Steamer sank the J.T. Morse at Rockland docks

Posted May 23, 2010, at 7:52 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:44 p.m.

The Belfast was one of the Boston boats back when there were only two practical ways to get from Bangor to Bean Town — by vessel or train. Longer than a football field, the turbine-driven vessel (and its twin, the Camden,) boasted the first propellers and the first steel hull used regularly on the Bangor-to-Boston run. Needless to say, when this wonder of progress sent another favorite steamer of the Eastern Steamship Company to the bottom of Rockland harbor one foggy morning, a century ago tomorrow, it came as quite a shock to the many Bangoreans used to hearing its deep whistle blasts coming up the Penobscot.

Early on the morning of May 25, 1910, a thick fog enveloped the coast. A foghorn blew at regular intervals on Tillson’s Wharf in Rockland harbor where the passenger steamer J.T. Morse was tied up before heading for Bar Harbor. The Morse was waiting for passengers from the Belfast, which was on its way from Boston to Bangor by Rockland. Twenty-two crewmen were sleeping in the bow while a half-dozen passengers who had boarded the night before were in their staterooms well aft.

The Belfast, carrying about 100 passengers, steamed at slow speed through the soupy mist, her whistle sounding and her crew vigilant. A fresh breeze blew from the southwest. The trouble began after the famed Boston boat entered Rockland harbor. Quartermaster Larrabee was at the wheel, Pilot Abbott at one window and Capt. Ezra Curtis was at the other handling the bells.

In order to make her berth, the Belfast had to turn in a wide circle, explained the Bangor Daily Commercial that afternoon. Besides the heavy fog, the tide was low, making docking conditions worse than usual. When the Belfast came across a shallow spot to the south of the wharf, “the rudder refused to obey, failing to take effect in the shoal water about 200 feet from the wharf and the Morse.”

The Belfast was headed straight for the Morse. Watchman D.W. Weed, on the smaller vessel, saw that the Belfast was keeping right on course. Realizing the Morse was sure to be rammed, he shouted to the sleeping crew and passengers. A few emerged on deck, but most remained in their berths oblivious to the danger until the final crushing blow.

When the Belfast failed to respond to the wheel, Capt. Curtis gave the signal for backing her and ordered the port anchor dropped so that her speed would slacken. With her engine reversed and her anchor dragging, the Belfast hit the Morse dead on in the starboard bow, forward of the pilot house, leaving a deep gash in the smaller boat about 10 feet wide and 15 feet in depth.

Later the Bangor papers would call the event “a wonder,” even “miraculous.” The huge gash fell in a space between two quarters where five firemen and 17 deck hands were berthed.

“Directly into the space between the two sets of quarters, the Belfast cut a wedge-shaped opening about half the width of the Morse,” reported the Commercial. The “wonder” was that only one crew member, Abner Critch, a Newfoundland native, was injured when he was pinned in his berth by falling timbers.

Contact between the two vessels lasted only a minute or so. Then the Morse was flooded and sank, but not before the crew and passengers managed to scramble on deck and jump on the wharf, deserting most of their belongings. The Morse sat on the bottom of Rockland harbor at low tide, the water “up to her freight deck,” according to the Commercial, or “about two feet above her saloon deck,” according to the account in John M. Richardson’s book “Steamboat Lore of the Penobscot.”

The Belfast backed away from the wreck virtually unscathed and completed her run to Bangor. It “came up to her berth at the Eastern Steamship Co.’s wharf at 11 o’clock [located near where the Sea Dog restaurant is today] with a black eye and scarred nose as the result of the collision,” reported the Commercial. “Aside from the scraping off of some paint and the very slight denting of one of the steel plates, the Belfast is none the worse for her early morning encounter with the Morse. The repairing will be done with the paint brush.”

For people who still shivered when they remembered the tragedy of the steamer Portland just a dozen years ago — 176 people died when the big steamboat broke up in a blizzard off Cape Cod — the wreck of the J.T. Morse, however minor it might seem today in the lengthy lexicon of sea disasters, was one more reason to take the train.

Comments about this column can be sent to Wayne E. Reilly at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com. Thanks to Jon B. Johansen and to the Penobscot Marine Museum for information on the steamers J.T. Morse and Belfast.

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