Haze Gray Photo Feature
Maine's Last Big Schooners
Abandoned in the 1930's, these ships lasted into the 1990's.
Of the really big schooners - the four, five and six masters designed primarily for the coal trade and predominantly constructed in Maine - virtually nothing remains. In their day, these were truly queens of the east coast. The largest of the wooden schooners, the giant six-masted Wyoming, could carry 6,000 tons of coal, yet operated with a crew of only 13. Despite their effeciency, steamships drove the schooners from the seas. Many of the big schooners were abandoned in coves and backwaters along the Maine coast as traffic dropped of during the 1920's and 1930's. Today only a few splintered wrecks and bones remain to remind us of these great ships. This feature documents the demise of those last few big schooners, the last representatives of a lost age.
Credits: Black & white photos from the collection of Andrew Toppan; all color photos by Andrew Toppan except as noted. Historical data from The Last Sail Down East (Giles M.S. Tod, 1965).
For more information and photos of six masted schooners, vistit The Glamorous Six Masters.
Luther Little was built in 1917 at by Read Brothers Co., Somerset, MA. She worked both in a coastal and deep-water trades early in her career. In 1920 she grounded in Haiti, remained stuck for two weeks, and nearly became a loss. In the end she was gotten off without serious damage. By the mid-1920's the 1234 ton (GRT) schooner was laid up. In June of 1932 she was auctioned to a Mr. Frank Winter, who had her towed to Wiscasset and laid up alongside the railroad wharf. She never moved again.
Hesper was built by Crowninshild Shipbuilding, South Somerset, MA. Her career started poorly, as the launching ways collapsed beneath her on launching day, 4 July 1918. New ways were built and she finally reached the water on 23 August. The 1348 ton (GRT) schooner made several lengthy voyages, including runs to Spain and Venezuela. In 1925 she grounded while entering Boston and required nine tugs to free her. Sometime in the following years she was laid up at Rockport, Maine. In January of 1928 she got loose in a storm, demolished a wharf, and landed on the beach. She was hauled off and eventually ended up in Portland, still laid up. In June of 1932 she was sold to Frank Winter for $600. She was towed to Wiscasset, arriving 1 September 1932 to join Luther Little.
Mr. Winter had purchased the schooners, and the insolvent Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington narrow-gauge railroad, to operate a Boston-to-Wiscasset coal and lumber business. The schooners would bring coal north to Wiscasset and return south with lumber, while the railroad shuttled coal and timber between Wiscasset and interior points in Maine. Sadly, this plan never became a reality, due to Mr. Winter's untimely death. Both the railroad and the schooners were abandoned where they lay.
Time soon began to tell on the old schooners, and Hesper's masts were cut down around 1940. Her aft deckhouse was burned to celebrate the end of WWII; her forward deckhouse met a similar fate in 1978. Fire was a continual threat to these ships, and they both suffered numerous fires. Firefighting was nearly impossible due to the ships' inaccessibility, but the Wiscasset Fire Department made a valiant effort each time. To the delight of tourists, the ships retained their shape for many years. Each year the hulks were a bit more run down, but through the 1980's they were still recognizable as ships.
In the early 1990's the elements finally took control over the hulks. One winter saw Hesper's hulk disintegrate into an unrecognizable mound of debris. A storm in 1995 took Luther Little's remaining masts, and the rest of her hull began to collapse. Around this time talk of "preservation", a constant issue for many years, came to the forefront. Before anything could be down, however, Luther Little's hull finally gave up and collapsed into a heap of debris. With the ships reduced to unsightly piles of rubble, there was little choice but to demolish the wrecks. This work took place in the spring and early summer of 1998. Certain items from the ships - masts, hardware, and identifiable wooden items - were saved, but the rest was dredged out of the river and hauled away to be dumped. Maine's most famous schooners had ceased to exist.
Courtney C. Houck was a 1627 ton (GRT), five-masted schooner built in Bath, Maine in 1913. She was laid up at Boothbay around 1930, and never returned to service. Her rotted hulk was auctioned for scrap in 1937, selling for $255. She was stripped where she lay and the hulk left to rot. Edna M. McKnight was a 1326 ton four-master built in 1918 at Camden. She met her end in 1926, when she was caught by a powerful storm off the Virginia coast while heavily loaded with lumber. Her seams opened, her canvas was shredded, and she seemed in danger of breaking up. Her crew was taken off by a passing steamer on 7 December; the hulk was allowed to drift off. On the 28th of the month she was relocated, and tug dispatched to bring her into Bermuda. By September of the next year the hulk had reached Boothbay Harbor for repairs. However, she was judged not worth repairing and was cast away to rot in Mill Cove.
In 1945 both old schooners were set afire to celebrate the end of WWII. At least one of the hulks burned to the water, but the other survived relatively intact. Local lore indicates three hulks, not two, were burned in 1945. Research has not yet revealed the identity of the third vessel. The third vessel is reported to have been much smaller than the other two; it probably would have gone to pieces more quickly than the bigger craft. The bones in the harbor muck do show some signs that a third vessel might have been present.
Zebedee E. Cliff, Maude M. Morey and Freeman, all four-masters, were laid up at Boothbay starting in the late 1920's. Morey and Cliff laid there until 1941, when they were towed to Portland for possible reactivation. However, the government purchased the hulks and scuttled them as a breakwater in the outer harbor. Both hulks were later burnt. Freeman stirred from the muck in 1940, only to become a barge operating from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She lasted through 1947 but was scuttled offshore soon thereafter.
In 1929 a deckhouse was built over her main deck and she became a nightclub at Gloucester. In 1935 she was towed to Providence to continue her service as a nightclub, but returned north to Boston before the end of the year. Soon after the nightclub closed and she lay abandoned at the pier; in 1938 she was sold to become a lobster storage facility at Medomak, Maine. She was completely gutted out and towed back to Maine in March of 1938. Once she arrived at Medomak the idea was to store live lobsters in her vast hulk; this required that many holes be cut in her hull to circulate water through her holds. However, her stout construction prevented completion of this plan; it was simply impossible to cut enough holes to provide sufficient water flow. Instead she was scuttled along the riverbank as a breakwater, and the lobster pound built between her hull and the shore. At last report she was still there.
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