Tag Archives: shipwreck

LAUNCH! Shipwrecks of the Kennebunks

shipwrecks Launch hi

A LAUNCH! Event presented by Kennebunkport Conservation Trust at the Clement Clark Boathouse adjacent to the site of the Old Perkins Grist Mill on Mill Lane in Kennebunkport. An Illustrated Lecture: Barbara Barwise and Sharon Cummins will share Kennebunk River Maritime History, photographs and details of local shipwrecks from 1770 to 1921. The Wandby near Walker’s Point, The Governor Robie at Timber Island, The Enpress near St. Ann’s, The Horace and The Industry at Kennebunk Beach, The limer, Carrie G. Crosby at Parson’s Beach, The Mildred V. Nunan at Turbat’s Creek – to name just a few. The Clement Clark’s Boathouse where Booth Tarkington’s 45 foot speedboat, ‘Zantre’, built by local boat builder Clement L. Clark was launched in June of 1930. The Boathouse is just a short walk from Dock Square and the Municipal Parking Lot.  Donations are requested to help save the Town House School. Please park at the Municipal Parking Lot on North Street, Kennebunkport.

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.

Wreck of the Fred B. Taylor on Wells Beach

A Case of Nautical Clevage

Wells Beach cottagers were befuddled one morning in August 1892 by the appearance of one half of a large wooden sailing ship, rocking upright and surprisingly intact in the surf in front of Pine Island cottage.

The rear end of the Nova Scotia ship, the Fred B. Taylor, had traveled more than 400 miles after being separated from her other half 44 days earlier.

The whole 9-year-old ship had left Havre for New York on May 12, 1892. At a 1,789-ton capacity, she was one of the largest and finest wooden ships on the Yarmouth, NS list. Capt. E. F. Hurlburt was proud to command her, but he was a little tense on the morning of June 22. It was 6:30 a.m. and he had been on deck for hours navigating through a blinding fog. To make matters worse, the Taylor’s mechanical foghorn had stopped working during the night. All that was available for a substitute was an ordinary mouth horn.

Capt. Reimkasten, meanwhile, was sailing the 4,969 ton German steamer, Trave, at top speed from New York to Breman, when he encountered the same fog bank about 100 miles southeast of Sandy Hook. He saw the Fred B. Taylor only seven seconds before slicing her in two — as easily as a knife slices through a block of soft cheese. Two fatalities resulted. Charles Woodley, first mate on the Taylor, was crushed to death in his berth, and the ship’s carpenter, a Russian Finn by the name of Careston, was knocked overboard and drowned.

Before the 1,500 steamer passengers could make it on deck to see what had jarred them awake, the Trave had passed between the two halves of the wooden vessel and disappeared again into the fog.

Later, in an interview with a reporter from the New York Times, the Taylor’s steward said, ” … it was fortunate the ship was made of wood because when the vessel was cut in half, the two parts stood upright in the water as the ballast in the holds emptied itself into the sea. This gave the rescuers from the Trave time to reach the wreck.”

Nineteen of the 21 crewmen aboard the Fred B. Taylor were rescued with only the clothes on their backs. The only woman on board, a stewardess, was knocked into the sea from the impact but was pulled into one of the steamer’s boats just as she was about to go under for the third time.

When the fog finally lifted, the bow of the Fred B. Taylor was still in sight, but her back half had disappeared. The shape of the stern portion of the wrecked vessel presented a much larger surface area for the northeast wind to affect. The bow, which rode much lower in the water after the accident, obeyed the drift of the cold ocean water flowing south between the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic coast.

In the weeks that followed, both halves of the derelict ship were tracked by passing vessels as they bobbed along in opposite directions. The stern started off toward the east, turned northward, passed Boston 100 miles off the coast on July 9, and having approached within a few miles of Matinicus Island, turned west again and went ashore on Wells Beach on Aug. 6 or 7. The following report appeared in the Biddeford Daily Journal a few days later:

“Cottagers residing at Wells Beach in the vicinity of Pine Island were much surprised to see landed in front of their cottages in the early morning a large mass of something on the beach which as the tide  receded was inspected and found to be a wreck or part of a large vessel. At low water it was found to be the larboard quarter of the ship Fred B. Taylor, the chain plates and dead eyes of the mizzen mast remaining. The stern post remained but the rudder was gone. The deck from stern to forward part of house still remaining, also. The railing around the stern, the timbers and flooring and in fact all the vessel being of soft wood. The deck showed that either by accident or otherwise, she had been on fire. Wreckers were at work upon the wreck securing the iron and copper. The yellow metal was strewn around the beach. On Sunday quite a large number of people were around viewing the remains from far and near, and for some a great curiosity. Since the wreck came ashore a steamer has been seen between Boon Island and the beach, evidently sailing around in search of something, which no doubt was the very wreck, either to destroy it or tow it out of the way, being very dangerous to navigation.”

The bow of the derelict was last spotted at the end of August 1892, off the coast of North Carolina with bits of her tattered sails still visible after also having traveled more than 400 miles. The ultimate separation of the two floating halves of the Fred B. Taylor by more than 600 miles was reported for many years as a unique occurrence in maritime history.

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.”

The sunken treasure of the Kennebunk brig Columbia

Brig Columbia and her treasure sank in fifteen minutes
Brig Columbia and her treasure sank in fifteen minutes

United States Congress had little choice but to pass a May 15, 1820 bill authorizing construction of a wooden pier on the western side of the mouth of the Kennebunk River. At least two local trading vessels had met their end trying to navigate the dangerous harbor entrance during the two preceding years. According to Shipping News, both were very familiar with its hazards.

 A sandbar outside the mouth of the river was only two to three feet deep at low water. Navigation guides instructed sailors to anchor between the Fishing Rocks and the mouth of the river, to await high tide. Larger trading vessels were forced to load and unload part of their cargo outside the sandbar.

The 139 ton brig Merchant, Captain Emery, had been built way upriver by Kennebunk shipbuilder, Nathaniel Gilpatrick. She was launched October 13, 1804 and after a West Indies trading career, was cast away on the Kennebunk Bar upon her return from Havana, Cuba at the beginning of April 1820. All her cargo, sails and rigging were reportedly saved.

The 160 ton Brig Columbia, launched upriver just a week after the Merchant, was owned by Joseph Moody, Richard Gilpatrick and Jeremiah Paul. Like the Merchant, she was engaged in West Indies trade with Cuba and Porto Rico.

It was reported in the Daily Advertiser that on her first voyage in January of 1805, the Columbia was boarded and robbed. “Captain Mason in the brig Columbia, was brought to by a privateer schooner under English colors,” read the headline.

The privateer captain ordered Benjamin Mason to come aboard with some of his crew but most of his men being sick, he was unable to comply. Mason was physically forced aboard the privateer by her captain, leaving the Columbia at the mercy of the privateer crew.

The English flag on the raider was immediately pulled down and replaced by Spanish colors. All the Columbia’s fresh supplies, extra canvas, spun yarn and tools were stolen. After being held for two hours and “much abused,” Capt Mason and his sick crew were released and allowed to sail away in the brig Columbia.

An 1807 foreign trade embargo and the War of 1812 crippled shipping in the District of Kennebunk. Local vessels were stored upriver to keep them out of enemy hands and a fort was built on Kennebunk Point to protect the river.

Local businessmen needed loans to endure the financial challenge and protect their shipping investments. The Kennebunk Bank was built in Arundel. Joseph Moody, principal owner of the brig Columbia, was elected President of the institution. National banking regulations requiring that capital be backed by specie (gold or silver) were relaxed during the war but once peace was restored the regulations were enforced. The Kennebunk Bank was forced to reduce its capital by $20,000 and to rent the upstairs of the bank building – now the Louis T. Grave Memorial Library -to the U. S. Government as a Customs House. The Kennebunk bank was repeatedly embarrassed, not having specie sufficient to cover the money it had printed.

On November 17, 1818, the brig Columbia, owned by bank President, Joseph Moody, returned to Kennebunk 28 days from Ponce, Porto Rico with a cargo of molasses, sugar, lignumvitae, and hides. She also had over $1000 specie aboard, likely in the form of gold and silver coins. Captain Lord anchored her outside the Kennebunk sandbar to await the tide and went ashore. It was reported in the Essex Register that Lord returned with one of the owners, a pilot, and some additional hands to get the vessel into the River.

“In beating into port, to windward of the Fishing Rocks, the wind took her aback, and not having room to wear, she struck on one of the rocks, but immediately floated off – no danger was apprehended, but shortly after a Spanish passenger, who was confined to the cabin by sickness, came running on deck and informed that the vessel was half full of water – the people had just enough time to take to the boats losing all their clothes etc. before she sunk, leaving only the ends of her topgallant masts out of water.”

Captain Lord managed to save one small bag of coins but many newspapers reported that up to $1,000 in specie went down with the brig Columbia. Joseph Moody sold what he could salvage from the wreck the following February and collected $5,000 insurance money but it was not reported if the sunken treasure was ever recovered.

Several times in the past 70 years an old wreck has been briefly uncovered at the eastern end of Gooch’s beach. The Brick Store Museum owns an aerial photograph of it taken after a September 1978 storm. It could be the Merchant or the Columbia but like most shipwrecks of the Kennebunks, its identity cannot be verified without archaeological investigation.

History of the Biddeford Pool Life-saving Station

Nautical Samaritans
Nautical Samaritans

Surfmen at Fletcher’s Neck Life-saving station at Biddeford Pool protected our coastline for 100 years. They rescued countless men and women from shipwrecks, searched for fishermen who hadn’t returned from their days work and brought drunken beach wanderers home to their wives. During the days of early aviation, the patrolmen even announced the comings and goings of pioneer pilots.

There had been a make-shift volunteer life-saving system since the late 1700s but in 1872, Mainer, Sumner I. Kimball was appointed by President Grant to head up the Revenue Marine Bureau of the U. S. Treasury Department. Kimball was charged with organizing and standardizing the service that would eventually evolve into the United States Coast Guard. He established life-saving stations along the coast manned with physically robust local fishermen, already familiar with the dangerous rock formations nearby.

Kimball was adamant that keeper and crew appointments should not be based on political considerations. During his long career, he frequently fought Congress to keep it that way. Much to the chagrin of a very vocal Biddeford Pool station keeper, Congress eventually won out and lifesavers were hired from a list of eligible applicants, without regard to their familiarity with local hazards.

The four original life-saving stations in Maine were established at points along our coast that were deemed most dangerous to sailing vessels; West Quoddy Head, Cross Island, Crumple Island and Biddeford Pool. Wood-frame boathouses were erected and life-saving service commenced on December 1, 1874. Each station contained a large downstairs room for a life-boat and all the necessary implements and paraphernalia. Behind it was a general cooking and off-duty room. Sleeping quarters for the Keeper and surfmen were on the second floor.

Keepers were required by law to record live-saving business in a logbook, including the direction and force of the wind every day at sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight. Once a week, the log was sent to Washington. Surfmen training was strictly regulated. Putting a lifeboat in over the breakers from the beach required great skill and timing. The men practiced all day every day, performing standardized live-saving equipment drills. At night, no matter the weather, two men continuously patrolled the coast on foot, one going right from the station and the other, left.  When a distressed vessel was spotted, wheel-mounted lifeboats weighing approximately 1,000 lbs were pulled to the shore nearest the wreck and rowed out to the rescue, sometimes over a fearsome sea.

On average, two ships were wrecked near Biddeford Pool every year. Some years, when the weather was particularly harsh, there were many more. Once the Life-saving service was established, shipwreck survival rates improved dramatically. Fletcher’s Neck surfman saved the lives of hundreds of stranded men and women over the years. They were not, however, able to save the crew of one Canadian schooner that went ashore at Beach Island in a terrible 1884 storm. The following year, the lime schooner Silver Spray of Rockland caught fire near Biddeford Pool. The over-worked employees of the Fletcher’s Neck life-saving station were accused of negligence. The vessel was a total loss but her captain testified that the Biddeford Pool men performed their duty admirably. Fortunately, a life-saving station was established at Cape Elizabeth, ME in 1888, to lighten their load. In 1904, Keeper, L. C. Totman told a reporter for the Daily Boston Globe that December 5, 1900 was as tough a night as he ever experienced in his live-saving career. That night three crews of twelve men were taken from stranded vessels at the Pool.

Larger, more modern accommodations were built next to the boathouse at Fletcher’s Neck in 1904, but the surfmen endured a very difficult winter, none-the-less. One of the men was washed overboard during a drill and was only saved by holding on to a piece of floating ice. The lifesavers all suffered the grippe that year and their mascot Fido, a handsome King Charles spaniel, had to fill in on patrol.

The Coast Guard maintained the Fletcher’s Neck station until 1973. After serving as a meeting space for York County Counseling Services the buildings were finally converted for use as a private home in 1999.

In spite of the fact that the heroic Biddeford Pool surfmen, who risked their lives for the safety of others, were initially paid only $40 a month, there was never a shortage of local men willing to perform this valiant service.

Written as a first-hand account of the 1838 wreck of the barque Horace

Barque Horace ashore at Kennebunk 1838
Barque Horace ashore at Kennebunk 1838

She was built at Scarborough in 1827. Arundel men owned the greater part of the vessel, one brother being the husband. A capt of Kennebunk owned a piece and also a capt of Arundel commanded her with his brother as mate.

Now, she was bound from New Orleans to Liverpool, with full cargo of cotton near 300 bales. She was a vessel of 389 tons. This was her first voyage. In fact, she had never made a voyage.

She was a good barque, black, sided with some stripes about her. The crew, some dozen or more, gathered at New Orleans, were all strangers, a mixed lot, with some foreigners among them.

Now it chanced that a story passed amongst these men, that the vessel had brought a general cargo from some northern part of the southern city. And that a surplus of the money provided to purchase it was still on board, about $25,000; be that as it may ere long they laid plans to gain possession of the craft. They would kill the captain but not the mate as he might serve them later.

Tales were told that the captain and mate were impetuous but a man who sailed on board as a passenger said it wasn’t so. The sailor’s plot accomplished, then they would scuttle or fire the barque. But it chanced that the cook, a swede, and who also was to perish, overheard the speech and warned the capt and he laid a counter plan of his own to secure them at the first appearance of a mutiny. Ere long several were seized, lashed with cords for there were no irons on the craft. Then in the milee the mate was injured. The vessel being short-handed the capt endeavored to make port at Boston. But wind and ride proceeded and when off this coast he chose to sail for Arundel for there his owner and family were. He also would place the men who refused to do duty on shore, and secure others in their place, would remain over a tide or two only. Ah friend, would that he had not made the mistake of anchoring in an open ??? instead of proceeding to Portland where there was a safe harbor and the US court sat before which the mutineers could be tried. Some persons asserted that the crew believed believed that they were sailing there and that the old observatory on Point Arundel was Falmouth Lighthouse.

However, the ill-fated vessel anchored inside the fishing rock near the rivers mouth on Wed.

May 2, 1838. Now when the report reached Kennebunk Village that the Horace was off the bar boys with spy glasses climbed the belfry of the Unitarian Church to see the vessel.

The mutinous sailors were at once set ashore and transported to Portland.

The wind came up and blew Friday and Saturday and the condition was serious for the vessel at anchor. A person living near the shore who viewed the vessel straining at her chains exclaimed, “ she will not weather the gale.” Several captains and crew members remained on the vessel. The gale was so heavy seawater was in the fields. The barque was with both anchors ??? with chain cables. Sat May 5 one of the chains parted. The captain feared the other would go and at 11:45 slipped it. And at the same time ordered all hands aloft to loosen the sails intending to work the vessel out to sea but in the extremity of tide and wind the barque would not obey the rudder. Ere the men found time to do their work the captain shouted for them to come down for you must know that he heard the breakers (dirge?) They had barely reached the deck when the vessel struck on the half-way wreck off oakes neck there ½ mile from the anchoring ground. Some call this ledge “wash rock” and declare the vessel left her chain lying across them. She remained there for 15 minutes bumping heavily lost her rudder stern post false keel bent an hogged by the rough usage and filling with water.

Had the cargo been ought but cotton or had she laid longer on the rock the vessel would have floundered and all persons on board perished.  However, she rose on the ledge with a serge, beat over it and again drifted ½ a mile came ashore upright broadside on with all standing, at night, amid tremendous surf, at first beach some 150 yards from high water mark and hard on 2 acres lot (Lords Point)

The captain, mate and two crewmen swung overboard. He told the owners he would have perished with his vessel if he had it to do again.  Operations were begun to remove the cotton and dismantle the vessel. Many people being employed.

Author most likely Wm Barry. He referred to this piece in one of his books. He probably wrote it around 1900 from records of the trial testimony.

1838 newspaper reports of the wreck of the Horace
1838 newspaper reports of the wreck of the Horace

Perilous Refuge in Cape Porpoise Harbor

The fateful December gale of 1850
The fateful December gale of 1850

Cape Porpoise Harbor has always been dangerous to seafarers unfamiliar with its hidden hazards but countless vessels have ventured forth anyway, seeking shelter from countless storms. Many never made it into the harbor, others never made it out.

 In October of 1804 The Salem Register reported that a Hallowell packet was lost at Cape Porpoise in a hurricane. Captain Weston sailed her onto the rocks. He, his crew and all 20 of his passengers, including twelve ladies, perished. Only the bodies of Dr. Appleton, Mrs. Appleton and their child, all of Waterville, were ever found.

 The American Coast Pilot called Cape Porpoise a “bad harbour” in 1806. “It is not to be attempted unless you are well acquainted, or in distress. A vessel that draws 10 feet will be aground at low water. The harbour is so narrow that a vessel cannot turn round.” Nevertheless, it was advertised as the only refuge in a storm between Portland and Portsmouth. During the years of coasting trade it was not unusual for 100 vessels to seek shelter in one storm, bumping and battering each other in the process. To address the dangerously rocky approach, local ship owners petitioned the United States Congress, in 1831, to establish a lighthouse on Goat Island and a buoy at Prince’s Rock. The whale oil in Goat Island Light was first ignited in August of 1833 and the Prince Rock buoy was placed the following year. Unfortunately, the frequency of shipwrecks was not much abated by these measures.

 Joshua Herrick, Kennebunkport’s only United States Congressman, promoted a plan in 1844 to construct an 852 foot stone pier between Savin Bush and Milk Islands, thereby blocking the surge from nor’easters and providing tie ups for vessels seeking refuge. It was proposed that the breakwater, 20 feet wide at its base and 10 feet wide on top, be built economically of stone available on an “unclaimed island” 1/2 mile east of Milk Island. The plan was perceived by Congress as an effort to improve commerce in Cape Porpoise and the bill was forwarded to the Commerce Committee. There it sat for nearly a decade.

 During the tremendous storm of 1850, just before Christmas, Cape Porpoise Harbor was littered with disabled vessels. The schooner “Wave” went ashore outside the harbor late on the night of December 22nd. Captain Tolman and his crew were saved but the schooner was a total loss. A few hours later schooner “Susan Taylor” of Frankfort went ashore on Green Island. Schooner “Helen Mar” of Deer Isle, was the next to run aground on the rocks between Vaughn and Green Islands. Her bottom was knocked out and her cargo of lumber strewn willy nilly.   Schooner Albert soon parted her anchor chains and drifted afoul of Schooner Elizabeth causing that schooner to go aground. No lives were lost but the crews of Helen Mar, Albert and Elizabeth all huddled together on Green Island, unsheltered from the raging weather until they were rescued late in the evening of the 23rd.

 As Deputy Collector of Customs for the Kennebunk District, Enoch Cousens pleaded with Congress in 1853 to approve the Cape Porpoise breakwater project. Additionally, Cousens asked that a lighthouse be built at the mouth of the Kennebunk River.  The breakwater bill was again tabled but the proposed lighthouse was approved. A 6th order lens perched atop a 21 foot white frame structure was lit for the first time on January 1, 1857 at the end of the eastern pier. The new lighthouse was unpopular. It caused a great deal of confusion among mariners being so close to Cape Porpoise Light. A storm took it away some time before 1870 and it was never replaced.

Originally most of Cape Porpoise Harbor had a depth of about 13 feet at low tide and the entrance was obstructed by a bar. Under a $70,000 harbor improvement project finally adopted March 3, 1899, the entrance of the harbor was widened to 200 feet and deepened to 16 feet at low water. An anchorage area about 3,000 feet long, 600 feet wide, and 15 feet deep at low tide was completed by the end of 1902. In 1907, the crooked entrance channel was straighten and dug to a depth of 18 feet at low tide for an additional $46,000. These improvements made the harbor much safer as a place of refuge but a few notable shipwrecks occurred during and after the project.  

The number of documented shipwrecks in the Kennebunks exceeds 100. Some of the wrecks at Goose Rocks Beach, Cape Arundel and Kennebunk Beach will be explored in a free illustrated lecture at Kennebunk Library tonight, (July 22, 2010) at 7 pm.