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.