How the true story of three lives lost at sea in December 1956 became Maine's most famous short story.
By Edgar Allen Beem
On December 27, 1956, a hunting party of five set out from Ash Point in South Harpswell to go gunning for ducks between Eagle Island and West Brown Cow Island. Only two made it home alive.
Fisherman Lawrence C. Estes, Jr., known to one and all as Buster, skippered his boat the Amy E. with son Steven, 13, son Maurice, 12, nephew Harry Jewell, 16, and fellow fisherman Everett Gatchell on board. The thirty-seven-foot lobsterboat, named for Estes’ wife, towed a pair of skiffs.
Near Eagle Island, Estes dropped Gatchell and son Maurice off in one rowboat. They intended to row ashore and hunt from Eagle Island, but the rough winter seas made a landing too dangerous, so Gatchell and the boy spent a chilly day shooting from the skiff.
Buster Estes and the other two boys motored on out across Broad Sound, anchored the Amy E. near West Brown Cow, and rowed to the half-tide ledge known as Mink Rock. The seaweed-covered ledge is under four to five feet of water at high tide, but it makes an excellent perch for cormorants, seals, and duck hunters when exposed. After the fact, it became apparent that the Estes’ little skiff must somehow have drifted away, leaving him and the two boys marooned on the ledge as the freezing tide was coming in. All three perished.
No one knows what actually happened on Mink Rock that day, but the late author and Bowdoin professor Lawrence Sargent Hall built his literary career on his imaginings in his short story, “The Ledge,” one of the most famous stories in the annals of Maine writing. First published in the Hudson Review in 1959, “The Ledge” was selected as the best American short story of the year in Prize Stories 1960: The O.Henry Awards and has subsequently appeared in close to forty anthologies.
“From first to last,” wrote author Wallace Stegner in the introduction to the O.Henry Awards anthology, “ ‘The Ledge’ has an imposing dignity, obtained partly by the trick of not naming the characters, and of keeping the point of view above, brooding over the fisherman and the two boys, instead of forcing us to the sort of identification that might have made the story unbearable . . . In a brief record of human endurance and suffering, a human possibility has been defined.”
In “The Ledge,” Lawrence Hall imagines the hunters firing their shotguns into the gathering darkness, trying to signal for help. They would have been able to see lights in cottages on Cliff Island and shots were heard that evening on the island, but they were not heard as cries for help.
When it becomes apparent to him that there is no hope of rescue, Hall’s stoic fisherman lifts his young son onto his shoulders and stands there on the ledge as the frigid water slowly inundates them.
“Freezing seas swept by, flooding inexorably up and up as the earth sank away imperceptibly beneath them. The boy called out once to his cousin. There was no answer.”
Everett Gatchell and twelve-year-old Maurice Estes waited in their rowboat until after dark before realizing that something had gone wrong. Maybe the Amy E. had broken down. So Gatchell rowed all the way back to Ash Point and instructed Amy Estes to notify the Coast Guard.
The ensuing search involved three Coast Guard vessels, a Coast Guard search plane from Massachusetts, a helicopter from Brunswick Naval Air Station, and more than a score of local fishermen. The planes had to give up the search because of snow and fog, but Buster Estes’ friends and family continued to search the icy seas. The following morning, fishermen using grappling hooks fished Estes’ lifeless body from the waters near the ledge.
“We found the skiff. It was cold that day. There was ice on everyone,” recalls Ronald LeClair, one of the fishermen who recovered Estes’ body. “We found Buster. He was a big man. But we never found the kids.”
Three shot guns and the spent casings were found on Mink Rock. There were plenty of dead ducks and decoys attesting to a successful day of hunting, but the skiff had broken up in the waves and the Amy E. had snapped its anchor line and drifted eight miles toward Portland Harbor.
Buster Estes’ shrouded body was towed home in a dinghy behind the lobsterboat that found him. The next day, the Coast Guard called off the search for Steven Estes and Harry Jewell.
“They were never found, neither Harry nor Stevie. I was only nine years old at the time,” says Harold Jewell, Harry Jewell’s little brother. He had stayed behind in South Harpswell that fateful day with his aunt, Amy Estes, and his cousin, Theodore Estes.
Curiously, or perhaps not so, neither Ronald LeClair nor Harold Jewell has ever read “The Ledge.”
“Around my house it wasn’t much talked about,” says Jewell of the loss of his brother. “My mother went into a tailspin. She went to psychics. It’s just one of those great unknowns.”
Lawrence S. Hall ( 1915-1993 ) was a 1936 Bowdoin College graduate who returned to his alma mater to teach from 1946 until his retirement in 1986. In 1961, he won the William Faulkner Award for his first and only novel, Stowaway, but his literary career was largely predicated on the success of “The Ledge.” In 1956, the year of the tragedy in Harspwell, Hall was not only living on Orrs Island and teaching at Bowdoin, he was also operating what he once described as “an old Downeast Gothic boatyard.”
“This way,” he explained in 1988 to a filmmaker working on a film of his story, “though I was primarily a college professor I achieved a secondary occupational kinship with the local
fishermen, who made up the center of what was then a male-dominated society, and accepted me with wary courtesy at their regular post-suppertime gatherings at the local grocery store.”
Hall knew Buster Estes only slightly, but he knew the makings of a good story when he heard one. Within a year of the tragedy, he had written “The Ledge.”
Having written his PhD thesis at Yale about fellow Bowdoin graduate Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hall must have been aware that the opening of “The Ledge” resonated of Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” both writers imaging their protagonists leaving the warm beds of their wives who try to persuade them not to go. There is also a peculiar melodrama about Hall’s use of language (“The old fierceness was in his bones.”) that echoes Hawthorne’s.
Hall’s literary agent shopped “The Ledge” around for over a year. Not everyone loved “The Ledge.” Esquire rejected Hall’s story as “badly overwritten.” The New Yorker also turned it down, finding Hall’s distinctive style “a bit too elaborate” and observing that “the story itself seems somehow an unlikely one.” Eventually the Hudson Review agreed to pay $125 to publish it in its Winter 1958-59 issue. Even then, the magazine insisted on a few changes, including the deletion of what Hudson Review editor Frederick Morgan called “a very mysterious reference to a ‘lover,’ which makes no sense and detracts from the ending.”
“If it is meant as a metaphor, it doesn’t work; if it is meant literally, it seems absurd and pointless,” wrote Morgan of Hall’s reference to the fisherman’s wife having a lover. “In either case, it should come out.”
Hall obliged, but he subsequently charged that Hudson Review had “tampered with the story as I had written it, to what was clearly its detriment” and insisted that several other deleted passages be restored in subsequent reprints.
When Bowdoin College president James “Spike” Coles read “The Ledge” in the Hudson Review, he wrote a January 15, 1959, note to Larry Hall, which reads, “Grim, it is, but good and powerful. Not only does it meet the high standards you set for yourself, but I think it will hold up well in any company.”
Indeed, when John Updike, one of America’s finest short story writers, edited the 1999 The Best American Short Stories of the Century, he placed Lawrence Hall in the company of such greats as Saul Bellow, John Cheever, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Bernard Malamud, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and himself.
“‘The Ledge,’ by Lawrence Sargent Hall,” wrote Updike, “is timeless — a naturalistic anecdote terrible in its tidal simplicity and inexorability, fatally weighted in every detail.”
In 2009, upon the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of “The Ledge,” Bowdoin magazine asked a 1995 graduate of the college to account for the enduring interest in Hall’s short story. Anthony Doerr, himself a four-time O. Henry Award winner, wrote, “The best stories are like dreams. They convince you they are real, they fold you into their worlds, and then they hold you there.”
Doerr, who lives in Boise, Idaho, today praises “the harrowing nature of the read when you encounter the story for the first time.
“Can you still create that time bomb that ticks toward zero?” asks Doerr rhetorically. “Hall did it with the tide, the water level rising.”
When Down East reprinted “The Ledge” in its September 1960 issue, it prompted a letter to the editor from an elderly woman who complained that Hall’s fisherman gives the teenaged boys a drink of whiskey to ward off the cold.
“Any references in the story to bottles or giving the boys a drink are not true and never should have been allowed to be printed,” insisted the irate reader.
The letter writer’s failure to make a distinction between fact (the 1956 drownings) and fiction (the 1959 short story) was something Lawrence Hall faced constantly.
“I always get asked whether the story is based on a ‘true’ incident,” Hall wrote to an editor in 1988. “Just about everything is wrong with this question. Worst of all, it assumes that truth is equated with fact. . . . True fiction is controlled, self-sustaining, complete. A true incident is not.”
The ending of “The Ledge” has the fisherman’s wife looking upon his drowned body. In the original version, she “saw him exaggerated beyond remorse and belief, taller than time itself.” In the final edit, Hall changed the last phrase to “absolved of his mortality,” and added that he found these words “appropriately abstract.”
And that is the key to understanding the difference between the death of Buster Estes and “The Ledge.” The short story is a work of Hall’s imagination inspired by real events but not bound by them. He saw “The Ledge” as “an abstract of all humanity marooned in space on its little planet.”
Filmmaker Thomas Hussian wrote to Hall in the 1988 and asked how he conceived of his fisherman, Hall said, “I can best answer by saying he is what an old Warrant Bos’n of mine would have described as ‘a hard man to shave.’ ”
“On the esthetic level,” explained Hall, “I saw him as elemental and monumental, one of the last descendants of the heroes of Greek tragedy, a little larger than life-size, with hubris and a flawed virtue. To domesticate him would be too reductive. He gives, symbolically unwasted, the last full measure of fatherly devotion.”
Larry Hall, too, was a hard man to shave — a man remembered as turbulent, spirited, impatient, and salty. And it’s a good bet that there is at least as much of Lawrence S. Hall as there is of Lawrence C. Estes, Jr., in the fictional hero of “The Ledge.” For that is one of the finest feats of art — the ability of both writer and reader to project themselves into a world woven of imagination and words and to extrapolate a universal truth from very local particulars. In the case of “The Ledge,” they are very Maine particulars.
“The Ledge” lives on
The story was reprinted just about every year of his life for fees ranging from two hundred to four hundred dollars. And it has had an afterlife not only in anthologies, but also in other media, including:
In 1962, Voice of America radio broadcast a rather cornball version of “The Ledge” in which a live starfish is found inside the son’s boot frozen beneath the fisherman’s arm.
In 1971, Maine educator Nancy Pulsifer wrote a song called “Ballad of Buster” and commissioned film maker and movie critic Marty Meltz to make a short film that interpreted the 1956 tragedy and the 1959 story in scenes that never showed the actors’ faces.
In 1988, Thomas Hussian, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, purchased the film rights to “The Ledge” and worked with Hall to make a film that was never finished. Most of the aborted film was shot on Lake Superior, but Hussian did hire a local fisherman to take him out to Mink Rock to film the ledge itself. Hussian’s lasting impression of the spot where Buster Estes and the boys drown was that “It’s almost inconceivable that you couldn’t swim the distance that was required.” True, the Mink Rock ledges are only a few hundred yards from the high hump of West Brown Cow Island, but when his son asks “Could you swim it?”, Hall’s fisherman replies truthfully, “A hundred yards maybe, in this water. I wish I could.”
As recently as 2006, “The Ledge” was performed as a one-man show at the Sanford Meisner Theater in New York, earning actor Mike Houston a 2007 New York Innovative Theatre Award for outstanding solo performance.
Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer from Yarmouth who has been contributing to Down East since 1983.