We Earthlings learn to live – sooner or later - with a set of natural laws which are as disheartening as they are implacable. Chief among them for traditionalists such as I is the fact that almost everything we come to think of as “ours” is subject to change. Whether we believe in the Chaos Theory or not, much that we regard as long-lived really isn’t. When asked by friends and associates why I nurture a special attachment for the New England in which I grew up, and why I feel a compulsion to return as often as possible, my honest answer arises from the belief that even though subject to the same change as other pieces of geography, change seems to come much slower there; especially in certain obstinate pockets of landscape and people where respect for old traditions is clearly manifest and the tempo of life less hurried.
For more than half of my adult life, the mid-coast of Maine has been a spiritual “touchstone” for me; a piece of North America where my feet find a special grip and my mind is gentled by a sense of “belonging”; a descendant of ship-builders, mariners and island-dwellers on two sides of my family, genetics are partly to blame no doubt. Starting from the Penobscot Bay end and moving south and west to the Casco Bay region, I love such port towns as Searsport, Camden, Rockport, Rockland and Round Pond, with my heart beating extra fast as I drive down the Pemaquid peninsula from Damariscotta to our traditional home-away-from-home at New Harbor. As we drive northward (Down East) though, from southern New England in our usual approach to the region, we come first to Wiscasset – a historic village of old sea captains’ homes and a picturesque harbor on the tidal Sheepscot River first settled in 1663. (Wiscasset is an old Indian name meaning “coming out from the harbor, but you don’t see where.”)
For almost all of those personal years, our arrival in Wiscasset was made glorious by the well-anticipated sight of the Luther Little and the Hesper at rest in the harbor, and as much a part of the town as the Church with its tall spire, and the draw bridge across the ever-flowing Sheepscot. Always, we would stop, pull into a parking space, get out of our vehicle – kids, guests and all – and feast our eyes on the regal image of those tall four-masted “ghost ships” from out of the past, slowly, but gracefully settling into the mud of the old harbor near the crumbling coal wharf.
Built and launched in Massachusetts around 1918, and each capable of carrying huge loads of coal, timber and other commodities along the east coast and to Europe and South America under thousands of square feet of sail, the two wooden ships required only small crews, and were economical to operate – even against newer steam-powered competitors. By the 1930s though, only a small handful of the 4, 5 and 6-mast vessels were still in service, mostly as tourist carriers, and the Luther Little and the Hesper languished in retirement. A local businessman and visionary named Frank Winter purchased and brought the “sisters” to Wiscasset where he planned to combine them with a railroad line he also bought, in order to establish a comprehensive lumber and coal transportation network. Alas, Winter died before his dream could be realized, and the ownerless coastal “queens” slipped into a slow decline, becoming instead a revered part of the town’s shoreline, and nationally-recognized icons.
Each year, we would notice changes as the “ghostly” carcasses lost first one, then another tall mast, leaning more and more to port or starboard, finally succumbing to storm damage and fires. Then following a powerful storm in 1995, they were no more than heaps of debris, and three years later, the town had them hauled off.
I still love the town of Wiscasset for all of the reasons it has been a part of my Down East “home-coming” through the years; but there is a sadness that touches my heart as we pass the spot made almost sacred by those two stubborn “sisters” which seemed to support the notion that not everything has to change. A glance in the mirror proves though that that is only a notion.
The four-masted coastal schooners Hesper and Luther Little sink slowly into the harbor mud at Wiscasset, Maine, finally falling prey to weather and time, and taking with them a piece of maritime history. Photo by Al Cooper – Circa 1970
A culinary trademark of coastal Maine is the much-loved “toasted lobster roll”. Many establishments offer them, but the very best is found at a tiny roadside café known as “Red’s Eats” in Wiscasset, Maine, where the proprietors promise that every one contains all the meat from at least a one-pound lobster. Tell them Al Cooper sent you!