Many wonderful books have been written about the history of Kennebunk. As enlightening as they are, the historical research does not always agree from one book to another. Modern researchers trying to reconcile the differences are fortunate to have several document repositories nearby. Old newspapers often reveal long-hidden historical details, but there’s nothing like personal accounts in old diaries to animate and illuminate the facts.
Diaries were kept by many local citizens over the years. Several diaries written by members of the Walker family have survived and are available on microfilm for public use at the Kennebunk Free Library.
Our best known diarist, Andrew Walker Jr., spent the majority of his adult life as the proprietor of a furniture store in the Village of Kennebunk. When he began writing his diaries on January 1, 1851 he was also the Kennebunk Town Clerk and the Town Treasurer. In the spring of 1862 the town requested that Andrew keep a military history of each Kennebunk soldier who served in the Civil War. If ever there was a man with his finger on the pulse of Kennebunk, it was Andrew Walker Jr.
Being a record keeper by profession and by nature, he recorded events and biographical sketches with remarkable precision, including keywords in the margin of each entry that he later transcribed into an index for each of the 11 volumes. The index has since been cross-referenced and printed in a separate volume.
Andrew seemed to have an inkling of the potential value of his efforts to future historians when he claimed to be “Noting down many events in this vicinity that now seem of importance but will presently dwarf into mere littleness, other events now insignificant in our eyes, but one day will assume an air of important magnitude.” That inclination to leave nothing out no matter how insignificant it may have seemed at the time, is what makes his diaries so very useful. He also admitted to a small measure of vanity in the endeavor when he wrote, “As a woman likes to view herself in a glass, so a man likes to see himself in his diary.” Andrew Walker Jr. made his last entry on Aug. 13, 1897, two years before his death.
Andrew ‘s first cousin Tobias had started keeping a very different kind of diary in 1828. Neither meticulous nor indexed, Tobias’ journal is a record of the day-to-day happenings on his Alewife sheep and potato farm. His entries covered mostly farm business — who he traded with, who had given him a raw deal, how much he sold the butter for, and family business like who went to the meeting house, who went to the beach to “wash,” and who was feeling poorly. As the years went by more and more responsibility for the farm gradually fell to Tobias’ eldest son, Edwin.
His second son, William, who didn’t stand to inherit the family farm, married the daughter of Samuel Cleaves, a farmer from just across the Kennebunk River in North Kennebunkport. The young couple moved into a house on Curtis Road next door to Samuel Cleaves. William made the first entry in his diary on his wedding day, Dec. 15, 1846. The next day was spent setting up the furniture in their new home. William mentioned that he found the work pleasant. A few days later, Tobias surprised his son with a gift of a slaughtered pig.
The couple frequently had visitors in the early years who just stopped by to pass some jovial evening hours. Neighbors were always present to help with time-sensitive farm jobs. Shortly after William and Mary’s first child was born there was a heat wave that lasted for many days. The heat and mosquitoes were so troublesome that none of them couldn’t sleep. The whole family relocated to the barn one night and on a pile of hay and enjoyed the first good night’s sleep in a week.
Tobias Walker died in 1865. His son Edwin took over the Alewife farm. Like his brother William and their father Tobias, Edwin kept a daily diary until he died in 1891.
These farm families worked hard but they did not lead miserable lives of nothing but toil, especially when the children were young. There were family trips to the circus in Biddeford, afternoons of fishing and berry picking, clambakes, sailing excursions and sea bathing at Two Acres, Hart’s Beach and the Goose Rock Beach. Sometimes on a very hot day the whole neighborhood would caravan to the beach in 8 or 10 carriages.
The farmer diarists occasionally made note of important historical events like the tragic shipwreck of the local barque Isadore, in 1842, and the accidental death of Jesse Webster when the cannon he was loading for the Kennebunk Centennial Celebration exploded. This is not the primary value of these journals.
They are unselfconscious accounts of the way 19th century life was in the Kennebunks; What it was like to have to go to the mills to grind your corn or to lose half of your family’s food supply in a cold snap, or to weather the loss of one loved one after another. They offer historical context, which is so hard to absorb from a history book.
“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.
A scribbled note sealed in a bottle and tossed into the capricious waves was the only hope some shipwrecked sailors had of letting their sad fate be known. Occasionally, such messages did make it to shore. Sometimes they turned up many miles away and many years later but the closure they brought to loved ones was almost always appreciated.
Old newspapers are full of poignant message-in-a-bottle stories. The first Minot Ledge Light, off Cohasset, Mass., was a barrel-shaped structure held high above the waves on iron stilts. When one by one those spider-like legs snapped during the great nor’easter of 1851, lighthouse assistants Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson tossed their bottled good-byes into the sea that would soon swallow them up.
United States Navy Collier, USS Cyclops, mysteriously disappeared between Barbados and Baltimore, Md. in March of 1918. No trace of the vessel or her crew were ever found. Theories have been floated ever since that she succumbed to the mysterious forces of the Bermuda Triangle or that she sank suddenly in a ferocious storm. A message in a bottle purporting to be from the USS Cyclops washed ashore at Baltimore in August 1918. It said, “Captured by German submarine off coast of Virginia our ship Cyclops. John Ramann Chicago, Ill.” Another message in a bottle supposedly written by one of the engineers of the Cyclops appeared northeast of Cape Lookout Lighthouse near Beaufort, N.C. in 1922. This note stated that a German submarine was close by, that all hands had been ordered on board the U-boat and that the ship was to be torpedoed.
In November 1922 a message in a bottle was thrown into the surf by the crew of the schooner Lizzie D Small ashore off New Bedford, Mass. The bottle was found by Frank Columbia of Westport Point. He organized a search party and the shipwrecked crew was rescued after having been exposed to the elements and starvation for four days.
A misleading message in a bottle could occasionally provide an alibi for those who wished to disappear for one reason or another. Such was the case in 1894 when a corked bottle was found on Old Orchard Beach. A scrap of paper in the neck of the bottle had been torn from a notebook. On one side of the paper the words “Henry Schambier, Merchant of Medicine, Lewiston, Me.,” were imprinted with a rubber stamp. On the other side of the paper the following words were handwritten, “Dr. Hudson of Manchester, NH and Dr. Schambier of Lewiston, ME, lost at sea while fishing Monday Oct. 8.”
An investigative reporter from the Boston Daily Globe traveled to Lewiston to find the poor Dr. Schambier’s next of kin. There he spoke to Henry’s sister, a Mrs. Eugene Rimfret. Last she knew, the 25 year old traveling cough medicine salesman had been living in Biddeford. Though Mrs Rimfret knew Henry to be fond of fishing she hadn’t heard from him in months and could offer very little additional information about his habits.
On Oct. 26, another item appeared in the Boston Daily Globe. Dr. Henry Schambier, previously thought to be at the bottom of the ocean, is alive and well and peddling his Menthol cough drops in the peaceful little village of Kennebunk.” Diligent investigation by the reporter had revealed that Schambier had skipped out on his bill at hotels in Saco and Biddeford.
The proprietor at one of the hotels remembered that Henry and his companion did go fishing quite often while he was a guest. On Oct. 15, a full week after they had supposedly drowned but before the story appeared in the paper, a man called at the hotel and said that Dr Schambier, who was stopping in Kennebunk, had sent for his clothes. That same day, the dandy young doctor was seen in Saco.
A later update in the Globe read, “The rubber stamp that made the impression on the piece of paper found in the bottle was discovered in Dr. Schambier’s Kennebunk room today, as was the note book from which the scrap was torn.”
Much to the public embarrassment of Henry’s sister in Lewiston, all of his clothing and belongings were confiscated and divided up to satisfy irate hotel proprietors in coastal York County.
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.
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.
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.
Despite gloomy predictions by new-enterprise naysayers, the Kennebunk and Kennebunkport Railroad became one of the most profitable branches on the Boston & Maine line. It was constructed by local men in 1883 and ran from the Kennebunk Depot off Summer Street, down along the eastern side of the Mousam River to Parsons Station, then to Kennebunk Beach Station, diagonally across the Sea Road from the Wentworth Hotel and to the little Grove Hill Station just off Boothby Road. The branch terminated at the Kennebunkport Depot, which was actually in Lower Village just before the bridge to Kennebunkport.
The first railroad company to run tracks through Kennebunk was the Portsmouth, Saco and Portland Line. The company opened a depot in West Kennebunk in August of 1842 that was the only depot in town for 30 years. Competitors, the Eastern Railroad Company and later the Boston & Maine Railroad Company, leased rights to run their trains on this line until the early 1870s when PS&P tried to renegotiate the 6% B&M lease at a higher rate.
Rather than pay the increase, B&M Railroad laid their own tracks from South Berwick, through Kennebunk to Portalnd. The new station off Summer Street in Kennebunk served tourists visiting the elegant hotels and cottages being developed by the Boston and Kennebunkport Seashore Company.
In 1881, local capitalists, many of them Seashore Company stockholders, devised a plan to deliver the tourists even closer to seaside businesses by building a 4.5-mile railroad branch along Kennebunk Beach. Maine State Railroad Law required that $5,000 per mile be represented by stock, but the rest could be mortgaged. So many investors stepped forward to purchase stock in the new railroad that they decided to finance the entire capitalization of $65,000 with shares bearing 4.5 percent interest per annum. All shares were quickly sold and the directors had to refuse in excess of $35,000 from hopeful stock buyers.
One of the initial shareholders was George C. Lord, native of Kennebunk, who just happened to also be the president of the Boston & Maine Railroad. Joseph Dane, president of the Ocean Bank, was elected president of the railroad, as well. Some of the other early investors were Hartley Lord, James Cousens, Moses Maling Charles C. Perkins, Charles E. Perkins, and Joseph Titcomb.
Work began on the track bed in December 1882 on land purchased from old Kennebunk families. Kennebunkport Seashore Company lots were also extensively used. The road construction contract for $25,500 promised that all the work including grading, laying sleepers and rails, building wire fences four feet high, and filling in a dock at Lower Village, would be completed by the beginning of the 1883 summer hotel season.
A lot in Lower Village owned by shipbuilder David Clark was purchased for the Kennebunkport station. Joseph Day of Kennebunk won the contract to build a 48- by 20-foot depot with an attached 40-foot platform.
In June of 1883, the Boston & Maine Railroad signed a lease for the fledgling railroad, agreeing to handle all management and pay the 4.5 percent per annum interest due to the Kennebunk & Kennebunkport Railroad stockholders.
On June 18, 1883, Kennebunk Town Clerk Andrew Walker recorded the first passenger run to the Port. Two regular trips were planned for each day that week at 25 cents per passage. Within a few weeks, nine regular trips or 18 passages a day were scheduled. By the end of the first summer season the Kennebunk & Kennebunkport Railroad had averaged 1,200 passengers per week. Trains ran year-round but during the winter months the schedule was reduced to four trips a day.
B&M reported in 1887 that the 4.5-mile railroad was already one of their most profitable branches per mile. Many new hotels had been built at Kennebunk Beach and Cape Arundel to take advantage of the improved access. The Grove Hill Hotel was built near the Boothby Road stop and a depot was constructed for Parsons Station diagonally across the Mousam River from George Parsons’ farm, Riverhust.
“The Conductor is Mr. F. K. Webster and the Engineer is Mr. E. Stromach,” wrote a reporter for the Biddeford Journal in July 1887. “Although the locomotives employed upon the road have been constantly changing,” he continued, “Mr. Stromach has wielded the throttle for the whole four years of the branch road’s existence. His portly form and genial countenance are familiar to summer travelers here. The locomotives employed upon the branch road have been, in turn, named: Strafford, Camilla, Exeter, and Newburyport.”
F. W. Strout, the station agent at Kennebunkport, had also been there since the beginning. His station was by far the busiest on the line. “The amount of money taken in one day at Kennebunkport has often been very much larger than at some city stations,” wrote the journalist. “One day last season Kennebunkport took $500, this sum including freight bills and tickets.”
As automobiles became more common, ridership on the line declined. When the Federal Income Tax Law regarding leased railroads changed in 1919, the Kennebunk & Kennebunkport Railroad officially became a subsidiary of the Boston & Maine Railroad Company. Against the wishes of local businessmen, the branch was abandoned on Sept. 8, 1926.
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!
Southern Maine has a long and varied history of horse racing. The first standardbred horse from Maine to run for a stake was Zuarrow, a chestnut gelding from Waterville. He was entered in a Massachusetts race in 1819, just one year after the first professional American Harness Race. Zuarrow trotted one mile across the Charlestown Bridge in 2 minutes, 57 seconds. Trotting hit its stride in 1835 and steadily grew in popularity in Maine throughout the remaining years of the 19th century, even in Kennebunk.
The secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture was alarmed to report in 1866 that horse-racing formed the most prominent feature at agricultural fairs. He quoted from a document written by the editor of the “Canadian Farmer,” who stated, “There was a trot each day and purses to the amount of $1,000 were offered by the society out of its funds. The excuse for this is that the people will not come out in sufficient numbers to pay expenses, unless racing is provided for.”Horse racing was embraced in York County with astonishing enthusiasm given the sway that propriety was said to carry here in those days. Gambling on the horses was considered good clean fun and was enjoyed by the staunchest of moral policemen. York County race results appeared on the front page of the Eastern Star in 1877.
Any straight stretch would do for a track. In Kennebunkport, heats were run on North Street and what is now known as Ocean Avenue. Racing on town streets became so prevalent in Maine that a law was passed stipulating that anyone using a regular roadway as a race track could not sue the town in the event of an injury.
Sulky races were featured at every county fair and most municipal celebrations. They were primarily run on the beaches by 1900, but occasional winter heats on the frozen Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers were reported in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.
In 1904, it was reported that Dr. Merrill, Professor Wheeler, Ernest Benson, Freeman Seavey and Mr. Robinson, all of Kennebunkport, regularly raced their horses at Kennebunk Beach. Mr. George Bayes was the starter and Dr. Merrill and Edward Bryant judged the heats.
A new track was prepared by the Kennebunkport Driving Club for late winter racing in 1919. Permission was granted by Kennebunk Lower Village landowners to dam up the outlet at the road and allow the marsh inland of Western Avenue to freeze solid. Two or three sulkies were pulled around the ice track in each heat and kids entertained themselves between races by letting their kites pull them across the slippery track. The ice was so thick that spectators could drive their automobiles all the way to the end of the marsh. The new track, dubbed Lake Speedway, was a roaring success.
The following May, a meeting was held at the Mousam House in Kennebunk to form a combined Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club. Freeman Seavey was elected secretary and treasurer; Roy Taylor, Ernest Walker, Harry Washburn, Harry Day became assistants; and Earnest Benson was named president and manager of the club.
Benson, whose pristinely cared for racing silks were red and white, was uniquely qualified for the top position. As a Kennebunkport blacksmith, he boarded horses for fellow club members and made special racing shoes for the contestants. The club raced in the winter at Lake Speedway and the rest of the year on Gooch’s Beach. Popularity of the sport quickly grew in the Kennebunks.
In March of 1922, the Biddeford Weekly Journal printed a rumor that the West Kennebunk Grange was thinking of leasing the local deputy sheriff’s training track for a fairground and possibly, a venue for harness racing. Sure enough, on July 22, 1922 the West Kennebunk Grange Trotting Park was established for summer racing on Constable Edwin I. Littlefield’s land. Heats were held every Saturday afternoon.
Fiske, Benson, Maling, Taylor, Smith and Jenney of the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club and Matt Bowden, L E Wiggin and others of Biddeford, agreed to trot their 20 or more horses for 40 percent of the gate receipts. The Grange received 60 percent to be invested in maintenance on the track. The trotting park accommodated crowds of 3,500 within the first two years, but maintenance of the park was not adequately performed by the Grange and the track fell into disrepair.
On Nov. 15, 1929, it was reported in the Lewiston Evening Journal that the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club had purchased 22 horse sheds at the West Kennebunk Trotting Park as well as the judges stand and ticket office. Edwin I Littlefield, by then a senator, retained ownership of the land. Sheriff Ernest L. Jones was elected manager and treasurer of the Driving Club.
The West Kennebunk Trotting Park was used mostly as a training track after 1930. Local races continued to be run on Lake Speedway and Gooch’s Beach. World War II put an end to the regular races, though occasional heats were run until 1948.
Little remains of the West Kennebunk Trotting Park, which now lies under the turnpike garage. Few people still remember the horse racing years in the Kennebunks. Fortunately, Cecil Benson does and his help with this column was greatly appreciated.