Tag Archives: Nature

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.”

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.

Kate Furbish and her Drakes Island legacy

With practiced botanical eye she roamed
With practiced botanical eye she roamed

Frequent Drakes Island boarder, Kate Furbish, was no shrinking violet. The single-minded way she pursued her study of native Maine plants, raised eyebrows. Mucking about in the swamp for hours without the benefit of male protection was not considered appropriate behavior for a Victorian lady but she was not to be dissuaded from her solitary endeavor.  After being cajoled to allow an elderly gentleman to accompany her for a day of field work, she vented in her diary. “Tis talk, talk, talk, while I want to see, see, see. I am going to see and think for, and by myself, having proved that a day amounts to more spent alone.” 

Catherine Furbish was born May 19, 1834 in Exeter, NH, to Benjamin Furbish and his wife Mary A. Lane.  When she was still an infant the family moved to Brunswick, ME where she would reside until her passing in 1931.   

Benjamin Furbish, a native of Wells, Maine, shared his love of nature with his only daughter on long walks in the woods studying native Maine plants. He sent her to finishing school and paid an extra dollar to ensure that she be taught Latin. He was determined she should develop to her full intellectual potential, in spite of her sex. Benjamin had inherited an independent spirit and respect for education from his own father, Dr. Joshua Furbish of Wells. 

Dr. Furbish, born lame, was provided with a good education to help him compensate for his limited physical capacity. He became a renaissance man, excelling in Latin and mathematics far beyond his education. In addition to being a successful cobbler, he was a self-taught inventor with remarkable mechanical gifts. He taught the young mariners of Wells to navigate even though his own mobility was challenged. Joshua also taught himself to play the organ and built two organs for the First Unitarian Universalist Parish in Kennebunk.        

Like her paternal grandfather, Kate Furbish never allowed perceived frailties to dictate her fate.  In 1860 she attended a botany lecture series in Boston presented by George L. Goodale, of Saco, who would later accept professorships at Bowdoin College and Harvard. The two became lifelong friends and Kate was inspired to pursue her interest in botany. Goodale was in the process of classifying all of Maine’s known flowering plants when she met him. His collection of specimens was housed at the Portland Museum of Natural History in a building that burned to the ground in 1866, destroying years of his research.  

After the fire, Kate’s work took on a new vigor and purpose. She worked in every county in the State of Maine, collecting thousands of plant specimens and drawing the four stages of their development; the embryo, the bud, the flower or fruit and the seed pod. She would then reproduce their colors with water-based paint. The plants she collected wilted quickly so she often painted them in the field where they grew and had to work late into the night to capture their peculiarities. In spite of her amateur status, Kate Furbish established a reputation by identifying previously undiscovered varieties that were confirmed by professionals at Harvard and Bowdoin College. At least two varieties were subsequently named after her; Pedicularis Furbishiae and Aster Cordifolius L., var. Furbishiae. 

Many of her happiest hours were spent in the marshes of Wells, Maine. Among the flowers she collected there while visiting her cousins at Eatoncroft on Drakes Island were; Slender Blue Flag irises, pure white Myosotis Collina, Arenaria Peploides a member of the Pink family, and Baptisia Tinctoria, a yellow false indigo that her friend at Harvard had never found in Maine. The same plant was later discovered in Alfred and thought to have been introduced there by the Shakers as a medicinal plant. 

Kate donated her life’s work to the Harvard Botanical Museum and Bowdoin College Library in 1908.  In a letter to William DeWitt Hyde at Bowdoin, she wrote, “I have wandered alone for the most part, on the highways and in the hedges, on foot, in hayracks, on country mail-stages, (often in Aroostook Co., with a revolver on the seat) on improvised rafts,… in row-boats, on logs, crawling on hands and knees on the surface of bogs, and backing out, when I dared not walk, in order to procure a coveted treasure. Called ‘crazy,’ a ‘fool,’ and this is the way that my work has been done.  The flowers being my only society and the manuals the only literature for months together. Happy, happy hours!” 

Kate Furbish, the amateur, is to this day respected by professional Botanists for her scientific contributions. Unlike the professionals, she had the luxury to concentrate on her field work without administrative distractions. In the 1800s the word “amateur” had a less diminishing connotation than it does today. Rather than implying someone “less qualified than a professional” an amateur was one who required no financial reward for a devoted pursuit; a self-taught, heart-follower. This was an apt description of Kate.