Tag Archives: Natural Phenomenon

The Earth Moved…Again

A force of nature

The recent earthquake, epicentered two miles west of Hollis Center, measured 4.0 on the Richter Magnitude Scale and lasted a few seconds. Mainers described the earthquake sensation as “a thunderous noise followed by rolling vibrations,” and “like a huge truck was driving through my basement,” and “as if my washing machine was way out of balance.” The tremor of Oct. 16, 2012 rattled nerves and tea cups as far away as Connecticut but it pales in comparison to the earthquakes felt in Maine during the 17th and 18th centuries. Nevertheless, within the context of the time, descriptions of the earthquake experience remain fairly consistent.

The first major quake in New England, after the English settlers arrived, was on June 2, 1638. Estimated to have been a magnitude 6.5, it was long referred to as “The Great Earthquake.” William Williamson wrote of it in his History of the State of Maine: “It commenced with a noise like continued thunder, or the rattling of stage coaches upon pavements … The sound and motion continued about four minutes, and the earth was unquiet at times, for 20 days afterwards.” Imagine the terror in times of magical thinking.

An earthquake that occurred on Oct. 29, 1727 has been approximated at 5.6 magnitude. Its epicenter was off the coast of New Hampshire and Massachusetts but it shook the east coast from Maine to Delaware. Paul Dudley, attorney-general of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, described it in a contemporary letter to the Royal Society of London: “The noise or sound that accompanied or preceded our earthquake was very terrible and amazing. Some of our people took this noise to be thunder; others compared it to the rattling of coaches and carts upon pavements, or frozen ground.”

Kennebunkport historian Charles Bradbury reports that many chimneys and stone walls were shaken down in Arundel in 1727. He credits the earthquake for inspiring temporary reformation among citizens of Arundel with a large number of them finding religion during the months followed.

An unusual phenomenon called “Earthquake Lights” has only, in the last 50 years, been photographed and documented by the scientific community. Flashes of blue, orange or white light, sometimes having the appearance of flames or explosions, appear in the sky around the time of a moderate to strong earthquake. The cause is unknown but the phenomenon has been reported since ancient times. There were several reports of bright flashes of light seen before and after the 1727 earthquake.

One such account was printed in the New England Weekly Journal. A gentleman from Newington, N.H. saw what he thought was an explosion over the mountains, a great distance to the northwest of his house, shortly after the quake. His vision was affirmed by Indians who had recently traveled from the mountains by canoe down the Saco River. “Several Indians who lately came into Black-Point (Scarborough) told them that a mountain near where they were at the time of the earthquake was partly blown up with fire, and burnt at so prodigious a rate that it was amazing to behold it; Upon this they all removed their quarters as soon as they could; but yet have since, and very lately too, seen the flames arise in a very awful and amazing manner. They also say, they thought the great god was angry with them for being so active in the wars, and resolved never more to engage in any war against the English.”

Some Englishmen also believed that earthquakes were a sign of God’s displeasure. The same lighting phenomenon accompanied the 6.0 earthquake of 1755 centered near Cape Ann, Mass. Rev. Thomas Prince, in his essay, “EARTHQUAKES the Works of GOD, and Tokens of His just Displeasure,” seemed to blame the quake on Benjamin Franklin’s new-fangled lighting rods, which had become popular in the city of Boston that year.

Since most of the damage from the earthquake occurred in the brick buildings of Boston and not in the movable timber frames in the country, lightning rods were blamed for trapping excess electricity in the earth. It accumulated there until the earth could hold no more and released the electricity by exploding in an earthquake.

Prince’s point seemed to be that God’s wrath could not be diverted for long through trickery. The consequences of avoiding the occasional lightning strike would end up being far worse in the end as demonstrated by the lightning rod induced earthquake of 1755.

Earthquakes were taken as a sign from God by ministers in southern Maine, as well. The church at Arundel called for a fast by the congregation to atone for their sins. Sermons were delivered on the subject of earthquakes in Maine meetinghouses. Rev. Gideon Richardson of Wells experienced such a shock to his nervous system from the earthquake of 1755 that his death in 1758 was generally believed to be a result of the quake.

Major and minor earthquakes have been fairly common in New England in the whole scheme of things. Many seem to have followed a northwest to southeast tract. Some of the major ones were accompanied by Earthquake Lights. A large percentage of them  have been explained away by some form of magical thinking.

Wiswall family of Arundel survived shocking occurance in 1786

A lightning strike for the annals

A bolt of lightning nearly destroyed the home of Thomas Wiswall in 1786, knocking his family temporarily insensible.

Thomas Wiswall had arrived in Cape Porpoise from Newton, Mass. in 1752. Two years later he purchased a blockhouse that was built by Rowlandson Bond in 1743 and moved his family to the banks of the Kennebunk River. There were only nine buildings in the Kennebunkport Village area between Lock Street and South Street in 1786. Wiswall’s blockhouse stood at what is now the corner of Union Street and Ocean Avenue.

His wharf was the first one built on the eastern side of the Kennebunk River and from it he engaged in fishing, coasting and lumbering. Wiswall’s sloop was the first from Arundel to sail to the West Indies, though that first voyage was a financial failure. Most of the cattle that was on deck as cargo fell into the ocean within hours of being loaded onto the vessel. Wiswall persevered with West Indies trade and by 1764 he was one of the wealthiest citizens of Arundel.

Slavery was tolerated in Massachusetts until the Revolutionary War. One of the five slaves listed in the 1764 census of Arundel, a West Indiesman, belonged to the Wiswall family. Though Bradbury writes in his “History of Kennebunkport” that the last two slaves in Arundel died in the poorhouse shortly before 1837, there were West Indiesmen listed as servants in Kennebunkport households as late as 1860.

During the American Revolution, Wiswall was an inspector for the war effort in Arundel. His two cannons were the ones used in the Battle of Cape Porpoise in 1782. (See Cape Porpoise in the American Revolution at www.someoldnews.com.)

Reports of the lightning strike in Arundel appeared for months in newspapers from South Carolina to Boston and New York. The home of Thomas Wiswall, who had previously been referred to in Boston papers as “Innholder of Arundel,” was struck on the evening of June 8, 1786.

His 20 x 25 foot main house had two stories and a garret. An attached one-story el contained the kitchen and a dairy or milk-room. The only chimney passed through the roof at the end of the house nearest the kitchen.

Lighting struck the chimney, de-nailing all the roof boards around it. Iron curtain rods sitting on the attic floor near the chimney directed electricity into the closet of a bedchamber directly below. Wiswall’s gun was leaning in the corner of that closet wrapped in woolen cloth. The stock of the gun broke away from the barrel and the muzzle was instantly melted, setting the woolen cloth case on fire.

Five people were in the house at the time. All of them were in the kitchen except one daughter who was working in the milk-room. All were knocked insensible. When they came around a few minutes later, none could recall the shocking event, though its results were immediately evident.

Every room was affected. The breastwork over every fireplace in the house was torn apart and every window in the house was broken except one that had been left open. Details of the damages were conveyed in an article in the Massachusetts Gazette on July 10, 1786.

“The frame and sashes of one of the kitchen windows, against which a young man was leaning his arm, together with 4 feet of the plate above, were thrown into the yard before the house. In the milk-room, all the shelves were removed from their supporters, and every earthen milk-vessel broken to pieces, out of one of which a daughter was lading milk into a pewter vessel in her hand. In the same room a cheese-tub was overset, and the cheese in a pickle thrown to the other side of the room. The glass bottles, in several cases in the chamber were broken. Four doors in the house were unhinged. The cellar door was burst open, and a dog was found dead in the cellar.”

The Wiswall family regained their senses just in time to extinguish the fire in the bedchamber closet, which had by then, communicated from the gun case to the light clothing hanging above it.

The incident is probably what inspired Thomas Wiswall to start building a new home for his family next door in 1786. The elegant new house, which still stands on Union Street and now houses Ben & Jerry’s, was finished in 1789.

The old blockhouse, a little worse for the wear, was sold to Nathan Morse but was torn down in about 1807. Its cellar hole was still visible across from Silas Perkins’ store in 1837 when Bradbury wrote his “History of Kennebunkport.”

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.”

Meteorological Freak Week 1926

Nature's Onslaught
Nature\’s Onslaught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living landmarks of the York County coast

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

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

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

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

Cape Arundel cedar tree
Cape Arundel cedar tree

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

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

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

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

Kennebunk's Lafayette Elm
Lafayette Elm

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

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

Terra not so firma in 1834

Avalanche near Durells Bridge
Avalanche near Durells Bridge by Frank Handlen

The slippery clay earth along the banks of the Kennebunk River has, more than once, slid into the channel changing the path it meanders.

An article in the Kennebunk Gazette described one such alteration in the river’s course. “A curious migration took place at the Landing during the night of June 11, 1834. About one-fourth of an acre of land, on the eastern bank of Kennebunk River, opposite the dwelling-house of the late Mr. Benjamin Durrell, slid into the river, carrying away nearly one-half of Durrell’s draw-bridge, and nearly filling up the channel for a rod or more. Where, on Wednesday, a ship of the largest size then built on the river might have laid afloat, on Thursday morning the river could be forded without difficulty. The land moved in a solid mass, and the apple trees upon it stood as firmly and as erect, and looked as flourishing, in their new situation as they did the previous day on the location where they were reared.”

Charles Bradbury wrote in his History of Kennebunkport that two other landslides had carried full grown oak trees, and the soil in which they grew, into the middle of the river below Durrell’s bridge.

News of an avalanche in 1670 on the western side of the Kennebunk River found its way to England and came to be known as The Wonder. The few Europeans that had settled on the banks of the Kennebunk River lived close to the ocean and did not witness the event, but it was estimated to have occurred in late June or early July. Word of the miraculous movement of earth reached John Winthrop Jr., the eldest son of the first Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The younger Winthrop was serving as Connecticut’s governor in 1670 when he asked two trusted friends to investigate Kennebunk River’s surprising rearrangement. Hartakendon Symons of Salem, who had previously lived in Wells and was familiar with its topography, and Major William Phillips of Saco, reported their findings to the Governor that he might notify the Royal Society.

John Winthrop Jr. was a founding member of The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. The somewhat secretive organization, whose Latin motto “Nullius in Verba” means “on the words of no one,” was predominately made up of Freemasons and was formed in 1660 to solve the mysteries of the 17th century world without regard to religion. Sir Francis Bacon and alchemist Sir Isaac Newton were both quiet devotees as was King Charles II.

In a letter to fellow Royal Society member Lord Brereton, dated Oct. 11, 1670, Winthrop conveyed an almost magical interpretation of the Kennebunk landslide. “There was a hill near Kennebunk River in the Province of Maine which is removed out of its place,” he wrote. “The hill being almost eight rods from Kennebunk river’s side on the West side of the river, about four miles from the sea, was removed from its place over the dry land about eight rods or perches, and over the tops of the trees also, between the hill and the river, leaping as it were over them into the river, where it was placed the upper part being downward, and dammed up the river till the water did work itself a passage through it. The earth of it is a blue clay without stones; many round bullets were within it, which seem to be of the same clay hardened.”

Charles Bradbury suggested in his 1837 book that said hill might actually have slid under the tangled roots of the trees at the river’s edge in 1670, leaving a gaping hole where the hill had been. He also offered a plausible explanation for the “round bullets” described in Winthrop’s letter. The pellets, he believed, were formed in nearby Wonder Brook when the stream “running over clayey land, caused little falls of water of a foot or more, at the bottoms of which, by the constant falling of the water, holes of some little depth were worn shaped like a mortar. Small pieces of clay being carried into these hollows were by the rotary action of the water, worn round and smooth and were baked in the summer, by the sun, when the brook became dry.”

Whether you believe, as Winthrop did, that a hill in Kennebunk leapt in the air and landed upside down in the river or that The Wonder was nothing more exotic than wet slippery clay responding to gravity, the banks of the Kennebunk River near the Landing have proved unstable and could someday slip again.