ACADIA NAT’L PARK—Ship Harbor may be named for a shipwreck that never happened there.
Island history books tell the story of the Grand Design, a ship bound from Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1740 that wrecked on Long Ledge. The survivors, emigrants from Ireland, came ashore in the area now known as Ship Harbor.
According to a retelling in the Bar Harbor Times on Oct. 27, 1926, “Among the passengers were two brides, Mrs. Gallaway and Mrs. Sherrer. Both young husbands died of starvation…
“The two young widows dug their husband’s graves and buried their bodies in that lonely spot. No men of the ship were left to assist.”
Eventually, according to the story, Wabanaki traveling through the area encountered the shipwreck survivors and carried word of them to English settlements down the coast in Warren and Damariscotta.
According to the Times, “Help eventually reached them and the survivors were borne to more civilized parts.”
That story is likely how Ship Harbor got its name, according to Tim Garrity, historian at the Mount Desert Historical Society. “I can only guess that it is associated with the legend of the Grand Design,” Garrity said.
However, he continued, “Whether the Grand Design happened at all, or happened there, has not been proven.”
Garrity pointed to a lack of archaeological evidence as one reason to question the story that appeared in old history books. “A major catastrophe would have left more of a mark if it were true,” he said.
Garrity also said Mount Desert Island in 1740 was a busy island, with Wabanaki and fishermen throughout the area. The idea of shipwreck survivors going unnoticed for a period of time “sounds dubious,” he said.
Rebecca Cole-Will, chief of resource management at Acadia National Park, agreed with Garrity’s assessment. She calls the story of the ill-fated Grand Design “a conflation of a bunch of different facts.” The assertion that the shipwreck happened at Ship Harbor is “the story, but that’s not the true history,” Cole-Will said.
Historically the Grand Design was not a ship, Cole-Will said, but a “vision or idea” of transporting Scots-Irish people, who were sympathetic to the British, from Ireland to the North American British colonies in the 1700s.
According to historian Robert Tirrell, who wrote a 1957 article in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, a ship called the Martha and Eliza did leave Ireland bound for Pennsylvania with Scots-Irish emigrants on board in 1740 as part of the “Grand Design.” This ship did wreck, but it was off the coast of Grand Manan Island, not Mount Desert Island. Other than that detail, the story has striking similarities to the shipwreck story from which Ship Harbor gets its name.
According to a 2006 article in Working Waterfront, the survivors of the shipwreck of Grand Manan Island were aided by Passamaquoddy tribal members who delivered a letter from the shipwreck survivors to British settlers in St. George, who then came to their rescue.
Despite this, Garrity said, many shipwrecks did actually occur around the Mount Desert Island, some of them in Ship Harbor.
According to local historian Hank Ralph, a Revolutionary War ship may have stranded in Ship Harbor. “The ship may have been either British or American, depending upon the story,” Ralph wrote in an email.
This may be the same shipwreck described by journalist LaRue Spiker in an Oct. 20, 1960, article in the Bar Harbor Times. Spiker wrote that a British privateer was chased by Downeast fishermen and ducked into a small protective harbor to hide from them. When the tide went out, the ship got stuck.
“We have been able to find no published statement as to the eventual fate of the marauding Englishmen who had marooned themselves on a hostile coast,” Spiker wrote. However, years later, around the time of the Civil War, a local woman hauled a heavy canvas bag up from the bottom of the harbor while out fishing with a friend. Spiker colorfully related, “Just as she was about to land her catch, the bag broke before her startled eyes and a shower of golden coins floated tantalizingly to the bottom of the sea.”
“That sounds like a fish story,” said Garrity of the lost gold. Though shipwrecks have occurred throughout these waters, he said, “there’s a tradition of storytelling” that sometimes makes legends of true events.