Oct. 25, 1836: The passenger steamship Royal Tar, heading from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Portland, burns and sinks in Penobscot Bay while carrying a variety of circus animals, as well as 72 passengers and 21 crew members.

Thirty-two people and most of the animals die in the sinking. Two of the ship’s four lifeboats were removed to make room for the animals.

The 164-foot-long Royal Tar was built in Saint John and was completed earlier that year. It departed Saint John on Oct. 21 carrying an elephant named Mogul, a Bengal tiger, two lions, two camels, six Arabian horses, some monkeys and a variety of other exotic animals. The menagerie comprises a traveling circus bearing the ungainly name of Dexter’s Locomotive Museum and Burger’s Collection of Serpents and Birds.

Also traveling on the ship are a brass band; a large collection of waxworks; a 2-ton show wagon, called an omnibus; several other wagons; and other horses.

The circus had been touring New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Windy weather prompted the Royal Tar to dock at Eastport, then twice more. It departed from Machias on Oct. 25, heading southwest.

When the ship is near the island of Vinalhaven, a fire breaks out below deck. Dense smoke prevents access to the pumps, which also are below deck. The first engineer and 15 other men jump into one of the two remaining boats, a longboat, and row away, finally reaching Isle au Haut, 7 miles distant. The captain and two other men lower the other boat – a jolly boat, a small vessel meant to ferry passengers back and forth between a larger ship and land – into the water to prevent it from burning. By this time, the middle of the Royal Tar is engulfed in flames.


One passenger ties a stocking loaded with silver dollars around his waist and lowers himself into the water. He immediately sinks out of sight.

The pilot from the nearby U.S. revenue cutter Veto approaches in a rowboat, then panics at the sight of the chaos on the Royal Tar and rows back. The Veto draws nearer and rescues 40 people, costing its captain severe wounds and burns. The Veto itself also catches fire twice.

Eventually, Mogul the elephant, standing on deck throughout the fire, crashes through the ship’s rail and falls to the water, taking some unfortunate passengers with him. Of all the fatalities, 31 people drown and one is burned to death.

The name of the Royal Tar is a nickname of Britain’s King William IV (1765-1837). The nickname is a reference to William’s extensive service in the British navy.

Oct. 25, 1866: William George Patten, a prolific, nationally known writer of dime novels who uses a robust collection of widely varying pseudonyms, is born in the Penobscot County town of Corinna.

Later known as Gilbert Patten, he writes the vast majority of a 17-year-long weekly series of stories about the fictional character Frank Merriwell, a Yale University star athlete who solves crimes in his spare time. Patten uses the pen name Burt L. Standish when he writes the Merriwell books, but he also writes other fiction under the names Herbert Bellwood, William West Wilder, Harry Dangerfield, Gordon MacLaren and Julian St. Dare.


Patten sells his first two stories for $6 to the Banner Weekly Publication in the early 1880s while he is a student at Corinna Union Academy. He works as a newspaper reporter at the Dexter Eastern State and the Pittsfield Advertiser, then founds his own short-lived paper, the Corinna Owl. All through that period, he continues to write and sell fiction to magazines. The first Merriwell story, published by Street & Smith, appears in 1896. He also writes several other series of books for boys.

Patten lives most of his life in Camden, but he moves in 1941 to California. He dies in 1945 in Vista, a suburb of San Diego.

The Maine State Library in Augusta maintains a group of letters and other correspondence by or about Patten in its special collections.

Joseph Owen is an author, retired newspaper editor and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. Owen’s book, “This Day in Maine,” can be ordered at islandportpress.com. To get a signed copy use promo code signedbyjoe at checkout. Joe can be contacted at: jowen@mainetoday.com.

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