Steamer Clotilda went ashore at Wells Beach on December 13, 1870.
The steamer ran into rough seas that caused her heavy cargo to move. Her Master, Captain Young, put into Dublin, Ireland where 100 tons of coal was dropped in around the cargo to prevent further shifting. As a result of the considerable delay Clotilda’s destination was changed to Portland, Maine.
Contemporary accounts of the Wells Beach accident were published in the Eastern Argus and the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier. A statement of the “material facts” is also included in a subsequent lawsuit filed against the ship and her cargo by Nathaniel Lord Thompson of Kennebunk. It appears in Volume 1 of Reports of Judgments of Hon. Edward Fox U.S. District Judge for Maine District First Circuit, “The weather at the time was stormy, dark and foggy, and blowing a double reef top-sail breeze with a heavy sea. The beach is of sand, quite flat, affording very poor holding-ground, and is at the head of Wells Bay, exposed to the full force of the winds and waves. The vessel went on at a low run of tides, near high water, and the sea broke heavily over her stern, she being fast in the breakers”. Clotilda’s stern, rose and fell digging her deeper and deeper into the soft sand.
The officers went ashore and found lodgings at the house of Mr. Owen Davis, who lived nearby. Robert Cleaves of Kennebunk approached the captain and offered his services to salvage the cargo. Young proposed to pay 1/4 of the shipped value for the discharge of the cargo on the beach above the spring tides to make the ship lighter and easier to get afloat. Cleaves accepted the proposal and the same evening a written contract was signed. Cleaves paid his men $2.00 per tide and ox teams with drivers were paid $4.00 per tide to unload all the soda, and glass, a portion of the sails and about seventy-five percent of the ferry parts. As the cargo was removed the lightened steamer moved 500-600 feet up the beach and turned broadside to the water with some of her hull being 13 feet deep in the sand. 150 tons of that sand worked its way into the ship. Having done all he could Cleaves assigned his contract with Young to Captain Nathaniel Lord Thompson of Kennebunk.
Thompson released the ship and her remaining cargo to the underwriters who, in March of 1871, hired the New York Coast Wrecking Company to get Clotilda afloat. An article in the Eastern Argus published July 7, 1871 described their Herculean task. “The wreckers first had to cut her round so that her stern would point off shore. By the aid of two steam pumps, a steam winch of great power, and four anchors weighing 4,000 pounds each, one 20 inch and three 16 inch cables they turned her and hove her 1,000 feet to where she floated. Five times these heavy anchors were hove home and had to be replanted. As fast as they moved her down the beach they had to fill her with water to keep her from breaking up. On the full spring tide of the second month they expected to get her off, but their anchors failed. It was very difficult to work upon her as she listed so that cleats had to be nailed upon her decks for the men to walk upon”. The steamer finally floated off on June 29, 1871 and was towed to Union Wharf in Portland. Clotilda was not in good condition after sitting on Wells Beach for six months. The Eastern Argus reported, “She is the picture of a wreck: rusted, woodwork off, smoke stack and lower masts standing, dismantled and decks encumbered with the wrecking paraphernalia.”
The steamer was repaired and then sat at Union Wharf under the control of the United States Marshall for almost another year pending Nathaniel Lord Thompson’s lawsuit but was finally cleared from Boston for Liverpool, England in May of 1872.
The frequently repeated explanation of how the area of Biddeford called Fortunes Rocks got its name, like most such legends, has a seed of truth that over time has been generously fertilized with imagination.
Francis Fortune, the story goes, was a 15 year old sailor who, after being captured by the British in 1778, was released on account of his youth. He was soon shipwrecked off Biddeford Pool and made it to shore “barely alive.” A local farmer named Rossater and his wife Peggy nursed the boy back to vigor. He repaid their kindness by remaining with them as a farm hand. It is said that after employing the shipwreck survivor for many years Mr. Rossater died. Francis married Peggy Rossater and together they had two sons, both of whom went west in the gold rush of 1849. Uncle Fortune and Aunt Peggy were beloved by the people of Biddeford. They supposedly bequeathed their saltwater farm to the town in exchange for comfortable support through their final years. The area was named after them in appreciation.
Examination of the Biddeford Town Record Book V reveals that Francis Fortune was of Marblehead, Massachusetts when he married the widow Peggy Rositer on March 31, 1824. Marblehead records make no mention of Fortune’s ordeal with the British in 1778 but captive 15 year old sailors were typically released. Marblehead records do prove that Francis married Elizabeth Cloon in 1794 and fathered several of her Marblehead-born children; Samuel Cloon Fortune being the oldest. Elizabeth succumbed to consumption in 1818 and Francis went to sea as first mate aboard the Boston ship “Saco.” A near death experience off Gibraltar ended Fortune’s career on that vessel. He sailed next on the brig “Elizabeth,” of New York.
The morning of December 15, 1823, the “Elizabeth” was headed for Portland, ME in a blinding snowstorm. Her captain, Charles D. Gardner, sailed her into Winter Harbor and dropped anchor there alongside several other vessels seeking shelter from the storm.
Gardner later told a correspondent for the Eastern Argus how he and his crew came to be lashed to the rigging for five hours while the sea washed over them.
“The gale increasing with great violence, snowing very thickly about 4 pm the hemp cable parted and we continued to ride by the chain cable. We sent down our top-gallant mast, fore-top gallant yard and fore-yard; during which time we perceived her to draw her anchor toward the shore, the gale still increasing – and notwithstanding our utmost endeavors to save the vessel, about 7pm Monday she struck on the Lobster Rocks, so-called, near Fletcher’s Neck, in Biddeford, and shortly after bilged. About half past eight, the water being up to the cabin floor she keeled over to the starboard, on her beam ends, the sea, making fair breaches over her. In this perilous situation, we continued to cling to the wreck, if possible to save our lives til morning, not expecting assistance before.”
By 2 am the exhausted crew was greatly relieved to see Winter Harbor men making their way toward the wreck in a boat. The tide had ebbed sufficiently to expose the rocks that were breaking the brig “Elizabeth” apart. One by one the frozen seamen were lowered from her bow on a rope and the Biddeford boat conveyed them safely to shore. It was reported in the Argus that “Captain Gardner was slightly frozen and two or three of the crew were severely so.”
Francis Fortune was about 60 years old when Messrs. Bunker and Hussey of Winter Harbor rescued him from the wreck of the brig Elizabeth, off Lobster Rocks. Presumably, he was one of the severely frozen crewmen carried ashore by widow Rossiter’s neighbor. According to census records, Peggy Rossiter was in her fifth decade when Fortune was delivered to her by sea. Three months later they were married. Both had children by previous marriages but it seems unlikely that Peggy bore any Fortune offspring and none appear in census records.
Soon after Francis married Peggy, his son, Samuel Cloon Fortune, legally changed his name to Samuel Cloon. It was the already wealthy Cincinnati, Ohio merchant, Samuel Cloon who in 1848 paid off John Benson’s mortgage on Francis and Peggy’s oceanfront property. It was he who provided for their comfort during the remainder of their natural lives.
When Francis Fortune died December 10, 1858 at the age of 95, his wife Peggy had already passed. Never in their lifetime, had the land thenceforth known as Fortunes Rocks, ever been conveyed to the town of Biddeford. In 1862 Samuel Cloon sold Fortunes Rocks to William Curtis who later sold it to summer resort developer, Warren C. Bryant.
Francis and Peggy Fortune were simple people who played the cards they were dealt. The lives they actually lived are worthy of acknowledgement.
The leonine month of March lived up to its reputation in 1960. Nearly a foot and a half of snow fell on coastal York County March 4th. The following week, gale winds blowing from a southeasterly direction scoured Kennebunk Beach in an unusual way exposing the remains of a shipwreck that few remembered.
Bill Calder and Charles Robinson were the first to see crudely constructed ribs projecting 18 inches out of the sand on March 11th and they called George Stevens, photographer for the Kennebunk Star. Some of the ribs were 2 feet wide and a foot thick giving the wreck an ancient appearance. A six inch trenail (a wood fastening peg) removed from the planking had an unusual diamond-shaped wedged hammered into the end of it.
Sandy Brook, Editor of the Star, contacted marine expert and author, Edward Rowe Snow, at his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts and invited him up to examine the unusual wreck. By the time Mr. Snow arrived with Marine Architect, Bror Tamm, the timbers were almost entirely covered again by the shifting sand. Kennebunk’s Fire Chief, Harrison Coleman was persuaded to dispatch a fire truck from the Washington Hose Company and volunteers removed enough sand with a high pressure fire hose to give the experts a good look at the 65 foot wreck where she lay some 70 feet from the seawall on Mother’s Beach.
Mr. Snow, who was perhaps best known as “The Flying Santa Claus” for his annual delivery of Christmas presents to the families of New England lighthouse keepers, returned to Massachusetts to write an article for the Patriot Ledger. In his column, Snow theorized that the Kennebunk Beach wreck was the remains of a coasting packet, the “Industry” built in 1770 by Irish shipbuilders in St. George, Maine. “A colony of ship builders from Northern Ireland settled in St. George. They were the only ones to use a diamond-shaped wedge at a convex angle in the end of their trenails,” explained the maritime historian. Wreckage of the “Industry” superstructure had also been found in this area after she was lost on her maiden voyage.
Fascinated by the story, Dick Bedard, who now lives in Columbia Falls, Maine and three of his friends dug down four feet in an effort to reach the keel of the vessel. “I have a trenail that I carefully removed from one of the rib stumps, and often show it to people,” Dick said recently. The young men also found some broken pottery, pieces of leather punched with small triangular holes, unidentifiable chunks of a heavy, hard, black substance and half a pulley carved from lignum vitae, a wood species only found in South America and the West Indies. Remains of an old leather boot, a bone and a china plate were also uncovered and turned over to the Kennebunkport Historical Society.
According to Cyrus Eaton in his 1877 book, “Annals of the town of Warren,” Waterman Thomas had a store of West Indies goods in St George and leather shoes were made there before 1770 by Jonathan Nutting. The coasting packet, “Industry” was the first vessel ever built in St. George. She was lost on her first trip to Boston in the fall of 1770 and no one onboard was ever heard from again.
Her captain was a promising young man who had invested in the vessel after sailing the coasting route for several years with Reuben Hall. Captain David Patterson, 2nd had built his bride of two years, Anna James, an elegant home in St George and their first child, David, had just been born.
Mrs. Benjamin Packard was also aboard the ill-fated “Industry” with one of her children. Her husband, a carpenter, owned a share in the Industry and likely had a hand in building the ship. He and Anna Patterson, the Captain’s wife, soon commiserated in their grief and married each other.
Captain Patterson’s unmarried cousin, Abigail Patterson was also lost as were George Briggs, John Porterfield, Robert Gamble, John Mastick, David Malcolm of Massachusetts, Alexander Baird and Samuel Watson.
The loss of the vessel was briefly noticed in the October 25, 1770 issue of The Boston News-Letter. “We hear that Capt. Patterson, in a vessel which sailed about three weeks ago from St. Georges, at the Eastward, bound to this place, having on board a number of passengers, is supposed to be lost in a storm which happened the day they sailed, as she has not since been heard of –and ‘tis said the wreck of a vessel was lately seen a little without the capes.”
During the two weeks in 1960 when the shipwreck was visible, a piece of the stern post was examined by Robert W. Morse and Gerard Aycrigg, members of the restoration Dept. of the Mystic Marine Museum. They confirmed that the vessel was more than 100 years old but with such limited examination, would not support or refute Edward Rowe Snow’s identification of the “Industry”.
The Nowell brothers had a lot to prove to the people of Kennebunkport. When they were young, their father, Brigadier General Simon Nowell had operated an extensive business in town, mostly on borrowed capital. It failed in 1830 and many private citizens were compelled to accept less than $.50 on the dollar for their investments. Some even blamed the General for the failure of the Kennebunk Bank in 1831. The Nowell family moved to Bangor Maine but Thomas, Robert, George and Hiram all returned as adults to sail out of the District of Kennebunk.
Captain George W. Nowell and his wife Frances, the daughter of the wealthy Captain William Jefferds, built an elegant home in 1854 that still stands on Temple Street, next door to the Kennebunkport Post Office. Unlike his father, George rarely borrowed money. He did invest in several of the ships he sailed but had the fiscal foresight to insure his interests against loss. Diarist, Andrew Walker reports that Nowell also insured his own life for $3000. George had very good reasons to buy life insurance. The perils he faced on every voyage put his young family at risk.
He became master of the ship “Tropic” shortly after she was launched in 1855. On a return voyage from New Orleans in January 1857, the 882 ton vessel encountered a heavy gale off Bristol, RI. She lost her foresail and spent 36 hours on her beam ends. Though she eventually righted, her cargo had shifted and she listed to the starboard all the way home.
The odds of returning from a trip around Cape Horn were worst of all. In 1860, Nowell sailed the “Tropic” to San Francisco. Caught in a heavy fog on her return voyage, the Tropic was tacking to the starboard when suddenly she was run into on her port side by a large unknown bark. Captain Nowell later told a reporter for the New York Times, “Her jib boom went through our foresail and main topmast staysail; it broke short off and remained on board, with everything attached and the bark went clear. We shortened sail and hove to and laid by 12 hours. At noon the next day the weather was clear and nothing being in sight from aloft, filed away and proceeded.”
A few days later the Tropic came upon the disabled schooner “Potomac” of Franklin Maine. She was filling with water in a blowing gale. Nowell attempted to go alongside her but the seas were too rough. Captain Winslow Ray jumped overboard the schooner as did his mate and two crewmen. Nowell sent out a boat and successfully hauled to four men to safety.
January 6, 1862, the British brigantine, “Village Belle” was on her way from Clyde River, Nova Scotia to Trinidad with a cargo of lumber when she was dismasted in a heavy gale and began to take on water. By the time the “Tropic” came upon her she had 3 feet of water in her hold. Captain Nowell rescued the crew and landed them at Havre, France.
The odds finally caught up with Captain Nowell. His next voyage was to be his last. The ship “Tropic” cleared Philadelphia on December 11, 1862 with a cargo of coal for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in San Francisco. She and her crew of twenty were never heard from again. Diarist, Andrew Walker reports that among the local sailors lost were very young men named Twambley, Larrabee, Wildes, Heckman, Tripp and Curtis.
George was not yet 40 when he perished. His youngest son Frank never met his father and was only 8 years old when his mother passed in 1872. Shipbuilder, David Clark bought their Temple Street home and George’s brother took his children to live in Bangor. The Nowell name was again extinct in Kennebunkport, but not forgotten.
The captain’s reputation as a prudent and charitable man was recognized by Victoria, Queen of England. She awarded Captain George W. Nowell, of the ship “Tropic”, an engraved spyglass in testimony of his humanity in rescuing her subjects, the crew of the Village Belle, of Nova Scotia. The Telescope and a certificate, signed by the Queen, have been proudly protected by the Kennebunkport Historical Society.
The people of Biddeford began preparing for a Presidential visit as soon as William Howard Taft was inaugurated on March 4, 1909. The first lady’s sister, Eleanor More, had a summer cottage at Biddeford Pool. Her husband, the noted evolutionist, Dr. Louis T More, told the local press to expect an August visit by the first family.
Unfortunately, Nellie Taft suffered a stroke soon after moving into the Whitehouse and the family’s vacation plans were curtailed. Mrs. More stood in for her convalescing sister at all official events and accompanied her to Beverly Massachusetts for the summer. By the end of July Eleanor felt confident enough about her sister’s condition to slip away to her cottage at Biddeford Pool for a few days. To facilitate the trip, the Presidential yacht, “Sylph”, was placed at her disposal.
The impressive 123 foot vessel was anchored near the mouth of the Saco River on the evening of July, 30, 1909. As an entrepreneurial venture, Captain Earnest Vinton of Saco offered a moonlight excursion to closely view the Presidential yacht from his motor launch, the “Item”. Twenty-nine tickets were sold. Captain Vinton had to borrow extra life preservers from the Captain of the “Nimrod” to comply with federal safety regulations that he carry one for each passenger aboard.
It was reported in the Boston Daily Globe that the overcrowded little launch set out from Island Wharf at twilight. After rounding Wood Island she approached the illuminated “Sylph” and passengers gathered on her port side to get a closer look. The little party boat heeled dramatically with the shifting weight. Following an instinct to compensate, the passengers all “jockeyed about” causing the “Item” to suddenly “turn turtle” near Sharps Rocks, spilling her human cargo into the inky water.
Commander of the Presidential Yacht, Lieutenant Roger Williams, heard some of the women cry for help as they struggled to stay afloat in their heavy layers of clothing. He immediately ordered the “Sylph’s” tender, with a five man crew, to the scene of the accident and trained his searchlight on the overturned party boat.
The launch “Nimrod” was the second boat to reach the scene. She carried all the rescued passengers to Saco and Biddeford; all but Mrs. Eugene A. Cutts who had sustained internal injuries when she became entangled in the gearing of the power boat. Mrs. Cutts was taken to the McBride cottage where she died the following day. As the capsized “Item” was towed to Basket Island and beached, the body of a 19 year old Biddeford girl, Miss Katie Lynch, who had probably been trapped inside the cabin, washed ashore on the island. Her companion, Miss Margaret Harvey, 25, was later reported missing but her body would not be recovered until two weeks later.
The accident was investigated by the County Coroner’s office. Benjamin Jackson of Biddeford Pool, who had built the “Item” in 1903, testified that she was designed to carry an engine weighing over 2 tons. A few months before the accident, Vinton had replaced her original engine with one that weighed only 10% as much. While examining the “Item’s” seaworthiness one juryman stepped down from the wharf into the boat and as he did she heeled over very suddenly. “We find from the evidence and from inspection that the said boat “Item”, owing to its form, is unstable, easily capsized and entirely unsafe for the carrying of passengers,” reported Coroner Walter Dennett. Captain Vinton had fulfilled the only existing safety requirement of carrying a life preserver for each passenger so no charges were filed but the loss of three lives rocked the towns of Saco and Biddeford.
At the time of the tragic accident, President Taft was in Florida witnessing Wilbur Wright’s record breaking 10 mile flight, during which the homemade plane reached amazing speeds in excess of 42 miles per hour. Mr. Taft was a big fan of new-fangled modes of transportation. He was finally persuaded to spend one night in Biddeford Pool in 1910. He arrived on an even larger official yacht, the 275 foot “Mayflower”. After enjoying a motorcar ride through the Pool he gave an informal speech at the Abenaki Country Club. The President spent the night at his sister in-law’s cottage and sailed away on the “Mayflower” at 10 o’clock the next morning.
Taft quietly returned to the Pool to visit his family once again just before Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency away from him in 1912. Even in Biddeford, William Howard Taft came in a distant third, after Wilson and Taft’s predecessor, President Theodore Roosevelt.
Thirty-six years after the British steam freighter Wandby piled up on the rocks near Walker’s Point, William D. Gilbertson, the assistant engineer on watch in the steamer’s engine room on March 9, 1921, wrote letters to the editor of the Kennebunk Star providing a firsthand account of the calamity.
Captain David Simpson mistook the whistling buoy off Cape Porpoise for the buoy on Cashes Ledge southeast of the Portland Lightship. “I got the order ‘full ahead,'” wrote Gilbertson. “The captain left the bridge for a well earned rest and as he passed the engine room he informed the chief engineer that we should be in Portland at about 1 p.m. as he had just picked up a buoy and from its markings. We found from the chart we were 40 miles due east of Portland. Just at that moment the lookout reported ‘breakers ahead’ and the captain rushed back to the bridge and rang the telegraph to me, ‘full astern.’ Sensing something was wrong, I swung the engines full astern without shutting down the steam at all, (bad practice) but I felt justified as I knew this must be an emergency. There was a terrific grinding and bumping going on and still the engines pounding over at full astern. At approximately 10:30 the captain rang stop and finish with engines.”
William Goodwin, winter caretaker of the George H. Walker estate, was the only Kennebunkport eyewitness to the shipwreck. He told the editor of the 1921 Ogunquit and Kennebunkport Bulletin that the noise of the enormous hull grinding on the rocks that foggy morning was strongly suggestive of a boiler factory falling down two flights of stairs. It was heard as far away as Cape Porpoise and soon nearly everyone living within a two-mile radius made their way to the scene of the accident. At Turbat’s Creek, artist Louis Norton grabbed his pastel box and headed toward the sound knowing that something worth capturing had just occurred. Coast Guard cutter Ossippee was summoned, but because of the dense fog she could not locate the steamer. School was cancelled in Kennebunkport so the kids could watch efforts to pull the 3991 ton freighter off the rocks.
By 3 p.m. the fog had lifted and the crew of the Wandby could see the crowd gathered not 20 yards away. “They assisted us to rig up a ship to shore emergency exit in case the ship broke her back,” wrote the engineer. “This was accomplished by putting a bosun’s chair on a wire from the forecastle head and moored to a large boulder on the shore.” A boatswain’s chair is a seat consisting of a board and a rope; commonly used while working aloft or over the side of a ship. As the tide receded the damage to the steamer was revealed. The hull had been pierced by the rocks to a depth of three feet and a crack extended 30 or 40 feet toward the bow. At the next high tide the engine room filled with water and efforts to float the Wandby off were abandoned. Captain Simpson conferred with agents for Lloyd’s, the underwriter and it was decided to land the crew.
William Gilbertson and Captain Simpson stayed with the Eldridge family in Kennebunkport Village. Their hosts filled every minute of their stay with entertainment. They went to Cape Porpoise dances, dug for clams, took day trips to Portland, etc. Four cases of real Scotch whiskey were brought off the Wandby and sold to eager Kennebunkport consumers for five dollars a bottle. Close friendships developed to the extent that tears were shed when the crew was sent back to England three weeks later.
Author Kenneth Roberts read Gilbertson’s letter in the Star and with his typical directness, wrote to him for clarification on a few points, such as, “How the Wandby, in coming straight in on the rocks, had contrived to miss both the Nubble and Boon Island Lights?” and “What happened to the Captain of the Wandby for losing his vessel?” Gilbertson replied that the fog had been dense for several days and no land had been spotted since the freighter left Algiers. Captain Simpson, as a result of the accident, was demoted to 1st mate on another vessel owned by Wandby owners, Ropner & Company, but within two years he was reinstated as master.
Frank A. Howard purchased the wreck of the Wandby from Lloyds and had most of her broken up during the six months that followed the accident, but salvagers eventually abandoned the site. In 1937, Superior Court Judge Arthur Chapman awarded what scrap was left of the freighter to Everett Greenleaf, Charles Robinson, Richard Nadeau and Harry Shackford. A large boiler rising 20 feet off the ocean floor and pieces of the Wandby’s hull remain at the site to this day and are occasionally visited by shipwreck scuba divers.
In 1957, William D. Gilbertson, who had been 3rd Engineer onboard the Wandby when she wrecked off Walker’s Point in 1921, wrote a letter to the Editor of the Star to share his recollection of the wreck. See newspaper clip below. Author, Kenneth Roberts then wrote Gilbertson a letter with some specific questions about the incident. Gilbertson subsequent reply can also be seen below.
The Alice S. Wentworth, previously known as the Lizzie A. Tolles, was the last commercial coasting schooner to regularly sail out of Wells. The two-masted, gaff-rigged vessel enjoyed some notable associations during her illustrious career.
Schooner Lizzie A Tolles was built in South Norwalk, Conn., in 1863. After carrying bricks, coal and oysters between Connecticut and Long Island, N.Y. for 28 years, she went ashore and her owners decided it was time to sell.
Arthur Stevens of Wells and his brother Charles, purchased the schooner in 1891 even though she was showing her age. The young Stevens brothers freighted bricks, coal, coke, lumber, salt, granite and ice along the eastern seaboard. Arthur bought out Charles’ share of the old schooner and, in 1904, painstakingly renovated her with the finest lumber from his own Wells saw mill. She was re-launched the following year as the remarkably beautiful Alice S. Wentworth, having been completely rebuilt from stem to eagle-adorned stern.
John Furnace Leavitt, one time curator at Mystic Seaport, crewed on the Alice S. Wentworth as a boy and always admired her. “A deep sheer was the vessel’s outstanding characteristic,” he wrote in his 1970 book ‘Wake of the Coasters’. “She was painted a dark moss green from waterline to planksheer and had a black bulwark above it.”
When Zebulon Tilton, a Martha’s Vineyard seaman of legendary skill and personality, first saw the 72-foot Alice S. Wentworth in 1906, he too fell in love with her graceful lines. He sold his own boat and signed on with Arthur Stevens as captain of the rebuilt schooner. She was considered the fastest and most agile vessel in her class, but entering Wells Harbor was a challenge, even for her. The inlet was nearly dry at low water and there was a sand bar across the channel. On each trip home the crew went ahead in a yawl boat and buoyed the changeable harbor with stakes before poling the motor less Wentworth into port. She waited in Kittery for a month in 1910 before conditions allowed her to enter Wells Harbor.
Tilton finally purchased his beloved Alice S. Wentworth in 1921 and successfully sailed her out of Martha’s Vineyard for a decade, but in the early 1930s his bills got ahead of him. He was in danger of losing her. Some Vineyard summer visitors formed a corporation to save the old schooner and Tilton’s livelihood. The corporation, which included Broadway actress Katherine Cornell, nationally syndicated cartoonist Denys Wortman and Hollywood actor, James Cagney, raised more than enough money to purchase the schooner for $701.
Cagney was having contract trouble with Warner Brothers over their unauthorized release of the movie “Ceiling Zero.” He filed suit against the studio and went into hiding for six months on Martha’s Vineyard. The movie star fell in love with the Vineyard and the Alice S. Wentworth, upon which he happily spent many exile hours. The schooner, with her charismatic captain and her star-studded associations, became world-famous.
Captain Tilton’s eyesight failed in 1943 and the corporation sold the Alice S. Wentworth to Captain Parker Hall. After World War II she returned to the Maine coast and was refitted for pleasure, sailing weekly windjammer cruises out of Boothbay and Portland Harbor until 1960.
The Alice S. Wentworth was almost 100 years old and leaking profusely in 1961 when the Lowell Sun reported that “Ann White, a sedate landlubber nearing 40 got so tired of waiting for her ship to come in that she just went out and bought it.” She didn’t know port from starboard, but had always dreamed of going to sea. As a maritime history buff, Ann knew that the Wentworth was reborn at the age of 40, so when the schooner was advertised for sale she took it as a sign. She quit her job and sank her life savings into the Alice S. Wentworth. After a few years she found herself in over her head; figuratively and literally.
Anthony Athanas, owner of Anthony’s Pier 4 Restaurant in Boston, purchased the schooner in 1965 for $13,500 at a U.S. Marshall’s sale and docked her at the restaurant for his patrons to admire. During the decade that followed she sank four times. Each time, at great expense. Anthony hauled her up and filled her hull with bales of Styrofoam to keep her afloat. The beautiful Alice S. Wentworth, the last commercial coasting schooner to sail the New England coast, finally broke apart in a 1974 storm at the impressive age of 111 years old.
Captain Thomas realized too late that the light he was sailing toward on the evening of Feb. 16, 1842, was not a lighthouse. His barque, the William Fales, was in the surf at Cape Neddick. The weather was as thick as the molasses she had carried back from Cuba and a raging tempest tossed her ever closer to the rocks.
As 1/3 owner of the Biddeford-built William Fales, Thomas had insisted on commanding her first commission, but he promised his wife that this was absolutely to be his last voyage at sea. Indeed, it was to be.
More than once during his long maritime career Captain William Thomas had cheated death. As a young man, he was the lone survivor of a wreck on a passage to the West Indies. The captain was finally rescued after bobbing about in the waves for 30 days on the remnants of his shattered vessel. His judgment and his courage had kept him alive.
But this time, wishing to make it home for breakfast with his children, he had ordered the crew to sail the final leg of their journey in spite of an ominous sky. In the fog, he mistook a light in George Freeman’s window for the Nubble Lighthouse and headed straight for the rocks. His error quickly became apparent but the force of the breakers made it impossible to correct the barque’s course.
A small anchor was let go and had no effect. A larger anchor took hold, but after a few moments, the chains parted and the William Fales struck the rocks tearing a large hole in her keel. Four sailors working aloft to take down what was left of the sails were hurled to their death by the violent impact. The William Fales was drawn back by the waves. Then she struck the rocks again with such a force that her masts splintered. Captain Thomas turned to the remaining members of his crew and asked that one of them volunteer to jump into the foaming breakers and take a rope ashore. No one stepped forward. Without hesitation, Captain Thomas wrapped a rope around his shoulder and leapt off the barque toward shore.
One of the five survivors of the wreck later told a reporter for the New York Herald what happened next. “The Captain had got a foothold upon a rock but the sea rose immediately behind him washed him off and in his retreat carried him under the vessel, probably under the keel as all their force exerted upon the rope availed nothing and he was seen no more.”
The wind took command of the barque and swung her stern to shore. William Foss of Biddeford, the 15-year-old nephew of Capt Thomas, had the presence of mind to jump into the surge as it was rolling in and rode the wave far up on to the beach. “In less than half an hour from the time she struck,” reported the Biddeford boy, “that new, staunch barque was broken up, and not a vestige of her to be seen!”
George Freeman, whose house was in view of the disaster, sent his wife for help and ran into the stormy night to offer assistance. Sixty bags of coffee and the body of Mr. John R. Plummer of Portland had already washed ashore. Of the 13 men and boys aboard, only five survived. Freeman later told a correspondent for the Dover Gazette, “Our townsmen did all they could to save them from death but human aid could not avail much when the sea was running mountains high, in a raging storm, in the darkness of that sad and dreary night.”
The William Fales was a total loss. She was worth at least $15,000, but part owners Williams & McLellen of Portland, only recovered $12,000 from insurance. The greatest loss was experienced by the widows and children whose loved ones would spend the rest of eternity at sea.
Five German U-boats cruised the Gulf of Maine during the final months of World War I. The U-156 first appeared in July of 1918. She sank 35 ships before succumbing to a mine off the Norwegian coast. Twenty of those ships were commercial fishing vessels.
The folks at Cape Porpoise had heard rumors that the enemy was near and they were suspicious of every foreigner that came through town that summer. Their apprehensions were validated when a dory carrying three exhausted fishermen from Gloucester, Mass., appeared in the harbor on the evening of July 23, 1918.
Fred Eaton, a gill net fisherman who lived near the waterfront, invited the trio into his home to recuperate. While his wife Nellie prepared them a good hot meal, Fred and his neighbors listened intently to how their fishing party had been attacked by a German submarine.
At 10 o’clock the previous morning the knockabout schooner “Robert & Richard” had been making her way back to port with 90,000 pounds of fresh fish. She was 60 miles off Cape Porpoise when a shell came screaming across her bow. Just able to make out a long gray mass surfacing 200 yards away, Capt. Bob Wharton swung the schooner into the wind and ordered his crew to take to the dories. The 21 crew members quickly readied the boats while Charles Gowen, a quick thinking 13-year-old boy, retrieved a gallon of fresh water and some ships biscuits from the galley.
Everyone piled into six dories. The U-boat commander stood on deck and watched. As the fishermen started to pull away he signaled for Capt. Wharton to bring his dory alongside the undersea craft. He and his second officer climbed into the dory and ordered that it be rowed to the schooner.
The Germans chatted as they searched the cabin of the Robert & Richard. Wharton later recounted the conversation to a reporter for the Boston Daily Globe.
Kapitanleutnant Richard Feldt spoke perfect English as he declared his mission. “I have been sent here to annihilate the American fishing fleet and I am going to do it.” He then picked up a photograph of Wharton’s young sons, Robert and Richard, for whom the boat was named. Commenting on the sturdy appearance of the boys he added, “We got the tug Perth Amboy and four barges off Provincetown yesterday and turned the crews adrift. Among them was a boy just six years old. It was pretty rough last night and I doubt if they got ashore.”
The second officer told Capt. Wharton that he had sailed on American ships for many years before the war and had owned a summer home on the Maine coast since 1896.
Once the ship’s papers were confiscated, the Germans placed a time bomb in her hold and ordered her captain to row them back to the sub. They climbed aboard and then gestured to Capt. Wharton and his men to get out. As the men rowed away they heard an enormous explosion. The Robert & Richard sank at exactly 10:33 a.m.
The weather was mercifully calm. Each of the dories, but one, was equipped with a single small sail. Occasional light puffs of southerly wind helped the little fleet make its way toward the Maine coast. Only one of the dories had two sails. She also carried the water and biscuits that were judiciously doled out to all hands.
All six dories managed to stay together throughout the first day, but when the sun rose on the 23rd, the three men in the fastest dory found themselves alone. They rowed in shifts all day and were nearly exhausted when they finally arrived at Cape Porpoise.
After a good night sleep at Fred Eaton’s house, the Gloucester fishermen were taken to Portland. Eventually all of the schooner’s crew was accounted for and debriefed by authorities. Scores of patrol boats and hydroplanes were sent out in pursuit of the enemy, but the submarine avoided capture.
The U-156 surfaced again in late August. She captured the Canadian steam trawler Triumph and converted her into a surface raider. Her captured steward later told a reporter for the Kennebec Journal, “The Germans were so polite that it started getting on our nerves. They offered us brandy and cigarettes while they used our trawler to blow up fishing boats all around the Bay of Fundy.” When the Triumph’s coal was depleted, she was blown up and her crew was released. On the way home to Germany on Sept. 25, 1918, the submarine U-156 tried unsuccessfully to run through a mine field. All but a few hands perished.
Article by Sharon Cummins originally published in the York County Coast Star