Tag Archives: Portsmouth

Steamer Tom Thumb’s history-making career

Tom Thumb driven ashore at Boon Island 1836

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirates in Casco Bay in 1817

Marauding under an alledged foreign flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engine No. 3666 plunges into the Piscataqua

The Piscataqua River claimed her victims

When the first teamster drove his horses over the newly-built Portsmouth Bridge in 1822 he could scarcely have imagined the horrible fate that would befall the last two men to try to navigate across the interstate span in 1939.

After the railroad built its adjoining bridge on the same superstructure in 1842 and until the Memorial Bridge opened in 1923, terrified teams of horses and screeching steam locomotives crossed the 1650-foot wooden Portsmouth Bridge side-by-side. Teamsters were required to pay for the dubious privilege.

The old bridge was closed to all but railroad traffic in 1923 and it was still being used by the Boston & Maine Railroad in 1936, when a committee consisting of residents from both Maine and New Hampshire agreed to build a new bridge – some 60 feet downstream, to address the growing traffic between Maine and New Hampshire. Construction of the new bridge progressed nicely through the summer of 1939 and the scheduled Spring 1940 completion target seemed well within reach.

On Sunday evening, Sept 10, 1939, local passenger train No. 2024 left North Berwick, Maine on schedule for Boston, Massachusetts. Only 12 passengers and a crew of five were onboard as engine # 3666 pulled very slowly onto the wobbly wooden bridge –suspended 40 feet above the raging Piscataqua River tides. A speed limit of 3 miles per hour had been imposed since the Norwegian Freighter, Lynghaug hit the bridge in 1937. Twenty pilings were torn away in the incident. Repairs were hurriedly made for $5,000 but the weakened bridge was never again the same.

According to a report in the Portsmouth Herald on September 11, 1939, local 2024 was still on the eastern span when the locomotive, the tender and empty first passenger car plunged into the river “as if thrown from a catapult.”

Fireman Charles D. Towle, 49, of Exeter, NH, who was probably standing to the rear of the cab when the bridge collapsed, could be heard screaming as the exceptionally strong Piscataqua tide carried him upstream and into the night. His lifeless body was recovered later that night near Dover Point.

Engineer, John Beattie,68, of Somerville, MA, was presumed dead as, based on the location of his post, he would likely have been trapped inside the submerged locomotive. After a sweep of the area by two Coast Guard vessels the search for Beattie was called off for the night. His body was finally found ten days later, floating near the back channel buoy, a half-mile downstream from the splintered bridge.

The passengers had all been saved from a similar fate when the coupling between the first and second passenger cars parted, causing the airbrake hoses to tear away and the brakes on the occupied cars to be automatically applied. The coaches jolted to a stop but remained upright on the tracks. In fact, most of the passengers had no idea of the gravity of the accident until they were loaded onto handcars and transferred to the Kittery side of the bridge.

Within an hour of the accident, 500 curious Portsmouth and Kittery residents had gathered along the river, but there wasn’t much for them to see. The first three units of the train had been immediately swallowed up by the black swirling river.

Everyone assumed the railroad bridge had collapsed because of its age and condition, but the Boston & Maine Railroad representatives insisted the bridge had recently passed inspections. While there had been a bridge at that location for over 100 years, they argued, the structure had been entirely rebuilt several times and all parts had been repeatedly renewed. Their investigation indicated the bridge failure was caused by equipment used for building the new bridge.

A $150,000 lawsuit was filed by the railroad company against the construction contractor, Frederick Snare Corp. Objective investigations confirmed that the bridge had been damaged when a large caisson used in the construction of the new bridge broke loose and cables attached on the caisson pulled a piling of the railroad structure out of place.

Plans were made to repair the railroad bridge but this turned out to be far too expensive and impractical for a few months of use. Railroad traffic was diverted to the Western Division until the new bridge opened to traffic with train tracks running below the road.

Projects to raise the 125-ton locomotive have been considered several times since the accident, most recently in 1995, but each time the costs were deemed prohibitive. Instead,the cars were twice moved farther out of the shipping channel to prevent them from impeding navigation.

Engine #3666, builtin 1913 by the American Locomotive Company of Schenectady, NY still rests in her watery grave, not far from where the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge spans the Piscataqua River.