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July 10, 2013


Searsport museum's shipwreck exhibit chronicles dramatic ends

by Tom Groening

The schooner Alice E. Clark half-sunk on Coombs Ledge off Islesboro.
The schooner Alice E. Clark half-sunk on Coombs Ledge off Islesboro. COURTESY PENOBSCOT MARINE MUSEUM

SEARSPORT — For decades, the town has boasted of its sea captains and their voyages to the four corners of the world. If there were any doubt about the truth behind this pride, a visit to the True-Fowler-Ross House, a 19th century residence now part of the Penobscot Marine Museum campus, puts it to rest.

There's a gallery of photographs spanning two walls in the back of the house that makes the point—scores of captain faces look down at visitors. In all, 284 Searsport ship captains hailed from this small coastal town.

Coinciding with the museum's summer exhibit, "For Those in Peril: Shipwrecks, Memorials and Rescues," a star has been added to the portrait of each captain who died at sea. The captain may have perished when the ship went down or died from disease contracted in exotic ports of call. Both were all-too-common ends.

(The museum's website,, features a slideshow of some of the captains.)

And it wasn't all about the men. Since voyages often were multi-year, captains often brought their families. From the slideshow that plays on a TV monitor adjacent to the portraits:

"After Capt. Charles Waterhouse died on his ship S.F. Hersey in Melbourne, Australia, the crew mutinied. Capt. Waterhouse's widow, with two six-shooters and the aid of the ship's [African-American] cook with meat cleavers, held the crew at bay until, one by one, they gave up. When they arrived in New York there were four or five men in irons."

Even today, as a graphic in another part of the exhibit testifies, working the sea is dangerous work. In 2011, the rate of death on the job for fishermen in the U.S. was 121.2 deaths per 100,000 fishermen, making it far and away the deadliest job in the country. Loggers—also well represented in Maine—had the second highest death rate on the job, at 102.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. The national average worker death was 3.5 per 100,000.

Though the museum often celebrates the glory of Maine's seafaring past and the beauty of its ships, this exhibit takes a clear-eyed look at the risk and danger that characterized the days when most transportation was sea-based.

"Going to sea is both exciting and terrifying," the exhibit's introductory graphic states, "for those at sea and those waiting at home."

Curator Ben Fuller notes that ships had a life expectancy of about 30 years. The fatal blows? Storms—wind and waves overwhelming the vessel and its ability to stay afloat. Fog—diminishing visibility so collisions with rocks, shoals and other vessels were more likely. And fire—a wooden ship's heating plant or the cargo itself ignited many vessels.

Blame also lay with the men on board.

"Cutting corners to run on schedule, human error and disputes over right of way," as in which vessel should yield, also were culprits, the exhibit asserts.

To get a sense of the odds against a ship lasting longer than 30 years, consider the case of the Gardiner G. Deering of Bath. On the night of March 7, 1904, it collided with a ship off Virginia, but survived the mishap. On July 24, 1913, it collided with a ship again, this time off Nantucket. Then, on Christmas Day, 1920, its coal cargo caught fire in port at Santos, Brazil.

The vessel somehow limped home to Maine.


Just as the ship captain portraits have been marked to remind visitors of their high work-related mortality, the group of ship portraits on display in the museum's Merithew House now include title cards that read like obituaries.

Looking at one of the paintings, which often were commissioned by ship owners, Fuller said, "All these vessels were painted in their prime. You ask yourself the question, what happened to these ships?"

Digging through on-line and other archives, he was able to find answers. Cards hanging with the paintings read like old-fashioned newspaper headlines.

Beside a painting of the Mannie Swan from 1893: "Twister Hits Barkentine—Sails of the Mannie Swan Carried Away and Her Decks Awash for Hours."

The card also notes that "In between a story about a major art sale and several charity events, the New York Times of March 22, 1908 tucked a note about 'An erratic gale holding an erratic course' that nearly caused the loss of the Swan."

In another part of the museum is a log book from a ship abandoned at sea by its captain. The last entry: "blowing hard—very heavy sea."

The exhibit is open through Oct. 20. For more information about museum events and admission, visit the website at or call 548-6379 or toll free at 1-888-942-8384.



click to enlargeThe steamship Vinalhaven sinking at Tillson Wharf in Rockland.
The steamship Vinalhaven sinking at Tillson Wharf in Rockland. COURTESY PENOBSCOT MARINE MUSEUM

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