her 1,000 feet to where she floated. Five times these heavy anchors were hove home and had to be replanted. As fast as they moved her down the beach they had to fill her with water to keep her from breaking up. On the full spring tide of the second month they expected to get her off, but their anchors failed. It was very difficult to work upon her as she listed so that cleats had to be nailed upon her decks for the men to walk upon”. The steamer finally floated off on June 29, 1871 and was towed to Union Wharf in Portland. Clotilda was not in good condition after sitting on Wells Beach for six months. The Eastern Argus reported, “She is the picture of a wreck: rusted, woodwork off, smoke stack and lower masts standing, dismantled and decks encumbered with the wrecking paraphernalia.”

The steamer was repaired and then sat at Union Wharf under the control of the United States Marshall for almost another year pending Nathaniel Lord Thompson’s lawsuit but was finally cleared from Boston for Liverpool, England in May of 1872.

Victor Vernon, guest aviator at Kennebunk Beach

Mr. Atwater Kent to the rescue
Mr. Atwater Kent to the rescue

Kennebunk Beach had its usual array of summer sojourners in August 1914 but the fresh sea breezes were tainted by the scent of trepidation. Even though President Woodrow Wilson had quickly tried to balance declarations of war in Europe with his own declaration that the United States would remain neutral, the specter of war was omnipresent. As a diversion, the manager of the Atlantis Hotel invited aviator Victor Vernon to stay at the hotel for free with his family if he offered tourist rides on his new-fangled, Curtiss Flying Boat, The Betty V.

Before World War I, aviators were fearless pioneers. Some might even call them reckless. Vernon had been a car salesman for the American Automobile Manufacturing Company only a few months earlier. When the company went into receivership, Victor, who had seen a plane land on the water the previous summer, went to Hammondsport, N.Y., took a few flying lessons from a Curtiss test pilot, and purchased the newest model “hydro-aeroplane” money could buy. He had given just a few exhibitions flights on Lake Erie when he disassembled his Flying Boat and had her shipped by railroad to Portland, Maine.

Little more than a decade earlier, the Wright Brothers had made their first 20-minute flight. The Curtiss Flying Boat was touted the world over as “the sportsman’s vehicle of the future,” and “a marvel of engineering.” The mahogany-hulled, hydroplane was as beautiful as she was fast. Equipped with a 90-horsepower motor she could reach speeds of 60 miles per hour on the water and 75 mph in the air.

Vernon hoped to make a pretty penny flying passengers over Kennebunk Beach or at the very least, enjoy a luxurious summer holiday with his family for free. The Atlantis Hotel, advertised as “a hotel of the very best class,” was built in 1903 in the Spanish mission style. Private bathrooms were available for those willing to pay extra; a rare luxury in 1914. Victor Vernon offered rides from Middle Beach where privileged hotel guests could watch him take off and land from the veranda. His best customer was Atwater Kent, who owned a cottage near St Ann’s by the Sea, in Kennebunkport. Kent had made his fortune by inventing an automobile ignition system that could be engaged from inside the car. He loved any cutting-edge thing with a motor and couldn’t get enough of the Betty V. He showed up day after day to fly with Vernon, sometimes with Mrs. Kent and sometimes alone.

“During Mr. Kent’s first ride with me,” Victor Vernon wrote in his memoirs, “a wave top broke over the Betty V when landing and dampened the magneto. The motor stopped and we started drifting toward a rocky section of the beach near our point of operation. I shouted to Mr. Kent what was most undoubtedly the trouble, but he, an electrical expert, already knew and offered to climb up alongside the motor, remove the magneto cover, clean and dry it out and replace — no easy job in a pitching, rolling ‘boat,’ and not good for his flannels, either. He did an expert job just in time as when I cranked the motor and she caught with welcomed roar, we were only a few feet from huge, jagged boulders and rocks stretching out from shore into deep water and being swept by the waves. He was the highest priced, but unpaid mechanic ever voluntarily serving under similar circumstances, I’m sure.”

After several weeks at Kennebunk Beach, Victor received a phone call from the Chairman of the Labor Day Celebration Committee, Bar Harbor, Maine. He was offered $500 to fly there in time to make an exhibition flight on Labor Day. All his expenses were to be covered. With the economic uncertainty of war looming Vernon accepted the offer, even though no such flight over the ocean had ever been attempted. Nationwide newspaper coverage of the flight made Victor Vernon a household name.

“Victor Vernon made an over-water flight of 150 miles yesterday from Kennebunkport to Bar Harbor,” wrote a reporter for the Lowell Sun on Sept. 4, 1914. “The hydro-aeroplane flight made at 2,000 feet took 2 hours – 32 minutes of actual flying time. Three stops were made; the first at Port Clyde for supplies, a second at Rockland and the third at Northeast Harbor, which the aviator mistook for Bar Harbor.”

By 1916, American participation in World War I seemed probable. Vernon was approached by the Signal Corps, which at that time was the aviation branch of the U.S. Army. The U.S. Air Force had not yet been organized. He accepted the position of chief civilian instructor in its new aviation training program. During the war, Victor Vernon tested Flying Boats built by the U.S. Navy to patrol for U-boats and deliver torpedoes.

Meteorological Freak Week 1926

Nature's Onslaught
Nature\’s Onslaught

Something was amiss with the cosmos during the third week of July 1926. The temperature hovered near 100 all up and down the eastern seaboard and as far west as Ohio. All but convicted murderers were released from the stifling prisons in North Carolina where temperatures reached 107. Hundreds slept out in the open on the Boston Common.

Just before sunrise on July 18th a blinding bluish light filled the cloudless Maine sky from Dexter to Saco. The flash was immediately followed by an explosive sound that awakened the whole City of Portland. Professor Charles Hutchins of the Physics Department at Bowdoin College confirmed to the press that a meteor had exploded over the crook in the Androscoggin River.

Hours earlier a 14 year old boy had witnessed the bursting of a large bright light in his grandfather’s Vermont cornfield. On the morning of July 18th he collected a handful of porous meteor fragments layered with quartz that he found lying on top of the plowed earth. Robert Dunklee, the boy’s father, telephoned authorities at the Harvard College Observatory and promised to send the rocks to Cambridge by express mail.

The scientists, who had just received a call from Professor Hutchins at Bowdoin, were puzzled. Meteors did not typically contain quartz. Furthermore, it was way too early in the season for these incidents to be part of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. Seven unexpected fireballs had also been documented the previous November and December. One that exploded over Hornell, NY was reported to be the size of a freight car but no fragments of that celestial body were ever recovered.

At 3pm on the afternoon of July 18th the people of Portsmouth and Kittery observed a huge dusky cloud approaching from the northwest. Within five minutes the worst summer storm in their history was upon them. Vivid lightning struck. Torrential rain flooded the streets. Golf ball sized hail swirled into Portsmouth. Some of the hail was actually tiny stones coated in ice. The stones were smooth, polished white quartz like those one might find on a beach. The nearest beach with all white quartz stones was Rye Beach some 8 miles to the south. Hail that fell on Kittery was strange, too; 5 1/2 inch disks of ice indicating 3 separate freezes inside the cloud.

Terrific wind hurled the rocks and the hail in a circular motion breaking hundreds of windows. Thirty minutes later the storm had lifted leaving destruction in its wake. Farmer’s crops were flattened and some of their cows were dead. Storekeeper’s goods were ruined by the water that poured through broken windows. Banks of frozen rocks and golf ball hail had to be shoveled out of dining rooms. There was not enough glass in Portsmouth to repair 1/3 of the broken windows and it hadn’t even rained in Dover, NH.

Meanwhile, the railroad station at Brockton, MA had been destroyed by lightning. 500 seats at Fenway Park were lifted away from their bolts and deposited by a 100 mile an hour gust of wind into the center of the grandstand, twisted and broken. A 90 foot steeple was blown off the Asbury Methodist Church in Springfield, MA.

The damage was still not completely repaired on July 22, when a great brown cloud appeared high over Portsmouth. This time it came from the Southwest in dirty whirlwinds. Though it lasted but 10 minutes the second storm effected a larger area. A Dover, NH house lost its roof. At Gray Lodge in Kittery, Phyllis Gray was giving a bridge party on her front lawn. One of her guests didn’t have time to get up off the lawn pillow upon which she was lounging. She was rolled 100 feet across the grass. Wind swept through York Beach with a force that picked up men, women and children, swirled them in the air and then dropped them banged and bruised on the sand. Several York Beach cottages were blown from their foundations. The bell tower at The Nubble was blown off its base and moved 4 feet to the edge of a deep cliff. Two lifeboats at the Ogunquit lifesaving station were splintered. Three houses were destroyed at Wells Beach.

In Kennebunkport, author Booth Tarkington had put out in his three-ton motor boat, the Zantu seeking relief from the heat. He was accompanied by his secretary Betty Trotter and Captain Harry Thirkell. When they were near an island 6 miles from shore, a fire started on the boat. Tarkington and Thirkell sustained minor burns extinguishing the fire but that was the least of their problems. The ignition wires had burned through and the craft was disabled. Betty and Captain Thirkell began the long row to shore for assistance leaving Tarkington to guard the anchored Zantu. Just as the dingy was reaching shore, storm clouds darkened the sky. The Zantu was buffeted about until her anchor rope parted. Tarkington, headed out alone into the dark open sea, set paper fires in a bucket to make his vessel more visible. His last scrap of paper was burning when Captain John Peabody finally spotted him and towed him back to shore through convulsing waves.

Temperatures in southern Maine dropped from 104 F before the storm to 72 F immediately after. Freak Week on the east coast resulted in 160 deaths and over $1,000,000 in damages. The sudden storms were called cyclones in 1926 newspapers but in retrospect they were more likely tornados.

Living landmarks of the York County coast

Pre-historic tree stumps at Kennebunk Beach
Pre-historic tree stumps at Kennebunk Beach

Mainers paid homage to the role trees had played in the history of their state by selecting the pine cone and tassel as Maine’s official floral emblem in 1895. For hundreds of years trees had provided timber for their homes, masts for their ships, fuel for their fires and food for their tables. Scientists, historians and journalists have recognized the significance of a few particular living landmarks on York County’s coast.

Stumps of ancient white pine trees rooted in peat were uncovered on Wells Beach by wave erosion in 1955. Radiocarbon dating performed in 1959 by geologist Arthur M. Hussey indicates that, 3,000 years ago, these trees were growing in a wooded upland, but were gradually drowned by the rising sea level. As the topography changed, the dunes moved up and over the ancient roots. Similar stumps have also been found in the intertidal area along Kennebunk Beach.

Charles Bradbury, in his 1837 “History of Kennebunkport,” wrote about a mysterious reference in 17th century town records to a marker at the “cursed fruit.” Historian Ruth Landon later identified the reference as an apple tree near Tyler Brook, the bitter fruit of which had inspired the name.

Cape Arundel cedar tree
Cape Arundel cedar tree

In her 1901 book, “Ropes Ends,” Kennebunkport librarian and author, Annie Peabody Brooks, published a photograph of a little bonsai-like cedar tree growing out of the rocks at Cape Arundel. Her caption read, “Old as Capt. Gosnold.” Starting in the 1890s, the same photo was periodically printed in tourist publications and the scraggly cedar became an icon of Cape Arundel’s picturesque rocky shoreline. The tenacious little conifer was still clinging to the rocks in 1950 when artist Frank Handlen captured its likeness in a pastel now owned by the Kennebunkport Historical Society.

A notable landmark at Beachwood (aka Goose Rocks Beach) was described by a Boston Daily Globe correspondent 1911. “In a broad expanse of eye-pleasing landscape in the village of Beachwood, a part of the town of Kennebunkport, Me, stands a group of old birches, long known to the native dwellers and summer sojourners as the ‘Twelve Apostles.’ From good viewpoints they can be seen from miles around and old time residents of the village say that originally there were 12 trees, healthy, white of bark and glorious in green foliage when the months of bloom rolled their courses.”

The majestic anatomy of elm trees often qualified them for landmark status. On May 17, 1826, a giant elm located 1½ miles from the Wells shore was uprooted in a late spring gale. The New Hampshire Statesman and Concord Register reported the loss. “The Great Elm, in Wells Me, which has long been a landmark for vessels entering that harbor, was blown down in the gale on the 17th ult. It was estimated to be 100 feet in height and rose 60 feet clear of limbs. Its circumference was 27 feet, 4 inches.”

Kennebunk has had its own iconic elms. Vintage postcards of the tree growing through the roof of the first Storer Mansion barn are still among the most prized eBay finds. The barn was built in 1855 by owner Captain Lord. Wishing to save the stately elm that stood in the way of his barn expansion, Lord left a hole in the middle of the new structure allowing the tree to grow unimpeded. Lattice and lead flashing wrapped around the opening had to be adjusted periodically as the trunk expanded. Kennebunk Town Historian, Kathy Ostrander, writes in her 2005 book, “Kennebunk,” that the barn was torn down in 1929.

Kennebunk's Lafayette Elm
Lafayette Elm

In the field next to the Storer Mansion stood the Lafayette Elm named for the French General who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War and who furthered French commitment to American interests. The wildly popular Marquis de Lafayette visited towns all over New England in 1825. At Kennebunk, an elaborate celebration was planned to honor his service to America. All the well-heeled ladies in town were invited to the Storer Mansion to meet the French dignitary, whose admiration of women was notorious. They reportedly dined in the shade of an already formidable elm tree. The Lafayette Elm succumbed to Dutch elm disease in 1971, but a slice of its trunk was saved by the Brick Store Museum. Naming an elm tree in honor of Lafayette’s excursion was apparently not an idea that originated in Kennebunk. The “Lafayette Elms” scattered all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire might lead a student of history to conclude that General Lafayette toured the elm trees of New England in 1825.

Many of the beautiful trees we wiz by in our cars every day were admired by horseback-riding residents of the Province of Maine and should be treasured as a link to our ancestors.

Dangerous late August undertow

Tragedy at Wells Beach in 1883
Tragedy at Wells Beach in 1883

The beautiful beaches of York County have been drawing bathers from far and wide since bathing suits had collars, but frolicking in summer’s capricious surf has never been without its risks.

On the morning of Aug. 23, 1883, a party of several vacationing families from Washington, D.C. and the Boston area set out from the Bald Head Cliff House in a holiday frame of mind. They boarded a hotel-operated transport boat for Ogunquit Beach, which crossed the river and deposited them at their usual recreation spot on the sand bar. Heavy surf had, unbeknownst to them, scooped out a deep gully inside of the bar. The party entered the surf at a young flood tide which gradually moved them en masse toward the newly formed gulch as they leapt and laughed in the surging water.

Katie Safford and Edward Gould, both teenagers from Massachusetts, had struck out on their own intending to cross the usually shallow water between the bar and the shore when they suddenly found themselves in water over their heads. Rev. Little, his two sons and young Greenough Thayer, responded to their cries for help, leaving Mrs. Little, Miss Marsh and Emma Gould on the bar in the protective custody of Mr. Kimball, a reporter for the associated press who later recounted the details of the accident.

As the bar became submerged, the ladies, in their water-logged layers of modesty, were no match for the undertow and clung to Mr. Kimball’s bathing suit collar. Lashed together that way they started to sink and would all have drowned then and there had Mr. Kimball not managed to free himself. Rev. Little rushed to the aid of the ladies, but by the time he reached them, Miss Gould had sunk and Miss Marsh had floated away. With much difficulty, he managed to get his unconscious wife ashore. Miss Marsh, a woman of considerable size, was floating unconscious, facedown in the water. It took two of the men to drag her ashore and turn her over. Local fishermen saw the struggle and crossed the Ogunquit River to help, but in the end, four teenage lives were lost: Harvard sophomore Greenough Thayer, Rev. Little’s son, Eddie, Katie Safford and Emma Gould.

Mrs. Little and Miss Marsh were rushed to Dr. Gordon’s office. Their conditions remained precarious for two days, but they both eventually recovered. Due to unusually heavy seas the last of the bodies of the dead were not recovered until nine days after the accident. During all those days and nights family members and townspeople stood watch on the beach dreading and hoping for their recovery.

At Kennebunk Beach, 22-year-old Walter J. Beck of Hartford, Conn., died attempting to save Anna V. Johnson from drowning on Aug. 26, 1915. Mr. Beck and his mother were conducting a boarding house in Kennebunkport that summer. He, his brother in-law, and some of their friends were playing ball on the beach when they heard Miss Johnson’s cries for help. She had been wading in the surf when the undertow and a strong river current swept her a hundred feet offshore. Walter plunged into the water and swam to Miss Johnson’s aid while his brother in-law ran for his boat. The Hartford Courant reported, “His brother-in-law came up in a motorboat and rescued her but in the excitement Beck was forgotten. When his companions noted that he was missing and thought to look for him he had disappeared.”

Another accident at Drake’s Island Beach on Aug. 26, 1927 had a happier outcome. Seven members of the summer colony there were riding the surf and were knocked off their feet by high waves. Caught in the undertow, they could not regain their footing. “They were being swept rapidly out to sea when their cries reached shore,” wrote a reporter from the New York Times. “Donald Strever of Ballston Spa, N.Y. and John Shaw of Lowell, Mass., obtained a long rope and struck out with it from shore. They were joined by four other bystanders who formed a human chain.” Thanks to quick thinking on the part of Stever and Shaw and the concerted efforts of many, all seven bathers were saved.

When one considers the number of people who have enjoyed York County’s beaches since the mid-nineteenth century, accidents have been few and far between. Though they were separated by many years, these three incidents all resulted from overwhelming late August undertow.