This ghost ship hunted U-boats in Portland Harbor… maybe

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

One of the fastest, most feared and successful privateering American ships of the War of 1812 called Portland Harbor home. She defeated grand British warships and plundered fat merchant vessels alike. In her lifetime, the Dash was a legend. After she was gone, she became a shadow in the fog, one of Maine’s most enduring ghost stories.

The Porter brothers built the Dash at their Freeport shipyard in 1813. They designed her to be as fast as her name. They needed a speedy smuggling vessel to evade blockading British warships during the war of 1812. They also had to outrun the U.S. Navy enforcing the Embargo Act.

The Dash did both.

Sailing out of Portland on her maiden run, the she made for Santo Domingo. There, she traded New England goods for coffee and headed for home. That’s when she ran afoul of a British man-of-war.

The British fired on the Dash, ordering her surrender. Instead, she raised all her canvas and hightailed it out of there. The British gave chase but were no match. The Dash pulled into Portland Harbor unscathed and a legend was born.

She made two more successful smuggling voyages that year and her reputation grew. Soon, a letter of marque from President James Madison arrived. It gave the owners permission to arm the Dash and hunt British ships, keeping all the spoils, as a privateer. That was 203 years ago this week, on September 13, 1814.

An undated etching of the Dash. (Courtesy of the Freeport Historical Society)

An undated etching of the Dash. (Courtesy of the Freeport Historical Society)

At the time, America didn’t have much of a navy. The fledgling country used plucky little vessels like the Dash as a marauding auxiliary force during the war. The nimble Freeport ship proved to be even better at privateering than she was at smuggling.

That fall, fitted with two 18-pound guns and a 32-pound pivot gun, she set out from Portland, hunting for plunder.

First, she captured a British cruiser. Next, she took on the 38-gun warship HMS Lacedemonian. The Dash defeated the much larger warship. Then, she took back a captured American schooner as well.

On her next voyage, a British frigate and schooner attempted to gang up on the Dash. But she managed to outrun them both and separate the schooner from the frigate. Then, the schooner was easy pickings.

Her victories not only made her famous, they made the Dash good money. The captain, crew and owners all shared in the captured booty. Soon, men were clamoring for a spot on her next voyage. Rumors abounded that she was doing double duty, smuggling goods out and privateering on the way home.

In all, the Dash captured 15 ships that autumn and she never lost a man.

On Christmas Eve, a treaty, signed in Belgium between the United States and Britain, ended the war. But news traveled slow in those days. When the Dash was ready to sail again in January 1815, the eager crew didn’t know the fighting was officially over.

Spirits were high on the day she left Portland. A fresh, new privateer called the Champlain waited for the Dash in Portland Harbor. She wanted to race the famous ship. The Dash was up to the challenge.

The two ships sped south out of Portland Harbor together but the Champlain couldn’t compete. Before long, the Dash was nothing but a speck on the horizon. Then, wind-driven, blinding snow came up and hid her from sight and she was gone, forever.

Sort of.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about the Dash in the 1870s. (Public domain photo)

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about the Dash in the 1870s. (Public domain photo)

No physical trace, no wreckage, no bodies were ever found, but she’s been often seen, usually in thick fog.

First, a fisherman saw her from Pumpkin Nob, behind Peaks Island. Someone else saw her near Crab Island, off Freeport. Both times, she got close enough to read her nameplate through the fog.

The Dash is most often seen, sailing straight up Harpswell Sound, like she’s going to run aground. Her sails are always up, making good speed, but she vanishes before she strikes land.

In the 1870s, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about her called “The Dead Ship of Harpswell.”

In the first stanza he wrote:

What flecks the outer gray beyond
The sundown’s golden trail?
The white flash of a sea-bird’s wing,
Or gleam of slanting sail?
Let young eyes watch from Neck and Point,
And sea-worn elders pray,—
The ghost of what was once a ship
Is sailing up the bay!

The last (kind of) documented sighting I could find happened in 1942. At that time, Portland harbor was bristling with Navy ships and forts. The harbor was an important staging area for transatlantic convoys bound for Britain.

In August that year, a blip appeared on Navy radar. It looked like a German U-boat, trying to sneak into the harbor. The Navy sent two ships out into the thick fog to investigate.

About that time, a man and a woman were making out on Pumpkin Nob, between Peaks Island and Hussy Sound. The man later said they saw the two Navy ships chasing an old wooden schooner. As the sailing ship passed the lovers, they could read its name: Dash.

As he was rowing his lady friend away from Pumpkin Nob, the Navy took the man into custody and questioned him. It seems the warships never “officially” found anything out there, in the fog of Hussy Sound. Navy officials advised the man to remember the same story.

Believe it if you want, or don’t.

I wasn’t there. I can’t say it actually happened. Then again, I can’t say it didn’t happen, either. But I do like to think a ship that fast, that famous, that courageous, didn’t just go down in a storm.

Perhaps the Dash was still hunting — just looking for German U-boats instead of British sloops.

Note: I gleaned much of this story from The Spectral Tide: True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy by Eric Mills.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.