Crime and Scandal

Steamboat City of Rockland – The Cursed Ship of The Tourist Trade

Construction started on the City of Rockland at East Boston’s McKie Shipbuilding Company in 1900. By 1901 she sailed regular runs up the coast of Maine carrying summer visitors and freight back and forth to Boston.

She stopped in Rockland, Camden, Belfast, Bangor, Northwest Harbor, Southeast Harbor, Seal Harbor and Bar Harbor. The Eastern Steamship Company advertised the vessel as travelling “the picturesque route with connections to all northern Maine sporting resorts.”

City of Rockland Run Aground in 1904

City of Rockland Run Aground in 1904

They might well have added, “provided you ever arrive.”

City of Rockland

The City of Rockland ranked as one of the most troubled steamers ever to carry the summer tourist trade north for a break from the city heat. In those days $5 would get you from Boston to Camden or Rockland and back. For just a little more, $6.50 would take you to Bangor. For the tonier destinations of Northeast and Seal Harbors and Bar Harbor, $7.50 and $8 would take you there.

In July of 1904, the 274-foot side-wheeler struck a ledge in the Muscle Ridge Channel off Thomaston, Maine, in the fog. News accounts of the day cheerily reported the divers’ assessment.

“After an examination lasting an hour they reported that the City of Rockland was resting on a huge boulder forward and an old sunken wreck aft. They could not find that the steamer was badly strained, nor were they able to locate the leak in the bow.

“Newton’s wharf is tonight piled high with freight and baggage from the wrecked steamer. Among the articles rescued today was a trunk containing imported lace valued at $15,000. The lace is ruined.”

City of Rockland sunk at her pier in 1921 (Leslie Jones photo, Boston Public Library)

City of Rockland sunk at her pier in 1921 (Leslie Jones photo, Boston Public Library)

“A large wrecking fleet still surrounds the stranded vessel and not the least interesting incidents at the scene today were the numerous fights among fishermen in their endeavor to secure valuable wreckage.”

The company sent its officers to search the surf for lost bags and belongings, including a grand piano. Passengers threatened to sue to invalidate the language on their tickets. It declared the shipping line only had liability for lost luggage up to $100.

Refloated

On August 1, with a gale bearing down on the Northeast, the City of Rockland floated again. Onlookers gave her a standing ovation. Then a towboat took her to back to land, precariously. There she was beached for patching and transport back to McKie for a full repair.

A new fog bell was erected on Otter Island. Channel markers, pulled from their proper location by winter ice, went back to their rightful locations.

 City of Rockland after collision with the H.P. Havens (Leslie Jones photo, Boston Public Library)

City of Rockland after collision with the H.P. Havens (Leslie Jones photo, Boston Public Library)

Again

In June of 1906, the City of Rockland again came to grief. With only the whole ocean to navigate in, the City of Rockland managed to collide with her sister ship, the City of Bangor, 20 miles off Portland. The City of Bangor suffered only minor damage. The City of Rockland, meanwhile, had railings torn from her three decks and five staterooms on her main deck smashed in.

In July of 1912, the City of Rockland managed to collide with a coal ship near Boone Island, 20 miles from York, Maine. The coal ship suffered no damage, naturally, while the Rockland partially sank. Two hundred summer tourists returning to Boston had to transfer to the coal ship, Chisolm, to finish their journey. The City of Rockland once more took a tow to shore and made ready for repairs.

In 1913, towboats once again brought the City of Rockland into Boston, this time with a gaping hole in her bow inflicted by a crash with the schooner H.P. Havens.

1921 found the City of Rockland again sunk – this time while still tied to her pier in East Boston.

The Final Curtain

The final bow for the City of Rockland came September 2, 1923. The ship this time headed from Bath, Maine, toward Bangor when the ship ran up on a reef near Popham Beach. Repeated blasts from the horn drew rescuers. Passengers leapt from the lower deck,  caught by Coast Guardsmen and deposited on the beach. There they gathered around a huge bonfire and ate food brought from the ship.

In his book Storms and Shipwrecks of New England, Edward Snow described the good-natured castaways. “[They] made the best of it. The children, while sliding down the sloping sides of the steamer into the boats, enlivened the proceedings by their songs.” They sang at the top of their voices the era’s favorite songs, ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas Today,’ or ‘Barney Google.’

In October the ship was scuttled at an aptly named location – Misery Island in Salem, Mass. There she was burned for her fittings. For a century her ribs would appear on the beach at low tide.

But for all her misfortune, no one ever died in any of the accidents, and very few suffered injuries.


This story was updated in 2021.

To Top