October 25, 1836: The Royal Tar passenger steamship, which sails to Portland from Saint John, New Brunswick, burns and sinks in Penobscot Bay while carrying a wide variety of circus animals as well as 72 passengers and 21 crew members.
Thirty-two people and most of the animals die in the sinking. Two of the ship’s four lifeboats have been removed to make room for the animals.
The 164 foot long Royal Tar was built in Saint John and completed earlier this year. It left Saint John on October 21st with an elephant named Mogul, a Bengal tiger, two lions, two camels, six Arab horses, some monkeys, and a host of other exotic animals. The menagerie consists of a traveling circus named Dexter’s Locomotive Museum and Burger’s collection of snakes and birds.
There is also a brass band on the ship; a large collection of wax figures; a 2-ton show car, called an omnibus; several other cars; and other horses.
The circus had traveled through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The windy weather caused the Royal Tar to dock twice more in Eastport. It left Machias on October 25, heading south-west.
When the ship is near the island of Vinalhaven, a fire breaks out below deck. Thick smoke prevents access to the pumps, which are also below deck. The first engineer and 15 other men jump into one of the two remaining boats, a longboat, and row away, eventually reaching the Isle au Haut 7 miles away. The captain and two other men lower the other boat – a fun boat, a small ship designed to carry passengers back and forth between a larger ship and land – into the water to prevent it from being burned. At this point, the center of the royal tar is on fire.
A passenger ties a stocking loaded with silver dollars around his waist and lets himself sink into the water. He immediately sinks out of sight.
The pilot of the nearby US helmsman Veto approaches in a rowboat, then panics at the sight of the chaos on the Royal Tar and rows back. The veto draws closer and saves 40 people, which costs his captain serious wounds and burns. The veto itself also catches fire twice.
Eventually the elephant Mogul, who was standing on deck during the fire, fell through the ship’s rails, fell into the water and took some unfortunate passengers with him. Of all deaths, 31 people drown and one is burned.
The name of the Royal Tar is a nickname given by the British King William IV (1765-1837). The nickname is a reference to Williams’ extensive service in the British Navy.
October 25, 1866: William George Patten, a prolific nationally known dime novelist who uses a robust collection of very diverse aliases, was born in the town of Corinna, Penobscot County.
Later known as Gilbert Patten, he writes most of a 17-year-old weekly series of stories about the fictional character Frank Merriwell, a Yale University star athlete who solves crimes in his spare time. Patten uses the pen name Burt L. Standish when writing the Merriwell books, but he also writes other novels under the names Herbert Bellwood, William West Wilder, Harry Dangerfield, Gordon MacLaren and Julian St. Dare.
Patten sells his first two stories to Banner Weekly Publication for $ 6 in the early 1880s while a student at Corinna Union Academy. He works as a newspaper reporter for the Dexter Eastern State and the Pittsfield Advertiser, and then starts his own short-lived newspaper, the Corinna Owl. All this time he continues to write and sell fiction to magazines. The first Merriwell story, published by Street & Smith, appeared in 1896. He also wrote several other book series for boys.
Patten lives in Camden for most of his life, but moves to California in 1941. He died in Vista, a suburb of San Diego, in 1945.
The Maine State Library in Augusta maintains a group of letters and other correspondence from or about Patten in its specialty collections.
Joseph Owen is a writer, retired newspaper editor, and a board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. Owen’s book, This Day in Maine, is available to order from islandportpress.com. To get a signed copy, use the promo code signed by Joe at checkout. Joe can be contacted at: [email protected]
On that date in Maine history: October 24th