A ghostly ship in Harpswell

Posted Oct. 28, 2014, at 5:25 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 29, 2014, at 7:13 a.m.

HARPSWELL, Maine — A phantom ship appears in Merriconeag Sound, heading toward Potts Harbor. Manned by no one, the ship was said to signal the pending death of a Harpswell resident. Some say the ship was the mighty Dash, a Freeport-built privateer, that disappeared in January 1815 with 60 men aboard.

This time of year, these tales of vessels vanishing on foggy nights and the watery graves of tragic travelers cast a haunting pall. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ships have gone down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine.

“In the 19th century ships were prone to accidents,” said Bill Barry, research historian at Maine Historical Society, where a library documents shipwrecks big and small.

“They didn’t have good navigation to know when storms were coming. People didn’t know what happened to those that disappeared, so their imaginations got away from themselves.”

Poets such as John Greenleaf Whittier also took creative license with these events.

Visiting Portland for a Quaker meeting in 1866, he caught word of The Dash and penned “The Dead Ship of Harpswell.” In the poem he asks, “Who steers the ship of death?” that appears to men on Orrs Island and is known to shipwrights in Freeport. “What weary doom of baffled quest, thou sad sea-ghost, is thine? What makes thee in the haunts of home a wonder and a sign?”

According to the Harpswell Historical Society, people waiting for a ship reported a four- or two-masted rig coming in under full sail no matter the weather. No one was ever seen on board. If the vessel was about to crash, it would disappear or retreat into the mist. Appearing at Lookout Point or Potts Point, the eerie experience indicated a death was imminent. The last sighting was in 1880, but the poem lives on.

“Poetry is part of history. [But] it is not factual,” said Barry, adding that these retold rhymes “change people’s attitudes and what people think of history.”

Such recasting of history has happened a few times with Lydia Carver, a bride who drowned at sea.

The daughter of a wealthy Portland businessman was returning from a trip to Boston with her bridal party in July 1807 when The Charles, the schooner that she sailed in, struck a ledge near Richmond’s Island. According to Roxie Zwicker, the author of “Haunted Portland From Pirates to Ghost Brides,” sixteen people, including the 24-year-old, perished.

The next day, her body washed ashore on Crescent Beach, steps from the Inn By the Sea in Cape Elizabeth — a trunk containing her gown and trousseau at her side. More than 200 years later, Carver is a “ghost bride” that is said to appear from time to time.

Zwicker tells the story of a woman traveling on Route 77 in her car one evening in the 1960s. As she approached the inn, she saw “a lady wearing a long white wedding gown standing silently resting her hand on a female deer that stood completely still at her side.” The woman in the dress made eye contact with the driver, but as the car passed, she vanished. “A look into the rearview mirror revealed that there was no one there.”

The woman was certain it was Carver.

At the inn, the story isn’t talked about often.

“We don’t really talk about it except at Halloween,” said Rauni Kew, the inn’s public relations manager. “We are not a haunted hotel, but there is something people find in the story that’s fascinating. She is very romantic.”

The shipwreck inspired Pittsburgh metal band Icarus Witch, which stayed there once, to write “The Ghost of Xavior Holmes.” The song imagines a sailor who died aboard the ship and the lyrics relay the tale: “Just off the coast of Richmond’s Island the craft tipped on to one side. Xavior Holmes never made it to Portland that night, yet the schooner Charles still sails on and out of sight.”

Those with active imaginations, such as folklorist Nancy Roberts, who wrote a story about a couple who visited the Inn by the Sea and heard cries from the sinking Charles and Lydia, keep this tragedy alive.

Through fiction, like the unforgiving sea, it is easy to imagine things under certain conditions.

“You’ll see fog and swear you’ve seen something else. People were superstitious and believed in supernatural things,” said Barry, of the seafaring age. “They saw things they could not explain.”

Couples who tie the knot in the inn’s side yard, near Carver’s final resting place in a small graveyard, are not deterred.

“We enjoy the idea of Lydia,” said Kew. “We like to think that she is watching over them.”

Perhaps she is.