The Sinking Schooners Of Wiscasett

Maine has always been a source of wonderment to me. My entire young life I spent summer vacations in the state along the coast.  York, Ogunquit, Camden, Christmas Island, Boothbay Harbor and countless others. Through my travels up Route 1 to our summertime destinations we always past through the town of Wiscasett. A town that held a multitude of what Maine truly is on the coast, an eccentric state of dreamers.

Amongst all of the attractions the town held for me as a boy was a sad pair of rotting ships that sat in the bay of Wiscasett. A pair of ships that sat there for decades to become the towns recognizable trademark. Nothing quite held my imagination as these two ships now retired, and sitting dormant. As though when I looked at them I could sense the adventure they had been on in their lifetimes. The last of the great four masted schooners of the world. Alas, the Hesper and Luther Little were the guardians of this small Maine port.

 

I take this excellent history of the from author Lawrence Lufkin, and excellent description of their lives…..

Although they looked like they had been grounded on the mud flats of the Sheepscot River in Wiscasset, Maine for a century, the Hesper and the Luther Little actually were in a like-new condition well into the 1930s. They were the last of the four-masted schooner-rigged sailing ships ever built and due to the town’s lack of any plan to preserve or to restore them, they were lost forever to the future generations of visitors. Between 1875 and 1900 from 75% to 100% of all large sailing ships constructed in the United States were built in Maine. Since the Hesper and the Luther Little were constructed in Massachusetts, perhaps the state of Maine was never interested in their preservation. Visitors interested in seeing the ships are now no longer able to do so, except in photographs and on video. One of my photographs, taken from the main deck of the Hesper back in the early 1970s, shows a splendid view of the Luther Little, and is presently hanging in the hallway at the beautiful and truly unique Musical Wonder House, up on High Street in Wiscasset.

The Hesper

The Hesper was built in Somerset, Massachusetts and had been planned to launch on the 4th of July 1918, but the builders had underestimated the ship’s weight. After sliding ten yards down the launch ways, the ship came to a halt and it was reported that the launch ways started to collapse, having to be rebuilt before the proceedings could continue. The Hesper finally set sail in August of that year, carrying approximately 2000 tons of coal from New England to Lisbon, Portugal. Caleb A. Haskell, from Deer Isle, was in command.

Although sailing ships had been constructed of iron and steel for a number of years (some large schooners were steel or iron-framed but had hulls of wood), the Hesper, at 210 feet long, 1340 tons, was completely built of wood. Costing $200,000, the ship had fine accommodations for the captain and officers in the stem and crew quarters, galley, and engine room (to operate a steam hoist, capstan, winches, bilge pumps, steam heat, and a generator) in the forward house.

Why construct a wooden sailing ship in 1918? Steam-driven ships had been in use since the early 1800s, but to operate a steam-powered vessel required a great deal of fuel and twice the crew of schooner-rigged sailing ships. Square-rigged ships of course did not require the fuel of a steamship but they would need a similar number of crew, skilled at hoisting and trimming sails with each change in the wind. A profit-conscious company back in 1918 could build, operate, and make money with a schooner-rigged ship that would require a captain who was in command of just eight men: the captain’s mate, boatswain, cook, donkey-man, and four sailors.

During the First World War there was a sever shortage of ships and many old shipyards began a program of wooden shipbuilding since access to virgin forests was attainable. In the early 1920s the shipping boom collapsed and it was quite difficult to still earn a profit with such vessels as the Hesper. Due to the change in the economy, the use of sailing ships began to disappear and the Hesper was auctioned off in 1932 for $600 to settle various claims against her and the Luther Little.

The Luther Little

The Luther Little could perhaps boast of being the most-photographed wooden sailing ship ever constructed in the United States. For those interested in the most-photographed sailing ship in the world, the honor must go to the Cutty Sark, in Greenwich, England, a 212 1/2 foot clipper ship, in absolute mint condition (after much restoration) launched November 22, 1869 – 48 years prior to the construction of the Luther Little. In service as a merchant ship until 1922, she is probably the finest example of the age of sail. The Cutty Sark, due to a shortage of wood in Great Britain that would have been necessary to construct the huge wooden knees and the keel, has an iron frame, covered with six-inch thick teak planks. She had ten miles of rigging, and 32,000 square feet of sail that was handled by a crew of 32, was capable of generating 3,000 horsepower, and could carry 1,330 tons of cargo at up to 17 knots!

Now to return to the Luther Little, one must realize that it was still economical to construct a sailing ship if it was schooner-rigged – meaning that the masts each carried a huge triangular mainsail as well as a smaller topsail. Crew costs resulted in a 50% savings as compared with that of a square-rigged ship or even a steamship. After 1875 clipper ships were scarce since the hull design of schooners and windjammers allowed more than twice as much freight to be hauled. A company, combining a skilled captain, operating comparatively inexpensive schooners, could turn a profit hauling coal, lumber, and guano to Europe so there did exist the opportunity for such ships during the early part of the 20th century.

Built by the Read Shipyard of Somerset, Massachusetts for approximately $180,000 and launched in December of 1917, the Luther Little was not the last wooden hulled schooner to be constructed but was the last surviving example. The following measurements and data are of note:

Length between perpendiculars: Overall length: Beam: Depth: Keel to top of main mast: Diameter of main mast: Number of decks: Number of hold beams: Gross tons: Net tons: Anchors: Anchor chain length:Boats:Cargo capacity: Construction material: 204 feet 215 feet 38 1/2 feet 22 feet 140 feet 26 inches 2 50 1234 1123 2,4000 lbs. each 180 fathoms 1,22 ft power1, 14 dory 3000 tons Keel- white oak timbers – spruce masts-fir

Constructed of wood, except for fastenings, bolts, etc., the Luther Little was not the sister ship to the Hesper, but was of quite similar measurement in most respects. The deck layout was nearly the same. In the forward deckhouse was the engine room along with crew quarters and galley. Six quite basic berths were constructed adjacent to the hull. In the early 1970s the paneling was missing in much of the deckhouse and all fixtures had been stripped. It gave me a very sad and lonely feeling as I walked through and photographed the cabins. There was a hold next to the foremast and access was by the remains of a ladder. Upon descending to this deck there was a 200-foot long expanse of cargo area with the furthermost area under water. From this deck there was access to yet another deck but this was under water at high tide even at the bow. I did not venture down this hatchway. Visible from shore are the remains of the bow ports which were four planks bolted and caulked at the front of the bow, port and starboard sides each, that could be removed when the ship was required to load and unload cargo longer than 16 feet (such as ship masts, rails, etc.) Prior to the ship sailing, the bow ports were very carefully resealed, rebolted, and recaulked.

The schooner had a steam-operated winch and I could still see the winch head from shore on the port side of the forward deckhouse. Coal was used for fuel that ran a steam generator. This supplied power for the donkey engine, bilge pumps, an electrical generator, and also provided steam heat – a luxury in sailing ships at that time.

When I took photographs aboard the schooners, nothing remained of the after houses except charred beams of the outer walls on the main deck. The after house did contain the following nine rooms: main cabin with a small stove, tables and chairs; a chart room; the mate’s cabin; the cook’s cabin; the boatswain’s cabin; a small pantry; the elegant captain’s cabin with beautiful paneling and furnishings; a guest cabin; and the captain’s stateroom located astern with the captain’s head.

Commanded by W.P. Richardson of Camden, Maine, and later by Winsor Torrey of Deere Isle, the Luther Little, after her owners could no longer profitably haul freight such as lumber or coal, was auctioned off in 1932 and purchased by Frank W. Winter for apparently less than $600. Winter had planned to haul lumber by rail to Wiscasset, load it onto the schooners Hesper and Luther Little and transport it to Boston. Unfortunately for the schooners, this never happened and the schooners were abandoned in the harbor where they remained until the end of the 20th century.

At this time, I am in the process of preparing a gallery of my photographs of the old schooners, which will be offered for sale to collectors.

A fascinating booklet about the Wiscasset schooners, titled The Wiscasset Ships, was privately published by Chris Roy in 1994 and printed by Pumpkin Press of Westport Island, Maine. It was reprinted in 1995.

A splendid book was published in 1986 by Mystic Seaport and is titled Atlantic F our-Master. The Story of the Schooner Herbert L. Rawding. The author is Francis E. Bowker.

A wonderfully comprehensive book of the history of schooners is titled A Shipyard in Maine by Ralph Linwood Snow and Captain Douglas K. Lee.

Lawrence Lufkin May, 2004

It is sad for me to report as of 2011 the schooners are now just pieces of our memories as the ships have been removed from the harbor. It feels as though a piece of it is missing, and forever will be.

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