Tag Archives: Biddeford Pool

The Kennebunk Racket

A Popular Violation

“NATIONAL PROHIBITION BECOMES EFFECTIVE AT MIDNIGHT TONIGHT!” screamed newspaper headlines across the United States on Jan. 16, 1920. Maine had been dry since 1851 and the Kennebunks since 1833 but a federal law against liquor caused crime rates to skyrocket.

Enforcement of the Maine Liquor Law had been intermittent at best. Federal Prohibition made smuggling alcohol by land and by sea far more profitable. Seth May of Auburn was appointed Maine’s Federal Prohibition Director. The unorthodox methods he employed to gain compliance from incarcerated informants invited corruption in county and local law enforcement.

In 1926, May’s methods were scrutinized during a corruption case against the sheriff of Kennebec County. Testimony revealed that the feds had allowed a large shipment of alcohol from a known Massachusetts bootlegger to be delivered to inmates of the Kennebec County Jail. They looked the other way with regard to gambling among the inmates. Women, who would later report relevant conversations to the feds, were procured for “private visitation” with informants.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials were expected to use all the resources at their disposal to arrest every tipsy teenage flapper doing the Charleston at the summer beach resorts. Tensions grew. Corruption spread.

On July 18, 1930, the following notice appeared in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.

“A Kennebunk Traffic Officer, who from his post of directing motorists, allegedly acted as a go-between for bootleggers and their customers, was held on a charge of violating the federal prohibition law when arraigned before U.S. Commissioner George O. Gould at Portland Wednesday.”

Officer Thomas F. Nadeau and Edward Brown, both of Kennebunk, were caught red-handed delivering a gallon of whiskey to undercover federal prohibition agents who had been posing as summer visitors at Kennebunk Beach. Also arrested were James McBride, Howard O. Hatt and George F. Clough. Edward Brown and James C. McBride were employees of the Kennebunk municipal lighting plant, where it was alleged, the liquor was being stored.

It was reported in the Biddeford Journal that Seth May had moved his men in to break up a longstanding conspiracy he called the “Racket of Kennebunk Square.”

“Federal Prohibition Director Seth May of Auburn, believes that he has broken up one of the rum rings operating at Kennebunk Beach, Kennebunkport and vicinity among the summer visitors with the arrest of the five men there Tuesday night. Director May considers that the arrest of George F. Clough, a summer resident of Kennebunkport, who he terms ‘a high hat bootlegger delivering the best that could be procured,’ to be highly important in breaking up the rum-running to the summer people at that point. Clough has been arrested by deputies on liquor charges in the past and spent six months in a Rhode Island jail for a similar offense last year. He is one of the ‘boys’ referred to on the golf links who could tell where he could buy ‘It,’ which is the high hat way of referring to liquor among the elite of the summer colony.”

May suspected that the Kennebunk ring was also responsible for the liquor supply at Wells, Ogunquit and York beaches, where canvassers made daily rounds to take orders and liquor would be delivered the same evening.

Residents of Kennebunk anonymously told the Journal reporter that most of the supply has been coming in by water through Cape Porpoise and through Fortunes Rocks and Biddeford Pool. One resident who claimed to have known the operations of the ring for some time, stated that an airplane had also been used when the water routes were too closely guarded but mostly the supply was delivered by speedboats.

Three men renting the Reid cottage near the mouth of the Saco River had been arraigned for conspiracy the previous November. Their confiscated code book contained characters and messages which indicated the place was being used as a satellite base for a large band of rum-runners out of Gun Point at Harpswell. Schooners full of European liquor were unloaded at Ragged Island. From there speedboats took the liquor in and out of  Maine coastal resort harbors delivering to go-betweens onshore. The Gun Point operation was thought to be part of an even larger crime syndicate delivering prohibited liquor all up and down the east coast of the United States.

When former Liquor Czar of the Boston Police Department Oliver B. Barrett, was on the lamb in 1930 to avoid charges that he extorted protection money from Boston hotels, Maine Prohibition Director Seth May speculated that he was the secret kingpin of the Harpswell/Saco/Kennebunk Racket. Though Barrett served time for his Boston shenanigans, no connection to the Maine Liquor Racket was ever proven.

The illegal liquor trade in Maine may seem tame in comparison to the organized crime that sprang out of Prohibition in the big cities, but there was plenty of excitement here. Seth May’s men charged with protecting his cache of recovered alcohol were armed with machine guns. An arsenal of firearms was recovered from the bootlegger’s cottage in Harpswell. Shots were fired at York Beach in 1927.

Federal agents flagged down a bootlegger driving a Packard down Main Street in Kennebunk in 1924. The car was loaded with 150 gallons of whiskey and the driver Anthony Rossi did not want to stop. Agent Ernest L. Jones managed to jump onto the running board of the car. Rossi cut in and out of side streets in an attempt to shake the agent off but was brought to a stop when Jones shut off the power and wrestled Rossi into submission.

The failed experiment that was National Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Maine held onto it for another year.

History of the Saco River tugboat A. G. Prentiss

AG Prentiss – A Nautical Workhorse

Paul Larivierre, owner of Southern Maine Marine in Arundel, believes he has recovered the huge propeller of the tugboat A. G. Prentiss — from the Saco River where, according to local tradition, she grounded and burned.

In a recent conversation Larivierre said “The A.G. Prentiss towed derelict vessels back and forth in front of the Biddeford Pool Gun Battery for target practice.” Biddeford Pool was under the umbrella of the Portland Harbor Defense Command in World War II. A temporary battery of four 155mm guns was emplaced at East Point from 1942-1945.

Tugboats played an integral role in the history of the Saco River. Biddeford’s manufacturing industry was heavily dependant upon coal — the Pepperell Company alone using 22,000 tons a year during its heyday. Coal arrived on schooners and later on barges carrying up to 850 tons of coal per trip. All were towed up the Saco River to Factory Island by tugboats.

Some of the tugboats that berthed at Biddeford Pool over the years were The Ellen, The Joseph Baker, The Hersey, The Cumberland, The Bailey, The Castor, The Morrison, The Express, and The Willard & Clapp, to name just a few. At least two of the Saco River tugboats were built on the Kennebunk River. The Robert L. Darragh was launched in 1879 from the Crawford and Ward shipyard in Kennebunkport.

The 46-ton tugboat A. G. Prentiss was built by the next generation of the same family of shipbuilders. She was launched from the Charles Ward Shipyard in Kennebunk Lower Village on Feb. 6, 1912. Her first pilot was Captain Clarence Goldthwaite of Biddeford Pool and Captain Tristram N. Goldthwaite took over as her pilot during the ’20s.

The A. G. Prentiss, named for her original owner, was well known on the Saco River for many years. She towed coal barges from Biddeford Pool and from Portland to the factories up the Saco River along with an occasional lumber barge for the Deering Lumber company. She was also employed to break the ice in the river, keeping a shipping channel open as long into the winter as possible. In 1918, the Prentiss towed the newly built schooner Jere G. Shaw out of the river for her maiden voyage.

Before the United States got involved in World War I, The Pepperell Company’s shrewd treasurer foresaw the effect the war would have on coal supplies and used the A.G. Prentiss to help stockpile fuel. His preemptive efforts to prosper through the anticipated Coal Shortage was for naught, however. In February 1918, the National Fuel Administrator ordered a five-day shutdown and a shortened workweek for every manufacturing plant east of the Mississippi.

These measures caused financial strain on the Saco River Mills and on the population of Biddeford. A frustrated reporter for the Biddeford newspaper wrote “Nearly 3500 Pepperell workers are to lose some $30,000 in wages in order to save $3,600 worth of coal.”

The tug A. G. Prentiss was commissioned by the Navy on March 28, 1918 and renamed the U.S.S. A.G. Prentiss. According to U.S. Navy records she served in the 3rd Naval District and was decommissioned and returned to owners, The Crescent Towing Line Company, on Dec. 2, 1918.

When the Crescent Co. went bankrupt in 1921, a new company, The Saco River Towing Company was organized with capital stock of $25,000, to take over towing on the Saco River. The A. G. Prentiss, reportedly worth $52,000 in 1920, was sold to the new towing company on July 28, 1921 for $25,000.

Tugboats were often used by the Biddeford Pool Lifesaving Station to prevent shipwrecks. A severe snowstorm on April 15, 1923 blew the steamer Annahuac onto the ledges of Fortunes Rocks. The storm continued through the next morning. The tugboat A.G. Prentiss was the first vessel on the scene to help pull her off. The Annahuac was so seriously damaged that she listed 45 degrees to the starboard. It took The Prentiss, another Biddeford tug, the Cumberland, and the United States Coast Guard cutter Ossipee to tow her to Portland for repairs.

The 13-year-old tug A. G. Prentiss needed a complete overhaul in spring 1925. She was hauled out of the water in Portland and was shipshape before the 1925 summer season began.

An article in the Biddeford Journal on Oct. 14, 1954 reveals that the A.G. Prentiss was still afloat in 1954 and had found her way back to Kennebunk.

“The Kennebunk River breakwater at Kennebunkport is being repaired. The tugboat which is servicing it is the AG Prentiss which worked on the Saco River for many years.”

Wyoming Construction Company of East Boston had presented the lowest bid on the breakwater repairs and was awarded the contract in July of 1954 by Colonel R.W. Pearson of the New England Division, Army Corps of Engineers.

Details about the demise of the Kennebunk-built tugboat A.G. Prentiss have not yet been found in old news, but her contribution to shipping on the Saco River will long be remembered.

History of the Biddeford Pool Life-saving Station

Nautical Samaritans
Nautical Samaritans

Surfmen at Fletcher’s Neck Life-saving station at Biddeford Pool protected our coastline for 100 years. They rescued countless men and women from shipwrecks, searched for fishermen who hadn’t returned from their days work and brought drunken beach wanderers home to their wives. During the days of early aviation, the patrolmen even announced the comings and goings of pioneer pilots.

There had been a make-shift volunteer life-saving system since the late 1700s but in 1872, Mainer, Sumner I. Kimball was appointed by President Grant to head up the Revenue Marine Bureau of the U. S. Treasury Department. Kimball was charged with organizing and standardizing the service that would eventually evolve into the United States Coast Guard. He established life-saving stations along the coast manned with physically robust local fishermen, already familiar with the dangerous rock formations nearby.

Kimball was adamant that keeper and crew appointments should not be based on political considerations. During his long career, he frequently fought Congress to keep it that way. Much to the chagrin of a very vocal Biddeford Pool station keeper, Congress eventually won out and lifesavers were hired from a list of eligible applicants, without regard to their familiarity with local hazards.

The four original life-saving stations in Maine were established at points along our coast that were deemed most dangerous to sailing vessels; West Quoddy Head, Cross Island, Crumple Island and Biddeford Pool. Wood-frame boathouses were erected and life-saving service commenced on December 1, 1874. Each station contained a large downstairs room for a life-boat and all the necessary implements and paraphernalia. Behind it was a general cooking and off-duty room. Sleeping quarters for the Keeper and surfmen were on the second floor.

Keepers were required by law to record live-saving business in a logbook, including the direction and force of the wind every day at sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight. Once a week, the log was sent to Washington. Surfmen training was strictly regulated. Putting a lifeboat in over the breakers from the beach required great skill and timing. The men practiced all day every day, performing standardized live-saving equipment drills. At night, no matter the weather, two men continuously patrolled the coast on foot, one going right from the station and the other, left.  When a distressed vessel was spotted, wheel-mounted lifeboats weighing approximately 1,000 lbs were pulled to the shore nearest the wreck and rowed out to the rescue, sometimes over a fearsome sea.

On average, two ships were wrecked near Biddeford Pool every year. Some years, when the weather was particularly harsh, there were many more. Once the Life-saving service was established, shipwreck survival rates improved dramatically. Fletcher’s Neck surfman saved the lives of hundreds of stranded men and women over the years. They were not, however, able to save the crew of one Canadian schooner that went ashore at Beach Island in a terrible 1884 storm. The following year, the lime schooner Silver Spray of Rockland caught fire near Biddeford Pool. The over-worked employees of the Fletcher’s Neck life-saving station were accused of negligence. The vessel was a total loss but her captain testified that the Biddeford Pool men performed their duty admirably. Fortunately, a life-saving station was established at Cape Elizabeth, ME in 1888, to lighten their load. In 1904, Keeper, L. C. Totman told a reporter for the Daily Boston Globe that December 5, 1900 was as tough a night as he ever experienced in his live-saving career. That night three crews of twelve men were taken from stranded vessels at the Pool.

Larger, more modern accommodations were built next to the boathouse at Fletcher’s Neck in 1904, but the surfmen endured a very difficult winter, none-the-less. One of the men was washed overboard during a drill and was only saved by holding on to a piece of floating ice. The lifesavers all suffered the grippe that year and their mascot Fido, a handsome King Charles spaniel, had to fill in on patrol.

The Coast Guard maintained the Fletcher’s Neck station until 1973. After serving as a meeting space for York County Counseling Services the buildings were finally converted for use as a private home in 1999.

In spite of the fact that the heroic Biddeford Pool surfmen, who risked their lives for the safety of others, were initially paid only $40 a month, there was never a shortage of local men willing to perform this valiant service.

The legend of Francis Fortune

Where Francis Fortune left his mark
Where Francis Fortune left his mark

The frequently repeated explanation of how the area of Biddeford called Fortunes Rocks got its name, like most such legends, has a seed of truth that over time has been generously fertilized with imagination.

Francis Fortune, the story goes, was a 15 year old sailor who, after being captured by the British in 1778, was released on account of his youth. He was soon shipwrecked off Biddeford Pool and made it to shore “barely alive.” A local farmer named Rossater and his wife Peggy nursed the boy back to vigor. He repaid their kindness by remaining with them as a farm hand. It is said that after employing the shipwreck survivor for many years Mr. Rossater died. Francis married Peggy Rossater and together they had two sons, both of whom went west in the gold rush of 1849. Uncle Fortune and Aunt Peggy were beloved by the people of Biddeford. They supposedly bequeathed their saltwater farm to the town in exchange for comfortable support through their final years. The area was named after them in appreciation.

Examination of the Biddeford Town Record Book V reveals that Francis Fortune was of Marblehead, Massachusetts when he married the widow Peggy Rositer on March 31, 1824. Marblehead records make no mention of Fortune’s ordeal with the British in 1778 but captive 15 year old sailors were typically released. Marblehead records do prove that Francis married Elizabeth Cloon in 1794 and fathered several of her Marblehead-born children; Samuel Cloon Fortune being the oldest. Elizabeth succumbed to consumption in 1818 and Francis went to sea as first mate aboard the Boston ship “Saco.” A near death experience off Gibraltar ended Fortune’s career on that vessel. He sailed next on the brig “Elizabeth,” of New York.

The morning of December 15, 1823, the “Elizabeth” was headed for Portland, ME in a blinding snowstorm. Her captain, Charles D. Gardner, sailed her into Winter Harbor and dropped anchor there alongside several other vessels seeking shelter from the storm.

Gardner later told a correspondent for the Eastern Argus how he and his crew came to be lashed to the rigging for five hours while the sea washed over them.

“The gale increasing with great violence, snowing very thickly about 4 pm the hemp cable parted and we continued to ride by the chain cable. We sent down our top-gallant mast, fore-top gallant yard and fore-yard; during which time we perceived her to draw her anchor toward the shore, the gale still increasing – and notwithstanding our utmost endeavors to save the vessel, about 7pm Monday she struck on the Lobster Rocks, so-called, near Fletcher’s Neck, in Biddeford, and shortly after bilged. About half past eight, the water being up to the cabin floor she keeled over to the starboard, on her beam ends, the sea, making fair breaches over her. In this perilous situation, we continued to cling to the wreck, if possible to save our lives til morning, not expecting assistance before.”

By 2 am the exhausted crew was greatly relieved to see Winter Harbor men making their way toward the wreck in a boat. The tide had ebbed sufficiently to expose the rocks that were breaking the brig “Elizabeth” apart. One by one the frozen seamen were lowered from her bow on a rope and the Biddeford boat conveyed them safely to shore. It was reported in the Argus that “Captain Gardner was slightly frozen and two or three of the crew were severely so.”

Francis Fortune was about 60 years old when Messrs. Bunker and Hussey of Winter Harbor rescued him from the wreck of the brig Elizabeth, off Lobster Rocks.  Presumably, he was one of the severely frozen crewmen carried ashore by widow Rossiter’s neighbor. According to census records, Peggy Rossiter was in her fifth decade when Fortune was delivered to her by sea. Three months later they were married. Both had children by previous marriages but it seems unlikely that Peggy bore any Fortune offspring and none appear in census records.

Soon after Francis married Peggy, his son, Samuel Cloon Fortune, legally changed his name to Samuel Cloon.  It was the already wealthy Cincinnati, Ohio merchant, Samuel Cloon who in 1848 paid off John Benson’s mortgage on Francis and Peggy’s oceanfront property. It was he who provided for their comfort during the remainder of their natural lives.

When Francis Fortune died December 10, 1858 at the age of 95, his wife Peggy had already passed.  Never in their lifetime, had the land thenceforth known as Fortunes Rocks, ever been conveyed to the town of Biddeford. In 1862 Samuel Cloon sold Fortunes Rocks to William Curtis who later sold it to summer resort developer, Warren C. Bryant.

Francis and Peggy Fortune were simple people who played the cards they were dealt. The lives they actually lived are worthy of acknowledgement.

Nazi U-boats plagued Maine coast during WWII

A Night Deposit
A Night Deposit

German submarines swarmed to American waters when the United States formally declared war on Germany and Italy on Dec. 11, 1941. By the following June, 171 American vessels had been torpedoed off the east coast of the Unites States. Coastal Mainers, many of whom made their living from the sea, felt like sitting ducks.

Maine’s director of civilian defense, Col. Francis H. Farnum, announced on May 22, 1942, that foreign agents both male and female had already landed on the coast of Maine and were investigating shipping prospects. Others, he warned, had come into the state over the Canadian border. No details were disclosed, but he certainly inspired vigilance in coastal Mainers.

Minefields and indicator loops designed to magnetically detect submarines, were installed on the floor of Casco Bay. A mobile artillery unit was quickly deployed to Biddeford Pool. Nearby, an observation tower was constructed of reinforced concrete to look like a church. The whole coast was patrolled by sub-chaser boats and dirigibles. Windows were blackened, civilian lookout posts were manned and curfews were strictly observed.

At about 10 p.m. Nov. 29, 1944, the coning tower of U-1230 pierced the surface of Frenchman’s Bay off Crabtree Neck. Two uniformed German sailors pulled a rubber raft through the hatch and quickly inflated it on the bridge. Two men in American streetwear emerged next, carrying satchels that virtually bulged with handguns, diamonds, and $65,000 in cash supplied by the German government to finance their espionage mission.

William Curtis Colepaugh, an emotionally unstable 26-year-old native of Niantic, Conn., had flunked out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and enlisted in the United States armed forces. He soon became disillusioned with his potential for upward mobility and decided to give the occupation of Nazi spy a whirl. Erich Gimpel was at least the genuine article. Born in Merseberg, Germany, some 35 years earlier, he arrived in the United States intent on sabotaging America’s atomic bomb program.

In a 2004 interview, former CIA covert operative Richard Gay, who has researched the incident extensively, asserted that as the Germans pulled away from the U-boat, a dog started barking on shore. The sailors, Fritz and Konrad, rowed the spies back to the sub to get sausages to quiet the frantic animal before proceeding to the beach.

By the time the four men landed it was snowing hard. Fritz and Konrad earned bragging rights by stepping onto American soil for a moment to flash a “Heil Hitler” before rowing back to their vessel. The plain-clothes spies grabbed their satchels and started off on a four-mile hike to Route 1.

Their city-folk attire was not typical snow gear for a Hancock native, and they were soon spotted by 17-year-old Harvard Hodgkins, who was driving home from a dance. A few miles up the road, Mary Forni drove by them on her way home from a card game. She almost offered them a ride, but something told her to keep driving. When she later mentioned seeing the inappropriately dressed strangers to her husband, he dismissed her concerns.

Gimpel and Colepaugh were resting for a moment in the village when a taxi serendipitously pulled up and agreed to take them to Bangor for $6. Once there the spies caught a train to Portland, where they had breakfast before boarding the 7 o’clock regular to Boston. They travelled on to New York the following day and would have disappeared forever into the city if William Colepaugh had not tried unsuccessfully to slip away from the mission with the bag of diamonds and the $65,000. He approached the FBI and disclosed Gimpel’s whereabouts, claiming to be a double-agent. Both men were sentenced to death but were eventually released after many long years of incarceration. The German, Erich Gimpel, was deported. He published a memoir in 2003 titled “Agent 146: The true story of a Nazi spy in America.”

The U.S. Navy was secretive about just how close the U-boats were to Maine civilians during the war. On April 23, 1945, the U. S. Navy sub-chaser USS Eagle exploded three miles off Cape Elizabeth, tragically killing 49 of her crew and injuring 13. For more than half a century the Navy insisted that a boiler had exploded onboard, but recent exhaustive research proved that the vessel was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

Eye-witnesses recall the night the wreck of the USN sub-chaser blimp K-14 was salvaged at Southwest Harbor. She was “riddled with bullet holes,” but to this day, the Navy blames pilot error for the loss of the dirigible.

When Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery was the largest American submarine base on the Atlantic coast. Four German U-boats operating in the Gulf of Maine surrendered at the shipyard. One of the subs was displayed in the Piscataqua River and thousands of Mainers travelled miles to see what had so long been the object of their terror.


Presidential visits to Biddeford Pool

A tragic Capsizing
A tragic Capsizing

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.

The Gypsies will get you if you don’t behave!

Gypsies were easy target
Gypsies were easy target

Gypsies who visited coastal York County every summer starting in the 1880s repeatedly stole blue-eyed children and money from the locals. Or did they?

In 1887, Kennebunkport’s summer newspaper “The Wave,” reported as fact “A band of Gypsies that passed through here last week had with them a little blue-eyed child that did not in the least resemble his dusty companions. Suspicion was aroused that he might have been stolen and such proves to have been the case. It was the son of James Welch of Nashua, N.H. Pursuit is now being made for the rascals and the little child will undoubtedly be rescued.”

After the band of Gypsies was followed up the coast by police for a more than a week, a Bath Times reporter wrote that the frantic Gypsy mother of the blue-eyed child finally presented her son’s authentic birth certificate to Justice Henry Ragot of Brunswick and the judge declared her innocent of kidnapping. The Gypsies performed in Brunswick that day with their dancing bear and offered Justice Ragot all the money they collected in gratitude for his fairness. The judge refused their gift.

In 1902, Harry Clark of Beverly, Mass., scolded his four-year-old son for standing dangerously close to the kicking feet of his horse. When the father looked for him again he was gone. Immediately, Gypsies were accused of stealing the child €¦ any Gypsies. Many seaside vacationers reported seeing the captive child in Ogunquit and Kennebunk. After fruitlessly searching every Gypsy encampment in Maine and New Hampshire, the press suggested, without a shred of evidence, that it was probably the Indians who had carried little Wilbur Clark away.

To keep them close to home, children were warned, “the Gypsies will get you and turn you into a beggar,” but no such case was ever proved. The King of the Stanley Gypsies was asked about this in the 1930s. He said, “Don’t you think we have enough of our own children to feed? Why would we want yours?”

Gypsies traveled from Maine seaside resort to resort staying at each until they were chased away. They usually camped on the outskirts of town near fresh water brooks in elaborately painted wagons and tents. Their pet monkeys and bears entertained vacationers at the fairgrounds and along the beach roads. Gypsy women knocked on doors to tell fortunes for money and the men bred and traded some of the finest horses available. Gypsies occasionally used their bad reputation to their own benefit. Attractive fair-skinned young Gypsy girls would trick tourists out of their money by claiming to have been kidnapped and in need of money to get home to their pure, white families. Some Gypsies did cheat and steal to survive, but often they admitted to crimes they had not committed, just to be left alone.

Two Gypsy women appeared at Mrs. Waterhouse’s Kennebunk Landing door in the spring of 1931 and offered to tell her fortune. The lady of the house refused to let them in. She later discovered that $20 was missing from her pocketbook and called the police.

Deputies Roland D. Parsons of Kennebunk, Orrison Davis of Biddeford, Irving S. Boothby of Saco, and George L. Simard of Biddeford located the fortune-tellers at a farm the Gypsies owned at Oak Ridge. The two women denied stealing any money but when the police threatened to take the whole band to court, the Gypsies gave them $20.

Tracing the origin of a non-literate culture like the Gypsies’ presents obvious challenges. By analyzing words common to the many Gypsy dialects, linguists have traced this unique race of people to India. An Indian origin for the Romani people, as they call themselves, is also supported by recent DNA studies. Early Gypsies led semi-nomadic lives because they were not allowed to own land. Their role in the Indian caste system was to travel from town to town entertaining the upper classes. After being driven out of India around the year 1000 they were widely scattered.

Some tribes eventually established themselves in the southern Balkan countries before 1300. There, they were enslaved. Many Romani bands came to the United States in the late 1800s from Serbia when their nomadic existence was outlawed. Others immigrated after escaping Nazi Germany where half a million Gypsies were put to death during World War II.

When enforcement of zoning ordinances made a nomadic existence impractical in the United States, Gypsies gravitated toward large cities where they could more easily get lost in the crowd. Today, the descendants of the Gypsies who camped along the Maine coast are finding each other on the Internet and learning about their hidden heritage through DNA testing.

Atwater Kent removed Cape Arundel historical clues

Cape Arundel is spared a seaborne assault in 1814.
Cape Arundel is spared a seaborne assault in 1814.

Atwater Kent’s neighbors had some unsavory things to say about him when he desecrated the Jeremiah Smith cemetery and flattened a War of 1812 fortification to expand his Cape Arundel lawn. A discovery made in the process may one day shed light on the relationship between early Cape Porpoise settlers and the Indians they displaced.

British Navy vessels were coming ever closer to the mouth of the Kennebunk River during 1814. Citizens of Kennebunkport, or Arundel as it was then called, had amassed considerable shipping wealth before the war. The Kennebunk Bank of Arundel had been incorporated with an advertised capital of $100,000.

Privateer efforts from the Kennebunk District were being repeatedly foiled by the British. When the HMS Bulwark attacked Biddeford Pool on June 16, 1814, the town of Arundel assumed a defensive stance to protect their assets and an eathwork fort was hurriedly dug at Kennebunk Point.

On June 18, the Bulwark appeared outside Kennebunk Harbor. The fort and a battery at Butler’s Rocks were manned by local volunteers until five companies of the Limington militia relieved them. Ships were moved up the river and many of the inhabitants sent their fancy furniture and other valuable effects out of town. The Kennebunk Bank had the specie removed to an undisclosed inland location. Arundel’s show of force apparently deterred the HMS Bulwark because she sailed on later that day without having fired a shot.

Wealthy Philadelphian, Atwater Kent, bought the Nesmith house next to St. Ann’s by-the-Sea, in 1910. In 1919, he purchased an adjacent lot upon which sat the old Kennebunk Point fort. Mounds of earth with apertures left open for the canons remained in relatively good condition thanks to the sea grass that had grown up around them. A shallow cemetery adjacent to the fort was the resting place for the Jeremiah Smith family. Amid some controversy in Kennebunkport, Atwater Kent leveled the fort and had the Smith family moved to the Landing Cemetery and the Arundel Cemetery to make way for a sweeping lawn to the ocean. His neighbors nicknamed the wealthy cottager “the grave robber.”

In early October 1919, workmen at the Point tackled a mound of earth between the cemetery and the fort. They uncovered a few bones of what was calculated to be a seven-foot man and two skulls of white men that had clearly met their end at the hands of Indians.

In a letter to her daughter, Eleanor Rogers, who summered at what is now the Franciscan Monastery, wrote of an encounter she had with Atwater Kent shortly after the discovery: “He had in his pocket a white obsidiary arrowhead, one of the best I ever saw, which was under a skull as they lifted it, and the skull had a hole into which the arrow had just fitted, at the base of the brain.”

Mrs. Rogers calls the arrowhead “white obsidiary.” Even assuming she meant “obsidian,” this is puzzling since the naturally occurring volcanic glass is not found in New England.

The Biddeford Weekly Journal reported the remarkable discovery on Oct. 10, 1919. The story in the newspaper made no mention of the exotic lithic. The reporter considered the discovery of special interest to students of the earliest history of Maine. He wrote, “Workmen came across, at a depth of about six feet a perfect skull of a white man imbedded in which was an Indian arrow, the weapon sticking out from the top of the skull just as apparently it had been left when the victim was buried after being slain by a redskin with bow and arrow. Equally remarkable and interesting was another find in almost the same spot, which was that of a skull showing plainly that the man had been scalped by Indians. The very tip of the victim’s head had in this case been cut off as clean and smooth as the most skillful scalper could do the job.”

The Kennebunkport Historical Society has a human skull in the vault that in the catalog is described as a skull found by Atwater Kent at Kennebunk Point. It is further explained that at one time an arrowhead accompanied the skull but it was lost before the society took possession of it. The damage to the skull looks more like the clean cut described as having been caused by a tomahawk.

In his 1837 “History of Kennebunkport,” Charles Bradbury wrote about a local incident in October of 1723. Old white-haired Mr. Joseph Bailey was scalped by an Indian at the site of the Garrison House in Cape Porpoise. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn how old the skull at the Historical Society is?  More Info

Biddeford Pool was attacked by the British during War of 1812

The HMS Bulwark’s raiding party.
The HMS Bulwark’s raiding party.

The people of Biddeford Pool were alarmed by the sight of a 74-gun ship of the Royal Navy, anchored off Wood Island at 9 o’clock, on the morning of June 16, 1814. The 182 foot HMS Bulwark sent several canon balls over the town. One of them landed in the pasture of Samuel Tarbox.

Jesse Tarbox was dispatched on horseback to alert the militia in Saco, but his progress was greatly impeded. The bridge over the Saco River was out. Maine was recovering from extreme weather conditions, the likes of which no one living at the time could recall. During the first half of May, there had been only two days of fair weather. During the second half of the month, torrential rain fell for four consecutive days. The water level in most Maine Rivers reached record heights, causing a freshet. On May 28, 1814, the American Advocate reported “great losses sustained during the late freshet at Saco-Not a bridge is left standing and the damage on the Saco river in mills, logs, boards, bridges is estimated at half a million dollars.”


There were no fortifications at the Pool. The civilian population hurried to bury their valuables. Captain David Milne of the Bulwark sent five barges with 150 well-armed soldiers, led by the Bulwark’s second in-command, Lieutenant James Symonds, to Stage Island. After a few minutes there, they passed over to Fletcher’s Neck, where Thomas Cutts Jr. met them with a white flag. Cutts owned a great deal of property at Fletcher’s Neck. He asked Lt. Symonds his intentions and the Lieutenant replied, “to destroy the place.” Thomas Cutts tried to buy the town’s safety, but was told that the captain had positive orders to destroy their shipping industry and would accept no terms. Mr. Cutts’ new 265 ton brig, Hermoine, worth $8,000, was burned. A small schooner and a sloop from Cape Cod, loaded with lumber, were also set ablaze. The frame of a 540 ton ship Cutts had on the stocks worth $7,000 was cut up and knocked to pieces.

Next, the British plundered Thomas Cutts’ store. Bill Pitcher, the clerk helped the soldiers to new clothes and all the liquor they could carry. In the end, $2,000 worth of merchandise was taken. On their way back to their frigate, the soldiers took the fine new ship Victory, which also belonged to Mr. Cutts, and brought her alongside the Bulwark. They stripped her of her sails and rigging and then offered her back to her owner for $6,000. The whole affair took 2 1/2 hours. The Saco militia arrived on the opposite bank of the river just in time to watch the marauders sail away.

Master of the HMS Bulwark, Captain David Milne had been promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral just days before the attack on Biddeford Pool. His lieutenant, James Symonds, who had previously commanded a trading vessel, reportedly had a history with Thomas Cutts Jr.. According to local legend, he returned to exact revenge for some offence perpetrated by Cutts before the war. It’s just as likely that Saco Harbor was chosen because the customs house there had seized British goods from Buxton parties. They were to be sold at auction in two weeks time, along with a rich cargo of dry goods taken from a privateer prize, the British brig Belize.

Captain Milne had sailed the Bulwark from England on Feb. 10, 1814 and arrived at Bermuda on the 7th of April. He left for the American coast three days later with orders from Admiral Cochrane to enforce a “strict and rigorous” blockade of the entire American coast from Eastport to New Orleans. Biddeford Pool was but one of many unprotected harbors visited by the Bulwark that summer. Captain Milne published his intentions to destroy American shipping ahead of time in New England newspapers. “No fishing vessels should be injured nor houses destroyed unless individual resistance was made by firing from behind rocks and trees but that he should not complain of honorable resistance from organized troops.”

Mr. Thomas Cutts Jr. seems to have born an unfair share of the damage in the Biddeford Pool attack, but he owned most of the merchant vessels in that harbor. His store was also convenient to the wharf. As they did in many of the other American harbors they attacked, the Bulwark crew collected provisions as the spoils of war. C’est la guerre!


‘Sailor’ the famous Wood Island Light fog dog

A deputized bell ringer
A deputized bell ringer

Wood Island, near Biddeford Pool, has been the scene of murder, illegal liquor distribution and countless shipwrecks during the last 200 years. The most famous occupant of the island was a 60-pound assistant lighthouse keeper named Sailor who received international press in 1900.

Wood Island Light, the second lighthouse tower constructed in Maine, was built in 1808. A mechanized fog bell was installed in 1873, but the steel it was cast from did not withstand Maine’s climate. A new bell was mounted in 1890, four years after Captain Thomas H. Orcutt was appointed lighthouse keeper.

Born in Brooksville, Maine, Thomas spent many years at sea before assisting his uncle, James Hiram Orcutt, the lighthouse keeper at Saddleback Ledge Light in Isle au Haut Bay. In 1886, Thomas Orcutt was appointed keeper of Wood Island Light. George, the youngest of Thomas’ five children, was 7 years old when the family moved to the island at the mouth of the Saco River.

When George turned 12 his father brought home a Scotch Collie mix puppy from Woodbury Brothers milk farm in Westbrook. Everyone who has ever owned a dog knows that irrespective of human plans, dogs choose their master. Sailor chose Thomas H. Orcutt and the U.S. Government.

“I brought him here when he was but a few weeks old and for want of better amusement he would follow me around the place as I performed my various duties,” Orcutt told a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He watched me attentively while I trimmed and cleaned the lamp and followed me up the steep winding stairs when his little legs would barely carry him up the steps. But best of all he seemed to enjoy watching me ring the big fog bell and he frequently made playful jumps at the rope himself,” the lighthouse keeper reported.

In foggy weather the bell was sounded with two strikes in quick succession every 25 seconds, alternating with a single stroke. The precise sounding pattern was posted in the Coast Pilot to identify Wood Island to fog-blinded sea captains. It was also customary for passing vessels to salute the keeper in fair weather with three whistle calls and for Orcutt to reciprocate by ringing the fog bell. The intelligent tri-colored canine Sailor learned to anticipate the circumstances that led to the sounding of the bell. When the fog rolled in or a whistle blew, Sailor yelped and danced and wagged his bushy tail.

A surprised tugboat captain was the first to report seeing Sailor ring the bell by himself in June of 1894. The following year, Capt. Oliver of the Casco Bay Steamship Company told the editor of the Eastern Argus that he had been the first to notice Sailor’s independent service to the U.S. Government. He took a Biddeford excursion party onboard the steamer Forest Queen and ran out by Wood Island.

“As he passed the light he saluted it with the customary three whistles,” wrote the editor. “Scarcely had the echoes died away when a dog dashed out of the lighthouse and ran at full speed toward the fog bell. He was followed by a man. It is needless to say that the dog arrived at the bell first and he immediately began to jump into the air as though trying to reach something. When the man arrived on the spot it was readily seen what the trouble was. The bell rope was hung upon a nail and the dog could not reach it. However, as soon as the man removed the rope from the nail the dog seized it in his teeth and with a great deal of apparent satisfaction answered the steamer’s salute.”

Sailor became the main attraction in the Gulf of Maine. He learned the proper fog signals and would hang his head when not allowed to perform bell duty. In 1899, Harvard dental student Joseph W. Smith Jr. visited Wood Island and photographed Capt. Orcutt and his dog. Joe was the son of Joseph Warren Smith, the author of the Biddeford Pool history “Gleanings from the Sea.” The younger man was tragically killed in a boating accident in 1900, but not before submitting photos of Sailor ringing the fog bell to “The Strand Illustrated Magazine” of London, England.

One photo appeared in the 1900 spring issue. A few months later every Podunk town paper in America carried Sailor’s story. Sailor died in his master’s arms in 1905. A few months later Thomas H. Orcutt resigned his post and passed away.