They lie in the shallows and deeps all along Maine’s ragged-edged coastline — the wrecks of wooden sailing sloops driven onto rocks in storms, military ships sunk during wartime and passenger steamers whose losses made national headlines.

“DREADFUL ACCIDENT,” declared one headline days after the steamship Royal Tar caught fire near Vinalhaven in October 1836, killing dozens of passengers and an entire circus or “caravan.”

“The dreadful steamboat calamity yet continues to attract universal attention,” reads the account in Virginia’s Richmond Enquirer. “The loss of human life, the loss of wild beasts in the Caravan – burnt to death, too, in their cages, the loss of property in other ways, and the great variety of hazardous escapes, render it one of the most remarkable accidents upon record.”

Charles H. Trickey (left) and Mary E. Olys. Both ships went down in the same storm on New Year’s Day, 1920. Photo courtesy: Wreckhunter.net; Paul Sherman collection

The recent discovery this summer of a Navy patrol boat sunk by a German submarine off Cape Elizabeth drew international attention and offered a reminder about how Maine’s coastline was an active front during World War II. Another historian, meanwhile, is once again searching for an elusive, nearly 400-year-old shipwreck that could shed light on this country’s earliest English settlements.

Some shipwrecks, such as the Royal Tar steamship, will never be visible to Maine residents or visitors except in images. Others were abandoned by owners and left to rot or rust in plain view, fascinating the curious and irritating neighbors.

Many shipwrecks were scattered and eroded by waves, rocks and time. Yet Maine historians and shipwreck hunters continue to search for — and periodically discover — remnants of ships built hundreds of years ago.

One state historian is talking with the pioneering underwater search team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute about bringing their equipment to Pemaquid Harbor next spring to look for evidence of a 1635 shipwreck that has eluded searchers for decades.

“The importance of the ship, and the reason it gets people’s attention, is not because it has $20 million in gold,” said Tom Desjardin, a historian and former director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. “It’s because it is basically a time capsule of life back in 1635,”  he said of the Angel Gabriel galleon, potentially still hiding in the muddy bottom near Colonial Pemaquid.

Here is a look at some of the famous, dramatic or intriguing shipwrecks from Maine’s history, pulled together from historic sources, newspaper accounts and books on the state’s rich and, at times, tragic maritime history.

‘A THOUSAND SHIPWRECK SITES’
Shipwrecks are “like submerged time machines” that offer insights into history but also into that “primal form of human drama,” writes Jeremy D’Entremont in his 2010 book “Great Shipwrecks of the Maine Coast.”

“People in shipwrecks often exhibit the greatest in human heroism but also the opposite, so it illustrates the best and worst of humanity,” D’Entremont, who is president and historian of the Owls Head-based American Lighthouse Foundation, said in an interview. “We put ourselves into those stories, we imagine how we would react to it … there’s also the mystery.”

Maine has thousands of miles of coastline owing to its craggy peninsulas and hundreds of islands, most uninhabited. The land’s original Wabanaki inhabitants skillfully plied coastal waters, bays and rivers for millennia before Vikings or Europeans finally encountered the New England coast.

For the past 400-plus years, Maine has been a hub of maritime activity and industry on this side of the Atlantic.

“Statistically, there should be pretty close to a thousand shipwreck sites off the coast of Maine – which is an incredible amount, but you are talking about centuries of shipping,” said Warren Riess, an associate research professor of maritime history and archaeology at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole.

The wreck of the Wandby, a British freighter that ran aground near Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport in 1921, was a tourist attraction for years until a storm knocked it back into the ocean. Photo courtesy: Brick Store Museum Collection, Kennebunk, Maine

A federal database of navigational “wrecks and obstructions” lists hundreds of known and suspected wreckage sites along Maine’s coastline.

Thankfully, not all of Maine’s shipwrecks involve tragedy. Some vessels – possibly including the Colonial-era sloop that periodically emerges and is then reburied on a York beach – were purposely scuttled or abandoned while many sank at anchor or after escaping a mooring.

And there are the countless examples of heroism to save lives at sea, often in the worst conditions.

In 1947, for instance, more than 30 crew members of the cargo ship Oakey L. Alexander were rescued by the Coast Guard and Cape Elizabeth residents during a March storm that sank other boats and washed away several homes. Crew members skirted atop and through the pounding surf on a cable shot to the ship from shore.

In 1992, all three members of the tugboat Harkness were plucked from their raft by Matinicus Island fishermen and Coast Guard crew members searching for survivors amid a fierce nighttime storm and subzero temperatures.

Thousands of visitors to Portland Head Light – one of the most photographed spots in Maine – can see two memorials to the Annie C. Maguire, which ran up on the rocks during a Christmas Eve squall in 1886. While all 18 crew and family members were rescued, photographs of the lighthouse and the ship – leaning against the rocks before it was smashed to pieces by waves – were published around the country and turned into souvenir postcards.

THE IRONICALLY NAMED ‘BOON ISLAND’
There has been plenty of tragedy as well.

Boon Island, about six miles off the coast of York, has been the site of numerous shipwrecks, some of which remain part of Maine’s seagoing folklore centuries later.

The first recorded wreck on the barren, 5-acre island was the trading vessel Increase in 1682. Four men reportedly survived on fish and gulls’ eggs for a month before they were finally rescued by members of a local Indian tribe.

The crew of the next ship to wreck on the island were less fortunate.

In 1710, the British merchant ship Nottingham Galley went down near Boon Island during a winter storm. What followed was 24 days of misery on an exposed, treeless island in December and January without food or hardly any material to build a shelter, much less a fire.

The fishing trawler, Squall, was built at Bath Iron Works in the 1930s and was acquired by the U.S. Navy in 1942. It was commissioned as the USS YP-414 patrol boat during World War II. Photo: NH 93000 courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.

Two crewmen died trying to reach the mainland on a makeshift raft, and after the ship’s carpenter died, the remaining men resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. They were eventually discovered and rescued in early January, after mainlanders apparently found the body of one of the two crewmen who died trying to reach the coastline.

The Nottingham Galley’s story – which included rumors of mutiny as well as cannibalism – was told in poems, books and even a movie.

In the 1990s, Riess was part of a team that looked for any remaining evidence of the ship around the island, which now boasts New England’s tallest lighthouse, visible from Nubble Light and other areas of York. Not much remains because the rocky bottom meant there was no sediment for wreckage to settle into.

People in shipwrecks often exhibit the greatest in human heroism but also the opposite, so it illustrates the best and worst of humanity.”
– Jeremy D’Entremont, “Great Shipwrecks of the Maine Coast”

But the group found cannons, cannonballs, lead shot, fishing weights and other items believed to be from the 1710 wreck.

“They were about to fall apart. In fact one of (the cannons), as we touched it underwater, it just snapped,” Riess said. “They were just eggshells … so it was very tricky trying to preserve them.”

Today, several Nottingham Galley cannons are preserved within the holdings of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

Despite its optimistic-sounding name, Boon Island has claimed other victims in the centuries since. In 1944, for instance, 24 sailors aboard the British freighter the Empire Knight died when the ship hit an underwater ledge near the island.

WAR’S CASUALTIES
Maine’s coastline has its share of wartime-related shipwrecks.

The USS Eagle PE-56 was among the last U.S. Navy ships to be sunk by a German U-boat when it was torpedoed about five miles off Cape Elizabeth in April 1945. More than 40 of the ship’s 62 crew members died in what was initially attributed to a boiler explosion. The location of the Eagle 56 – officially designated as a war grave – was only confirmed last year.

A World War I-era submarine, the USS S-21, also rests off the coast of Cape Elizabeth, but it was purposely sunk in 1945 during a training exercise with no loss of life.

Dozens of fishing vessels were sunk in the Bay of Fundy around Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by a German U-boat during the final stages of World War I. And somewhere in Penobscot Bay south of Hampden is whatever remains of the USS Adams, a 28-gun frigate scuttled during the War of 1812.

Some of Maine’s oldest military shipwrecks are buried – usually, at least – in the muddy bottom of the Penobscot River.

In July 1779, American forces suffered a double humiliation after they failed to recapture the village of Castine from the British and then lost or scuttled more than a dozen ships while fleeing upriver.

The Wandby. Photo courtesy: Brick Store Museum Collection, Kennebunk, Maine

The so-called Penobscot Expedition was this country’s single-largest naval loss until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Remnants from roughly a half-dozen of the expedition’s sloops, troop transports and other ships have been located.

One of the best-studied wrecks is of the Defence, a 170-ton American brig that was scuttled by its crew near today’s Stockton Springs to keep it from falling into the hands of the Royal Navy. Beginning in the 1970s, Riess and other researchers retrieved more than 2,000 artifacts, including many personal effects that help shed light on the lives of crew aboard one of this country’s first Navy ships.

Downriver from the Defence, somewhere near the dangerous Triangles Ledge area of Penobscot Bay, rests whatever remains of a British ship that was key to the American debacle at Castine.

A sloop in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, the HMS Albany successfully defended Castine’s narrow harbor entrance for days until reinforcements drove the American forces upriver. In subsequent years, the Albany seized ships throughout the midcoast and launched raiding parties before the ship – by then relegated to a prisoner transport – ran aground and sank on the ledges near Vinalhaven in 1782.

Cannons from the HMS Albany were reportedly still visible at low tide among the ledges until a few decades ago, when some local fishermen allegedly retrieved them. After dutifully notifying the state, the fishermen were reprimanded and told to return the cannons, according to an account in Harry Gratwick’s “Historic Shipwrecks of Penobscot Bay.”

The incident, whether true or rumor, highlights the fact that collecting relics from shipwrecks in Maine is usually prohibited unless authorized.

“All of the materials that are associated with shipwrecks within Maine state waters belong to the Maine State Museum,” said Leith Smith, a historic preservation coordinator with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. “So if people were to find objects, it would be important for folks to get in touch with the museum. Basically, people are not supposed to be taking any objects from shipwrecks that are within state waters.”

THE ELUSIVE . . .
Some shipwrecks have been evading researchers for generations.

Shipwreck and treasure hunters have searched for – and failed to find – German submarines rumored to have been secretly sunk in Maine waters, lockers or safes full of gold and other valuables that went down with ships.

And the Angel Gabriel, being then at anchor at Pemaquid, was burst in pieces and cast away in this storm, and most of the cattle and other goods, with one seaman and three or four passengers, did also perish therein.”
– the Rev. Richard Mather

Riess spent several decades searching for wreckage from the Angel Gabriel, the British galleon which reportedly sank with all of its cargo in Pemaquid Harbor one day after arriving with new settlers from Bristol, England, in 1635.

On Aug. 15, a fierce hurricane hit the region and destroyed the ship. Exactly what happened is unclear, although several accounts from the time say the 240-ton ship was “cast away” by the hurricane, Riess writes in his book.

The Canadian freighter Cornwallis was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat southwest of Mount Desert Rock on Dec. 3, 1944, while nearing the end of a cargo run from Barbados to St. John, N.B. Forty-three crew members died. Photo courtesy: State Library of New South Wales

For years, Riess and his graduate students and archaeological colleagues spent two or three weeks a summer searching for evidence of the ship amid the centuries of debris, moorings, fishing traps and other refuse in and around Pemaquid Harbor.

Riess eventually walked away from the search around the time he wrote his book. But Desjardin, a historian who has led several ground excavations of the fort at Colonial Pemaquid, is hoping to pick up where Riess left off.

Desjardin hosted researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute at the site earlier this year and said the group hopes to deploy their high-tech scanning equipment next spring.

“If it’s there, they will find it. And if they don’t find it, it’s not there,” said Desjardin, who now works for the Senate Republican caucus in the Maine Legislature but continues to work on the Angel Gabriel in consultation with Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

Leith Smith with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission said locating the wreckage of the Angel Gabriel would “be an important find.”

. . . AND THE EYESORES
Other wrecks are rotting or rusting away for anyone to see.

The abandoned schooners Hesper and Luther Little were both eyesores and tourist attractions for generations of travelers through Wiscasset until they were finally removed in the 1990s.

When the intensity of the heat and the smoke would not permit them to remain any longer in the steamer, they would jump overboard and hold onto the ropes until they were taken off by Capt. Read who was in the boat or until the ropes burnt off, when those who could not swim sunk to rise no more.”
– Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Oct. 31, 1836

Today, Boothbay Harbor’s Mill Cove boasts pricey waterfront homes, a marina for yachting tourists and a lobster pound. But for years it hosted a “ghost fleet” of abandoned wooden sailing vessels, the remains of several of which are still visible in satellite imagery.

One of those ghost ships, the Edna M. McKnight, was a four-masted schooner built in Camden in 1918 to ferry coal and other cargo all along the Eastern Seaboard. After she was “demasted” off North Carolina during a fierce storm in December 1926, the crippled schooner was hauled back to Maine to join Boothbay’s ghost fleet.

At low tide, visitors can still see the bottom timbers of what was once a regal, 209-foot boat hailing from an era when Maine-built schooners plied the world’s oceans.

“Tall ships along with lighthouses are a reminder of the romantic period … when maritime commerce was what America was all about in the 19th century and the early 20th century,” said D’Entremont, the author and lighthouse historian. “Stories of shipwrecks sort of draw us back into that.”

The Bath-built schooner Edward J. Lawrence was reportedly the last surviving six-masted schooner when it burned in Portland Harbor in December 1925. A shipwreck that size – located between Fort Gorges and Little Diamond Island – occasionally still causes problems in Portland’s busy harbor. Photo courtesy: South Portland Historical Society

THE DEADLY REALITY OF SEA TRAVEL
Historic romanticism aside, the rocky coastline of Maine and its neighbors – particularly Cape Cod and parts of Nova Scotia – have claimed untold lives over the centuries. And lives are still lost at sea in Maine every year, despite incredible advances in maritime technology and safety, ship-tracking equipment and the heroic efforts of rescuers.

Maine’s commercial fishermen continue to be at greatest risk, as they have for centuries. Monuments and plaques remembering fishermen can be found in towns all along the coast, from Kittery to Lubec.

Wrecks of small fishing vessels were unfortunately so frequent a century or two ago that they often weren’t even recorded and have been lost to history.

The HMS Bohemian, a 295-foot British steamship, struck Alden Rock and sank in the icy waters off Cape Elizabeth in February 1864. the death toll reached 42, many of whom are buried and memorialized in South Portland cemeteries.

“We found just about a thousand sites,” Riess said of researchers and state historians’ attempts to document as many shipwreck sites as possible. “And from previous works, statistically, there are probably just as many out there that weren’t in the records, especially the smaller (vessels). When they lost a fishing boat in the 1800s, nobody recorded that.”

Many of the best-known wrecks in Maine history are still recalled today because of the shock they caused at the time of their sinking.

Forty-two people died in February 1864 when the British steamship RMS Bohemian struck Alden Rock – another boat-killing ledge off Cape Elizabeth – and began taking on water. It was the night of George Washington’s birthday, so the distress flares and gunfire from the ship were mistakenly dismissed as celebratory by some on shore.

The captain managed to get the 295-foot ship to shallower waters but, amid the frenzy, panicked passengers overloaded one lifeboat and caused it to plummet and sink into the icy waters. Hours later, men and women still were clinging to the masts and rigging waiting for rescue.

Most of the 42 people who died – 30 of whom are buried in South Portland cemeteries – were poor immigrants from Ireland seeking better lives in the U.S. or Canada.

The shipwreck of the Bohemian is memorialized with a stone cross at Calvary Cemetery in South Portland and in a 1939 mural titled “Shipwreck at Night” in the South Portland Post Office.

OLD SHIPWRECK STORIES STILL RESONATE
And then there is the case of the Royal Tar — a tragedy that lives on in oral histories of coastal Maine families 183 years later as well as in countless books, plays and even coffee.

Bearing a nickname given to King William IV during his Royal Navy service, the Royal Tar was a sidewheel passenger steamship that was near Vinalhaven while transiting from St. John to Portland in October 1836 when flames erupted from the ship’s boiler.

What struck me in the community here is how a story like that evolves into legend and lore.”
– Kate Russell, founding artistic director, Threadbare Theater

In addition to the 93 passengers and crew, the Royal Tar was carrying a circus menagerie – or “caravan” – that included two lions, numerous horses, monkeys, a camel and at least one elephant, named Mogul. Several lifeboats were reportedly left in St. John to accommodate the animals and their cages.

“The cries and entreaties of men, women and children were truly distressing,” reads an anonymous passenger’s account published in the Oct. 31, 1836, edition of the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier. “When the intensity of the heat and the smoke would not permit them to remain any longer in the steamer, they would jump overboard and hold onto the ropes until they were taken off … or until the ropes burnt off, when those who could not swim sunk to rise no more.”

Passengers credited Royal Tar Capt. Thomas Reed and Howland Dyer, the captain of the Castine-based cutter Veto of the U.S. Revenue Service (today’s Coast Guard), with saving at least 40 lives. But 32 people perished – including many women and children – along with nearly all the circus animals.

Mogul the elephant reportedly demolished a makeshift raft and drowned several people when he finally went over the ship’s rails. Numerous accounts tell of sailors seeing his carcass floating days later. But a New York Express report claimed the elephant survived by swimming to a nearby island, where he “went into a barn-yard, and after frightening the cattle there out of their wits, was taken care of by the proprietor of the farm” until a circus hand came to “take care of him.”

A shipwrecked Colonial-era sloop periodically emerges during heavy surfs, and is then reburied on Short Sands Beach in York.

Another tale says that elephant bones were later found on tiny Brimstone Island between Vinalhaven and Isle au Haut. Local lore says bone fragments and teeth from exotic animals could sometimes be found on the shores of many local islands.

It is unknown where the flaming ship eventually went down. Describing the sinking as “one of the most remarkable marine disasters in the annals of the Maritime Provinces,” an 1898 article in The New Brunswick Magazine reported that a Portland-bound schooner “passed the remains of a burned steamer near Cash’s Ledge,” a possible reference to Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine.

Few other events in Maine’s history still resonate with such intensity, although the story line often changes.

The story has been turned into at least two children’s books in which the animals survive and go on to help (or entertain) local islanders. It is the subject of poems, numerous historical books and is the namesake of a Royal Tar Blend coffee sold by a Deer Isle coffee roaster.

Last summer, New York-based Threadbare Theater Workshop turned the Royal Tar’s story into a theatrical production in Deer Isle that engaged the local community in crafting the story line. In this version, a fictional young Scottish girl whose father got a job on the Royal Tar after the pair immigrated to St. John is forced to learn to swim or follow her father down into the waters of Penobscot Bay.

Mural of the Bohemian Wreck from South Portland Post Office. 42 people were killed when the passenger steamship RMS Bohemian sank off the coast of Cape Elizabeth on February 22, 1864. The steamship was carrying more than 200 passengers – many of them Irish immigrants – in the final leg of a voyage from Liverpool, England, to Portland. Photo courtesy: Allan Wood: [email protected]

Kate Russell, the founding artistic director of Threadbare Theater, said she was inspired to develop the play after hearing so many people talk about the Royal Tar during an artistic residency in Stonington. Russell, who now works as the director of communications and community engagement at Stonington’s Opera House Arts, said it didn’t matter whether someone was 10 or 90 years old — they all knew a version of the Royal Tar’s story.

“What struck me in the community here is how a story like that evolves into legend and lore,” Russell said. “You have the facts of the story, but you also have this beautiful mythology that grew out of it. You have elephant bones found on Brimstone Island, and everyone wants to believe the elephant survived … you have a woman who believed she saw a tiger behind her clothesline.”

In the theater project’s version, the little Scottish girl learns to swim by following the example of Mogul the elephant.

“We told the truth that there was this awful fire and people died … but at the very end of the play what happens is this little girl, she washes ashore,” Russell said. “We don’t know what happens after that, but she washes ashore.”

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