By William and Thomas HavilandEdited by Carroll M. Haskell Leave by the Lower Deck, Forward If Sam Clemens found fascination in the gusty riverfront of Hannibal, Missouri, with its great stern-wheelers and side-wheelers, we island boys—Chauncey and Maynard and Elwyn and I—were drawn by a similar magnetism to the North Deer Isle wharf at boat time, and hardly a landing […]
By William and Thomas Haviland
Edited by Carroll M. Haskell
Leave by the Lower Deck, Forward
If Sam Clemens found fascination in the gusty riverfront of Hannibal, Missouri, with its great stern-wheelers and side-wheelers, we island boys—Chauncey and Maynard and Elwyn and I—were drawn by a similar magnetism to the North Deer Isle wharf at boat time, and hardly a landing did we miss. If we had tarried unduly in somebody’s blueberry field, the long full-throated blast announcing that the morning steamer was halfway from the red spar, and then the rattle of the chain in the windlass as the slip was lowered to meet her, would set us on the run.
Perhaps the officers of the Eastern Steamship Lines and of the seagoing division of the Maine Central Railroad were not the equal of Mark Twain’s river dandies, but in our teenage eyes these Penobscot counterparts were truly great figures against the sky. The landing made, they descended from the pilothouse, resplendent in gold buttons and gold-braided caps bearing the magic words “Captain” and “Pilot.” Like benevolent despots, they lounged idly by the rail of the hurricane deck, tossing remarks to honored familiars on the dock, while young hearts skipped a beat. Those long forgotten white steamers, whose destinies they ruled—the J. T. Morse, the Pemaquid, the Boothbay—were gallant craft, and if they were perhaps a shade smaller than the Lusitania, we were not particularly aware of it.
The great broad-beamed J. T. Morse, with her pounding paddlewheels and her needle bow, was a beautiful sight as she eased toward the wharf, the quartermaster standing alert on the main deck forward, coil in hand.
And then the line thrown, the sharp staccato of bells as she was maneuvered, the gentle grinding against the piling while the agent hauled in the heavy hawsers bow and stern, led them through a chock and looped them over a piling. Several hands managed the hawser below, and the gangplank was run out, all under the practiced eye of our fellow townsman, Mr. Hosmer. He stood at the starboard gangway, shouting, “Easy boys, slack her off a mite more. Check her!” while two roustabouts negotiated the broadjump to the runway to the pier, lines in hand. Then the jingle, “Stop engines!”
The mail was trucked up the steep slip first, followed by the purser with his important papers—a casual, friendly man, leisurely, but quick in his banter with those who leaned on the rails that lined the runway. Passengers were directed: “Leave by the lower deck, forward.”
In the summer months there was a bustle, I tell you. High, three-seated buckboards, each drawn by a fine pair of horses, bright wagons, grocery carts and low-slung jiggers were tethered to the rails, often the length of the wharf. As the two-wheeled hand trucks were moved clanking in steady procession from the Morse’s lower deck and in and out of the long freight house, families received back their errant ones. The town liverymen—little Tom Gray and dapper Frank Greenlaw—maneuvered for their share of the “drummers” [salesmen] and the summer folk, while Old Fred, the butt of all our jokes, with his shabby fringed two-seater, would get their leavings.
Then the cessation of clatter, the whistling of new steam, the tolling of the big bell up by the ship’s walking-beam to signify that all who were going aboard should really hurry—for this great craft had business to do, miles to go, and would wait for no one. Captain Winterbotham, nonchalant by his auxiliary bell-pull, at the rail, waited only for the gangplank to be run in and the lines cast off. “All aboard that’s going aboard!” he cried. And we boys echoed, “All aboard that’s going aboard, and if you can’t get a board, get a shingle.” One more island day, we felt, had begun with proper ceremony.
Her return trip west might or might not find us present, depending on the concerns of a boy’s busy day, but the wharf often held us. There was good fishing for cunners, flounders and harbor Pollock, adventure in clambering about the barnacle-encrusted cribs at low water, or an occasional trip to Sargentville or Eggemoggin with the lame ferryman, who kept his little double-ended craft at the float. If Chauncey or I stood particularly high in his favor at the moment, we might even be permitted to roll over the flywheel of the old one-lung Mianus.
But even if we missed the return trip of the Morse in the afternoon, nothing ever was allowed to interfere with our gathering to await the Pemaquid’s arrival at eight in the evening. This sleek, steel beauty held a particular spot in island hearts, partly because her construction permitted her to buck the ice and bring needed supplies after the Eastern’s boat had to discontinue service for the winter, and partly because her home port was Sargentville. On Sundays we could row a peapod across the Reach, board her, explore the shining engine room and fraternize with the crew. The Pemaquid didn’t set out to be a fashion plate like the J. T. Morse with its steward and colored waiters in the grand saloon, but she was folksy and sound. On the rare occasions when we made the jaunt from Rockland on the Pemaquid, the steward fed us a halibut dinner in the crew’s little dining saloon, on a red-checkered cloth, all for fifty cents.
The Pemaquid’s evening visit closed the day on just the proper note for our elders as well, for they could leave the gardens, the cattle and the haying that filled their daytime hours. Captain Rowland, in his eighties and long retired from the quarter-deck, stoutly trudged the mile from home and back with the aid of his cane. And poor Reuben plodded heavily from around the Reach Road, an ox of a man for strength but a mite weak in the head, finding simple joy when we had him stand on the baggage room scales and read his weight at three hundred and fifty pounds. It was enough to set him off to such prodigious feats as hefting a full barrel of flour or driving his fist through the heavy panel of a door. Captain Charles and his bowlegged partner in the hip-boots who worked the big weir over by Carney Island together, could be counted on, too. Beaux and belles were there, of course, and some exciting but not too wicked things went on in the dark shadows of the building.
As boys, we weren’t too much interested at the time. Folks talked crops and politics and whether the tinker mackerel were running or cod were being caught out by Kimball’s Head, as they watched the progress of the boat’s myriad lighted windows from Brooklin to Sedgwick. Then we saw port and starboard lights head on, and the Pemaquid became a slim silhouette against the heavier blackness of the mainland. On still nights we could catch the thud of her propeller well before the narrow beam of her searchlight picked out the wharf and bathed us for a moment in silver. Thick nights made little difference in the evening ritual unless it was already dungeon fog before the Pemaquid made Stonington.
Even in foul weather we counted on her to make the difficult run through Deer Island Thorofare and the maze of ledges and islands at the foot of the Reach.
Then, while heavy drops pattered from the roof of the little square waiting room behind us, we took turns at cranking the fog horn at the corner of the wharf, waiting for the pilot to pull his cord in response. Because the Pemaquid was railroad property, she answered with a shrill locomotive whistle, eerily echoing and re-echoing from the woods along the shore.
On such nights none of the jaunty teams from the village came to greet her, only Old Fred from up on the hill hoping for even a spare halfdollar, and more often disappointed than not. Fred, who never took a bath, was always reaching out for friendship and understanding which was ever denied him. “Keish, you know what? I’m going to get me one of them high silk hats and some yellow gloves and have the rig upholstered—then maybe business will be better b’um’bye.” And perhaps even while he talked, some hellion was loosening a nut on his off hind wheel.
I suppose we boys reached the height of our enjoyment when we tested our strength dragging hand trucks loaded with bags of grain up the steep incline from the steamer to the freight house. Since North Deer Isle was the next to last stop, crew members by then were tired from bucking heavy loads, and were only too willing to let us boys lend a hand.
If the tide was high, we pushed our loaded trucks before us, but if the slip had been lowered twelve feet to dead low water, we tugged them doggedly up behind us, muscles pulled taut, putting our backs and the calves of our legs into it, conscious of admiring female eyes. In other ways, low tide was even more rewarding.
Having deposited our load in the wharf building, we could then imitate the crew’s method of returning the empty truck to the steamer. We put one foot on the axle, and dragging the other as a brake and guide, slid with flashing speed down the smooth slip and across the gangplank. It took a sudden turn to the right to avoid being shot clean out of the opposite gangway. For a brief period each night, trucking grain, we boys became a part of the Pemaquid’s crew. What men they were, with their tattooed arms and their sweaters bearing the names of other steamboats on which they had served—the Samoset, Sapphe, Sieur de Monts!
Today the steamboats no longer serve Deer Isle. The two sprawling livery stables in the village are long since gone; there are no more horses and oxen and cows to demand the feed that was a considerable part of our boats’ lading—indeed, hardly even a chicken anymore. The freight moves in on trucks; the drummers are few and the rambling old Lynmore, their stopover through the generations, has burned. Tourists now drive their cars across the bridge (“rusticators” having gone out of fashion), and none shall know the delight, threading Fox Island Thorofare or coasting along in the shadow of the Camden Hills toward Tillson’s Wharf at dusk, of the afterdeck, with its peculiar bouquet compounded of ozone, soft coal smoke, and the fragrance of the crew’s mess.
The propeller churns smoothly, the rudder chain slatting in the wake, the railing and fixtures vibrating gently in tune, while the gulls wheel and cry shrilly overhead, vying for the scraps tossed out of the galley. There are no more passenger ships on River or Bay, save the new State Ferries. The J. T. Morse has gone to her grave after serving as an excursion boat on New York’s East River. The Boothbay, which supplanted her on the run through the Reach, became the ferry to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and was then sold south to Wilmington, Delaware. Our darling, the Pemaquid, too, has met her end. But neither Cauncey, Elwyn nor I likes to think too much about it.
This essay was published in Down East magazine in September of 1964. The photos here were taken by Tom Haviland of the steamboats.
Please ask your local bookstore to buy in a copy or go to amazon Here.