Hello! Every seven days, for the whole the year, This Week in Portland History has brought to light a person or event from the city’s past.
It was clear that night in Cape Elizabeth, though a storm raged just offshore. Scratch that. Actually, there was a blinding snowstorm and the swells were enormous. Or maybe it was just raining with a breath of wind. Truthfully, I don’t know. Historical accounts are all over the place when describing the weather that night.
There’s one fact everyone can agree on. A once proud Yankee clipper ship, the Annie C. Maguire, met her sorry end on the rocks in front of Portland Headlight 131 years ago this week, on Christmas Eve in 1886.
You’ve probably seen the painted rock in front of the lighthouse tower. Here’s the story that goes with it. It’s pretty well known since it happened at the foot of one of the most famous lighthouses in the world. A bunch of photographers got good shots of it, too, which added to its fame.
The Annie C. Maguire was a barque-rigged ship out of Quebec. She started life as the famed China tea trade clipper ship the Golden State. Sailing under the American flag, the 188-foot long ship logged more than a million miles in 30 years at sea. She circled the globe many times and made gazillions for her owners.
Her glory days were long over by the time she foundered here, though. She’d been bought three years earlier by a shaky Canadian company and renamed. The crew was overworked and underfed on regular voyages to South America. The Maguire was returning home after a trip to Argentina and looking to ride out a storm in Portland Harbor when disaster struck.
That night, lighthouse keeper Joshua Strout was keeping watch in the tower. The lamp was burning bright.
Strout was described in a 1927 article as, “a “bronzed, hardy little man, comfortably inclined to corpulence.”
Joseph Strout, his son and assistant keeper, was getting ready for bed. He’d just gotten his socks off when his father burst through the door.
“All hands turn out,” he shouted, “There’s a ship ashore in the dooryard!”
When the younger Strout stumbled out the door into the snow, he could see the ship, not 100 yards from the tower. Its masts reached into the sky, taller than the lighthouse. Somehow, the Maguire had managed to smash into the very beacon meant to warn it of danger.
The ship’s captain, Daniel O’Neil, had already ordered the crew to drop anchors and take down the sails. All the Strouts had to do to rescue those aboard was flop a ladder between the rocks and the ship’s rail. Nine crewmen, the captain, his wife and his son, scurried across the makeshift gangway to safety without incident.
Mary Strout, the keeper’s wife, burned bits of kerosene-soaked blankets to provide light for the minimal rescue operation. Then she fed everyone coffee and dinner. Fortunately, there was enough to go around. The family killed eight chickens the day before for a Christmas feast.
“Ma made all eight into the best pie you ever tasted,” Joseph recalled in the 1920s. “But it didn’t make no impression on that crew of three-quarter starved blotters though. I only got one plateful. But we should worry. A feller doesn’t get wrecked often, and when it happens where he can eat after starving for weeks, you can’t blame him for passing his plate until it’s all gone. Once they got that chicken pie into them, the whole gang wanted to stay. They loafed around three days and ate most of the food we had.”
The crew weren’t total freeloaders, though. Some of them sampered back onto the ship and produced two cases of Scotch whiskey.
The Maguire’s crew eventually moved to a sailor’s boarding house on Fore Street in Portland. Meanwhile, it came to light that the company that owned the ship had gone belly up while she was at sea.
It was rumored the captain grounded her ashore for the insurance money. But it turned out the ship wasn’t insured very well. Instead, she was auctioned off on Dec. 28 for scrap. The high bid was $178. For the next three days, salvagers stripped the Maguire of anything worth a penny — her metal sheathing, spars, hardware, anchors, chains and all.
Heavy swells came up on New Year’s Eve. By daybreak, she was scattered along the coast in a wash of countless pieces.
Now, all that’s left of the Annie C. Maguire is an often re-painted inscription on the rocks at Portland Head — and, of course, the tale that goes with it.
Note: Most of this tale was lifted from the slim, self published book “Golden State / Annie C. Maguire” by Kenneth A. Moody.
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.