Friends have always joked that there is no such thing as an historical emergency; what is done is done. Few developments prove this theory more clearly than Peter W. Benoit’s new volume, “Shipwreck at Portland Point.” The incident came as news to me, though I have labored some 45 joyous years in the area of Casco Bay history.

This book is a great gateway to learning about the true nature of historical inquiry. Better, it may be the best short summer read of 2017.

In fact, Benoit’s part in the adventure began in another summer, back in 1971, when a young Cape Elizabeth lobsterman friend snagged his traps off Portland Head Light and asked Benoit and his snorkeling pals to investigate. To their astonishment, they found an 18th-century anchor and a scattering of cannons and arms. Two of the guns went to the Maine State Museum, and one now sits near the lighthouse. At the time, little or nothing was known about the wreck, but the museum and Benoit did not give up the search.

Three decades later Dr. Bruce Bourque of the museum, working with British experts, found that the cannon dated from the late 1600s to the early 1700s and were probably from an English merchantman. Fifteen years after that, Benoit, powered by the new clues, began the research and writing that reveals a forgotten episode in Colonial history. It was a time when Falmouth (today greater Portland) was struggling to re-establish itself after more than a decade of abandonment and ruin at the hands of the Wabanaki and French. Virtually all that stood in 1711 was Fort New Casco, a settlement in today’s town of Falmouth, in front of the islets called The Brothers. It was here, during a great storm, that Captain Abraham Allaway, master of the ship Three Friends, put in for safety and supplies on a voyage from Britain to Boston. Allaway then found himself becalmed in Casco Bay and towed his ship with two boats to Portland Point (Portland Head) hoping to catch a breeze. Instead:

“The ship met the full force of a ‘boisterous’ sea outside. The two boats were now of little use against the huge combers and strong current, with oars straining. The men in the boats were helpless as the ship was inexorably pushed back toward the range of rocks then called Portland Point.”

It took but a few minutes. The tow boats survived, but the Three Friends went to pieces with the loss of 27 passengers, crew and the captain. Until the wreck of the Bohemian off Alden’s Rock Buoy in 1864 with some 42 passengers, it was the worst shipwreck in the bay.

These days historians and television commentators use the phrase “forgotten history” loosely. If it were forgotten, would we then be able to report it? Subsequent histories of Portland have failed to mention the incident, but the ship’s papers, deposition and Boston newspaper accounts were fetched up by Benoit. In 1711, Captain Moody, the only authority in desolate Falmouth, attempted with some success to stop local fishermen from looting the vast cargo of cloth that floated up. Indeed, “Shipwreck at Portland Point” offers an insightful list of the kinds of cloth lost (and, hence, available in New England). The relationship of Fort New Casco, the English outpost, with the less civilized fishermen comes into sharper focus than ever before.

As a historian, I was amused that Benoit discovered that noted Maine genealogist Charles Thornton Libby read the Three Friends deposition and mentioned several of the people listed, but was only interested in mining the names rather than piecing together the story in his “Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire.” What a remarkable disconnect between the fields of genealogy and history back in 1928. Many thanks to author Benoit for making sense of a boyhood discovery in 1971 and providing new insight into the world of Casco Bay in 1711.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.