Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Burning of the Royal Tar in 1836

My lifelong loves, that influence much of my writing, are legends, folklore, stories of strange and mysterious happenings that are told and retold generation after generation. In my current work in progress, the third story in my Halcyon Beach Chronicles, a number of New England legends are incorporated. My main protagonist, Cleo Blair, is a journalist for a New England travel magazine, who comes to Halcyon Beach on a tip from a man she met in a coffee shop. He tells her, “There are ghosts everywhere in that town.” She decides to hole up in the Snuggle Inn to write, but is soon befriended by Halcyon Beach's colorful Geezers who spin some yarns for her.

Not the least of these is the story of the Royal Tar—a sad, true tale of a steamboat that burned off the coast of Maine in 1836.

The Royal Tar was a side-paddle steamer that covered the route from St. John, New Brunswick, and Portland, Maine. From Portland it would go on to Boston and in October of 1836 it had an unusual cargo—a circus, complete with many animals including an elephant. As steamers go, it was an impressive one weighing over 400 tons, a 160 foot deck, and a 24 foot beam. It was fitted and equipped in a very fine style for that era. The Royal Tar was under the command of Captain Thomas Reed.

On October 21 the steamship left its berth in New Brunswick bound for Portland under the command of Capt. Reed. On board were a crew of 21, 70 passengers including women and children, and the cast of Fuller's Caravan, a traveling circus or menagerie that had spent the summer traveling around Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, setting up in various town and performing. It was headed back to Boston. There were large wagons on board that carried the menagerie from town to town, the horses needed to draw the wagons, plus the elephant, two camels, and a variety of smaller animals, birds, and reptiles. There was also an extensive wax works exhibit.

Shortly after the Royal Tar put to sea a strong wind came up and Capt. Reed had a rough time of it, putting into Little River, then to Machais Bay, remaining at anchor until the winds subsided. Slowly they made their way down the coast of Maine. In the middle of the day on October 25, it was discovered that someone had neglected the water in the boiler and it was dangerously low. Naturally, for a steamship, this is a very bad thing. Captain Reed ordered the boat brought to anchor near Fox Island in Penobscot Bay near the island of Vinalhaven. The furnace fire was extinguished and the crew began pumping water into the boiler but it was soon discovered that the fire had spread under the deck.
Fox Islands, Maine
I can only imagine the chaos that ensued. Because there were only two life boats on board, Capt. Reed had one lowered into the water with part of the crew intending to lash together rafts that people could cling to until help arrived. On board all was horror and the captive animals were screaming in terror. Unfortunately, the remaining crew, launched the larger life boat, climbed aboard and rowed off, abandoning the passengers—both human and animal. Capt. Reed tried to get as many passengers into his boat, or onto makeshift rafts, but it was a difficult endeavor—made worse but the frightened animals. The camels and horses were pushed overboard, but only two horses made it to shore. The elephant, screaming in terror, trampled people on deck and jumped overboard, tipping over one of the rafts, causing several more people to drown.
Vinalhaven, Maine
A U.S. Coast Guard Cutter arrived and a number of passengers were rescued. All together 36 passengers, and all the animals except 2 horses perished. The story was covered by newspapers all over the country and the strange story captured the public imagination. Many yarns were spun and some books written. But residents of the Penobscot Bay Islands tell tales of terrible storms during which they can hear the screams of people, the braying of camels, and the trumpeting of a terrified elephant carried on the wind. It is stories like that set my imagination reeling.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Very well done!! We love these type of posts... little-known "Historical" bits... Very enjoyable!!

  2. We heard of this one years ago as a youth, .. remembered about the two horses.. Tried to sign up as a "Follower" (had to sign in with Facebook, and still New at Facebook and not very sure just "How" to use it) we just post at my blog "the Crypt"... If not for the A top Z (did not get "signed up" this year) So we are still making these posts anyway...
    A great day to you and yours, dear Lady.

  3. Hi, Dr. Theda, thanks for visiting and commenting. I also love little historical stories--or anything that deals with legends and folklore. Have you ever heard of the Great Molasses Flood in Boston's North End? That's another story I need to explore sometime.


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