2017-12-01 / Community

A Window on the Past

George W. Wells – the first six-master ever built
By Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo
South Portland Historical Society


The six-masted schooner, the George W. Wells, tied up at a pier on the Portland waterfront. The large building behind is one of the grain elevators at the old Grand Trunk Railroad. (From the Etta Gregory Watts collection, South Portland Historical Society) The six-masted schooner, the George W. Wells, tied up at a pier on the Portland waterfront. The large building behind is one of the grain elevators at the old Grand Trunk Railroad. (From the Etta Gregory Watts collection, South Portland Historical Society) As we continue looking at the workhorses of Portland Harbor in the early 1900s, we look to the very first of the six-masted schooners, the George W. Wells. As with the other six masters, the Wells was built to carry coal, lumber and other heavy goods, and had a carrying capacity of 5,000 tons of coal. While many people were skeptical of the maneuverability of a six-masted vessel, the George W. Wells proved to be up to the task.

Built at the Holly M. Bean shipyard in Camden, the Wells was launched Aug. 14, 1900, with a crowd of nearly 10,000 spectators on hand to see the amazing sight. While the Wells was owned by Captain John Crowley of Taunton, Massachusetts, the vessel was named for a major investor in the vessel, George Washington Wells. After the launch, Captain John Crowley took the Wells out for its first sea trial, then turned the command over to his brother, Captain Arthur Crowley. The six-master would have several different captains over its 13-year life, but one was of special note for us: Captain Joe York. Captain York was a South Portland resident and a familiar face on several of the large schooners in Portland Harbor. I’ll share more about him in a future column.

One interesting event that happened to the George W. Wells occurred in June 1901. While off the coast of Massachusetts, the Wells collided with what was then the only other sixmaster on the ocean, the Eleanor A. Percy. Even though the weather was fine, the two huge schooners collided and both made their way into Boston Harbor. The two ships ended up back up at the Percy & Small shipyard in Bath for repairs.

Unfortunately, the George W. Wells suffered a similar fate to many of the large schooners. On Sept. 3, 1913, while on a trip from Boston to Fernandino, Florida, with a load of lumber, the Wells got caught in a gale off Diamond Shoals, Cape Hatteras, and was blown toward shore. The ship struck bottom, two masts broke, and Captain York and the other 20 people on board had to be rescued. In an interview afterward, Captain York contradicted the reports that the crew of the Hatteras Lifesaving Station had risked their lives to save them. “Risked their lives!” he said, “They never even left the beach! The lifeboat was not taken from the station and the breeches buoy was not connected with the ship. We had to send a rope in by a barrel in order to get the breeches buoy in connection.” He further stated that two of the members of the life saving crew had bought the George W. Wells at auction afterward for $800. He felt that it was (or should be) against the law for members of a life saving crew to be in the business of purchasing wrecked vessels.

Do you have any early photos or information to share on the large schooners that used to do business in Portland Harbor? We’d love to hear from you. Please contact the South Portland Historical Society by phone at 767-7299, by email at sphistory04106@gmail.com or by mail or in person at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

Author Jean Flahive to be at museum this weekend

Jean Flahive will be at the society’s

museum at Bug Light Park weekend 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3.

Flahive will be on hand to talk with visitors and sign copies of her books. Her latest children’s book, “The Old Mainer and the Sea,” was published this fall. The book is a fictionalized tale of a day at sea about a real person, a dory fisherman, Eben York, from Chebeague Island, who rowed almost daily into Portland Harbor to sell his catch. It’s a great gift idea for the holidays, so we hope you’ll come in to purchase a copy and have Jean sign it for you. Jean is also the author of the novel “Billy Boy” about a Civil War soldier who was executed at Fort Preble, as well as several other books. Copies of Jean’s books are available for sale at the museum.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of South Portland Historical Society.

Return to top