Tag Archives: Captain

Arundel sloop Polly slips away from the enemy

False loyalty wins escape

Kennebunkport was attacked by enemy vessels near the very end of the Revolutionary War. The story of the Arundel Militia adroitly overcoming the British in the 1782 Battle of Cape Porpoise has often been told with pride. But Kennebunkport was deeply embroiled in the war from the very beginning. Another Cape Porpoise incident that occurred just a few weeks after the first military engagement of the war has received far less attention from local historians.

The Arundel-owned coasting sloop Polly sailed from Ephraim Perkins’ wharf at what is today Dock Square on May 13, 1775. Her cargo was delivered to Plymouth, Mass. where she was loaded up again for the return trip. She set sail for Arundel on May 15, but a cutter of His Majesty’s Naval Forces would alter her course that day.

Boston was under British control at the time. Learning that the colonists had gathered an arsenal at Concord, Mass., British Military Governor, General Thomas Gage had ordered 700 soldiers to destroy the weapons depot. Admiral Samuel Graves had ferried the British soldiers across the Charles River sparking the Battle at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. When the sloop Polly sailed from Plymouth less than a month later, both British military men were stationed in Boston.

On her way home, the Polly was seized by one of Admiral Grave’s cutters, forced into Boston Harbor and into the custody of General Gage. The Polly’s cargo was immediately confiscated by Gage’s men, though top dollar was paid to the captain for them. The Polly and her crew were “detained” in Boston for some time. To escape the clutches of the British Navy, the captain of the Polly cleverly pretended loyalty to the crown, agreeing to sail to Nova Scotia to pick up supplies for the forces at Boston.

There was some confusion in preserved documents whether Ephraim Perkins captained on this voyage or if Samuel Smith of Arundel had been at the tiller. A contract to charter the Polly was drawn up between Perkins as owner and master of the said 88-ton vessel and Major William Sherriff, the King’s Deputy Quartermaster. The contract read in part, “The Above said Majr Wm Sherriff, Doth promise to pay to the said Perkins for the Run or Voyage of said Vessell, One Hundred and Eighty Dollars.”

Captain Samuel Smith testified before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress at Watertown on June 9, 1775 that as captain he had been solicited by Admiral Graves’ Secretary to enter into His Majesty’s Service. “Knowing no other way wherein I Could Possibly make my escape I entered into service to go to Winsor in Nova Scotia for hay & other things.”

Loyalists Josiah Jones and Jonathan Hicks were put onboard the Polly as supercargo to look out for His Majesty’s interests just in case the mariners had been less than honest about their allegiance. The captain was to take orders from Jones who carried with him a packet of letters, orders, and other papers that were later published in Baxter Manuscripts of the Maine Historical Society.

According to his testimony, Captain Smith received orders not to leave for Nova Scotia immediately but to wait to sail in a convoy of a number of vessels the following morning at ten o’clock. Supercargo Jones was apparently not aware of that order because when Captain Smith suggested they get an early start that night, Jones agreed.

Jones was apparently also not familiar with features of the Maine coast. He did not realize that Capt. Smith had opportunistically set a course for Cape Porpoise Harbor under the cover of darkness. Along the way, Jones ordered Capt. Smith to clean and prepare the firearms that had been placed onboard in Boston to defend the charter from the “Rebels who might attack them on their passage.” As it turned out, the rebels to fear were already onboard the Polly.

She arrived at Cape Porpoise Harbor on June 2. The loyalists, their papers and their arms were immediately turned over to the Arundel Committee of  Correspondance to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, namely, Benjamin Durell, Jonathan Stone, Thomas Wiswall, John Hovey, a notorious Whig, and James Burnham, who later became the only American casualty of the Battle of Cape Porpoise. A letter to the Provincial Congress was drafted by the committee. While they awaited a response, Jonathan Hicks and Josiah Jones were confined at Arundel.

A week later, master and mate were sent with their prisoners to Watertown, in the Polly, to be examined by the Provincial Congress. After various depositions from June 8 through June 10, Jones and Hicks were delivered to the Concord jail where they remained for several months. The Arundel Committee received special thanks from the Provincial Congress for their clever handling of the whole affair.

Loyalist Jones had a sister, Mary Dunbar, living in Concord while Josiah was imprisoned there. According to the journals of Mary’s grandson, Henry David Thoreau, she helped the prisoners escape by bringing them baskets of food in which files were concealed.

Steamer Tom Thumb’s history-making career

Tom Thumb driven ashore at Boon Island 1836

The first wood-fired steamboat known to have visited Maine waters was the diminutive side-wheeler, Tom Thumb. Some 18 years later the little steamer also concluded her career on our coast.

The Tom Thumb was only about 30 feet long but upon her arrival in Bath, Maine in 1818 she made a huge impression. After arriving in tow from New York via Boston, she shocked the gathered spectators by steaming up the Kennebec River against the tide. Her newfangled machinery was all open to the elements and in plain view as she chugged along between Bath and Augusta.

She continued that route for several years, providing passenger excursions on the Kennebec River but in 1824 Tom Thumb was towed Down East and began operating between Calais, Eastport, and St. Andrews. Her comings and goings were chronicled in the Eastport Sentinel until Captain Seward Porter of Portland, ME purchased her with the intention of running trips between Boston, MA and Portsmouth, NH. His plans were foiled when the little steamer didn’t perform at sea as he had hoped. She was relegated to harbor and river work in Dover, Portsmouth, Newmarket, Hampton, Newburyport, Gloucester, Chelsea and Boston.

According to Daniel Remich in his History of Kennebunk, the Tom Thumb was also the first steamer to travel up and down the Kennebunk River. September 30, 1827 Captain Porter invited  Kennebunk and Kennebunkport citizens aboard and “made an excursion to the islands of Cape Porpoise, where the party partook of an excellent chowder and other refreshments.”

Charles W. Childs paid $4,000 for the Tom Thumb and spent another $1,000 rebuilding her and replacing her boiler during the spring of 1836. He established the tiny steamer as a regular packet on the Piscataqua River for the conveyance of passengers, transportation of freight and towing of vessels between Portsmouth and Dover, NH. Childs sank his last dime into the enterprise. He chose not to purchase insurance as he could not justify the extra investment considering the relative safety of river work.

For all his calculated risk, the young Childs was disappointed in business that summer. He had hoped to keep very busy with freight conveyance up and down the river but merchants were leery of change. Steamers were still regarded as unproven, novel technology. When the Portsmouth Iron Foundry Company offered to hire his steamboat to take a new 2 ton iron tank to Boon Island a deal was quickly struck even though the Tom Thumb had never been a reliable sea vessel.

Childs had planned to get an early start on the morning of October 28, 1836 but there was some delay at the foundry and he didn’t arrive at Boon Island until 4 p.m. The island is surrounded by rocks and should only be approached at high water. By the time the Tom Thumb reached the island the tide was about half ebb. The tank was landed with great difficulty as darkness fell upon the scene.

The events that followed were described by Charles W. Childs in a petition for financial relief to the United States Government. “Captain W. Neal, who had assisted as pilot, went on shore to assist in landing the tank and when he was thus on shore a sudden gust of wind prevented his return to the boat, the cable parted and the crew, nine in number, endeavored to reach Portsmouth Harbor.”

It was reported in the Portsmouth Gazette that the gale increased and blew with great violence. “She continued on her course to Portsmouth about five hours against the wind making in that time only 9 or 10 miles when finding that she made water fast, by which her fuel had become wet, rendering it impossible to keep up the steam, she again bore away before the wind to Boon Island and at about 2 o’clock a.m. went pell mell on the rocks.”

Maine’s first documented steamer, the Tom Thumb was a total loss at Boon Island. Young Charles W. Childs, who must have deeply regretted his decision to forgo insurance, was rendered penniless. Though the iron tank had been commissioned by the Customs District the contract for its conveyance was between the Portsmouth Foundry and Mr. Childs. The petitioner was not entitled to relief from the United States Government.

Mutiny and murder on the Jefferson Borden

The ultimate act of malcontents

The first three-masted schooner ever built on the Kennebunk River was the 533-ton Jefferson Borden. She was launched from the Lower Village shipyard of David Clark on Oct. 19,1867. After a wreck near Miami, Fla. in 1870, the Jefferson Borden was rebuilt and sold to new owners.

Her master, Capt. William Manson Patterson of Edgecomb, owned a one-third share of the schooner and he protected his investment by sailing her hard and often. On almost every voyage, the captain was accompanied by his wife, Emma. In contrast to the seamen’s quarters, the captain’s quarters onboard was reportedly as elegant as any cabin on any merchant vessel afloat. Patterson’s brother Corydon and his cousin Charles served as first and second mate, respectively.

In the spring of 1875 they sailed from New Orleans for London with a cargo of cotton-seed oil cake. Besides the usual family members the crew consisted of the German steward/cook, Albert Aiken, a French cabin boy, Henry Mailluende, and four sailors who had just been hired in New Orleans. Seaman George Miller was described in contemporary newspaper articles as a “large Russian Finn.” Ephraim W. Clark of Rockland went by the alias, William Smith, on this trip. John Glew was from Nottingham, England and Jacob Lingar was a Swede.

It was recorded in the captain’s log that Miller, the Russian, had been insubordinate just a few days out and he was clapped in irons for 48 hours. No further disciplinary measures were recorded, but on the 47th night at sea, Miller’s discontentment again came to a head — the first mate’s head, to be precise.

While Patterson, Emma and the cook were fast asleep on the night of the April 20, 1875, the Russian sailor hit Corydon Patterson over the head with an iron strap, killing him instantly. Young Henry, the cabin boy, hid below when the trouble started. Jacob Lingar was occupied at the wheel from where, he later claimed, he did not see or hear the assault.

Clark and Glew helped Miller toss the mate’s body overboard. Then Glew cut the jib sheet while Clark went to inform the second mate that the jib sheet had parted. When Charles Patterson was trying to secure the jib Ephraim Clark pushed him overboard to his death.

The captain was unaware of what had happened on deck. When George Miller knocked on his cabin door and asked him to come on deck right away, as someone had broken a leg, Emma became suspicious. Normally, one of the mates would have delivered such news. She begged her husband not to go out into the night and he locked himself in the cabin with her until daybreak.

Patterson emerged from his cabin in the morning wielding a shotgun and a revolver and demanding to know where the officers were. With the help of the steward, he succeeded in seriously wounding all three mutineers and restraining them in the forecastle. Fearing for their lives, the mutineers finally admitted to murdering Patterson’s kin.

With the assistance of a sailor from a passing vessel the remaining crew managed to sail the Jefferson Borden to London. There the prisoners were given medical attention and passage back to Boston to stand trial. Clark and Miller were convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Glew was convicted of a lesser crime, the penalty for which was 10 years in prison.

After the trial, it was revealed that the Jefferson Borden had been overloaded with cargo and was one crewman short right from the beginning. She was leaking badly and in addition to their regular duties her overburdened crew was ordered to pump her continuously — each crew member, at times, working for 36 hours straight.

The drinking water onboard was made brackish soon after they left New Orleans when a storm  splashed salt water into the casks on deck. The crewmen were allowed one cup each of the brackish water a day and very little to eat — while the captain, his wife and the two mates lived luxuriously in comparison. The crewmen had also been severely beaten by the officers almost every day for even the slightest hint of defiance.

The steward, Albert Aiken, who had been with the Pattersons for nearly two years and had testified on the captain’s behalf at trial, finally admitted to the press that it was Patterson’s modus operandi to starve and abuse his crewmen to such an extent that as soon as they made port on the way out, they would run away to avoid the return passage. This way Patterson did not have to part with their wages. In all the voyages Aiken had been on with Patterson, he had never seen a single seaman stay for the return passage.

Before the Jefferson Borden left New Orleans on that fateful voyage, customs officials had come aboard to arrest the captain for abusing the previous crew. But Patterson managed to avoid capture and as soon as the officials had left, he set sail even though the schooner was barely seaworthy.

The last straw to swing public support behind the convicted mutineers was on the Jefferson Borden’s first voyage after the trial. The vessel had to be towed into port because her crew was too feeble to sail her in, with all suffering from starvation.

A petition was drawn up and submitted to President Grant to pardon the two sailors on death row. Their sentences were commuted to life in Thomaston Prison. Miller died in confinement in 1894. Ephraim Clark’s sentence was reduced again in 1903 to time served — by President Roosevelt after the Atlantic Seaman’s Union pressed for his release.

Patterson continued as master of the Jefferson Borden until 1883 and never faced any legal consequences for his inhumane treatment of the hundreds of sailors that crewed for him over the years.

Pirates in Casco Bay in 1817

Marauding under an alledged foreign flag

Mainers have heard stories about pirates Dixie Bull, Captain Kidd and Samuel Bellamy cruising the coast in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but little has been written about the pirates caught trying to smuggle stolen Spanish cargo into Portland, Maine in September 1817.

During the War of 1812, patriotic privateering was a lucrative business for American mariners. The United States Congress issued Letters of Marque and Reprisal authorizing designated ships to attack and pillage enemy vessels. The law required that prize ships be condemned and that booty proceeds be divided between the privateer owners and crew. Goods seized were often delivered to reputable merchants at a lower than usual cost in exchange for financial backing for the privateer. No matter how temptingly profitable it may have been, it was never legal to plunder vessels from countries the United States was not at war with.

When U.S. peace was restored in 1815 some of the privateers and their U.S. merchant partners could not bring themselves to give up the huge profits of privateering. They set up dummy registrations and residencies in South America to subvert U.S. piracy laws.

Buenos Aires was fighting for independence from Spain after the War of 1812 and it proved a convenient location for Baltimore, Maryland pirate, Joseph Almeida, to set up a second home. Whenever necessary to avoid conviction for looting Spanish ships, Almeida would claim citizenship in Buenos Aires even though his family still lived handsomely in Maryland and his 10-gun Privateer El Congresso, was built and armed by Baltimore merchants.

Five American sailors, who had all arrived in Portsmouth, N.H. on the sloop Aurora, out of Portland, aroused suspicion on Sept. 7, 1817 when they each tried to exchange $1,000 in Spanish gold and silver coins at a Portsmouth bank. The purchasing power of $1,000 in 1817 would equate to about $170,000 today; an unusual sum for low-level seamen to receive in payment for a voyage.

The Portsmouth Customs collector was alerted to the suspicious circumstances and he immediately seized the Aurora under the command of a Capt. White from Portland. All her passengers and crew were rounded up for interrogation. As a result of the investigation, three of the crewmembers, John Palmer, Thomas Wilson and Barney Colloghan, all of Massachusetts, were indicted for piracy. The following details of the case were revealed in newspaper reports and court transcripts.

The three accused pirates had sailed the previous May from Baltimore, in the ship El Congresso, under the command of Capt. Joseph Almeida. During the cruise, the Congresso captured several Spanish vessels and after having taken valuables out of them, sank, burned or destroyed them.

On July 4, 1817, the Congresso captured a most valuable Spanish ship, the Industria Raffaelli, as she sailed from Havana to Cardiz. Her cargo included 500 boxes of sugar valued at $20,000; 60 pipes of rum worth $6,000; honey, coffee and hides that together were valued at $6,000; and $60,000 in gold and silver specie.

The Industria’s Spanish crew was replaced by a prize crew under the command of Capt. Diggs. According to the prisoners’ testimony, Capt. Almeida ordered the prize to sail for Buenos Aires, but four or five days later, a Portland man named Davis took control of the Industria and sailed for the coast of Maine. She came to an anchor in Hussy Sound, between Peaks Island and Long Island in Casco Bay. There, a fishing boat met them and carried Capt. Davis ashore. The next morning the captain returned with three sloops. Cargo, sails, rigging and iron salvaged from the Industria was loaded onto the Betsy and the Abby and brought quietly into port without attracting the attention of the customs collector.

The whole crew except for Capt. Davis was put on board the sloop Aurora, with their cut of the Spanish gold and silver. What was left of the Industria Raffaelli was disguised and abandoned. When she was recovered some time later near Cape Elizabeth, it took a while before she was identified. Her name had been blacked out and a piece of canvas with the name John of Norfolk painted on it, had been nailed to her stern.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that an act of piracy had been committed, but the United States piracy laws in force at the time only applied to acts of piracy against the United States. Because El Congresso sailed under the Buenos Aries flag and attacked a Spanish vessel, the American pirates were acquitted. The only action that could be taken was to condemn the sloops Betsy and Abby for knowingly subverting U.S. Customs collection. As a result of the impotence exposed in U.S. Piracy Law by this case, an expanded legal definition of piracy was adopted by U.S. Congress on March 3, 1819.

Joseph Almeida, also known as Don Jose Almeida, plundered hundreds of Spanish vessels before he was captured in 1827. He was imprisoned at El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was finally executed for piracy against Spain on St. Valentine’s Day 1832.

Wreck of the Fred B. Taylor on Wells Beach

A Case of Nautical Clevage

Wells Beach cottagers were befuddled one morning in August 1892 by the appearance of one half of a large wooden sailing ship, rocking upright and surprisingly intact in the surf in front of Pine Island cottage.

The rear end of the Nova Scotia ship, the Fred B. Taylor, had traveled more than 400 miles after being separated from her other half 44 days earlier.

The whole 9-year-old ship had left Havre for New York on May 12, 1892. At a 1,789-ton capacity, she was one of the largest and finest wooden ships on the Yarmouth, NS list. Capt. E. F. Hurlburt was proud to command her, but he was a little tense on the morning of June 22. It was 6:30 a.m. and he had been on deck for hours navigating through a blinding fog. To make matters worse, the Taylor’s mechanical foghorn had stopped working during the night. All that was available for a substitute was an ordinary mouth horn.

Capt. Reimkasten, meanwhile, was sailing the 4,969 ton German steamer, Trave, at top speed from New York to Breman, when he encountered the same fog bank about 100 miles southeast of Sandy Hook. He saw the Fred B. Taylor only seven seconds before slicing her in two — as easily as a knife slices through a block of soft cheese. Two fatalities resulted. Charles Woodley, first mate on the Taylor, was crushed to death in his berth, and the ship’s carpenter, a Russian Finn by the name of Careston, was knocked overboard and drowned.

Before the 1,500 steamer passengers could make it on deck to see what had jarred them awake, the Trave had passed between the two halves of the wooden vessel and disappeared again into the fog.

Later, in an interview with a reporter from the New York Times, the Taylor’s steward said, ” … it was fortunate the ship was made of wood because when the vessel was cut in half, the two parts stood upright in the water as the ballast in the holds emptied itself into the sea. This gave the rescuers from the Trave time to reach the wreck.”

Nineteen of the 21 crewmen aboard the Fred B. Taylor were rescued with only the clothes on their backs. The only woman on board, a stewardess, was knocked into the sea from the impact but was pulled into one of the steamer’s boats just as she was about to go under for the third time.

When the fog finally lifted, the bow of the Fred B. Taylor was still in sight, but her back half had disappeared. The shape of the stern portion of the wrecked vessel presented a much larger surface area for the northeast wind to affect. The bow, which rode much lower in the water after the accident, obeyed the drift of the cold ocean water flowing south between the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic coast.

In the weeks that followed, both halves of the derelict ship were tracked by passing vessels as they bobbed along in opposite directions. The stern started off toward the east, turned northward, passed Boston 100 miles off the coast on July 9, and having approached within a few miles of Matinicus Island, turned west again and went ashore on Wells Beach on Aug. 6 or 7. The following report appeared in the Biddeford Daily Journal a few days later:

“Cottagers residing at Wells Beach in the vicinity of Pine Island were much surprised to see landed in front of their cottages in the early morning a large mass of something on the beach which as the tide  receded was inspected and found to be a wreck or part of a large vessel. At low water it was found to be the larboard quarter of the ship Fred B. Taylor, the chain plates and dead eyes of the mizzen mast remaining. The stern post remained but the rudder was gone. The deck from stern to forward part of house still remaining, also. The railing around the stern, the timbers and flooring and in fact all the vessel being of soft wood. The deck showed that either by accident or otherwise, she had been on fire. Wreckers were at work upon the wreck securing the iron and copper. The yellow metal was strewn around the beach. On Sunday quite a large number of people were around viewing the remains from far and near, and for some a great curiosity. Since the wreck came ashore a steamer has been seen between Boon Island and the beach, evidently sailing around in search of something, which no doubt was the very wreck, either to destroy it or tow it out of the way, being very dangerous to navigation.”

The bow of the derelict was last spotted at the end of August 1892, off the coast of North Carolina with bits of her tattered sails still visible after also having traveled more than 400 miles. The ultimate separation of the two floating halves of the Fred B. Taylor by more than 600 miles was reported for many years as a unique occurrence in maritime history.

1832 catastrophe off Cape Neddick

The Rob Roy on her beam ends.

Captain Christopher Bassett sailed the 53-ton schooner, Rob Roy, out of Newburyport harbor, with a fair wind, on the morning of June 28, 1832. Nine passengers headed to Portland, Maine were his only cargo. He was sailing the vessel pretty light, as there were no dark clouds that morning to foretell the destined consequences of a “swept hold.”

Fifty-five year old Capt. Bassett was a seasoned master, having followed the sea since his ninth birthday. Had he been sailing to Cuba without a cargo, as he sometimes did during his otherwise estimable career, he would have gone to the trouble to load ballast for the vessel’s stability, but it was typical in the 1830s for the hold of New England coasting schooners to be left empty or “swept,” unless a storm seemed imminent.

At about 2 p.m. a white squall came out of nowhere. According to later coverage in the Boston Courier, “The ‘Rob Roy’ was under a fore-sail, double reefed main-sail and jib, with her fore-top gallant-sail handed.” She had Boon Island E SE 5 miles and Nubble Point N NW 4 miles when a sudden, violent gust of wind took hold of her sails and flipped her on her beam ends.

Five passengers were trapped inside the cabin as it filled with sea water in an instant.

Mr. Samuel Cutler, the 80-year-old former Town Clerk of Newburyport and his wife, Lydia, tragically succumbed at once, as did Mrs. Hall. She was the sister of Capt. Stallard of Portland, who had recently lost the brig Hariet — in nearby Wells bay. The two other passengers trapped in the cabin were the widow of Newburyport grocer Moses Bailey and her 5-year-old son.

Capt. Bassett struggled unsuccessfully to pull the Bailey child up the companionway, but sinking twice, he almost lost his own life in the process. The passengers who had been above deck when the squall struck were Moses Clough of Portland, and George Roaf, Joseph L. Huse, and George Rogers of Newburyport. They, and an exhausted Bassett, clung for their lives to the side of the capsized schooner. The mate and two of the crew were able to get the schooner’s boat afloat and attempted to go for help.

Meanwhile, Capt. Littlefield had just left Wells harbor for Boston with the sails set on his year-old, Wells-built schooner Miriam. She was about the same size as the Rob Roy, but with a full load she was far more stable and maneuverable. The wind was unusually high on shore from the northwest. Nevertheless, Littlefield and his crew managed to rescue Bassett and the four surviving passengers and put them ashore at Wells. The next day, the survivors of the sudden calamity made their way to their respective home towns.

The Rob Roy and Capt. Bassett’s trunk, which had been onboard, were thought at first to be lost. The trunk contained $102 in money (a significant sum in 1832) and some copper currency plates for a new bank in Portland.

Several days after the accident it was reported in the Newburyport Advertiser, “It is thought that the accident having happened so near the land, the schooner, which is a good vessel, will be saved.”

And in the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics on July 7, “The schooner ‘Rob Roy’ has been towed to Portsmouth and the bodies of those that perished were found and interred in that place on Sunday.”

The people of Newburyport mourned the death of Mr. Samuel Cutler with formal ceremony and his life was honored in the Newburyport paper. “Mr. Cutler was for many years a merchant, President of an Insurance Company and a vestryman and warden of the Episcopal Church of Newburyport.” He and his wife were removed to Newburyport and buried in the Episcopal churchyard.

Capt. Christopher Bassett went right back to work as soon as repairs to the Rob Roy were completed. Within the month he was delivering a cargo of molasses to J.B. & T Hall of Boston on the schooner Rob Roy.

Death at sea was still a fairly common occurrence for seamen and their passengers in the 1830s and 1840s, but a large percentage of the casualties that occurred on New England coasting schooners were blamed on instability caused by a “swept hold.”

Capt. Joseph Brooks, the Kennebunkport Storm Tracker

Forewarning favors the odds

Capt. Joseph Brooks of Kennebunkport earned his nickname “Old Probabilities” by pioneering in the field of weather forecasting. His persistence in the face of skepticism, even among his co-owners at the Portland Steamship Packet Company, preserved profit and lives.

Capt. Brooks was of Portland, Maine. It was 1837 when he took Sarah Coes as his wife. She was the daughter of Kennebunkport sail maker, Benjamin Coes, who around 1795 had built the Federal house on Pearl Street now known as Tory Chimneys. Brooks worked in Portland and later in Boston, but he would call Tory Chimneys his home until his death in 1894.

Born in Auburn, Maine, in 1806, Brooks was an intellectually curious individual. In an interview conducted for the press in 1882, he related an early memory that illustrates his determination to learn. Proudly calling attention to a coverless copy of the New Testament, he told the reporter that he had used it to teach himself to read at the age of 12. He found the tattered bible on a beam in a sail loft where he worked as a child. “He rubbed the dust from it, put it in his pocket and in due time absorbed its contents into his mind and heart.”

He became especially interested in weather prediction in 1841 after attending a lecture given by Professor James P. Espy, the United States Government’s first official meteorologist and author of “Philosophy of Storms.” Espy theorized that storms advance eastward across the country and that a storm reported in New York could be expected on the Maine coast within a period of one to three days. Advances in telegraphy soon made it possible for weather reports to be received in good time for astute mariners like Brooks to pay heed to their warnings.

In 1844, when he co-founded the Portland Steam Packet Company, operating two propeller-steam freighters running opposite directions between Boston and Portland, storms were the greatest financial challenge he had to face. His insurance burden cut deeply into his profits. Within a few years commodious new side-wheel passenger steamships with cabins, finished in cherry and mahogany, were added to the line. They ran at night between Franklin Wharf in Portland and India Wharf in Boston and coincided with railroad schedules at either end. Brooks even had a piece of the Grand Trunk Railroad Station business before all was said and done.

Before 1850, against the better judgment of his business partners, Brooks had employed agents in New York, New Haven, Springfield, Boston and Portland to make observations of the state of the wind and weather and to send their findings to him every day over telegraph wires. If the weather looked bad in the morning up to three additional reports were made each day.

Brooks soon got a test case that brought them all around to his way of thinking. He later recalled the incident to a Boston reporter.

“On a certain Monday in the month of February 1852, I sent a telegram (telegrams on this subject passed daily between the Boston and Portland offices of the company) to the agent in Portland at 12 o’clock noon, to the effect that a heavy snow storm was raging in New York but that the weather continued fine in Boston. At four o’clock in the afternoon another telegram was sent, stating that the storm had reached Springfield, and the Boston boat would not leave her dock and that if the St. Lawrence (then a new boat) left Portland, she would find herself in the midst of the storm before the passage was half completed, Now sneers and jeers were in order. The Portland agent came to the conclusion that storms in New York had nothing whatever to do with the weather in Boston and Portland, or in between those points and sent his ship to sea.”

The St. Lawrence left Portland with a full freight and 307 passengers. The howling nor’easter Brooks had predicted met her off Portsmouth, N.H. Conditions grew worse and worse and by the time she reached Boston Harbor she was in serious trouble. She was adrift for three days losing her rudder and most of her cargo, but fortunately all her passengers were spared.

In fact, during the course of 37 years under the management of Brooks, the Portland Steamship Packet Company transported millions of passengers and not one was ever hurt or lost. The line had the best safety record by far, even though they carried much less insurance than any of the other companies and retained a higher percentage of their fares. By the time Brooks retired to Kennebunkport his system of using weather observations to reduce losses had been widely adopted by most Steam Packet Companies.

The trials of the Webber brothers from Wells

A Badge of Shame
A Badge of Shame

Counterfeiting was a huge problem in Colonial America, so much so that it was considered a capital offense in the 17th century. By 1752, the year the Webber brothers of Wells were accused of the crime, the death penalty was no longer enforced but the sentence did stigmatize perpetrators for life.

The Webber family of Wells had settled near Kennebunk Beach around 1722, on what is today known as the Sea Road. Neighbors were still few and far between in 1724 when Indians killed three of them at Gooch’s Creek. By 1752, John Webber and his wife, Abigail Harding Webber, had raised at least two daughters and five sons there. Most of the men in the family were mariners, coasting frequently to and from Boston on their own vessels built in Wells. The perils of a frontier and seafaring life must have been acutely familiar.

John and Abigail Webber gained some notoriety with local historians for being shunned by their neighbors at the Second Parish Church. A sailor in their care had reportedly died from injuries he sustained in a shipwreck at Iron Ledge about 1750. Daniel Remich wrote in his “History of Kennebunk” that parishioners judged the Webbers to be neglectful caregivers and therefore responsible for the sailor’s death.

Two of the Webber’s teenage sons, Jonathan and John Jr., sailed to Boston on a new coasting sloop in late October 1752. They spent a few days in Boston and Cambridge “conducting their business.” At dusk on Monday, Oct. 23, they were apprehended for the crime of knowingly passing counterfeit Spanish pieces of eight and were confined to prison in Boston to await trial.

Evidence against the boys was pretty strong. Some of the suspicious coins were found on their persons as was a lump of the composite metal from which the coins were fashioned. The police told a reporter for the Boston Post-Boy that the material was likely a blend of hard pewter or tin, since with some strain it could be bent. Jonathan, 19, and John Jr., 14, were clumsy counterfeiters. Their coins were not of the proper weight and their artistry was sorely lacking.

“The stamp is thick and obscure and the decoration round the edge very uneven and irregular,” wrote the Post-Boy reporter. Further investigation revealed more raw materials stashed away on their new coasting sloop.

Two months after the Webber brothers’ arrest, it was reported in the Boston Gazette that they had appeared before a judge and pleaded guilty to “forging and uttering a piece of pewter and other mixed metals to the likeness of a Spanish milled piece of eight.”

On Jan. 4, 1752, according to the Boston Gazette, “John and Jonathan Webber, own brothers of Wells, were sentenced at Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, to be set in the pillory for the space of an hour to have each of them one of his ears cut off, to be publicly whipped twenty stripes and then to be committed to the house of correction and there kept to hard labor for three months and to give bonds for their good behavior for a year.”

Both young men served their time and were married within a year of their release from prison. Jonathan and his wife moved in with his parents at Kennebunk Beach. No record has been found of Jonathan’s children, but he and his wife still owned the family homestead in 1760. John Jr. and his wife Mary had a large family. They moved for a time to land on the banks of the Saco River, but had returned to Wells before the start of the Revolutionary War. Both brothers were middle-aged in 1777 and of Wells, when together they enlisted in Capt. Daniel Wheelwright’s company to fight for American independence.

Wheelwright’s company marched as rear guard with Col. Ebenezer Francis’s regiment in the retreat from Fort Ticonderoga that left Lake Champlain, the coveted highway between the colonies and Canada, in the hands of the British. On the morning of July 7, 1777, while the colonial soldiers were eating their breakfast, British forces caught up with them and attacked.

The Webber brothers were in the second line of defense. Their company resisted valiantly but in the end the British forces prevailed. Some 300 American soldiers died that day. Among the casualties was Jonathan Webber of Wells. For a time it was believed that his younger brother John Jr. had suffered the same fate. He had in fact been captured by the British and taken to Quebec. From there, he was carried to Great Britain where he remained a prisoner in the goal until Dec. 15, 1781. At that time, he was exchanged for a British prisoner and sent to France. John Webber Jr. arrived home in Wells on April 28, 1782, and filed with the General Court of Massachusetts to have his back wages granted.

Life in Colonial Wells was hard. The Webbers and their neighbors faced harsh treatment from the unforgiving environment, the Indians, the law, the war and each other. If the Webber family was shunned at the Second Parish Church in Kennebunk as has been claimed, the fact that their two sons Jonathan and John Jr. were each missing an ear for their youthful crime of counterfeiting might have had something to do with it.

Special thanks to Hugh Spiers for his assistance with the confusing Webber family genealogy!

Civil War battle in Portland Harbor

Stolen cutter blown up to avoid re-taking
Stolen cutter blown up to avoid re-taking

Coastal Maine does not instantly come to mind as an American Civil War battleground, but one explosive encounter in Portland Harbor put Maine on the map.

Confederate Second Lt. Charles W. Read was barely yet able to grow a beard when he convinced his commanding officer to put him in charge of the captured brig Clarence, and let him run it up the coast as a privateer cruiser. The bright-faced rebel captain burned or captured 22 Union vessels between May 6 and June 25 of 1863, moving his crew from prize to prize to avoid detection. He and his crew, disguised as hard-working fishermen, were sailing the captured fishing schooner Archer of Southport, Maine on the morning of June 26, 1863.

Two Falmouth fishermen, Albert T. Bibber and Elbridge Titcomb, who had been out hauling trawls, later testified that there was nothing to indicate the Archer was a vessel of war. So when they saw the schooner approaching them at a reckless pace, they assumed her crew consisted of “drunken fishermen on a frolic.”

Bibber and Titcomb were taken aboard the Archer for questioning by the captain. They told him about the gunboats being built at Portland and about the two passenger steamships in the harbor, the Chesapeake and the Forest City. They also informed him that the captain of the United States revenue cutter Caleb Cushing had recently died, and that the ship was lying in Portland Harbor awaiting a new commanding officer.

The schooner Archer came to anchor off Fish Point after sunset. Her sailors quickly transformed themselves from fishermen to an armed crew of the Confederate Navy while their Falmouth captives were confined in the cabin. When Bibber and Titcomb were finally brought on deck to help guide the rebels into the harbor, it was after midnight.

Capt. Read was most interested in destroying the gunboats Agawam and Pontoosic at Franklin Wharf and taking the propeller steamer Chesapeake as his new privateer cruiser, but First Officer Brown was not confident he would be able to get the cold steamer engine running without being detected. It was decided that the cutter would be quietly taken out beyond the harbor’s armed forts under the cover of darkness before any attempt was made to burn shipping at the wharves or seize the coveted Chesapeake.

The Caleb Cushing was boarded at 1:30 am. She was taken quietly without resistance and her sails set, but the incoming tide proved a challenging deterrent and even with two boats towing her she didn’t pass through Hussey Sound till dawn. Aware that he could not return for the steamer in daylight, Capt. Read sailed seaward.

Confusion reigned onshore. Customs Collector Jedediah Jewett was alerted around 8 a.m. that the Caleb Cushing had sailed out during the night without orders. His first inclination was to suspect that Georgia born Lt. Dudley Davenport, who had temporary charge of the cutter, had deserted.

Word was sent to Fort Preble to prepare arms and soldiers of the 7th Maine Regiment. The side wheel steamer Forest City set off after the Caleb Cushing, but she was in no position to fire on the rebels. The better-equipped propeller steamer Chesapeake followed with 50 civilian volunteers, 27 soldiers and 2 brass six-pounders ready for battle. They knew their fire power was no match for the U.S. revenue cutter, which had a 32-pounder pivot gun and was said to be carrying 400 pounds of gunpowder, but Yankee zeal fueled their resolve.

Fortunately, the yet loyal Lt. Davenport had refused to disclose to the rebel privateers the secret onboard location of most of the solid shot and powder. They fired through the available ammunition while the Forest City and the Chesapeake were attempting to run them down.

When the steamers were within firing range of the Caleb Cushing, Capt. Read could see he was running out of fire power. He set the cutter on fire hoping the fire would find the hidden gunpowder before the cutter was recaptured. He loaded his crew and captives into small boats and rowed away from the ticking time bomb.

For an hour, Portlanders watched as the cutter burned, acutely aware that the 400 pounds of gunpowder she carried made it imprudent for them to approach.

“Finally,” it was reported in the Eastern Argus, “a terrific explosion shook the very heavens at 2:15 pm. Fragments of shells, masts, spars and blackened timbers are seen hundreds of feet in the air. The cutter begins to sink stem first, her gleaming guns slipping off the deck and into the deep.”

The steamer Forest City picked up the boated rebels and then captured the fishing schooner Archer. The rebel captain and his crew were sent to Fort Warren in Boston for 16 months before being traded for northern prisoners in 1864. Charles W. Read concluded his Civil War service before his 25th birthday and died a Confederate War Hero before his 50th.



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.