Great Shipwrecks of the Maine Coast
Written by Jeremy D'Entremont
Historian Jeremy D’Entremont has a new book and we have the introduction. This volume, first of a planned series, focuses on a dozen dramatic shipwrecks from among 700 in the Gulf of Maine. In the tradition of Edward Rowe Snow the author tells salty tales of Maine wrecks including The Nottingham Galley, The Angel Gabriel, the Penobscot Expedition, Royal Tar, Steamer Bohemian and more. (Continued below)
This excerpt published exclusively on SeacoastNH.com with permission of the author and publisher
GREAT SHIPWRECKS OF THE MAINE COAST
By Jeremy D’Entremont
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For divers and marine archaeologists, the appeal of shipwrecks is straightforward. Wrecks are like submerged time machines or windows to another world. The study of wrecks and the artifacts they hold can tell us much about the way ships were built and about the cultures that produced them.
But what’s the attraction for the rest of us? Why do people flock to a beach when the bones of an ancient wreck show themselves after a storm? And why have shipwrecks been the source of so much popular art and literature through the centuries?
A chief reason is that shipwrecks represent a pure, primal form of human drama. It’s a cliché to say that disasters bring out the best and worst in people, but it’s also absolutely true. Extremes of human behavior, from the basest cowardice to the most selfless heroism, are often on exhibit in the same story. Given the intense physical and emotional stress produced by a shipwreck, flight and fight are two sides of the same coin.
One of the best maritime authors, John Rousmaniere, has written, “Few events can thrash a life—or glorify it—as effectively as a storm at sea.” Shipwrecks caused by weather serve as rude reminders that our modern technology hasn’t given us mastery over our oceans. As Lord Byron wrote in The Dark, Blue Sea, “Man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore.”
With many shipwrecks, there’s also great mystery involved. When there are no survivors to provide witness, careful detective work can sometimes give us an idea of what happened. Often, we can never know the whole story with any certainty; the 1941 loss of the Don in Casco Bay is a prime example. But we can speculate, always a popular human pastime.
The United Nations estimates that three million shipwrecks litter our ocean floors. Maine can’t boast as many wrecks—if that’s something to boast about—as the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Nova Scotia’s Sable Island, or Cape Cod. But with about 3500 miles of coastline (more than California) and more than 2000 islands, there have been plenty of disasters. According to NOAA's Office of Coast Survey, there are over 700 known wrecks in the Gulf of Maine, extending from Saint John, New Brunswick, to the Nantucket Shoals.
It would be impossible to include information on every maritime disaster on the coast of Maine in any single volume, but I apologize if a particular wreck that’s of special interest to you is not included here. I’ve presented a “greatest hits” (no pun intended) collection here, focusing on the most celebrated and dramatic stories. The final chapter includes quick synopses of many additional wrecks.
I should mention that the 1898 wreck of the steamer Portland—possibly New England’s most famous shipwreck—isn’t included because its final voyage began in Maine but ended in Massachusetts waters.
My personal fascination with maritime disasters has its roots in my childhood in the 1960s, when I enjoyed hearing the popular historian Edward Rowe Snow (1902-1982) spin his salty yarns on Boston television and radio. In Snow’s dramatic storytelling, storms, shipwrecks, pirates, and treasure were all stirred into a rich chowder that left me hungry for more.
I’m deeply indebted to Snow and the other authors who have sailed these waters before me, particularly Peter Dow Bachelder, whose Shipwrecks and Maritime Disasters of the Maine Coast is comprehensive and compelling.
This year, we observe the 300th anniversary of the tragic wreck of the Nottingham Galley at Boon Island, and Kenneth Roberts’ novel Boon Island remains an eminently readable account of a staggeringly harrowing story of survival.
Stephen Puleo’s Due to Enemy Action, a gripping account of the sinking of the USS Eagle 56 at the close of World War II, is an inspiration not just because of the emotional story it tells, but also for the depth of Puleo’s research and commitment.
Warren C. Riess’s Angel Gabriel: The Elusive English Galleon and Stacy L. Welner’s Tragedy in Casco Bay, about the 1941 Don tragedy, deserve special mention as the best sources on those wrecks. George E. Buker’s The Penobscot Expedition is a thorough telling of a dark, but fascinating, episode in American military history.
I wish to thank the Maine Historical Society, the Museum at Portland Head Light, the Vinalhaven Historical Society, and all the organizations and institutions that provided information and photos for this book. My sincere thanks once again to Commonwealth Editions, whose staff and consultants always help to make the process of writing and publishing a book a pleasure.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
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(c) 2010 Published by Commonwealth Editions, an imprint of Applewood Books, Carlisle, MA
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