By Deborah Dyer, director, Bar Harbor Historical Society
From the March, 1917, Bar Harbor Times
In the old days, before there was so much for the Navy to do, Bar Harbor was the favorite gathering-place for the ships of the Atlantic fleet. Frenchman’s Bay offered an admirable place for target practice and maneuvers, and the sight of the great white warships with their yellow-brown superstructure, was a most familiar one to local people.
The navy vessels began to come here at an early date. The officers found it a pleasant detail, as they do now, and the young maids and matrons of society made them feel most at home. With the building of the modern navy, the Dolphin the first ship, they began to visit these waters. In the early nineties came the transition from the wooden steam craft, with their short funnels and their long masts rigged for sail power, to modern steel armored ships. Famous old names there were among those which visited Bar Harbor in the early days – The Hartford, with a long record of gallant service in the Civil War, and famous as Farragut’s flagship at Mobile bay; the Kearsarge destroyer of the Confederate terror Alabama, and known for a long record of glorious service, a ship which finally found an honored resting-place on Roncador reef; The Essex, Enterprise, and many other famous names, frequently built over as school ships.
The Great White Fleet
In 1893 came one of the greatest fleets at that time had ever been assembled in American waters, the famous White Squadron, under the command of the picturesque old sea-dog, Admiral Bancroft Gerardhi.
There were nearly 20 vessels in the fleet, which numbered nearly all of those which were to become famous later at Manila. There was Dewey’s flagship, the Olympia; the cruisers Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, the gunboats Petrel, Dolphin, Dispatch and various others. There was the dynamite cruiser, Vesuvius, which never seemed to live up to expectations.
The ships spent nearly the entire summer here, with target practice in the outer harbor, and even setting up a target on Bald Porcupine. Drills were held on the Porcupines, and almost daily ashore, sometimes at How’s Park, sometimes on the big vacant lot where the high school building now stands, and concluding with a grand slam battle at the Kebo Valley Club, for which many field pieces were brought ashore.
Ships began to grow bigger, and such ships as the fast cruisers Columbia and Minneapolis were frequent comers, while the older protected cruisers began to grow obsolete at the approach of the battleship.
In the summer of 1897, just before the outbreak of the Spanish war, a notable squadron came. There were the Massachusetts and Indiana, so nearly alike in appearance that it was impossible for the layman to tell them apart; the Iowa, easily distinguished by her towering funnels; the two crack armored cruisers New York and Brooklyn, later to serve as the flagships of Admirals Sampson and Schley; and among others the second-class battleships, Maine and Texas.
In those days the battleships lay in the lower harbor, and the Maine had the anchorage farthest out and toward sea, almost on a line with Bald Porcupine. The ships spent some weeks here and on the conclusion of their visit here, left a few months later to engage in the first squadron. Shortly after that the famous round-the-world trip was made under the command of “Fighting Bob” Evans. With the acquisition of our island possessions, there came more work for the ships to do, and that gathering of battleships at Bar Harbor was the last of its kind. Since that time there have been 1 or 2 ships occasionally, but never the big fleets, as in the past.
It was on one of these visits to Frenchman’s Bay that the battleship Massachusetts ran upon an unchartered reef near Egg Rock, and stayed fast there for some time.
The old days were those of the white-painted ships, glittering white for hull, with a yellowish-brown superstructure. They were handsome, picturesque, an effect that the modern business-like war grey has never given; and they were also targets as far as the eye could distinguish them. With Spanish war, the ships were painted a battle grey, and after that date they were kept that same grim, utilitarian, fighting color.
More business-like and practical, certainly, but dispelling much of the handsome appearance.
Last summer torpedo boat destroyers were here in numbers, and the little craft skimmed in and out of the harbor in a busy manner altogether different from the motions of ponderous battleships, which floated in majestically.
Besides the US squadrons, there have been occasionally visits of foreign ships. The big English cruiser, Blake once dropped anchor here for sometime. On another occasion there was a visit for some weeks of a fleet of four English cruisers, led by the H.M.S. Indefatigable, and the English sailors were everywhere in evidence on the streets. A big French cruiser was here for some time, and the sailors were guests at a gathering arranged for them. An Italian ship was also a visitor to the harbor.
Bar Harbor has always had a hearty and unrestricted welcome for the sailors, and on only 1 occasion was there anything like trouble as a result of their visit. On this occasion a rumpus arose over an alleged overcharge of a navy man in the restaurant run by “Mike” Harnick, near the Newport Driveway. The sailor resisted, words led to fists, and a very fine free-for-all fight with several hundred sailors taking part, followed. When it was over, the interior of the place was a wreck.
With this exception, however, nothing has occurred to spoil the ever-tranquil relations between the sailors and the dwellers here. The sailors have been uniformly courteous, good spenders, quiet and well behaved, and they have been thoroughly welcome at all public places. No action has ever been taken by Bar Harbor people to keep the men in uniform out, as was the case several years ago at Portland, which gave the city a blackeye among navy men. Officers have been welcomed at the clubs, while the YMCA has looked out for the comfort of the sailors.
Bar Harbor has welcomed all kinds and all types of ships, from the old combination sail and steam craft, relics of the Civil War, monitors, cruisers, armored cruisers, gunboats, torpedo boats and destroyers and finally the powerful dreadnoughts like those which visited us last summer. Local people hope that there will be many more here in the future, and that it will not be necessary to keep the big fighting craft so busy that they can not visit us on errands of peace.
To find out more about Bar Harbor history, visit www.barharborhistorical.org.