The Steamboats of Casco Bay
A Letter to WWII Denebola Shipmates
By Milton Sherman, April, 1995. Updated March 21, 2012.
This story takes the form of a letter to my shipmates that live far away from New England. It concerns some old acquaintances that many of us got to know very well during our stay on Casco Bay in World War two.
I mean those little wooden steamboats that used to wend their way among the islands carrying commuters and tourists. There were literally dozens of those little steamers serving the islands east of Portland including Penobscot Bay, until shortly after the war.
Causeways, bridges, and vibrating steel ferries combined with age eventually caused the demise of the picturesque and comfortable age of steam. Most of the modern ferries to the islands off the coast are operated by the state, but Casco Bay Lines still operates essentially as it did when we were there.
The Green Island and North Haven
The two that will be most fondly remembered, though not as being very picturesque, are the Green Island and the North Haven. Easily recalled are the Liberty parties lined up at 1600 for inspection. That was when the N.H. or the G.I. would be there to take us to the Navy pier. Everybody always seemed to be in good spirits at that time. Even "the eye doctor," Lt. T.J. Matecki, who seemed to bear down hard on his inspection duties, sometimes looked pleasant. Both ships (I don't know what else to call them) were built in South Portland around 1913 and served the trade for many years between the city of Rockland and the various island ports such as Vinalhaven, North Haven, Stonington and Swans Island.
The North Haven first saw service in Nova Scotia until about 1931. After that, it served the islands as mentioned above. Both of them saw their most glorious service after the Navy took them over for wartime use transporting us to Portland for "rest and relaxation." It seems unbelievable, but the North Haven lasted until 1961, after five years of service carrying sightseers around New York City, while operated by the Circle Line.
The Green Island? I don't know what became of it; I couldn't find anything on it in my usual sources.
During the time the "Denny" was in the anchorage there must have been a dozen or so of the picturesque wooden steamers serving the islands of Casco Bay, most of them in the employ of the Casco Bay Lines. The mention of some of their names ought to nudge some memories. How about Admiral, Gurnet, Emita, Aucocisco, Maquoit and Machigonne? It should be easy to recall "Admiral" because it was such a tiny little craft, almost like a toy.
Machigonne was the big sister of them all: 425 tons. She has the special distinction of having lasted almost the longest, but not quite. Machigonne was built in Philadelphia in 1907 and the first chapter of its lifetime was written in Casco Bay until and including the war, when it was owned by the Navy. Soon after the war it was brought back to Philadelphia where it was modernized and renamed. It was then to be known as the "Block Island." Until 1979 it served the tourist and commuter trade between the ports of Providence, R.I. and Block Island; Along the way it acquired yet another name, "Yankee". It certainly had a long and useful life.
Nearly all of the Casco Bay steamers came to an ignominious end. Several of them were towed to a remote location among the outer islands and burned to the waterline. In the early 1970s, I took a sentimental journey on one of the Casco Bay Liners. It was a tourist trip and so the Captain called out the sights and points of interest; to my disappointment he indicated the remains of the burned hulks. It added a touch of sadness to the trip.
This brings us to the little vessel that has had the most interesting and varied career and has lasted the longest. It is the SABINO, and it is still running.
The name is still the same but the home port is quite different. Sabino will be remembered by many of you because of its relatively high visibility. It was one of the boats that used to make the "all day sail" to Bailey's Island. Maybe some of you took that trip and had clam chowder at the Jaquish Inn.
Sabino was built at East Boothbay, Maine in 1908 and was first used on regular commuter trips on Maine's Damaricotta river. Its original name was "Tourist," a name that lasted until about 1918. It was in that year that it met with it's first serious accident. A breakdown in the engine suddenly caused loss of control and Sabino was swept down the river, smashed into a bridge, and sank in shallow water.
This was not the end though, far from it, "Tourist," as it was then called, was raised, repaired and returned to first class condition. It was however,the end of her service on the Damariscotta river. Her next assignment was another commuter run on the Kennebec river carrying people from the up-river towns down to Popham Beach, a popular seaside resort at that time. Nearby was a place known as Sabino Hill, and from this she was given the name that endures until the present.
(Maybe you recall a different steamer in the bay named "Tourist." That particular Tourist was built in 1913 in Boothbay Harbor, Maine and spent its entire lifetime in Casco Bay. Apparently it was one of those that were burned for scrap in 1955.)
Sabino, (the former "Tourist") came to Casco Bay in 1941 when she was purchased by Casco Bay Lines, and remained in service there until 1958. Shortly after coming to Casco Bay, Sabino had sponsons added to her hull. These are merely "bulges" added to the hull which also widened the deck and pemitted the addition of stairways on each side of the pilot house, that gave easier access to the upper deck.
Although during the war years, Sabino was refitted with a new watertube type boiler that replaced the original fire tube boiler, her main claim to fame is that she is still powered by the original "Paine" compound engine, making her the last coal fired, steam powered vessel in operation in the country.
Sabino is currently in service at Connecticut's Mystic Seaport.
The End of Steamers in Casco Bay
By 1958 all of the steamers of the C.B.L. had been replaced with the noisy and vibrating diesel-powered steel tubs of the type that are operating there now. The days of the quiet and restful pleasure of the steamboat days were at an end.
Except for one.
Sabino was kept in service for awhile longer, but for need of repairs and other reasons she was offered for sale toward the end of 1958. That she still had her original steam engine is no doubt. One of the points that made it possible for her to bridge the gap between loss of practical and paying usefulness for her owners and a new desirability as a restorable relic of the past.
While she lay idle for a few years at Portland's Custom House wharf she was kept in reasonably good shape by one or two men who for sentimental reasons wanted to take care of her. This and her original engine is probably what saved her from eventual oblivion. It is noteworthy that at one time Sabino was, by Casco Bay Lines offered to the city of Portland and to the State of Maine for one dollar. Both declined the offer.
Eventually she was sold for $500, after which she saw more service as a pleasure cruise boat, another sinking, another refurbishing and still more use on several rivers and bays in eastern Massachusetts.
The Sabino at Mystic Seaport
It was in 1973 that she was purchased by the Mystic Seaport. This was the stroke of fate that comes as close to preserving her for posterity as anything possibly could. Here, for the forseeable future she will be safe from the hammers and cutting torches of the ghouls of the salvage business.
The Mystic Seaport is a museum of life and work on the sea during the early to mid-1800s. Here can be seen examples of the ships, the tools, and the methods of the days of sail in general and the whaling days in particular. Considering that our little friend from Casco Bay does not have that kind of heritage, she has certainly found a good home.
Here at Mystic Connecticut, since 1970 she has had the finest of care and has been leading a leisurely existence taking visitors to the Seaport on quiet and relaxing cruises on the placid waters of the Mystic river. (You can read more about Sabino at Mystic Seaport's website, or at the Sabino website.) Sabino has certainly had an unusual and in later years a charmed existence. Although she had some tough times in the early days, lady luck always seemed to be there to lend a hand. This was usually through the emergence of someone genuinely interested in preserving Sabino for another few years.
Whenever, in the summertime, I go down to Mystic for a relaxing afternoon, I try to time it so I can be on the bridge over the river in time to again see my old acquaintance from Casco Bay. After all these years, it's a good feeling to see that she is alive and well.
Milton Sherman, shipmate,
8th div. machine shops.
Bolton, Connecticut, 1995
Recollections of Milton W. Sherman (1919-2010). He served in the U.S. Navy during WW2, on board the USS Denebola, AD-12, when he was in mid-twenties. On board the Denebola, he sailed to the Mediterranean in 1944 and the Pacific in 1945, where he bought some fascinating vintage postcards and photographs. You might enjoy seeing these pictures in his travels in the Denebola.