Trouble with Tides
Tugboat skippers in Saco learned a wet lesson back in 1892.
By Joshua F. Moore
Photograph from McArthur Public Library of Biddeford, Maine
A rising tide may raise all ships, but a pair of tugboat crews in Saco learned the hard way that a falling tide can also sink them. Rafting a set of tugs alongside the wharf on Saco Island was nothing out of the ordinary, as a full complement of the sturdy workboats was essential to keeping the mills in Biddeford and Saco stocked with both raw materials and the thousands of tons of coal needed to keep their boilers hot. The captains of Express, on the left, and Willard Clapp had carefully moored their ships for the night on November 6, 1892. On this particular occasion, Express’ captain had traded his usual spot beside the bulkhead for the outside position, his bow pointed downriver.
“Everything was all right at 3 o’clock, but at about half past 3, [R.S.] Andrews was awakened by hearing water run in. He jumped up and landed in about three feet of water,” recounted an article in the next day’s Biddeford Daily Journal. It seemed that while Express routinely ground out on the mud at the wharf without a problem, Clapp’s narrower beam caused the ship to list during the exceptionally low tide and the Saco River overtopped its rails and filled its cabins. Within minutes, both vessels were resting on the river bottom, their crews soaked but unharmed.
When Biddeford photographer Henry Goshen arrived the following day and snapped this dramatic photograph, a barge had already arrived from Portland and a diver, visible sitting just left of Express’ smokestack, had passed chains under both stricken vessels. The boys, at upper right, and the rag-tag men watching from the wharf and the schooner at far left probably found the incident an amusing diversion, but the well-dressed gents at far right are no doubt tallying how much the mishap will cost them. They can already see that it will be expensive: Clapp’s wheelhouse is stove-in, Express’ waterways and rail are broken, and the damage to the ships’ boilers is likely to be extensive due to spending the night underwater on their side.
Though the backdrop of Biddeford has changed in the 119 years since this photograph was made, the need to take the tide into consideration here and everywhere along the Maine coast has not. Yachtsmen, fishermen, and even beach-walkers hoping to take advantage of a fine autumn day all recognize, just as these tugboat skippers eventually did, that the intentions of man are no match for the relentless march of the tide.