Down To The Sea

PrintPrintEmailEmailAmong the elaborate Victorian houses on Congress Street in Belfast, Maine, is a bed-and-breakfast called the Mad Captain’s House. The name doesn’t entirely spring from B & B whimsy but reflects a maritime disaster woven into the region’s rich seafaring heritage. Capt. Edwin Horace Herriman, whose home it was, was master and part owner of the P. R. Hazeltine, launched on May 25, 1876. At 233 feet, the schooner was the largest vessel ever built in Belfast. Two years later word came that the Hazeltine had been wrecked off Cape Horn. The captain and his wife and son were aboard and did survive, but the cargo, worth $500,000, did not. In 1893 the captain died in an Augusta mental hospital, driven insane, it was thought, by the loss of his beautiful ship.

In the 1800s Maine shipbuilding was synonymous with the neighboring towns of Belfast and Searsport. Ten percent of the state’s sea captains came from Searsport, which had more shipyards per capita than anywhere else in Maine. Capt. John McGilvery owned one of the town’s busiest yards. His expansive 1874 home, now a bed-and-breakfast called the Carriage House Inn, is where I stayed in great comfort for several days last June. It later was owned by Waldo Peirce, a successful genre and portrait painter of the mid-twentieth century and a great friend to Ernest Hemingway, who often visited him there.

Across the street stands the gleaming white Homeport Inn, built around 1861 by another member of Searsport’s seagoing aristocracy, Capt. John P. Nichols, the prosperous commander of five vessels. When I was there, a sadder sight next door to the Homeport was the Captain A.V. Nickels Inn, its elegant lines still evident, despite an air of present-day neglect and a wan sign offering it for sale at a newly reduced price. It has since been sold. The passion to run a bed-and-breakfast is a complete mystery to me, but even with a constant turnover of owners it seems there are always new takers. And staying in one of these houses is a good way to start absorbing the history that shaped coastal Maine.

A walk along Searsport’s quiet Main Street, its brick commercial buildings spanning about two blocks, gives little hint that the town still is Maine’s second-largest deep-water port. Among the captains who thrived here in the era of the great schooners was Lincoln Colcord. In his vivid letters he portrays his hometown at its peak: “Just think, I have been down there and seen two full-rigged ships, three barks and two schooners at one time; and when I was a boy, there was most always one or more square-rigged vessels at anchor in the bay.” By 1899, when American shipping had declined there and elsewhere, Colcord saw a different place: “Searsport will quiet most anybody down. It must be a fine resort for nervous people; though one has to be a native, I think, to enjoy it thoroughly.”

Maine has a thing about natives. Anyone not born there is considered “from away,” even if carried in as an infant. But one of Maine’s great treasures that should resonate with native and stranger alike is the Penobscot Marine Museum, in Searsport. It is the state’s oldest maritime museum, founded in 1936 when a local man noticed that people were discarding the magnificent sculptural half-hull models used by shipbuilders. In a dozen historic structures crammed with artifacts, and set on three acres, the museum explores the growth of Maine’s sailing vessels, starting in the seventeenth century and going on well into the twentieth.

You already get a whiff of the character of the seafarers when you inhabit their homes that have been converted to inns, and the museum gives you another way to envision life at sea. There’s a hypnotic effect merely from gazing at a high wall filled with portraits of solemn faces representing 150 years of Searsport captains. Among the more informal family photos is one, blown up large, of Capt. William Blanchard and his clearly pregnant wife, Clara, hosting a party aboard the Electric Spark off the coast of Peru, in the 1870s.

A group of half-hull models is a reminder of what started the museum. Delicately painted porcelain from the China trade tells of the riches that were gained in the maritime trade, and so does a handsomely furnished captain’s home. An exhibit on the rough-edged life of the working sailor posts the blunt rules a captain laid down in 1865: “No grog allowed and none to be put aboard by the crew; and no profane language allowed, nor any sheath knives permitted to be brought in or used on board.” Crews were only part of the problem. With rueful amiability, Lincoln Colcord sized up his Hong Kong trading partners: “They can handle Americans like children and rob us easily, leaving us with the opinion that we are smarter than they are, and that they like us as we do them. At all events I like them.”