In 1836, when the steamship Royal Tar launched the first regular service between St. John, New Brunswick, and Portland, Maine, her owners claimed her the safest ship on the sea.
She was 164 feet long, with a wooden side wheel and elegant passengers' quarters that rivaled the finest hotels.
The Royal Tar, named after King William IV, created a sensation in St. John when she made her maiden voyage around the harbor. To mark the occasion, her owners served a hot lunch to hundreds of onlookers, and they drank ‘rivers of sherry and oceans of champagne.’
On June 5, 1836, the steamer broke a speed record by sailing between Eastport, Maine, and St. John in less than five hours.
In October that year, a circus called Burgess and Dexter's Zoological Institute chartered the Royal Tar.
The circus included an elephant, a tiger, two camels, exotic snakes, birds, a waxworks exhibit, gaudy show wagons and horses to pull them.
Wreck of the Royal Tar
On Oct. 21, 1836, the Royal Tar left Peter’s Wharf in Eastport, heavily overloaded with a crew of 21, 70 passengers, a brass band and the Fuller menagerie. The crew removed two lifeboats to make room for the animal cages, leaving only two others. The cages made it difficult to move on deck, and the passengers pretty much stayed in their quarters.
As was the custom, passengers put their valuables – gold and silver coins and expensive jewelry -- into the ship’s safe.
The steamship ran into heavy weather and put into a safe harbor. After three days, the Royal Tar tried to make headway. Facing heavy seas and a west wind, the steamer put into Machias Bay and dropped anchor.
At midnight the wind shifted and Capt. Thomas Reed decided to continue the voyage.
Steamers were an unusual sight along coastal Maine. An eyewitness remembers her father putting her, her brother and her sister into a small boat to wave at the Royal Tar as it passed through the Deer Isle Thoroughfare. They called out to the passengers on the steamer, and the passengers called back. None apparently knew about the smoldering fire below.
Just east of the Fox Islands in Penobscot Bay, Capt. Reed ordered the engines stopped and the anchor dropped. The ship’s engineer had told him the water level in the boiler had fallen to a dangerously low level.
The crew extinguished the fire in the furnace, but about a half hour later they discovered the steamer had caught fire under the middle of the deck.
High winds fanned the flames and consumed the firefighting equipment.
Sixteen able-bodied men decided to save themselves and abandon the others. They lowered the larger lifeboat and rowed toward Isle Au Haut, now part of Acadia National Park.
The terrified passengers began to jump overboard amid the screams of caged animals. Several people clung to a makeshift wooden raft in the water. According to lore, the panicked elephant jumped overboard onto the raft, killing the people who clung to it.
Another legend has it that a man filled his pockets with gold from his luggage, jumped overboard and drowned, dragged underwater by the weight of the metal.
The U.S. revenue cutter Veto came on the scene about a half hour after the fire started. The Veto’s commander refused to go too near the burning Royal Tar, as the cutter carried a quantity of gunpowder.
Captain Reed managed to ferry 40 passengers in the remaining lifeboat to safety aboard the Veto.
A fisherman named William Barter of Isle Au Haut also picked up some survivors. He took them home, where his wife fed them hasty pudding and put some of them into feather beds. Others slept on the floor. That night, the Barters killed a lamb, cooked beans and baked bread to feed the hungry survivors. A vessel then took them to Thomaston the next day.
In the end, however 32 human lives were lost, including four men, nine women and 10 children. All the animals perished except for two horses.
Four hours after catching fire, the Royal Tar sank beneath the waves.
Captain Reed returned to St. John only to discover his son had died on the same day the Royal Tar sank.
Stories vary about the fate of the animals. According to some, they all perished under the waves. According to others, the larger animals, including the tiger, made it to shore, only to be killed by farmers. Local legend has it that Crotch Island, just south of Deer Isle, harbored a population of exotic snakes for years afterward.
On Nov. 12, 1836, a schooner arrived in Portland and reported passing a burned steamer. It picked up a traveler's trunk with $90 in it – the only thing recovered from the wreck.
In the panic that followed the outbreak of fire, the ship’s safe had been left behind.
Several months later, a salvage ship tried to recover the safe. It was the first of many such attempts.
Today, the gold, silver and jewelry would be worth $1 million.
Chris van Dusen wrote a book about the tragedy, The Circus Ship, but gave it a happier ending.
This story about the Royal Tar was updated in 2019.