Twentieth century Maine history is not my forte, but I increasingly stumble across some most interesting Maine stories about the World War I era. To me, it is a period of exploding technology that was not particularly carried out into the backwaters and applied with any consistency. Thus we have an interesting juxtaposition of steam opposing sail on the high seas or, odder still, confrontations between wooden 19th century sailing ships and u-boats. This Maine Story covers two such confrontations.
In the ‘Age of Sail’ Maine was a center for shipbuilding. One reason for this was our ability to build a great quantity of large, strong, durable ships. By the end of the 19th century, technology was bypassing wind-powered wooden sailing ships in favor of steel or iron steam-powered ships. Maine largely continued doing what it did best - wooden ships. Europe and other parts of the world and the US turned to the newer technologies. This worked out well if coal was readily available to power the steam engines, so Europe dominated the Atlantic shipping trade. However, this was not always the case on long voyages to more distant areas like parts of the Pacific. Local and short run coastal haulage was another place that small Maine shipping companies made their living. There was still a place for sailing ships in the interim.
In the 1890‘s Arthur Sewell & Co. of Bath, Maine flirted with steel ship technology by building five large steel hulled ships. These ships did not embrace the concepts of steam power but continued to rely on sail driven traditions. Essentially they were steel hulls topped with Downeaster style masts, sails and rigging. Launched in 1901, the William P Frye, 3,374 tons and 332 feet in length, was the last of the five.
The Frye plied its trade largely between the east and west coasts of the US and around the Horn until 1915. Then, somewhere off the coast of South America, she met her fate at the hands of the German commerce raider Prinz Eitel Friedrich and was sunk. No matter that the US was a neutral country and would not join the war against Germany until 1917!
The William P. Frye was, unfortunately, the first American merchant ship sunk by Germans during the Great War. It was not the last. When America entered the war, its shores and coastline became vulnerable to attack by German submarines. The Hattie Dunn, built at the Dunn & Elliot yards in Thomaston in 1884, had just such a confrontation in May 23, 1918.
The little Dunn, a three-master of 414 tons, was under sail only about 35 miles off the coast of New Jersey when she was set upon by the German submarine U-151. It was an unexpected shock to all aboard and to the crews of two other ships taken that same day. The crews of all three American ships were put aboard the sub and remained captives, largely underwater, for nine days! What an adventure!
On June 2, 1918, U-151 went on a rampage that became known as Black Sunday.
By the end of the day, the 23 captive Americans were set free on lifeboats, and the submarine sunk beneath the waves and escaped. The Dunn was the first American ship sunk by the enemy in American waters in 100 years.
The Dunn from U-151 (Packard, The Town that went to Sea)
This is a very abbreviated account of Maine sailing ships in World War I and leaves out many interesting parts of the story:
- How did the beginning of World War I cause a crisis in the American Merchant Marine?
- How big of a success were the steel hulled Downeasters built by the Sewell company?
- Why did Maine have such a hard time converting its shipbuilding industry over to steel and steam? Why stick with wood and sail?
- Why did the Prinz Eitel sink the Frye? Did it sink other ships? What about their crews?
- How did the Prinz Eitel end up in Newport News, Virginia?
- What is the story of the sinking of the Hattie Dunn and the other two ships in May 1918?
- What happened during the nine days the Americans spent on board the sub?
- Why was Black Sunday so black? How come the Germans released their prisoners?
- How was it possible that the u-boat did so much damage? Where was the navy?
If you are interested in the complete story of the William P. Frye and the Haddie Dunn, please read my MaineStory in
The Hidden History of Midcoast Maine
by Pat Higgins with photos by Dave Higgins.