The British pillaged and burned the town during the War of 1812 and four U.S. presidents visited it, but the biggest thing that ever came to Bucksport is likely an elephant.
Or so says Larry Wahl.
A history buff renovating Bucksport’s Wilson Hall, Wahl and fellow history fan Emeric Spooner have tried to preserve the story of Charlie, the 11-foot-tall, 7,000-pound pachyderm who broke away from his circus captors July 11, 1892.
“He came in on a circus train and broke loose. They chased him all over town and finally caught him two days later,” Spooner said.
It’s one of the strangest events in town history, and accounts of it vary greatly. But the general course of events goes something like this: While in Bucksport as a new member of the Washburn Circus, Charlie demolished fences, possibly scared a horse to death and compelled several families to flee their homes before being recaptured with the help of a hook through the ear and 525 pounds of chain.
He had walked some lengths of Franklin and Central streets peacefully with his handlers before breaking free on School Street and running through several farms, according to one newspaper account collected in Spooner’s self-published book “ In Search of Maine Urban Legends.”
The account describes the death of the horse: “Mr. Bridges had three horses out in the yard, and taking fright they jumped the fence and two of them ran downtown, the third making for his stable and as soon as he got well under cover, he dropped and at once died, probably from fright.”
Another version said that the bellowing elephant “charged a team of horses in a hay field, but they got away. He killed a cow in a pasture, broke down wire fences and charged the circus men who followed him.”
A third newspaper account in Spooner’s book said that only a dog died.
What the accounts agree on is that, toward the end of his rampage around town, Charlie took refuge in a swamp near Mount Olive before his recapture.
The stories all have a common element: animal abuse.
“Back then, they [elephants] were all abused — all chained and whipped, whipped with chains. I feel bad for him,” Wahl said. “I would have run away, too.”
In terms of damage, Bucksport got off easy. In previous days, Charlie had rampaged through Pittsfield and Foxcroft. His Pittsfield visit is better documented. He supposedly “entered a lane too narrow for his bulk, and outhouses, fences, clotheslines, boxes and barrels were demolished by the frightened and enraged animal,” one account states.
Accounts of his Bucksport visit mix humor and terror, with one remarking that Charlie could be a draw to the circus.
“He would be a good drawing card if the people could be persuaded to approach the ticket wagon, but at present they remain on the outskirts of the town,” the account reads. “Mr. Washburn says that so far the receipts are about equal to the damage.”
Wahl commemorated Charlie with a lifesize replica he built three years ago for Bucksport’s 225th birthday celebration, while Spooner described and investigated Charlie’s story in his self-published book. Wahl fashioned the statue using 4-inch pipe, 3/4-inch PVC pipe and wire for the skeleton, and garden netting topped with cement for the skin. It weighs several hundred pounds.
“My Charlie is much tamer than the real Charlie. I kind of have a fondness for Charlie,” Wahl said. “I have lived his life in reading about him and creating a Charlie.”
Wahl placed the statue behind his downtown Bucksport ice cream shop, Wahl’s Dairy Port, every summer until this year. Wahl might haul Charlie out of storage for Maine’s bicentennial celebrations next year, he said.
The end of Charlie’s story, and the end of Charlie, is unknown. Older folks in town keep him alive as a figure of legend, and no one knows how he died, Spooner said.
“Charlie is certainly famous, or once was,” Spooner said. “He went across the nation in papers and put Bucksport in the spotlight.”