On the Kennebec and Penobscot

View of the Bath Iron Works and the Penobscot River from the Bath Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine. Photo by David Cecelski

View of the Bath Iron Works and the Penobscot River from the Bath Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine. Photo by David Cecelski

This is the second of a short series of posts that I’m writing about historical connections between coastal Maine and coastal North Carolina while I’m visiting Down East Maine.

A second connection between Maine’s shipyards and the North Carolina coast is grimmer: quite a few ships built in Maine came to their end in the waters off the North Carolina coast– “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

At the museums and historical societies here in Maine, the stories of the great Maine-built ships frequently end with a sentence like this one from the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath:

“In December of 1909 she was wrecked near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, with the loss of eleven lives.”

Those words are in reference to the Gov. Ames, a massive, five-masted schooner built at the Leavitt Storer shipyard in Waldoboro, Maine. In this photograph, we see her being launched on Dec. 1, 1888.

Built in Waldoboro, Maine, in 1888, the 5-masted schooner Gov. Ames wrecked in the waters off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 1909. Courtesy, Marine Maritime Museum

Built in Waldoboro, Maine, in 1888, the 5-masted schooner Gov. Ames wrecked in the waters off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 1909. Courtesy, Marine Maritime Museum

* * *

Likewise, this is an oil painting of a breathtaking beautiful schooner, the George W. Wells, riding high in the seas off an unknown coast. She was built at the H. M. Bean shipyard in Camden, Maine, in 1900.

At 319.3 feet in length and 2,970 gross tons, the George W. Wells was one of the largest schooners ever built. She was the first six-masted schooner built on the East Coast and only the second in the U.S.

Like the Gov. Ames, she ended her days on shoals off the Outer Banks. She wrecked at Ocracoke Island in 1913, all hands rescued, though barely: lifesaving crews found the survivors clinging to the rigging.

Six-masted schooner George W. Wells, S.F.M. Badger, oil on canvas. Built in Camden, Maine, the schooner wrecked on Ocracoke Island in 1913. Courtesy, Maine Maritime Museum

Six-masted schooner George W. Wells, S.F.M. Badger, oil on canvas. Built in Camden, Maine, the schooner wrecked on Ocracoke Island in 1913. Courtesy, Maine Maritime Museum

* * *

Probably the most famous Maine-built ship to wreck in the waters off of the Outer Banks was the Carroll A. Deering, a five-masted schooner built at the Gardner G. Deering shipyard in Bath, Maine, in 1919.

I walked around the site of that shipyard yesterday.

The Gardner G. Deering shipyard was one of three shipyards at the site of what is now the Maine Maritme Museum, a stone’s throw down the Kennebec River from the Bath Iron Works, which has been building merchant and naval vessels there on the river since 1884.

A diorama at the Maine Maritime Museum showing the 5-masted schooner Carroll A. Deering a week shy of launching in 1919. The Carroll A. Deering was the last vessel built at the Gardiner G. Deering yard. Courtesy, Maine Maritime Museum

A diorama at the Maine Maritime Museum showing the 5-masted schooner Carroll A. Deering a week shy of launching in 1919. The Carroll A. Deering was the last vessel built at the Gardiner G. Deering yard. She ran aground at Cape Hatteras in 1925. Courtesy, Maine Maritime Museum

On January 31, 1921, the Carroll A. Deering came aground at Cape Hatteras with none of its sailors (or anyone else) on board, a happenstance generally believed to have come about due either to mutiny or piracy but which has often led people to call the schooner a “ghost ship.”

The mystery of what happened to the Carroll A. Deering’s crew has inspired a great deal of speculation and many legends, but also some fine literature, including a wonderful novel, Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals, by my friend and swamp buddy Bland Simpson.

Here in coastal Maine, the Carroll A. Deering is remembered in another way as well: it was the last vessel built at the Gardner G. Deering shipyard.

Along with the last schooners built at its two neighbors, the Percy & Small Shipyard and the Pendleton Brothers Shipyard, around the same time, the Carroll A. Deering marked the end of nearly three centuries of wooden shipbuilding on that part of the Kennebec River.

* * *

I’ll mention one last Outer Banks shipwreck of a vessel built here in Maine. At the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, I found this photograph of the schooner David Cohen being launched at the Pushee Brothers shipyard in Dennysville, Maine.

That shipyard also built Passamaquoddy Bay ferries, lobster smacks and pleasure boats, but was most famous for the construction of pretty 4-masted schooners such as the David Cohen.

Launched in Dennysville, Maine, in 1918, the 4-masted schooner David Cohen wrecked on Ocracoke Island in 1925. Courtesy, Penobscot Marine Museum

Launched in Dennysville, Maine, in 1918, the 4-masted schooner David Cohen wrecked on Ocracoke Island in 1925. Courtesy, Penobscot Marine Museum

Launched on July 25, 1918, she was later re-christened the Victoria S. Loaded with pine lumber, she wrecked at Ocracoke Island in 1925.

Such wrecks were of course felt deeply back home in Maine: captain and crews were often Maine men, and Maine captains sometimes traveled with their wives and children.

As one sees so well at the Maine Maritime Museum (which includes several buildings from Bath’s last shipyards that built wooden sailing ships), the work of literally hundreds of men went into building those vessels.

They included scores of carpenters, caulkers, joiners, blacksmiths, trunnel makers, sailmakers, painters, pitch makers, rope makers, mechanics, wood turners, riggers and on and on.

Built in Bath, Maine, the schooner Belle O'Neill is seen here in distress probably in 1905. Three years later, she wrecked off Cape Lookout. Courtesy, Penobscot Marine Museum

Built in Bath, Maine, the schooner Belle O’Neill is seen here in distress probably in 1905. Three years later, she wrecked off Cape Lookout, N.C. Courtesy, Penobscot Marine Museum

After working for many months 10 hours a day, 6 days a week to build a schooner as extraordinarily beautiful as the George W. Wells or the David Cohen, you know they had to feel something when it was lost at sea.

Many Maine vessels were also owned on shares. Often dozens or even hundreds of local people held a small fraction of a sailing vessel’s ownership, so that the loss of a ship and its cargo could affect the fortunes of a whole village.

In such ways the lives of coastal people in Maine and those on the Outer Banks were entwined and wrapped in a high degree of mutual sympathy, both knowing all too well the sea’s perils.

2 thoughts on “On the Kennebec and Penobscot

  1. Dave, I encourage you to visit the Owl and The Turtle Bookstore in Camden ME. They used used to have one of the finest stores on Maritime history. A visit might be illuminating. The store was built by my uncle in the early 70’s. My aunt and a cousin were instrumental in stocking the store with many unique books and stories. It might be of interest and a source for additional Reaearch. As a transplant to Hatteras I love your stories. Best wishes for a great day!!

    Eric R. Conrad (717) 773-0913 Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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