As we continue our research into the first volunteer fire department, South Portland Hose & Ladder Company, No. 1, an early family important to the call company was the Upton family. One of the charter members of the company that formed in 1892 was George H. Upton.

George was a leader in this local effort for fire protection. We have found him serving as the company captain as early as 1897, so his years of service as captain span from at least 1897 to 1899, from 1901 to 1902, and again in 1909. However, it was George’s experience during the wreck of a fishing schooner in 1893 that was perhaps the most defining event of his life, affecting not only George, but the entire South Portland community.

Portrait photo of George H. Upton, when he was captain of South Portland Hose & Ladder Company, No. 1. South Portland Historical Society photo

Born on Chebeague Island, George Upton was the son of a sea captain, David Upton III. The family moved to Ferry Village when George was only 2 years old. It’s no surprise that George and his brothers followed their father into a life at sea. George started out as a fisherman and found himself in the summer of 1893 working on the schooner Mary Lizzie with his older brother, Horace Upton. The schooner was captained by Capt. John B. Woodbury and his six crew members for this fishing trip were George and Horace Upton, Charles Ridley, Fred McIntyre, Alpheus Doughty and John Hughes. All seven of these men lived in Ferry Village with their families.

The Mary Lizzie was hit by a gale on Aug. 21 in waters roughly 34 miles south-southeast from the South Shoal lightship (Nantucket Shoals). In a news article in an Aug. 26, 1893, paper, George Upton recounted the terrible events that transpired:

“Away she rolled in the trough of the sea, big waves coming aboard every minute and threatening to swamp her. ‘Bend on the storm trysail!’ shouted Captain Woodbury, who stood at the wheel … all hands tried to bend the tiny sail onto the foremast, but in vain. The gale was so fierce that they could not make the cloth fast. It blew away in spite of all their efforts … the men tried to rig a drag, or sea anchor …’ but it never held us a moment,’ said George Upton … great, dark blue mountains of water, with narrow, graying white crests, hung over her and seemed every moment to be on the point of ingulfing [sic] the tiny craft. Every time she plunged down into the hollows it seemed as if she would not possibly arise on the next wave. The seven fishermen, clad in sou’westers, heavy yellow oilskin suits and great hip boots of rubber, hung on to the wheel and the windward side of the three dories that stood nested, one within the other, on deck between the two masts … as the schooner rose on a wave a tremendous green surge struck her on the port bow and heeled her over on her beam ends. Down she went like a house upset by a landslide.

George Upton worked for public works in his later years. He’s shown here with a snow plow in Ferry Village. South Portland Historical Society photo

“When the schooner went down, one of the lifesaving dories flew off and sank. The other two dories were submerged, but still floating. Horace Upton had climbed into one that had been struck and damaged by the mainmast, and George was clinging to a box in the water for a time until he managed to remove his rubber boots. He started swimming toward his brother.

“I was almost exhausted when I reached it. My brother threw his arms around my neck and hauled me in. ‘Well, George,’ he said, ‘we are all right. Keep up a good heart.’ Those were the last words Horace ever spoke to me. As soon as he saw I was all right and strong enough to hold on to the sides of the dory and keep from being pitched out, he swam over to the other dory not thirty feet away, where the captain and Fred McIntyre were. That dory had not been smashed, and when Horace got in with the other men and sat down, the water rose up to their necks.

“Right alongside of me Charley Ridley was floating, holding on to a swordfish cask with both hands. By the time I noticed him all the wreckage had disappeared except what was keeping us five afloat. I don’t know how long it was after the schooner had sunk. As Charley Ridley floated near me he was very pale. He was weak and sick, and he gagged as the waves washed over him. ‘George,’ he said, ‘we’ve all got to go sometime’ … then he threw up both hands and fell back. He never came up. I looked round for my brother and the captain and Fred McIntyre. They were gone too.”

George Upton then went on to describe how he was able to keep his damaged dory afloat:

“Charley Ridley’s cask floated over to me. I pulled it into the dory and made it fast to a thwart by hitching on part of the thirty fathoms of sword fish line that were on it. I was afraid the seas might pound the dory apart, for it was really broken into four pieces, so I dived overboard, went under the boat with the line in my hand and brought it up on the other side. Then I made it fast to a thwart and dived overboard and passed it under the dory again. In this way I lashed the pieces of the boat together and fastened it to the cask. This made it more buoyant, and when it was all fixed and I climbed in and sat up, I found that I was breast high out of the water. But the waves kept breaking over my head. Every slap of sea that came hit me in the face and chest and knocked the wind out of me. I hung on to the cask and wrapped my arms and legs around it … how I lived through that night I don’t know.”

George Upton was in the ocean for 33 hours. Nine vessels passed by without seeing him before, finally, a British steamship spotted him and came to his rescue.

When the news reached South Portland, the grief was unimaginable. Each of these men had families and it was a close-knit community in Ferry Village. Captain Woodbury had a wife and three young children. Fred McIntyre also had a wife with three young children. George’s brother, Horace, had just bought a house on Front Street with his wife and four children – this was to be his last trip of the season to bring in some money for needed house repairs.

The trauma that George Upton endured is hard to imagine. Even in summertime, being in the ocean for 33 hours is something that most would not likely survive. Upton suffered terribly from the exposure and felt the effects from it for the rest of his life.

In spite of that, he went on to live a full life and was a well-respected member of the South Portland community. Although he never went back to fishing after the shipwreck, he did work as a ferry boat captain, commanding both the Elizabeth City and the Cornelia H. for a time, two of the ferries that once ran between the Ferry Village and Portland waterfronts. He also worked for South Portland Public Works.

The one constant throughout, however, was his service at South Portland Hose & Ladder Company; he was an active member of the company for 41 years – from the time the company was established until his death. George Upton was 73 years old when he died in 1934 at his home on Sawyer Street after a short illness.

The cask that he used to save his own life was donated to the South Portland Historical Society by his granddaughter, Isabelle Upton Williams.

As we continue to research the history of South Portland Hose & Ladder Company No. 1, also known as Engine 1, we hope to hear from readers who might have photographs, artifacts, or information to share. Please reach out to the South Portland Historical Society by mail at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106, by email at [email protected], by phone at 207-767-7299, or message us on Facebook.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]

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