Shipwreck of the Royal Tar

This is the story of a vessel that caught fire east of Fox Island in Penobscot Bay and later drifted off and sank. The ship carried 85 passengers and a menagerie of circus animals, 32 persons and all of the animals perished. The ship left St. John, New Brunswick and was headed toward Portland, ME in the year 1886.

The loss of the St. John steamer Royal Tar, in the year 1836, was in many ways one of the most remarkable
marine disasters in the annals of the Maritime Provinces. For many years it held a leading place in the stories of strange events handed down from father to son, and even at this day the older people can recall the intense interest with which, in their younger days, they listened to the recital of incidents of the notable casualty. A few years ago the writer published a partial account of the disaster in one of the St. John
newspapers, * and since then he has gathered further facts which now enable him to present the story in a
form worthy of preservation by the students of local history.

The Royal Tar was the pioneer steamer on the route between St. John, Eastport and Portland, Maine, and the establishment of this line to connect at Portland for Boston was an enterprise of no small importance
on the part of some of the people of St. John. This steamer was built at the shipyard of William and Isaac Olive, Carleton, and launched in November, 1835. It was of 400 tons burthen, 146 feet keel, 160 feet on
deck and 24 feet beam, and was fitted and equipped in an unusually fine style for those days. The cost was
about $40,000. One half interest in the venture was owned by John Hammond, and the remaining half was
held between Daniel McLaughlin and Mackay Brothers & Co. The steamer was commanded by Captain
Thomas Reed, father of the late Thomas M. Reed. There was great rejoicing in St. John when this fine steamer was completed and ready for the route. The trial trip took place in the harbor on Monday, the 2nd of May, 1836, and was an event in which a large number of citizens took a lively interest. Between twoand three hundred guests were on board, and after the boat had steamed around the harbor, and had made the
run from Partridge Island to Reed’s Point in fifteen minutes, there was a general jollification at the expense
of the owners. A hot luncheon was served, and a contemporary account says it was accompanied by ” rivers
of sherry and oceans of champagne.” The steamer had been named the Royal Tar in compliment to the
reigning king, William IV, and among the toasts was one to ‘ ‘ The patriotic and beloved sovereign from,
whom the ‘ Royal Tar ‘ is named — The Sailor King.” On June 5 the steamer made its first trip to Eastport
and St. Andrews, and in returning made the run from Eastport to St. John in less than five hours, a record
breaking trip for that era of steam navigation. The steamer also made the run to Fredericton and back, and thereafter was put regularly on the route to Portland once a week and once a week on the river route.

The Royal Tar arrived at St. John from Portland on its regular trip on Monday, October 17, 1836, and
sailed from its berth at Peter’s wharf on Friday, October 21, having on board the crew of 21, and 70
passengers, including a number of women and children. Captain Reed was in command, and had with him
Francis Black, mate; N. Marshall, engineer; J. Kehoe, second engineer; VV. G. Brown, steward; and Margaret
Watts, stewardess. The pilot was a Mr. Atkins. Thepassenger list was larger than usual, as it had the
members of Fuller’s menagerie, or “caravan,” as it was called in those days. This show had been travelling
through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and gave an exhibition in St. John before starting on its
return to the United States. The wild animals included an elephant, two camels, and the usual variety
of captive beasts and birds which go to make up the stock of a menagerie. In addition to these was a large
wax work exhibit. There was also a huge show wagon called an omnibus, as well as wagons required
for carrying the cages, with the horses needed to drawthem. The caravan was exhibited on the ground at
the corner of Charlotte and Union Streets, * the field at that time extending along Union street as far as
the present site of Hamm’s stables and along Charlotte street to the alley north of Dr. Pidler’s house, now
owned by S. F. Matthews. The Humberfiled Academy, then a new buHding, was on the corner. Everybody
went to see the show, which was a great one for those times, and there was a large crowd at the wharf,
at the foot of Duke street, to see the animals departto hear the band play on the deck of the steamers.

When the Royal Tar left St. John it had all this large caravan aboard, and save for the greater proportion
of human beings must have appeared like a modern Noah’s ark. There was heavy weather along the coast in the latter part of October, 1836, and when the Royal Tar left Eastport on the evening of the 21st, the wind was found to be blowing so hard from the ‘westward that the steamer put into Little River for safety. The gale continued for three days, but on the afternoon of Monday, the 24th, another attempt was made to resume the voyage. Finding a heavy sea outside and the wind still from the westward, the steamer put into Machias Bay and again came to anchor, remaining until midnight, when the wind shifted to northwest and the voyage was again resumed. According to the narrative of Captain Reed, published in the papers of that time, all seems to have gone well until about 1.30 in the afternoon of the following day, Tuesday, Oct. 25, when the engineer reported that the water had been allowed to get too low in the boiler. This appears to have been a case of carelessness, due to the neglect of the second engineer. On hearing this report, the captain ordered the engine stopped and the safety valve opened, the steamer being brought to anchor about a mile and a half from Fox Islands, 1n Penobscot Bay. The fire in the furnace was extinguished, and it was supposed that all danger from the overheating was over. The force pump was set at work to supply more water to the boiler, but in about half an hour the steamer was found to be on fire under the deck over the boiler. The discovery was made by Brown, the steward. An effort was made to extinguish the flames by means of hose attached to the pump, but it proved unavailing. The fire spread rapidly and it was plain the steamer was doomed.

The scene of horror that ensued may be in part imagined. The steamer was ablaze in the middle, while the crew and passengers were madly rushing to and fro at the bow and stern. The shouts of excited men, the shrieks of helpless women and the wails of little children were mingled with the roars of terror from the imprisoned wild beasts, while the fierce crackling of the advancing flames told of the increasing peril that came with every moment. With 93 people in peril of death, the only way of escape was by two boats, capable of carrying less than a third of that number. Captain Reed, with two of the crew, lowered the small boat at the stern and got into it, in order to prepare rafts and save as many people as possible. At the same time sixteen able-bodied men lowered the large quarter boat, into which they jumped and rowed away, leaving their fellows, with the women and children, to escape as best they could. The selfish fellows nkept on rowing until they reached Isle Haut, several miles distant, while many of those they had abandoned
were dying amid the flames or being engulfed by thesea. In the meantime the Royal Tar’s cable was slipped,
the jib and mainsail were set and the steamer endeavored to make for the nearest land. Captain Reed stood by with the boat, and as the terrified passengers began to jump overboard was able to save several lives, including those of J. T. Sherwood, British consul at Portland, and James H. Fowler of St. John.

two camels were pushed overboard and started to swim to the land, but only two horses reached it. The big
elephant, after tramping and bellowing in terror, rushed to the side of the steamer and jumped overboard. In
doing this, and in its struggles in the water, it upset a raft of planks and ladders, on which a number of people had found refuge, and several were drowned. Finally, the animal started to swim to the land, but never reached there. Every animal of the caravan, except the two horses, perished either from suffocation in the flames or by drowning. Help for the perishing people was near at hand, however, for the fire was seen by the U. S. revenue cutter Veto, commanded by Howland Dyer of Castine, which reached the scene half an hour later. This was a schooner of 40 tons, and its boats were so small as to be of little use in the work of rescue. Captain Reed and his men, however, used their boat with the result of saving about 40 more persons. The last boat load was put aboard the cutter at 5.30 and landed at Isle Haut about 7 o’clock in the same evening. By the time the last survivor had been rescued, the burning steamer had drifted five or six miles. It was then a sheet of flame and was being blown rapidly out to sea. The light disappeared from view about 10 o’clock.
A few days later a schooner passed a dead elephant floating out to sea. Later, a traveller’s trunk, with
about $90 in money in it, was picked up, and on the 1 2th of November a schooner arriving at Portland reported having passed the remains of a burned steamer near Cash’s Ledge. The trunk was the only trace of
the effects ever brought to land.

John river. Of the forward passengers, those lost were four men, nine women and ten children. Several of
the women, despairing of rescue, threw their children into the sea and jumped after them. One woman swam
twice around the steamer before she sank and was drowned. Among the St. John men who were saved were
several whose names were well known in later years, including Andrew Garrison, Captain John Hammond,
John Ansley, George Eaton, James H. Fowler, and W. H. Harrison. Stinson Patten, of Fredericton, was
also among the saved. Of this number the only survivor is Mr. William H. Harrison, now in his 86th
year, who is a resident of Sackville, N. B. When the account before referred to was published in 1896, Mr.
Harrison expressed his satisfaction at the accuracy of it, and the Sackville Post gave some of his personal
recollections of this disaster. Mr. Harrison was in his 24th year at the time of the memorable calamity, and
had taken passage for Portland as the shortest way of reaching Upper Canada. While the steamer was burning he made several attempts to construct a raft, but failing in the effort he made himself fast to the stern of the vessel as far as he could get from the flames.  Others availed themselves of the same means of safety, and among them was Alexander Black, of Pugwash, N. S.  This was probably the mate, whose name
appears in the list as Francis Black. While the only  remaining boat of the Royal Tar was transferring the
imperilled passengers to the U. S. cutter, the burning  steamer was drifting rapidly out to sea. Messrs.
Harrison and Black had to cling to it nearly three  hours before they were rescued.

other property and the total loss was estimated at about $100,000.  In the work of rescue Captain Reed received great  help from W. G. Brown, the steward, and both were  greatly exhausted by their labors. They, with others of the crew, reached St. John on the following Saturday, in the schooner Ploughboy from Eastport. Here a fresh shock awaited Captain Reed. In the newspapers of that week was this notice :
Died, on Tuesday morning, after a short illness, William Grant, son of Captain Thomas Reed, in the 18th year of his age. Funeral on Saturday at o’clock, from his father’s residence, when the friends and acquaintances of the family are requested to attend. The boy had been in apparent health when the Royal Tar started on the 21st, but had died after an illness of 48 hours, on the very day the steamer was burned. He was buried a few hours after his father’s return. His name is found on a stone in the Old Burial Ground. The friends of Captain Reed in St. John soon after presented him with a purse of $621 in recognition of his work in rescuing the passengers and crew, and Steward Brown received $110 as a gift from a number of then young men of the city. Captain Reed became harbormaster of this port in 1841, and died in August, 1860. For a number of years it was the custom of the St. John men who survived the disaster to sup together on the 25th of October in each year. One of the last of these survivors, apart Irom Mr. Harrison, was Mr. George Eaton, who died on the 2oth of October, 1886, five days before the fiftieth anniversary.

corner, as an advertisement of a panorama of the burning of the Royal Tar.

The lines ran: —
The Royal Tar, she went too far,
Her boiler got too hot ;
She’ll never see St. John again,
Because she’s gone to pot.
How, in the face of such a calamity, such a rhyme
could ever have found popular acceptance is not clear
at this day, but a popular quotation it was for many
years after the event, as some who are still comparatively
young men can attest. Possibly it took with the
crowd because of the jingle, but certainly not because
it was an appropriate commemoration of one of the
saddest of tragedies.

The New Brunswick Magazine
Published by , 1898


  1. Chris vanDussen has done a lovely children’s book aabout the imagined fate of the animals had they reached the Fox Islands, I recommend it.

  2. My little girls and I make frequent trips to the library and pick random books off the shelf to read at home. We had the great fortune of checking out “The Circus Ship” by Chris CanDussen. The story in no way is accurate to the actual history of Royal Tar (thank goodness), but it is a truly delightful story that my children loved and inspried me to take glimpse into the past.

  3. There is a story of one of the bengal tigers for the wreck making it to a nearby island and living on the local deer until the next summer when it swam to another island (Cedar Island) in June in search of more food. Mr. Baker (a summer resident of Cedar Island) had gone back to the mainland on business leaving his wife and children for the week. His wife, Robin Baker, saw the bengal tiger walking up the path to their cabin in the early morning. She swung open the upper part of the dutch door on the front of their cabin and rested the rifle on the lower half of the door, took aim and dropped the tiger where it stood. The beautiful creature lay dead on the path. However, her children were safe. Upon returning, Mr. Baker had the tiger skinned and the hide tanned by a local taxidermist. You can still see the old tiger hide hanging over the railing in the cabin to this day.

  4. We liked the story Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen and thought it was cute and funny. We found all the fifteen animals that were hiding from Mr. Paine. From, Tzur and Omer (second grade).

  5. James, my 7 year old grandson, and I have been reading Chris Van Dusen’s Circus Ship every night for well over a month. James wants to read it to his classmates at school. We count the animals every night. He wants to learn about the Royal Tar but I’m not sure he is ready. He was very excited when he learned that Mr. Van Dusen was also the illustrator for the Mercy Watson books…we’ve read and enjoyed them over and over. Thank you to all of the wonderful writers and illustrators of children’s books. I’m enjoying them all through the imagination of my James.

  6. my friend from Vinalhaven has a very large tooth..thought to be,at first, a mastadons’ tooth.Later it was thought to be a tooth from the lost elephant…Her chrildren used to take it to school for show and tell,years ago.

  7. I know we’re the royal tar rest its been a secret for a while you can see the bow in calderwoods neck..when the tides are big huge my number is 207-812-8447 ask for frank

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