By Aug. 3, 1914, the summer season was “humming” at Bar Harbor’s storied resort. The new European war, however, had become the principal topic of conversation among the rich and famous summer folks, wrote a Bangor newspaper correspondent.
Heavy rain and thunder that day washed out the tennis tournament at the Swimming Club and delayed the Hampton University fete in the Building of Arts. The next day, Tuesday, the auction bridge tournament to benefit the Kebo Valley Club promised to put the social whirl back on track, speculated the local correspondent for the Bangor Daily News.
Jacob Schiff, the renowned financier, had arrived over the weekend. Vincent Astor was expected in a day or two on his 263-foot yacht Noma. They were but two of the dozens of prominent celebrities coming and going that summer, if the war didn’t interrupt their plans.
“The war situation just now is about the main thing in the public eye, and there is a small mob at the various news offices when the different papers arrive,” continued the reporter.
The papers sold out quickly, but the town’s two telegraph offices were posting bulletins for those who missed out. Added interest was caused by the fact that some of the usual summer visitors were off touring Europe, raising fears they would be stranded as foreign cruise lines shut down operations.
Every day there were new developments. “Germany at War with Russia and Belgium,” announced the Bangor Daily Commercial on the afternoon of August 3.
The gloom felt by most was summed up that same day by the Bangor Daily Commercial in an apocalyptic editorial headlined “The Unexpected.” It said, “Europe is facing a war such as civilization has never known, a war that will cause the great campaigns of Napoleon to pale into insignificance.”
It was all such a surprise amidst the summer festivities. People had speculated that the last big war, the one between Russia and Japan, was going to be the last “great war.”
Buried in the many sidebars to the major war news that afternoon were a couple of short, relatively insignificant pieces. One said that the North German Lloyd steamship Kronprinzessin Cecilie had signaled a remote wireless station in northernmost Ireland without revealing its whereabouts, possibly indicating the luxury liner was making a dash to “some German port” by way of the North Sea to evade pursuers.
On its way from New York City to Bremen, Germany, with more than $10 million in gold and silver packed in its hold, the ship carried hundreds of Americans and Europeans on holiday or business, as well as many more patriotic emigrants seeking to return to Russia and other countries to join the war effort.
The second short story reported the U.S. government was investigating reports that the Kronprinzessin Cecilie had been captured by British war cruisers.
The next day, August 4, a century ago, the world found out the surprising whereabouts of “the treasure ship,” as the Cecilie came to be known.
The Bangor Daily Commercial’s front page told the story in a multitiered headline: “Kronprinzessin Cecilie a Refugee at Bar Harbor: North German Lloyd Liner With $10,600,000 in treasure, 1500 Passengers, Sought All Over the North Atlantic, Escapes British Cruisers and With Lights Masked Flees Across the Ocean to Maine Coast.”
The 685-foot Cecilie had dropped anchor early that morning after a four-day run across the fog-shrouded ocean. Capt. Charles Polack had picked up wireless signals indicating French and British warships knew of its whereabouts and valuable cargo.
Two days out from the English coast, Polack had turned the ship around and headed back to the United States in search of a neutral port. Passengers knew about the change in direction only after they noticed “the position of the moon had unaccountably shifted to the port side of the ship.”
The fog protected the liner from detection during most of the journey. Electric lights were turned off, and the ship was covered from bow to stern in “a shroud of canvas.”
Wireless messages were banned.
“Her four stout stacks had been [covered] with black paint so that she resembled an English steamship,” recorded the Bangor Daily Commercial.
Terrified passengers, the memory of the Titanic on their minds, pleaded with the captain to slow down as they sped through the thick fog. His only concession was to begin sounding the fog horn without slackening the pace.
There were several reasons for choosing Bar Harbor. Among the passengers on board was C. Ledyard Blair, whose family owned a “cottage” at Bar Harbor. The New York banker had been on his way to Scotland with his brother to shoot grouse.
An experienced yachtsman, Blair piloted the ship to the harbor. The captain publicly thanked Blair through the Bangor newspapers the day they arrived.
(Polack also was a personal friend of Alessandro Fabri, another of Bar Harbor’s prominent summer folk. Fabri had built a powerful radio transmitting-and-receiving station at his summer home, according to historian Roger F. Duncan. Fabri not only communicated often with the Cecilie by radio, but he had also made frequent Atlantic crossings aboard it and knew Polack personally.)
Special Maine Central trains were outfitted in Bangor to take the Cecilie’s passengers back to New York. They were transported by steamboat across Frenchman Bay to Mt. Desert Ferry, where they boarded the trains.
People lined up on the train platforms at Union Station in Bangor to view the wealthy travelers passing through. The city “was forcibly reminded that a great European war, to be perhaps the worst that the world has ever witnessed, is in progress …,” wrote a reporter for the Bangor Daily News on August 5.
Not everyone left Bar Harbor, however. Mrs. A. Howard Hinkle and her daughter of Cincinnati had been headed for Carlsbad, Germany, for the summer season, but they were happy to find themselves back in Bar Harbor where they regularly spent part of their summers.
Governor and Mrs. Charles Miller of Delaware gave up plans to visit Russia, deciding instead to spend some time at Bar Harbor.
Some people got off the train in Bangor. Among them was Dr. Schmaria Levin, “one of the great leaders of the Zionist movement,” according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on August 5. He was entertained by a committee of the city’s Jewish leaders and dined at the home of Mrs. Leah Marcus.
Dr. and Mrs. Charles H. Tuttle stayed at the Penobscot Exchange in Bangor and then took a side trip to Kineo “where they will enjoy a rest.”
One “meek-looking” Russian, steerage passenger identified as Hoppayer Veriryin spent some unintended time in Waterville after getting off the train in search of a ham sandwich, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on August 7. The non-English speaking immigrant ended up at the YMCA. The next day he boarded another train from the ship.
The Cecilie rapidly became a tourist attraction for the three months it was moored at Bar Harbor. The Newport House placed an advertisement in the newspapers saying customers could see “The Treasure Ship” from the hotel while having “an excellent Sunday dinner.”
Auto parties, like that headed by H. R. Googins of Bucksport, got their names in the newspapers for driving down to Bar Harbor to take a look. Tours were limited, however, after it was discovered that some visitors were stealing souvenirs. The Shore Path became a gathering place for hundreds of sightseers.
Meanwhile, the German band that accompanied the ship gave concerts, including one on Labor Day, attended by large numbers of spectators, according to newspaper reports. Polack and his officers were entertained at sumptuous dinners.
U.S. war ships began appearing in Bar Harbor “to protect the neutrality of the United States” and to move the Cecilie’s trove of gold and silver back to the New York banks where it had originated.
On a foggy Saturday night, August 8, the revenue cutter Androscoggin, anchored off Hancock Point Light after loading the gold from the Cecilie.
“So much did the bullion weigh [46 tons according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on August 14] that the big cutter heeled considerably at the stern,” reported David Rodick, correspondent for the Bangor Daily Commercial.
When day broke and the tide rose, it was found that the boat drew too much water to land at the wharf at Mt. Desert Ferry. Smaller boats were used to haul the gold bars to the dock, a job that took from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dozens of armed men protected the operation. The train was moving by 3:30 p.m. toward Bangor.
People lined up on the train platform at Union Station to see the treasure train. “A Mountain of Gold in Bangor,” declared a Bangor Daily News headline on August 10.
One joker reportedly commented, “Well, the city of Bangor has gone through a lot of money, but this is the greatest lot that ever went through Bangor.”
The Cecilie’s fame faded quickly. The great luxury liner stayed anchored in Bar Harbor until November when it was taken to East Boston, according to historian Roger Duncan. It lay interned there until the United States entered the war in April 1917. Then it was taken over by the United States and used as a troop transport.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.