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Heather Steeves

Heather Steeves tries to do things that are fun -- and only things that are fun. So far that's included stilt walking, roller derby and cross-country road trips in her Saturn.

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Posted: February 27, 2014

5 (true) legends every Mainer should know

Written by: Heather Steeves

1. Andre the seal

Andre was born in Rockland in 1961, but was promptly abandoned by his mom. Lucky for him, Rockport harbor master Harry Goodridge found him and took in the two-day-old pup. Andre grew up splashing in Rockport harbor, where Harry taught him tricks. The harbor seal took to it and performed for the summer crowds. Harry built him a large cage in the harbor, where he’d spend summer nights.

In his early days, Andre was allowed to roam free in the harbor in the winter, but after he capsized a few boats and bothered enough fishermen, Harry had to bring him to Boston and Connecticut aquariums for the winters. Each spring, Andre was released into the ocean and he made the swim back up to Rockport. This befuddled scientists and captivated locals, who would track Andre. Every year his journey caused a small media frenzy. He became one of the most famous Mainers. The Town of Rockport erected a statue in his honor (which he helped unveil) and named Andre the honorary harbor master. The statue is still there, by the way, you can go see it.

When Andre was 25 he had cataracts and Harry had to drive him from Massachusetts up to Rockport. That summer, in 1986, Andre got in a fight — mid-mating season — with another male seal in Rockland. After that, when a crowd spotted the performer, he’d refused to put on a show. Newspapers at the time insinuated he was too ashamed. He died shortly after.

Sorry. That was really happy, then got really sad. Here is a photo of happy, gregarious Andre to cheer you up:

 

2. The circus ship that sank off Vinalhaven

It was October in 1836 when Royal Tar — a big steam boat — was chugging down to Portland from New Brunswick. The Royal Tar was bringing 93 people (crew included), along with a traveling circus (!) with an elephant, two camels and lots of exotic birds. Oh, and the 1-year-old boat also was carrying a traveling wax show — whatever that is.

“Save for the greater portion of human beings must have appeared like a modern Noah’s Ark,” one newspaper reported.

The weather was terrible that October and the boat was having a hard time getting down the Maine coast with all the wind. The captain kept trying to push it forward, but was forced to stop in Eastport, then Cutler, then tried again to leave, but returned to Machias Bay. When they finally got the Tar steaming toward Portland on Oct. 25, the lead engineer noticed that the boiler’s water was way too low, so the boat again had to put its anchor down, this time by North Haven and Vinalhaven. About 30 minutes later, someone saw the boiler room was on fire. Dang it.

The crew tried to hose down the flames to no avail. That ship was a burning mess in no time.

The St. John Daily Sun wrote, “the steamer was ablaze in the middle while the crew and passengers were madly rushing to and fro at the bow and stern. The shouts of excited men, the shrieks of helpless women and the wails of little children were mingled with the roars of terror from the imprisoned wild beasts.”

Good thing the Royal Tar had life boats. Well, two. That could hold maybe 30 people total (of 93). Whoops. But, you know, as in all famous shipwrecks everything went fine from there. Oh, wait: No it didn’t. According to news reports of the time, 16 “able-bodied men” found one of the two escape boats, lowered it, hopped in and rowed away, “leaving their fellows, with women and children, to escape the best they could.”

Meanwhile, someone was nice enough to un-pen the six horses and two camels and push them into the ocean — now, being an equestrian myself, I’m not entirely sure I believe that someone pushed six horses into the ocean … as they say, you can lead a horse to the stern of a burning steam ship, but …

Anyway, two of the horses made it to shore. Unlike the pushed camels and horses, the elephant saw what was going down, ran for the side of the steam boat and jumped into the ocean. It landed on several of the makeshift rafts people were buoyed to. The elephant broke the rafts and drowned several people, then drowned itself.

A cutter/schooner based in Castine saw the wreck and came in 30 minutes, saving 40 lives. In all, 32 people died (4 men, 8 women, 10 children and 10 crew), as did every animal except those two horses (horses can swim, man). I imagine all the wax exhibits melted down (or washed up in Rockland?).

Legend has it, the survivors in St. John, New Brunswick (where the boat left from) used to dine together every October 25. The other legend I heard is, “that’s why there are so many snakes on North Haven.” So, if there were snakes in the circus (juggling snakes? snake clowns? snake-rope walkers? idk.), maybe they survived too.

 

3. Abby in the lighthouse

In January 1856, Maine saw one of the worst storms ever recorded. Captain Samuel Burgess was the lighthouse keeper at Matinicus Rock — literally a rock of an island 26 miles off Rockland (this isn’t the inhabited Matinicus, which is a 15 miles away, this is the Puffin breeding ground with a lighthouse). Captain Burgess didn’t know what a huge storm it would turn out to be when he took off in his small boat to get his sick wife medicine, to get chicken feed to keep his family (including three – or maybe four or five, records are mixed – daughters) fed that winter and to get oil for the lighthouse lamps.

Back then, Matinicus Rock was near a major shipping lane. Lots of boats.

Collage with Abbie Burgess picture and an old photo of Matinicus Rock Light, both from the Coast Guard

Abbie was 17 and had been helping her dad trimming wicks and maintaining the 14 lamps in the two twin lighthouses on the small island. In fact, when she was 15 years old, she was elected assistant lighthouse keeper at Matinicus Rock Light. The 17-year-old was left alone to care for the lighthouse. It may not have been a big deal if it were a night or two — Abbie had done that before. But the storm raged on, waves smashed against the lighthouse.

The Coast Guard said: “For Abbie, the one long work week became two … three … then four weeks.  And every day of that terrible month, the wind and waves battered the wooden structures without relief.  In addition to attending to her three sisters, and her sick mother, Abbie made the long climb up the steep tower stairs to light the lights.  She stood her watches through the night from dusk.”

How bad was it? I’ll let Abbie tell you. Here’s an excerpt from what she wrote a friend: “As the tide rose, the sea made a complete breach over the rock, washing every movable thing away, and of the old dwelling not one stone was left upon another. … As the tide came, the sea rose higher and higher till the only endurable placed were the light towers. (Matinicus Rock had twin lighthouses at the time.) If they stood, we were saved, otherwise our fate was only too certain.”

Yikes.

She goes on, “But for some reason, I know not why, I had no misgivings, and went on my work as usual. For four weeks, owing to rough weather, no landing could be effected on the rock. During this time we were without assistance of any male member of our family. Though at times greatly exhausted by my labors, not once did the lights fail. I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father’s.”

And the poor chickens.

“You know the hens were our only companions. Becoming convinced, as the gale increased, that unless they were brought into the house they would be lost, I said to my mother, ‘I must try to save them.’ She advised me not to attempt it. The thought, however, of parting with them without an effort was not to be endured, so seizing a basket, I ran out a few yards after the rollers had passed and the sea fell off a little, with the water knee deep, to the coop, and rescued all but one. It was the work of a moment, and I was back in the house with the door fastened, but none too quick, for at that instant my little sister, standing at the window, exclaimed, ‘Oh, look there! The worst sea is coming!’ That wave destroyed the old dwelling and swept the rock.”

She closes the letter: “I cannot think you would enjoy remaining here any great length of time for the sea is never still and when agitated, its roar shuts out every other sound, even drowning our voices.”

Well said.

The National Park Service and the Coast Guard both say they don’t have information on how many lives Abbie saved by staying up every night through that storm, but they both seem to indicate ships were using that lane, and both call her a hero. Hence why the Coast Guard named its cutter after her.

After the storm, Abbie married Isaac Grant and they moved to Spruce Island (by Thomaston) where they tended to that lighthouse. Before she died at age 53 Abbie wrote, “Those old lamps — as they were when my father lived on Matinicus Rock — are so thoroughly impressed in my memory that even now I often dream of them. There were fourteen lamps and fourteen reflectors. When I dream of them it always seems as though I has been away a long while and I’m trying to get back in time to light lamps before sunset. … I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has led this worn out body. If I ever have a gravestone I would like it to be in the form of a lighthouse.”

It is. You can see her lighthouse shaped tombstone in Spruce Head.

 

4. Portland’s whorehouse riots

Apparently in 1825 a mob of prostitute-hating men rioted, tore down three brothels and killed one man.

I found this one in the book “The Wild, Wild East” by William Lemke (The Portland library has quite a few Maine legends books, by the way). He wrote, “prostitution dens in downtown Portland aroused criticism from neighbors and, reportedly, even the buildings’ owners wished to have them torn down.” Plus the neighbors had been kvetching. “Understanding the feelings of the owners and the wishes of the neighbors, [a company of laboring people, truck men, boys, etc] assembled in the evening, turned out the tenants and tore the buildings to the ground.” A pleased crowd of hundreds watched.

Now, obviously the prostitutes just moved. You can burn down the house, but you can’t tear down the, uh, jobs. And, actually, when the mob of “idle roaring boys and raw Irishmen” tried to tear down the whorehouse at Crabtree’s Wharf, it wouldn’t fall. So they burned it. With people inside. By that time a few brothels had been demolished and the city had allowed it, but burning a wharf, apparently, was too much for Portland. So city officials arrested a few people and then let them go.

But those prostitutes kept prostituting, this time on Fore Street. The place was owned by a barber who was about to go to prison for running a whorehouse, “but the mob chose to render more speedy justice,” Lemke wrote. They brought guns this time. So did the barber. There was a shootout where one man died and about seven more were shot and hurt. “Thus ended the Portland Whorehouse Riots,” Lemke said. “And the whores set up business again.”

 

5. The North Pond Hermit

People in Rome knew something was up. For years, they’d go home, or go to their summer lake house and find that their bacon peanut butter and Budweiser were gone. Or batteries, rakes and shovels. Or pants. But their expensive china was fine. Their jewelry was there. Hit worst, perhaps, was a local summer camp for people with disabilities, which regularly found its fridge and pantry raided. It got so bad that some residents left notes for the burglar, asking him to please just leave a grocery list. Other homeowners were scared — some dude was breaking into their homes regularly, which left them understandably ill at ease. Some people stopped bothering to call police because it wasn’t doing any good. One resident said he came face to face with the man once and chased him down to the dock, where the burglar took off in a canoe. Rumors of a hermit spread and turned into local lore. Until last spring when they caught the hermit. All the rumors were true.

Christopher Knight was 19 when he went into the woods.

Kennebec Journal illustration

He spent 27 years living in a camoflauged nylon tent. He never lit a fire (what if someone saw the smoke?). He never hunted or foraged. But he survived 27 Maine winters … with the help of several (stolen) sleeping bags and a bed raised off the ground. In the winter, he didn’t leave his home because he didn’t want to leave tracks, so he stayed in and read books and meditated. He spoke to one person one time in nearly three decades (in the 90s when a hiker passed him on a trail. He said hi/hello/whatever hikers say, not a conversation.).

Then, last spring, they caught the North Pond hermit.

Game Warden Sgt. Terry Hughes lived nearby. He knew the legend of the hermit. And he was determined to catch him. Hughes set up a trail camera at the summer camp, which was a frequent victim.

“I knew sooner or later he was going to trip that camera,” Hughes said.

If something set off the motion-activated camera, an alarm would go off at the game warden’s house. Two weeks after setting up the camera, the alarm rang. Hughes booked it to the camp. The hermit, bald and clean shaven, came out of the camp and Hughes yelled at him to get on the ground, that he was under arrest. There was $280 of food in the hermit’s backpack. He admitted to about 40 burglaries. Police said the real number is more like 1,000. A judge sentenced him to go through an intensive program where he is working in the community and learning to adjust to society, under supervision. The community donated money to help him pay his restitution to the homeowners and camp he stole from.

The story swept the nation, in part because of the divide: Many people thought of him as a lowlife thief who terrorized a community, others thought he was a badass and sort of wanted to be him. Who doesn’t dream of leaving it all behind to live in the woods eating bacon and reading all day? Maybe take a midnight swim or canoe every once in a while. In a world of selfies, Chris Knight caught a glimpse of his face maybe twice in cool, calm water.

How did he do it? He was a master hider. He made sure all shiny items in his home lost their luster — he covered aluminum trash cans with moss and dirt, he put the yellow shovel in a black bag. When he left his home, he stepped on the same exact spots on the same exact roots and rocks, to not leave a trail. He was meticulous. “Every step was calculated,” said Hughes, the game warden. He had a propane stove for cooking, mousetraps to keep those pests away. He tried fishing a few times but it was too much work.”

Why? Only the hermit knows.

The freedom wasn’t free for Chris Knight, though. Staying in hiding for that long is stressful. So stressful that he’d considered killing himself. A few times.

The hermit told the game warden that he was glad his solitude ended, but he offered no more explanation for that relief than he did his decision to enter the woods in the first place, the Kennebec Journal reported.

“I think he’s been alone for so many years that a part of him wanted to give up,” the game warden said. “But the other part that wanted to stay was stronger.”

 

Other notable (true) Maine legends:

The Aroostook County War, aka the Pork and Beans War, broke out in 1838. Mainers were trying to defend lumber. Some sources say Maine is the only state to ever start a war with a country (in this case, Great Britain).

Photo from Wikipedia

The Brady Gang, which had been terrorizing Illinois, Indiana, and then Maryland with their jewelry store hold ups, robberies at movie theaters and the like, went to Bangor, Maine in 1937, “to purchase additional firearms, having heard that they could buy them there without any questions being asked,” according to the FBI.

Photo by The Associated Press. Gangster Al Brady, foreground, and Clarence Lee Shaffer Jr., background center, lie on Central Street where they were killed by government agents Oct. 12, 1937, in Bangor.

While his buddies went to buy the guns, ringleader Al Brady was in their car. Police surrounded him and told him to get out with his hands up. “Brady put his hands up and started to slide along the back seat crying, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, I’ll get out.’ As he arrived at the door, however, he lunged out, drew a gun, and started firing at the agents. Fire was immediately concentrated upon him, and he fell dead in the middle of the street,” according to the FBI. The legendary shoot out is commemorated with a plaque in Bangor and a mural in Giacomo’s sandwich shop.

Maine is missing a governor. Have you seen this man?

Enoch Lincoln. Photo by Doug Jones

It’s Maine’s sixth governor, Enoch Lincoln. He’s also called “Maine’s first poet” and he died in 1829. Lincoln was entombed in an above-ground vault on the east side of Capitol Park, across from the State House in Augusta. But an inspection of the vault in 1986 found it empty. No one knows what happened. Some historians believe he was never in the tomb at all, and is buried below the tomb. Others think during routine maintenance of the tomb, his body was removed and somehow they forgot to put him back.

-Bella Baldwin was living in Maryland when she took a bus up to Rockland, then a ferry out to Vinalhaven in 1972. She signed into the island’s motel under a false name. In the room, she wrote poems and left them there. She took long walks around the island, carrying her red purse. Days after arriving at Vinalhaven, two women saw her, apparently sunbathing on a beach, looking at peace. When they called out to her, she didn’t answer. She was dead. In her autopsy report, a question mark is typed next to suicide for the manner of death. She had some bruising on her body. There was a little alcohol in her system. No one ever found her red purse. Police at the time said it was difficult to investigate, because many islanders don’t want to talk to police (who are stationed in Rockland, but travel to the island to investigate crimes). No one knows why Bella Baldwin went to Vinalhaven and no one knows why she didn’t come back.

 

 

 

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