In Episode 145, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger stroll the beaches of Maine’s Vinalhaven Island in Penobscot Bay reminiscing about the circus, and exploring the history and wreck of the Royal Tar—one of New England’s worst maritime disasters. In October of 1836, 32 people perished along with a menagerie of animals from the Burgess and Dexter’s Zoological Institute in an event that still haunts the coast of Maine.
Read the episode transcript.
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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Additional Voice Talent: Michael Legge
Theme Music by: John Judd
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The wreck of the Royal Tar – October 25, 1836
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.
[CIRCUS CALLIOPE MUSIC]
RAY: Jeff, the weather is getting warmer, summer is almost here, and that’s making me think about…
JEFF: (INTERRUPTING) I bet you’re thinking about the circus!
RAY: Okay, that’s spooky. How did you know?
JEFF: I heard the music, Ray. It was a dead giveaway.
RAY: Got it. Yeah, I loved the circus as a kid… except the clowns, of course.
JEFF: Of course. I’m not sure there will be any travelling circuses in New England this summer because of the Coronavirus, and that’s a real shame.
RAY: It is. So what brings us out to the island of Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay, Maine, Jeff? The ocean is no place for a circus.
JEFF: Truer words were never spoken, Ray. We’re looking for the site of a horrible tragedy, one that not only took many human lives, but this event killed an entire circus. We’re on the hunt for the wreck of the Royal Tar.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to episode 145 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
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JEFF: Ray, did you know there’s a clinical name for the fear of clowns.
RAY: I did, actually. It’s called coulrophobia.
JEFF: You’re wicked smaht. You know, summer doesn’t just mean the circus, it also means beach weather.
RAY: Very true.
JEFF: Do you ever get freaked out staring at the ocean?
RAY: What do you mean?
JEFF: I mean the enormity of it? It’s huge! Right now it’s calm, but when you look back through history, the ocean can swallow you whole if it wants to. And that’s pretty much what happened to the Burgess and Dexter’s Zoological Institute aboard the Royal Tar.
RAY: This sounds like a pretty tragic story, Jeff.
JEFF: It is.
RAY: Let’s head back to October of 1836 and set this up.
RAY: Our story begins October 21, 1836 at Peter’s Wharf in Eastport, Maine, right on the Canadian border. The Burgess and Dexter’s Zoological Institute is a traveling circus that features an elephant, a tiger, two camels, snakes, birds, a traveling wax museum, a brass band, show wagons, and horses to pull the wagons. Their journey began just up the coast at St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. But rough seas forced the ship to make port here to give the animals and passengers a chance to stretch their legs before continuing the journey to Portland, Maine.
JEFF: The circus is sailing aboard a steamer ship called The Royal Tar. It’s 164 feet long, 400 tons, with a wooden side wheel.
RAY: It looks like the paddle wheel you see on the back of one of those Mississippi River boats, except this one is on the side of the ship.
JEFF: The Mississippi River boat is a pretty good comparison, because like those floating hotels, the Royal Tar is one of the finest ships on the ocean right now. In addition to room for all of those animals and cargo, there’s elegant cabin quarters for upscale passengers that could rival many of the fine hotels on land. The ship is also brand-new! She launched earlier this year in St. John, New Brunswick and she’s named after King William IV. “The Royal Tar” was the king’s nickname because from age 14, he served 10 years in the Royal Navy.
RAY: The Royal Tar—the ship, not the King—was built to make the journey between St. John in New Brunswick, Canada, and Portland, Maine. Back on June 5th of this year, the ship broke the speed record by sailing from Eastport, Maine to St. John in less than five hours—that’s about sixty miles away if you’re keeping score.
JEFF: We’re always keeping score, Ray.
RAY: The ship is only about six months old and her owners have named her the safest ship on the sea.
JEFF: Sure, the ship is state of the art! But, this voyage is asking more of the boat than any other in her short life so far.
RAY: Why’s that?
JEFF: Because she’s overloaded. The wagons, animals, and brass band is a lot of weight for a ship this size. Add to that 21 crew and 70 passengers, plus the supplies needed to keep the people and animals fed, and the Royal Tar is riding low in the water. To make room for some of the animal cages on deck, the crew had to remove two of the lifeboats and leave them behind in St. John.
JEFF: On Friday evening, October 21st, the ship steams out of Eastport to continue south along Maine’s coast. But the passengers are a little nervous. The weather is bad, and the seas are rough.
[LIGHT WIND AND RAIN GROWING IN INTENSITY]
RAY: Still, that’s okay, Captain Thomas Reed and his crew know what they’re doing. They’re not trying to break any speed records on this trip.
JEFF: Just a few hours into the voyage, the storm intensifies. The wind is blowing hard from the west, creating choppy seas and difficult navigation. Captain Reed orders the ship to sail into Little River near Cutler, Maine, and wait for the weather to settle down.
RAY: By the following day, the wind shows no sign of letting up. So they wait.
JEFF: And wait.
RAY: And wait. After three days of sitting idle in Little River, the weather calms just enough that Captain Reed orders the Royal Tar to resume her voyage. It’s now the afternoon of October 24th.
JEFF: Once out on the ocean, Captain Reed can see the winds are still blowing hard from the west. Conditions have hardly improved. Still, he’s determined to steam for the port of Machias Bay, just about ten miles away. A few hours later, The Royal Tar drops anchor in the protected waters of Machias Bay to continue waiting out this storm.
RAY: The good news is the ship doesn’t have to wait that long this time. By midnight, the storm shifts to the northwest, and the Royal Tar is finally making a decent pace south toward Portland.
[STORM FADES OUT]
JEFF: Finally… it looks like smooth sailing, but there is one nagging problem.
RAY: What’s that?
JEFF: There’s talk of a leak in the Royal Tar’s boiler. Nothing serious, but still, the ship’s engineer is up most of the night working on it. By morning, he’s satisfied enough to get some sleep and allow another crewman to tend to the engines. Besides, the problem doesn’t slow the ship down. By noon the following day they’ve made it 90 miles down the coast to Penobscot Bay.
RAY: It’s about 1:30 in the afternoon when the ship’s engineer runs to Captain Reed to tell him the water level has fallen too low in the boiler. Out of an abundance of caution, Captain Reed orders the engines shut down immediately, the emergency cooling valve opened on the boiler, and the anchor dropped while they tend to everything. The engine will have to completely cool before they can fill the tanks with water again and get back underway. The Royal Tar is now about one-and-a-half miles from the Fox Islands in Penobscot Bay.
JEFF: The engineer extinguishes the fires that heat the boilers, as they start the process of refilling the tanks.
RAY: What the crew doesn’t know is that there’s a big problem. Sure the engines have stopped, and the boiler has vented, but when the water fell too low, the area of the ship just above the boiler was super-heated.
JEFF: It’s 2:00 PM when the smoldering wood above the engine’s boiler bursts into flames. The smoke and fire is spotted immediately by the crew.
CREW: FIRE! FIRE!
JEFF: They run for the hoses, as the crew pumps water toward the fire. But it’s spreading too fast. They’re overcome with smoke.
RAY: And that fire? It’s right under the deck below the animal cages. It’s now clear to Captain Reed that this is a big emergency. He orders the ship’s anchor line severed. With no boilers, his ship is left to the currents. His hope is that the ship will drift and beach on the nearby Fox Islands.
JEFF: But there’s no time to wait for the ocean to gently push this ship a mile a half to shore. Reed needs to get passengers off the ship immediately.
RAY: The crew sound the alarm, and race through the ship ordering passengers and crew on deck to the lifeboats.
RAY: Other crew open the animal cages and push the horses, camels, and other animals into the ocean. The only hope for the animals is that they swim for shore. But the elephant can’t be persuaded to jump into the water, the crew has no choice but to keep working on saving what and who they can.
JEFF: The fire is still spreading. It’s now clear to the passengers that the Royal Tar is doomed. They drop the first lifeboat and load 16 passengers completely filling the small boat. Immediately they row for shore with the hope they can drop off the passengers and row back to save more passengers and crew if possible.
RAY: But a mile and a half at sea in a large row boat is slow-going. Desperate, some passengers are now leaping into the ocean to avoid the fire. Given the water temperature, Captain Reed knows they won’t last long.
JEFF: The ship fire catches the attention of a nearby cutter ship called the Veto, which reaches the scene about thirty minutes later.
RAY: Captain Reed and his crew are doing all they can to form makeshift rafts to keep as many passengers afloat as possible until more help arrives.
JEFF: Passenger Stinson Patten describes the scene.
STINSON PATTEN: As soon as the steamer was discovered to be on fire the cabin passengers rushed for the quarter boat and cut her away, which I perceived just in time to jump off the quarter into her as I stood, which made up the number of 16. We succeeded in reaching land about nine miles from the steamer. We lost all our baggage and goods. A temporary raft was made of ladders and planks, on which some of the suffering people took refuge, but it was of little avail, as most of those who trusted to such a frail machine, were precipitated into the sea and sank to rise no more. Many who had been driven overboard by the fire sustained themselves on parts of the wreck which had fallen overboard, but the violence of the sea and the cold soon terminated their earthly career. The horrors of the scene were truly appalling; the women threw their children overboard and jumped after them. The screams of these poor creatures at that time, added to the roaring of the two vexed elements, combined to produce a scene that beggars description and can only be conceived by those who have witnessed such scenes of horror. When the fire first burst through the deck such was its rapidity that the caravans immediately ignited, and so overpowering was the smoke and fire that the animals in their cages met an instantaneous death, as not a sound was heard from any one of them. The horses and camels were backed overboard, in hopes that they might reach the shore, but neither force nor any other means could induce the elephant to follow, and he remained, poor fellow, viewing the devastation, until the fire scorching him, he sprang over the side, and was seen striking out lustily for the shore, with his trunk high in the air.
RAY: By the time it’s over, 29 passengers and 3 crew perished of the 91 souls on the Royal Tar. Of all of the animals on board, only two horses managed to swim ashore. All others were lost. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: This is a tragic story, Ray.
RAY: It is. The Royal Tar’s flames were seen until about ten o’clock that evening before she finally slipped under the water for good. In the aftermath, the remains of the elephant washed up on nearby Brimstone Island where it was scavenged as much by people looking for souvenirs as other animals, and other zoo animals washed up on other islands. The circus was a total loss.
JEFF: This was a huge maritime tragedy that people talked about for years. You would have thought with the overloaded boat and dangerous storm that a rogue wave or violent gale would have done her in, but no, in the end it was human error. Someone wasn’t paying close enough attention to the water level in the boiler, and that set a deadly chain of events into motion.
RAY: A chain of events we’re still talking about today. Newspaper accounts claim the survivors believed Captain Reed was a hero who kept his cool and helped save more lives than were lost that day. But still, the lack of enough lifeboats seems unthinkable to me by today’s standards. It’s seems horribly irresponsible.
JEFF: I know! Not only were there not enough, they unloaded two lifeboats to make room for animal cages. A mistake that certainly cost lives that October day in 1836.
RAY: Standing here on the shore of Vinalhaven Island, I can only imagine what that burning ship must have looked like right out there on the water. Those on shore could only watch as this nightmare played itself out on the Royal Tar.
JEFF: Maybe that’s why we keep telling this story? It’s a cautionary tale to mind our duties, and to make sure there’s enough lifeboats for any journey. Strange how that story can ring just as true for some of the problems we have on land as well.
RAY: Man, it’s just a second week back post quarantine and it’s funny how we look at everything through the lens of Covid-19 now.
JEFF: Who knew, right?
RAY: If you want to help us out, please do post a review of our show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us. And be sure to subscribe, because it’s free, and we don’t want you to miss a thing.
JEFF: We’d like to thank Michael Legge for lending his voice acting talents this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Voicemail: Hey, this is Valerie from somewhere in the South love listening to the stories about New England and all you people up there with your funny accents. And remember the bizarre is closer than you think.