The Steamer J. T. Morse - Her History and Adventures

by Joseph Allen, Jr. (From "Old Time New England, The Bulletin of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities", Vol. XXVII #4, April 1937, Serial No. 88"


To leave Boston Harbor in the late afternoon of a hot summer day; to sail away from the clanging elevated on Atlantic Avenue, the rattling traffic and the city smoke; then to awaken the next morning at dawn in quiet, rock-bound Rockland Harbor, to the put-put of lobster boats, the cries of breakfasting gulls, and the low, rhythmic rumble of freight trucks; that was veritably a heavenly change from one world to another, especially for a youngster. How eagerly as children we used to run to the stern of the Camden or Belfast to get a first glimpse of "Her Majesty, the J. T. Morse." And a fine view it was, looking down on her impressively pointed forward deck. How impatient we were with the old folks, so slow in their dressing and packing for the transfer to the Morse! At last, at about five o'clock, we would find ourselves going across the passenger gangplank onto the saloon deck forward of the dear old "J. T." If the tide were low, the passage was easy, as the plank was nearly horizontal, perhaps even sloping down a trifle. But at high tide it was really sporting to climb aboard, though older persons, especially those laden with baggage, had their difficulties. In the saloon we would find Maggie welcoming us by name, and we would pile our hand baggage beside the chairs, usually amidships, although many passengers preferred the forward or after saloons, especially if they planned to remain inside most of the journey. Then off we would run to the stern to see the Boothbay and Catherine and watch a deckhand hosing the decks; forward to see the Boston boat; and finally to a vantage point over the gangway to watch the freight going aboard. Meantime our parents would find a place in the line waiting for the dining-room to open. Sometimes, when we reached the line, our parents had gone down into the dining-room, and Maggie stood guard over the red ropes stretched across the companionway, as the dining-room was full. But she would let us duck under, knowing our family held places for us below. She had great patience, for we sometimes ducked in and out several times a meal, because we just had to go on deck to watch the Bangor boat, or the Morse herself, leave — an event which often took place an hour or more late in the days of heavy freights.

But to get a complete idea of how the day's run started on the Morse, it were best to spend the night aboard at Rockland, Maine. There were ten staterooms, eight of which were available to the public. In the height of the season these rooms were well patronized. Although the majority of the Morse's passengers came up on the Boston boat, and some of these used the rooms for their babies, elderly relatives, or in extreme cases, perhaps, to finish their slumbers so rudely interrupted by the early transfer, there were many who did not like the sea trip from Boston. They came overland to Rockland and spent the night aboard. After the southbound Boston boat had gone at about 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., night watchman Davis Weed was left in sole charge. He showed passengers to their staterooms, carrying kerosene lamps for their use, as the electricity was turned off when the engineers went off duty. At about 3:30 a.m. the northbound Boston boat whistled for the landing, but there was no need to rise then to witness her departure, for she did not leave until 5:15. Arising at 4:30 or so, and going up to the hurricane deck for a good "look-see," a passenger might first observe the walking beam in motion, although the Morse was still tied up, indicating that an engineer and fireman had arrived, had gotten up steam and were tuning the engine. Passengers coming aboard from the Boston boat, found the purser or his assistant on duty at the passenger gangplank to help them aboard and examine their tickets, while the crew worked loading the freight from Boston, with the first officer in charge. At intervals the slip was raised or lowered with the tide, and a group of children gradually assembled over the freight gangway to watch the proceedings, adding zest to the occasion by bestowing nicknames on the crew, and offering occasional advice. Certainly it was interesting to note which of the crew could slide most skilfully down the slip with a full truck when the tide was more than half down; and the loading of horses, carriages and automobiles was always the high spot of the "entertainment." For the latter, the gangplank rails were detached and, as the gasoline tanks were always drained on the wharf, the crew furnished motive power while the first officer steered.

Tillson's Wharf, Rockland, Maine
Taken from S.S. Camden, July 1931.
Note the steamers J. T. Morse, at left, and Westport, at right.

By sailing time the ship's personnel was complete, and the Morse was ready to leave as soon as the freight was all loaded. A toot of the Bangor boat's whistle indicated that she was the first ready to go. During her maneuvering, the Morse's bell, abaft the pilot house, rang out her own departure signal in measured couplets. The last passenger often ran aboard through the freight gangway, when the passenger gangplank was already down on the wharf. The freight gangplank was then hauled aboard, the forecastle and spring lines cast off, and the captain, standing at the bell-pull over the gangway, signalled two bells to the engine room for slow speed astern. The walking beam responded and the paddle wheels churned the water, as the Morse backed against her stern line in order to swing the bow out far enough to clear the wharf, and head for the breakwater. Then, after one bell to the engineer for stop, and a "dang-jingle" for full speed ahead, she was on her way to North Haven.

By the time the Morse had cleared the breakwater the dining-room was usually full, and passengers were standing in line at the companionway in the main saloon aft to await their turn for breakfast. Schrod and corn bread were often featured, and confectioners' sugar for fruits and cereals was the rule. Prices were high but service was courteous, and no one minded if it were a bit slow, as there was always something to be seen on either side through the large windows. The strange "krrrnk" frequently heard during a meal, was the sound the steering chains made whenever the rudder turned. The first passengers at breakfast were usually through in time to be on deck for the approach to North Haven, of which the best view was obtained from forward of the pilot house. Brown's Head Light appeared to starboard, and the three picturesque Sugar Loaves, to port. As the Morse passed the light, its fog bell sounded a salute of three strokes. One could spy the keeper pulling the rope leading from his dwelling to the tongue of the bell. The steamer answered with two-short-and-a-long on the whistle, which the keeper acknowledged with a single "thank-you" stroke. A little farther on, a chorus of youthful voices arose to starboard. On an upper porch of a summer cottage, children in their pajamas could be seen saluting and the Morse replied handsomely. It was said that, in fair weather, these children never missed their morning salute to the Morse.

Soon after this the Morse whistled a long blast for North Haven, and made a swing to port of nearly 90° for the wharf. The captain rang one bell for slow speed. As she approached the landing, he came out of the pilot house and went to the starboard bell-pull. He signalled another bell, the walking beam stopped, and she "coasted" in to the wharf. The deckhand in the bow threw the forward heaving lines to the agent on the wharf, who pulled up the spring lines with them, and placed their eyes over the proper posts. Meantime a volunteer caught the stern heaving line, thrown by a seaman from over the paddle box on the hurricane deck. Two bells: the paddle wheels reversed slowly so that the boat would not overshoot the slip. How high the wharf looked at low tide! It was almost up to the level of the hurricane deck. "Dang": the wheel stopped. At dead low tide one could feel her nose strike bottom. This called for another bell for slow speed ahead to push her bow a little further along the bottom so that the gangway came opposite the slip on the wharf, and a bell to stop her. The mate, standing in the gangway, waved his hand to let the captain know that she was up far enough. The captain waved to the pilot, who pulled the jingler, signifying "finished with engines," and noted the time of arrival in the log book. North Haven was the only landing at which it was necessary to touch bottom at dead low tide, and there it proved necessary no more than a dozen times a season. Even so, Captain Haskell would not go all the way in at low tide. Passengers had to go direct from the saloon deck to the wharf, and trunks were hauled up by ropes. The rest of the freight had to wait for more favorable tide on the return trip in the afternoon. On one occasion under Captain Thompson, she made a port landing on the end of the wharf when a strong southeast wind caused him to miss the usual landing.

Once, when the Morse grounded on landing at such a low tide there, a passenger was overheard remarking to her companion, "After all the heavy rain we've had lately, I can't understand why the water is so low." And she came from a Penobscot Bay town, too!

The J. T. Morse Backing out from North Haven, September, 1926

It was easy to surmise from a survey of North Haven's yacht-filled anchorage how the summer colony there spent much of the time, before the last seaman slid down the slip with his empty truck, and the mate signalled the captain, who signalled the quartermaster, who rang the bell for leaving. The gangplank was hauled aboard and the forward lines were loosened, enabling the agent or his willing assistant to throw them off the posts into the water, to be hauled aboard. Two bells from the captain, still at the bell-pull over the gangway, and the Morse backed against the stern line until her stern was pointing into the channel and clear of anchored vessels. One bell to stop her, while the line was loosened, cast off, and hauled in clear of the paddle wheel. Then two bells and a jingle for full speed astern while the captain walked to the stern bell-pull, to be ready to control the boat in case some other craft got in the way, or she went too near the shore (of Vinalhaven, in this instance) before she was on her proper heading. When the pilot in the pilot house saw that she had backed far enough and was "on her heading" by the compass for going ahead, he blew a short toot on the whistle. The captain then signalled for stop and slow ahead from his position in the stern, and the pilot gave the full speed jingle from the pilot house.

The Morse Bound West in Lower Blue Hill Bay
Approaching York Narrows, July, 1930

Through the rest of this picturesque thoroughfare, one noticed how the Morse heeled outward on the sharp "S" turns past Iron Point, Coombs Point, and Goose Rock Light. Then, as she took her departure from Channel Rock bell buoy for the 22-minute run across Isle au Haut Bay to Western Mark Island Light, a passenger might go below to the freight or main deck, and take a look around. He could either go down from the saloon, abaft the purser's office, or from the forward deck by stairs under the stairway leading to the hurricane deck. If he had brought a dog on the boat with him, it would be found near the foot of the latter stairs, chained to a handy post, with a pan of water near by. Forward was space for crew's mess, a hammock or two, a hand pump and the windlass for the anchors. On either side of the stairway freight was stowed against the bulkheads. A housing, about 8 or 10 feet aft of the stairway, and directly under the wheel in the pilot house, contained the steam steering engine. Every movement of the wheel above, released steam in the proper direction to move the chains connected to the rudder. Thus the boat could literally be steered with one finger. Walking aft of the gangways, one saw how the freight was loaded on either side of the main engine enclosure. Here were the stalls, capable of caring for over forty horses at one time. (In later years the same space was used for automobiles.) Often the cargo would be largely cases of sardine tins, perhaps over a thousand cases a shipment. Thus it is evident that even on a small steamer like the Morse, the mate's was no simple job. He had to stow miscellaneous cargo in such a manner that, not only would the ship trim level, but also the different elements would be accessible at each landing in the proper order, remembering that trunks and personal baggage of the passengers were to come off first. Moreover, he had to consider the effect on the vessel's trim of the unloading of part of the freight and baggage at each landing.

In the Morse's Main Saloon, Aft, September, 1927

Going aft on the port side, in the passage between the engine enclosure and the horse stalls, a passenger found on his left the stairway up to the saloon, running athwartship, contrary to custom. Here were posted the U. S. Certificate of Inspection and the licenses of the officers. Next on the left was the pump room which housed the steam pump and the donkey or auxiliary boiler. At the next opening one caught a glimpse down into the fireroom on the lower deck, and could see the lower end of the smokestack. Next aft was the engine control room with its fascinating gauges, "duck-bills," and levers. Further aft it grew darker, but one could make out the piston-rod, and still further aft the connecting-rod driving the crank-shaft round and round. Taking care not to stumble on the ramp over the crank-shaft, and waiting until eyes got used to the dim light, one could see the crank-shaft, or axle turning under him, on either side of the ramp. Next on the left, just forward of the door to the dining-room, was a stairway down to the galley, which was under the dining-room, but ventilated through the engine enclosure. A second stairway descending on the starboard side and meeting this at the galley door amidships, permitted the waiters to leave the dining-room on the starboard side and enter on the port, thus avoiding collisions. To get a good close-up view of the wake, a passenger walked through the dining-room and out, by a door on either side, along the surrounding open deck, to the very stern, where it symmetrically boiled and foamed past only a few feet below him. This open deck was about six feet wide and held the stern lines and their bollards, and a double hand pump on the port side.

During the run across Upper Isle au Haut Bay, passengers might hear another steamer's single whistle. This the Morse would answer with one blast and pass the little Governor Bodwell, bound from Swans Island to Rockland, to port. The approach to Stonington resembled the passage into North Haven, with fir-capped granite islands and numerous ledges on both sides. An additional similarity lay in the exchange of salutes with a lighthouse to starboard, this time on Western Mark Island. But instead of summer cottages, yachts and saluting children, there were quarry derricks, coasting schooners, fishing boats, the noise of drilling, and perchance of a dynamite blast,1 in this Deer Island Thoroughfare passage, which, though not as crooked as Fox Island Thoroughfare, was more treacherous. As you recall, it was the scene of most of the Morse's major accidents. A few minutes after saluting the light, the captain whistled for the landing, and passengers watched with interest a repetition of the North Haven maneuvers, except that only a slight swing was made for the wharf, and the boat never touched bottom.

1. Granite from here has gone into such important buildings as
the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

There was a dangerous ledge known as Steamboat Rock which obstructed the logical course from the wharf at Stonington to the eastern end of Deer Island Thoroughfare. Of the channels on either side of it, the Morse normally used the northern one. When leaving Stonington, therefore, she usually backed on her port stern line only enough to swing the bow out half a point, from ENE to E x N1/2N, before coming ahead for the northern channel. But at low tide she continued to back around the corner of the wharf until the bow had swung to ESE, or eight points, before coming ahead for the course "out through," as it was designated in the log. The following table gives the list of courses from the wharf through the thoroughfare, going east, as tabulated in the pilot's log:
Mark Course Wheel Minutes
Straight aheadE x N1/2N 1
Red buoySE3/4E 2
Russ Island buoy E7/8S   1
Out through Heading ESE   -
Red buoy SE   1
Dows Ledge buoy E x S   2
Russ Island buoy E x S   1
Grog Island E1/2N ebb;
E3/8N flood
Haskell Ledge buoy E1/2N   3-1/2
White Rock buoy E1/2N   2
Sheep Rock E1/2N 3 1-1/2
Mark Island ExS3/4S 3 2
Potato Ledge E1/8S slack;
E1/4S strong flood

This list is an extract from the complete list of courses in both directions appearing in the front of the pilot's log. Opposite each mark was given the course and time to the mark from the preceding mark. An analysis of the complete list shows that there were 71 marks and 63 changes of course in the 55-mile run one way. Forty-four of the courses lasted from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. Fifteen were 5 to 10 minutes long; one was between 10 and 15 minutes long, and only three were between 20 and 25 minutes long. Moreover, as we have seen in the Deer Island Thoroughfare accidents, along much of the route the Morse had only to go a few feet off her course to hit a ledge. When one considers that in later years, when her season was shorter, she averaged about 40 foggy trips out of 200 per season (a trip being one way only), with little effect on her schedule, he realizes that only two groundings and two collisions in 28 years is a good record indeed.

It is interesting to note in the extract that two courses are shown from Russ Island buoy to Grog Island, one for ebb tide and one for flood. In the thoroughfares, and from Bass Harbor Head to Bar Harbor the tide did not flow at a sufficient angle to the Morse's course to affect her compass course from trip to trip. But when running across the bays between the thoroughfares her course was affected by the lateral flow of the tides, and so the compass course varied with each trip. Thus the course from York Narrows bell buoy to Bass Harbor Head was E3/8S with a flood tide setting to the north, E1/8S at slack tide, and E at ebb tide. There were seven such courses in a trip and the pilot's daily log consisted of a record of the tide, wind, and courses steered on these seven legs.

The captain kept a separate log book of the significant events of each trip. A typical entry started thus:

Rockland, Thursday, August 13th, 1925. Trip 111-112. Str. J. T. Morse left Rockland at 5:30. Clear and fine A.M. P.M. rainy.

Then follows 3 columns: a) time of arrival, taken when "through with engines" jingle was given to the engineer; b) name of landing; and c) time of departure, taken when departure bell or whistle was sounded. On this particular trip she arrived at Bar Harbor at 10:50 A.M., left at 1:32 P.M. and arrived at Rockland at 7:05 P.M. The longest stop at any one landing was 44 minutes at North Haven going east. At the other landings going east she averaged 10 minutes, and going west, Southwest Harbor took 19 minutes. The remarks on the weather and other interesting items, were usually written perpendicularly between the columns; for example:

P. S. Did not land at No. Haven (in P.M.). Wind was blowing hard SE and the tide running east. We stopped for passengers to come aboard but they would not come. P. S. Went as far as No. E. Harbor and tied up leaving there on time for Rockland. Wind SE. Blowing hard and awful ruff." (Sept. 10, 1924.)

Mrs. Coke fell down three stairs in the J. T. Morse dining room." (June 21, 1923.)

Leaving Manset stern line got into wheel at 9:20 A.M. Come to anchor. Got under way again at 10:40 and continued our trip." (Aug. 6, 1927.)

P. S. Could not make No. Haven landing. Eastern Yacht Club yachts blocked pasage so we could not get to the wharf. Took pasangers from motor boats. (July 8, 1929.)

Ran over Bass Hd. can and broke a bucket.2 (Aug. 1, 1929.)

2. One section of a paddle wheel.

In the back of the book is a separate record of the boat and fire drills held every Monday at Bar Harbor, and of the visits of the steamboat inspectors from Bangor three or four times a season. Here also the captain kept his record of the number of passengers carried, business at Manset, etc. Manset was not a regular stop and did not appear in the published schedules. But it was a frequent "flag-stop" upon notification to the purser, or to the agent at Southwest Harbor.

In fair weather the captain sometimes invited one or two passengers into the pilot house, where there were three or four arm chairs at the back, and a stool for the pilot at the center window forward. There was a chart table on the port side against the after wall, but the charts were rolled up and hung in ceiling racks, since they were needed only in case the Morse deviated from her normal course. The steering wheel was about in the center, with the binnacle near the right-hand rim in order that the quartermaster need not look through the spokes to see the compass. Just forward of the center of the wheel was a little pointer, beneath which was a semi-circular scale marked off in points to either side of zero, the straight ahead position. The pointer showed how the helm lay, always the opposite of how the rudder pointed and the boat would turn. When the helm was "hard over," a bell rang to notify the helmsman and officer on watch that it was as far as it would go. The figures under the column marked "wheel" in the list of courses (see above) referred to the position of the pointer on the scale. A smooth-rimmed metal wheel forward of the pointer, was connected directly with the steering gear by means of the chains which could be seen leading downward from it. If the steam steering machinery became disabled, this wheel could be geared to the steering wheel. Then the helmsman himself supplied the force required to turn the rudder and the ship could no longer be steered with one finger! There was a whistle lanyard on each side between the first and second windows from the center one; a bell-pull one window further back on each side, another to starboard, and the jingler to port of the center window. Steam pipes under the windows furnished heat, and the searchlight handle overhead, clock, binoculars, speaking tubes and spittoons completed the essential equipment of the Morse's pilot house.

From Potato Ledge at the east end of Deer Island Thoroughfare to Buckell Island can buoy, at the entrance to York Narrows, was a 15-minute run with but three changes of course. From here one could still see the Camden Hills receding astern, as the western hills of Mount Desert became prominent ahead. Often passing yachts would salute the Morse, for she was so much beloved by boatmen and dwellers along her route, there was scarcely a trip when she was not saluted several times. When she passed a lighthouse tender, however, or the seacoast mission boat, Sunbeam, the Morse was the first to offer a salute. The channel through York Narrows seemed barely wide enough for the Morse to get through. It required four considerable changes of course in as many minutes, and usually had a tide running through it to boot. To passengers it appeared to be perhaps the most difficult passage of the trip, yet, as far as is known, there is no record of the Morse having had trouble there in any weather. It is curious that this spectacular passage and the longest straight run of the trip (23 minutes across the bay to Bass Harbor Head) came next to each other. One would think that now the quartermaster had an easy job to keep his boat on her course. But wind and tide conspired to throw her off, and if she once started to turn, she tended to spin like a flat-bottomed rowboat, especially when she was "down by the head" with freight. So the quartermaster had to exercise skilfull watching and an instinctive "feel" of the boat to keep her steady, even on such a straight course.

If it were low tide as the Morse approached Bass Harbor Head, the first mark on Mount Desert Island, the captain would slow the boat, perhaps stopping her engines altogether, to let her drift over Bass Harbor bar. For she drew about three feet more when steaming full speed than when drifting. As she made for the bell buoy off Long Ledge, the mountains to port spread themselves out gradually. Then, as she turned the buoy, and headed into the Western Way, the full panorama appeared, resembling a herd of lumbering elephants. It was on this leg one foggy day that iron in the Morse's cargo threw her off her course. All at once she found herself confronted by the surf on Great Cranberry Island, and had to return to the bell buoy and try again. There was another shoal spot in the Western Way, between the two spar buoys, where the Morse occasionally slowed down in rough weather at low tide.

When the Morse blew for Southwest Harbor, an inquisitive passenger might go down to the main deck to watch the mate and the crew handle the lines at the landing. There were two or three men at each of the three lines on the starboard side, feeding them out, making them fast to their bollards, or hauling them in, as the mate ordered. A glance at the diagram of Tillson's wharf will show how these lines were used. The fourth line, at the bow, was used only at Rockland and Bar Harbor when she was left for some time with only a man or two on duty. As there were no steam winches for these lines, all the hauling was done by the men. The trick was to make a line fast at just the right length for the pulling of the boat against the line to result in the sidewise motion desired to bring the boat in to the wharf, with the gangway opposite the slip. The lines were called "forecastle," "bow-spring," "spring" and "stern" lines. When, as sometimes happened, a line snapped under the strains imposed upon it, the mate and his men had to "step lively" to get out a new one before the ship drifted out of position. Southwest Harbor was always one of the less sophisticated summer resorts, and its sardine canning factory and cold storage plant furnished much business for the Morse. In the early days she frequently made a stop of half an hour here, equal to that at Stonington. Freight for Boston was sometimes loaded in the morning, to save time on the afternoon trip when connection had to be made with the Boston boat. (In later days a large sign on the wharf greeted passengers with the news that Southwest Harbor was a "Gateway to Acadia National Park.") There were two slips at this wharf, because the Maine Central Railroad steamers made Southwest their western terminal. Since often one would be there when the Morse arrived, the second slip obviated the necessity of the railroad boat moving out to let the Morse in. Up to 1911 the railroad "ferry" boats, making the trip "around the hills" from the trains at Mount Desert Ferry to Manset, and occasionally to Bass Harbor, were the Sappho and the Norumbega. In 1911 the Moosehead was built, and the Sappho was limited to the run in Frenchman Bay. After two years more, the latter was considered outdated, and the new Rangeley replaced her, while the Norumbega was relegated to the Frenchman Bay route. The Moosehead and Rangeley each made two round trips a day to Manset during the height of their careers. Up to the war, then, these were the steamers that the Morse met in Mount Desert waters, and although she had right of way at all the wharves except Manset, because the Eastern Steamship Company owned them, she sometimes had to wait when the others got in first.

However, the Morse, did not always give in without some show of fight. When she and a Maine Central boat were bound in the same direction, for the same landing, at the same time — well, at least a semblance of a race occurred. On one occasion the Norumbega, leaving Seal Harbor, was out by Bowden's Ledge buoy when the Morse came backing out of the same harbor. Captain Winterbotham stopped the Morse by the black spar at the harbor entrance, headed for Bear Island, and cutting inside Bowden's Ledge, so the story goes, beat her rival to Northeast. But she usually had little chance with her 14 knots against the 16 or more of the Moosehead and Rangeley. In later years the Rangeley often overtook the Morse on the stretch between Otter Creek bell buoy and Seal Harbor gas buoy, and then politely waited either outside or inside the harbor while the Morse made her landing. If inside the harbor, the Rangeley would occupy her time by turning around during the few minutes it took the Morse to load a few passengers and their baggage. Occasionally in the old days, the Morse did the same thing at Seal Harbor while waiting for a ferry boat, a maneuver more difficult for her with her paddle wheels which were not independent, than for the shorter screw boats. But gradually the ferry boats disappeared, until in 1931 the Morse was alone in her glory.

The Morse Approaching Manset, Maine
After Leaving Southwest Harbor, August, 1929

When Manset was her next objective, the Morse whistled for it as soon as she let go her stern line at Southwest, since it was only two minutes away across the harbor. Manset was one of those places you could find in a thick fog on a dark night. You just followed your nose, for fish was the principal product. The Morse made a starboard landing and discharged a passenger or two on the shaking slip which was wont to spring up and down as its supporting weights were held by ropes instead of the regulation chains of the company's own docks. Also the lighter planking of the slip was athwartship instead of fore-and-aft, and rather rough, making for better footing but harder trucking. It was reminiscent of the Eastern's wharves in the days of the Mount Desert. The Morse would take on a couple of barrels of fish and a block of ice for the mate's private ice-box, and then be on her way again. She left the wharf very much as she left Southwest, swinging on her stern line. Sometimes fishing boats blocked this maneuver, and she had to swing in on the bow-spring line to get the stern out, and then back out to deep water before coming ahead. Ledges and wharves prevented her from going out as simply as she did from Rockland.

After the wise passenger had remained on deck long enough to see the charming view up Somes Sound, he might go below to the engine room to watch the engineer during the next landing. His first question to the engineer on duty was apt to be, "What are those 'duck-bills' for?" The answer, given in down-east steamboat phraseology, boiled down to this. They were "rocker arms" which controlled the admitting and exhausting of steam to and from the cylinder. The two rather long ones with relatively flat surfaces, controlled the two admission valves, one for the upstroke and one for the downstroke. (The long arms gave strong leverage to lift the valves against the steam pressure, and the flat surfaces made them rise and drop quickly.) The shorter and more rounded ones were for the relief or exhaust valves.

By this time the Morse would whistle for Northeast Harbor which served not only as a warning to the agent at the wharf, but also as a signal for the engineer. He took his five-foot starting-bar from its socket on the floor and inserted it into a socket in a bar which ran athwartship under the rocker arms near the floor, and controlled all four valve-stems in pairs. A loud "klang" on the big gong overhead, and the engineer adjusted a lever which lifted the admission valves off their eccentrics, thus cutting off the steam and slowing the boat, in response to the signal. As the exhaust valves were still connected, the drag of the wheels in the water continued the motion of the engine, but at a gradually slower rate. At the second bell, the engineer disconnected the exhaust eccentric, and if the piston was going up, as shown by the crank indicator on the port wall, he pushed his bar up until it was nearly vertical. This opened the admission valve at the top and opened the exhaust valve at the bottom, thus admitting steam to oppose the motion of the piston, and so stopping the engine. It was usual to stop the engine with the crank on the after side, about half way up. This was because the next signal was usually two bells, for reverse, and when the crank was going down on the after side, the leverage was better for a half stroke strong enough to turn over dead center against the ship's momentum, than when it was going up on the forward side. At the jingle following a "stop" bell, the engineer, after making sure the engine was not on dead center (i.e. the extreme top or bottom of its stroke) would leave the bar in the neutral position in readiness for departure. Meanwhile the firemen had opened the feed doors of the boilers, cutting the draft to decrease the intensity of the fires and amount of steam generated. As well as saving coal, this offset the reduction in the amount of steam being used, and usually succeeded in preventing the safety valve from blowing off while the boat was at the dock, allowing steam to escape through the pipe that ran up the after side of the smoke stack. For starting up, he used the bar until maneuvers were over and full speed was signalled. Then, when sufficient momentum had been established, he lowered the valves onto the eccentrics again, disconnected the bar, and let the engine run itself.

What one saw when at the Northeast Harbor wharf was not the harbor at all, but merely an approach to Somes Sound. The village center and the ideal yachting harbor lay a mile or so across the point to the eastward. The wharf was put here for convenience. For the Morse, this landing was fairly simple going in either direction, except that quite a turn to starboard was necessary going east in coming up to the wharf. It was a port landing, and on leaving the Morse just backed a little against her stern line, and then came ahead for Gilpatrick Cove spindle, passing quite close to the shore as she left the wharf. The Cove, dominated by a typical, old-time, rambling, wooden summer hotel, was always full of small yachts. A minute or two after passing alarmingly close to the spindle, which was on solid rock, one could catch a glimpse into the real harbor, half a mile away. It was on this stretch one day that the Morse was forced off her course from a unique cause. The log book for June 28, 1928, contains this entry: "This morning, shortly after leaving N.E. Harbor bound to Seal Harbor, a large Moose swam across the J. T. Morse's bow and went ashore at N.E. Harbor. The Moose staid around the village the rest of the day." The Bar Harbor Times, under the headline: "Bull Moose Nearly Rams J. T. Morse" reported further that the Moose had come from Sutton Island, and landed just below the Kimball House.

Steamer J. T. Morse in Eastern Way
Approaching Seal Harbor, September, 1928

Picturesque Bear Island with its government buoy wharf, typical lighthouse, and triangular fog bell tower, was next passed to port. Then came one of the most famous views of the mountains; that of the two Bubbles, framed by Jordan Mountain on the left and Pemetic on the right. Here in the Eastern Way, the Morse, Rangeley and Moosehead would sometimes find themselves together on a foggy morning. Then, for miles around, one could hear them giving each other their positions by short toots. The ferry boats had high fog whistles, about two octaves above middle C, that were great echo-getters, and echoes afforded a valuable aid to navigation in the fog. The Morse had just her one mellow whistle. The Moosehead's "regular" whistle was G below middle C, and the Rangeley's a whole tone lower. Therefore it was possible for those on shore to recognize each boat, and trace its course, by the different whistles.

View from Edsel Ford's, Seal Harbor, Maine
Steamer J. T. Morse may be seen over point at left
Courtesy of Eastern Illustrating Co.

When I was a boy, Seal Harbor was our family's landing, and hence the exciting climax of the trip. We could see our cottage on the hill soon after the Morse entered the Eastern Way. Then Maggie would call through the saloon, "Seal Harbor! Landin' on the lower deck forrard," and we would obediently go for our share of the family baggage, although we would much rather have been on deck to watch the landing. Seal Harbor was essentially a summer resort, with summer cottages on the hills and shores, many yachts in the anchorage, and two large wooden hotels at the head of the harbor. The wharf was on the east side of the harbor, and the starboard landing was a simple one to make. In the early days, under Captain Winterbotham and the first Captain Shute, the Morse always whistled twice for Seal Harbor, startling "top"-deck passengers gazing upon the beautiful view, just as the vessel passed Long Pond Shoal spar buoy, still eight minutes from the wharf. In time she changed to the usual single long whistle, which was sounded nearer and nearer the wharf, and even became somewhat shorter, until under Captain Thompson, a comparatively perfunctory toot was given after passing Bowden's Ledge buoy, about four minutes from the landing. The reputed reason for the two blasts in the old days, was that Mr. E. C. Bodman, a long-time summer resident at Seal Harbor, could not tell the difference between the Morse's whistle and those of the ferry boats, so, being a good friend of Captain Winterbotham, induced him to adopt the custom of blowing twice for Seal, while the others continued to blow only once. Probably the reason for blowing at such a distance from the wharf was that in the days of heavy freights, the Morse was very irregular on her eastward trips, reaching Seal Harbor any time between 9:00 and 12:00. The eight-minute leeway, therefore, gave the agent a chance to get back to the wharf from wherever he might have gone after the scheduled time of arrival had passed. Such leeway proving unnecessary after automobiles came to the Island and it took less time to get to the wharf, the warning whistle was blown nearer the landing.

Another story about Mr. Bodman is told of a conversation between him and Captain Winterbotham, perhaps the one which led to the subsequent friendship. The captain was stationed at his favorite pilot house window when Mr. Bodman stopped under him on a round of the deck, and, seeking to make affable conversation, remarked:

"I suppose you know all the channels around here."

"Nope," replied the literal-minded skipper.

"Well, I suppose you know where all the rocks are?"


Puzzled, but not discouraged, Mr. Bodman persisted, "Well, then how do you manage to navigate around here in all the fog and bad weather?" After a moment's cogitation the captain replied, "I know where they ain't."

Docking at Seal Harbor at Low Tide, August, 1924

The Morse cut Bowden's Ledge buoy, that is, passed between it and the shore, on several occasions when sailing vessels were becalmed in her regular course. This may seem a trivial point to bring out, but to those who lived along her route and watched her going by almost daily, season after season, any irregularity like this seemed very strange. She cut other buoys too; sometimes, though rarely, inadvertently in the fog, as well as by design. On one occasion, for instance, running through Deer Island Thoroughfare, Captain Thompson's hair lifted his cap when he found himself between Crotch Island black can buoy and the beacon, a space that seems hardly wide enough to hold the boat. He declared later that he expected to see a paddle-wheel come right up through the hurricane deck, but luck was with him and he got through all right. In fair weather, yacht races, such as those at Northeast Harbor, often lay on his course, but Captain Thompson was always very obliging about keeping out of their way, altering his course when not legally necessary, especially to keep clear of the starting line.

Leaving Seal Harbor, the Morse usually backed out until she was in the vicinity of Bowden's Ledge again. Then she came ahead for the gas buoy off the eastern point of the harbor, and so proceeded to Bar Harbor. But if the wind were fairly strong, she had to back into it. Thus, when the wind was strong east or southeast, she backed out towards the gas buoy, which left her heading northwest, and then described an arc to port, to put her on her easterly course for Bar Harbor. The reason for this was that the wind tended to catch her bow and blow it around unless she had good steerage way going ahead. That is why when a good northerly wind was blowing, the Morse usually turned around in the harbor. She "broke around the corner" of the wharf, swinging on her forward spring line until her stern was pointing west. Then she backed away from the wharf with the wind abeam. When she stopped and came ahead to go out, the wind helped her by blowing her bow towards the mouth of the harbor. Sometimes vessels anchored in the western part of the harbor, made it necessary for her to back and come ahead several times before she was correctly headed out.

Great Head from the Upper Deck of the Morse, Looking Forward, September 1927

For about thirty-five minutes after passing the Seal Harbor light buoy, the Morse steamed the longest exposed portion of the trip. The open ocean lay to starboard and the cliffs of the steep rocky shore to port. In heavy weather the "good sailors" amongst the passengers saw fine surf here, and in fine weather all enjoyed the cliffs of Otter Head, Newport Mountain, and Great Head, and amused themselves by trying to make out the schooner formation on Schooner Head. They marvelled at how close the steamer passed to Sol's Cliff, and to the breakwater at Bar Harbor. In thick fog the Morse went outside Cat Island (Thrumcap) and the breakwater on Bald Porcupine Island. For all its fame as a summer resort, the harbor itself was very poor as a refuge from a heavy sea, for the swell penetrated the harbor despite the breakwater. The landing at Bar Harbor was made in the usual way, on the port side, but Maggie would call, "Landin' on the saloon deck forrard," for a special passenger gangplank was put aboard here as at Rockland.

The Morse at Bar Harbor, Maine
In September, 1931

After lunch ashore, and a tour of the town, the round-trip passengers returned to their ship for the afternoon sail, many, perhaps, with an anxious eye on the characteristic signs of an easterly storm making up in the distance. After the usual rhythmic departure bell, and the appropriate engine signals, the Morse broke around the corner of the wharf on her forward spring line into the berth of the Winter Harbor ferry, Schoodic, or E. T. Somers, and then backed out into the harbor. With an offshore wind she would swing on her stern line and make a circle around the harbor towards the breakwater. Once beyond its protection, the wind, the slight motion, the little spray over the bow as certain waves struck the windward anchor, and the occasional drops of rain, were quite exhilarating to passengers up in the bow or pacing the deserted decks. At Seal Harbor the landing was the same as in the morning, except that the porters jumped ashore even ahead of the purser in their eagerness to help the westbound passengers aboard. The backing out was quite conventional, as an easterly wind was right for heading to Northeast.

Both Northeast and Southwest were starboard landings. There was usually no stop at Manset, and as the Morse steamed out the Western Way, passengers observed the wild gray and white aspect of the panorama of mountain and bay. Next the Morse went over Bass Harbor bar which was quite lively when the ebb tide was ripping against the swell and the wind. On one occasion while crossing Blue Hill Bay on a clear day with little wind, the captain noticed a yawl some distance ahead putting out a tender. The yawl then tacked across the Morse's course, and soon tacked again, so that the two boats were converging on the steamer. As the steamer neared them a fellow stood up in the rowboat, blew four blasts on a horn, and held up a couple of suitcases. The captain, not being averse to securing another passenger, stopped the Morse, and ordered a ladder lowered overside to the rowboat at the gangway. The ladder was steadied by a large boat hook while the passenger climbed aboard. Then the rowboat pulled away, and the Morse resumed her trip, answering the yawl's lusty salute of thanks in kind. The yawl had hoped to make Stonington with her passenger, but had failed owing to lack of wind.

At low tide the Morse came into the wharf at Stonington at an angle greater than 45°, and swung into place by backing around the southwest corner of the wharf against her starboard stern line. Once, during an easterly storm, there was a fishing vessel tied up on the west side of the wharf as the Morse came in to execute this maneuver, preventing her from letting her bow go in beyond the corner of the wharf, and necessitating a very long throw of the stern heaving line.

The deck hand took a try at it, however, but missed, just as the Gov. Bodwell, inbound from Rockland, and making for her landing at Goss wharf, was about to pass the Morse's stern. The Morse, unable to go either ahead or astern, could not get in position for another throw until the Bodwell had passed. Meantime the east wind had drifted her somewhat to port. With the Bodwell clear, the Morse, after backing out into the harbor, came ahead again and tried to swing up into the wind for a port landing. But she could not gain sufficient steerage way to head up into the wind, and so continued on her way westward. After she reached Mark Island, however, where there was searoom, she turned around, returned to Stonington, and made a port landing with ease. On leaving the second time, the fishing boat having been pulled out of the way, the Morse swung on her stern line far enough for the wind to catch her port bow and blow her on around until she headed for North Haven.

The Morse exchanged salutes with Mark Island Light as she went by, and then the fog was upon her. The whistle blew its regular fog signals, and now that passengers could not see their surroundings, they noticed the sounds the vessel made as she pushed steadily through the white blankness. There was the rhythmic beat of the paddle wheels and the gentle, sympathetic rattling of the windows and doors; the delicious sound of the bow wave up forward and of the frothing, bubbling wake at the stern. Walking through the saloon one heard a peculiar "ka-chung-ha, ka-chung-ha" emanating from the engine enclosure, while out on deck arose the happy cries and pattering feet of youngsters as they ran through the echoing passages, or played grand-right-and-left with the stanchions in the stern. On the hurricane deck one heard, issuing from the ventilators, the clanging of coal shovels and often interesting bits of conversation between the firemen.

It was with uncanny accuracy that the pilots picked up Channel Rock bell buoy after the clueless 22-minute run across the tide from Mark Island, and made their way through the winding channel into North Haven. The regular fog whistles were now interspersed with short toots to bring the echoes bounding back from the headlands, houses and hills. By comparing, with the original toot, the directions and time intervals of the various echoes, since they knew the landmarks that produced them, the pilots checked their position. The agent on the North Haven wharf always assisted by blowing a horn. By the time the Morse passed Brown's Head Light, Maggie could be heard calling through the saloon, "Last call for dinner. Dining-room on the lower deck aft."

When the Morse was about half way across lower Penobscot Bay, the fog lifted temporarily. The Boston boat was nowhere to be seen, but the Blue Hill boat was already whistling for the Rockland wharf. At sunset, the night watchman emerged from his room on the hurricane deck and proceeded to light and install the kerosene running lights. Soon after passing the breakwater, the Morse blew her two blasts for Rockland. The landing at Rockland was made by coming into the Boston boat's berth (see plan of Tillson's wharf), and then swinging around the southeast corner on her port stern line and backing into her own berth. Sometimes the Boston boat and the Morse would arrive at about the same time, and then the larger boat waited for the smaller one to dock, as it was quite difficult for the Morse to dock after the Boston boat was in. But usually the Morse arrived an hour or more before the Boston boat. Her crew immediately set to work unloading freight, and finished their work for the day by loading the coal ready on the wharf in large, two-wheeled, half-ton carts. These they eased down the slip, with the help of tackle at low tide, and dumped into the hundred-ton bunkers through hatches on the freight deck. As the Morse burned about forty tons a day, the amount loaded each night varied according to her needs and the tide.

Later —the Morse's night watchman leaned on the railing at the starboard gangway, watching the Boston boat as she backed away into the fog; listening as she whistled gently when on her heading; catching the misty glow of her lights as she rounded onto her course for Owl's Head. Then ruminatingly he traced the larger boat's progress by her mournful fog whistles as she sailed out into the night, past the clamor of fog bells rung by anxious watchmen on anchored barges, past the reed horn on the Breakwater and the bell at Owl's Head, until he could hear her no longer. The good old J. T. Morse had completed another day's run.