The (Mis)adventures of the S.S. City of Rockland

The remarkably bad luck of a lovely steamship that traveled the Maine coast and rivers

The S.S. City of Rockland was a large paddle-driven steamship built in 1900 that carried passengers and freight from Boston to various ports in Maine for the Eastern Steamship Lines. It, along with its sister ship, the City of Bangor, were the “queens of the fleet.” The ship was known not only for its beauty, but for its tendency to get into accidents.

During its 23 years of service, it collided with multiple ships, ran aground twice, partially sank while moored in East Boston, and was finally (mercifully) scrapped, burned and sunk off the coast of Salem, Massachusetts.

The Facts

1903 City of Rockland route

The City of Rockland was originally built for the Bangor Steamship Co in East Boston by the McKie Shipbuilding Company. At a cost of $350,000, it was built to replace the Penobscot which was built in 1882.

The City of Rockland was 274 feet long, weighed 1,700 tons, and was powered by a 1,600 horsepower steam engine that drove its 25 foot paddle wheels. It could comfortably carry 2,000 passengers and 600 tons of freight at 14 knots (16mph).

When it launched, it was quite an elegant ship. It featured a grand staircase from its saloon, had 200 staterooms and 200 berths. It was the flagship of the Eastern Steamship Company. Together with its brethren in the fleet, they were known as the “Boston Steamers” or the “Great White Flyers.”

The dining room

The Bangor Daily News announced the ship with:

“she’s handsome and she’s able – she’s a palace set afloat, and everyone is glad to see the brand new Boston boat, with her ‘lectric lights and all those things and paint without a speck, as she races up and down the coast …”

In 1901, Charles W. Morse of Bath formed the Eastern Steamship Company by merging the various steamship companies he had been buying up. The City of Rockland along with its sister ship became part of that large fleet. Read all about the “The Ice King” and how he tricked the President of the United States.


A regular stop in Belfast

The City of Rockland made regular trips between Boston and various points in Maine. For $5, you could travel from Boston to Camden or Rockland and back. For $6.50, you could go to Bangor and for $8, you could go to Bar Harbor. The Eastern Steamship Company advertised it as traveling “the picturesque route with connections to all northern Maine sporting resorts.” Having sister ships allowed the company to offer daily service between Boston and Maine. The City of Rockland traveled from Bangor to Boston on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and the City of Bangor made the same trip on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. There were no trips on Sundays.

It also travelled the tricky Kennebec River, making stops at Popham Beach, Bath, Richmond, Dresden and even as far upriver as Gardiner.

Accident #1: Saved by a Wreck

On the night of July 26, 1904, Captain Marcus Pierce was piloting the City of Rockland on a run from Boston to Penobscot Bay, carrying 400 passengers and cargo. Passengers said that the fog was so thick that you couldn’t see the other side of the ship.

Around 5am, while creeping along in the fog, the ship struck Upper Gangway Ledge off the coast of Thomaston. The impact damaged the starboard side and fractured the main steam pipe, which took out the ship’s pumps. The rising tide freed the damaged ship and she floated 2 miles Northeast until she struck Grindstone Ledge and began to sink.

Runs aground off the coast of Thomaston, 1904
NY Times July 27, 1904

As it was sinking, the ship miraculously settled directly on top of the sunken ruins of the S.S. City of Portland, probably saving it from complete ruin. The City of Portland was a 240 foot long steamer that had struck the same ledge and sank in 1884 with 130 passengers on board enroute from Portland to St. John, New Brunswick.

While many passengers chose to remain aboard the City of Rockland, about 150 women and children were brought to nearby Ash Island for safety. Passengers and crew scrambled to save what they could from the water, but four valuable horses were lost. 25 vessels came to aid the ship. Local fishermen flocked to the accident and fought over items including cucumbers, cantaloupes and mattresses. A trunk carrying $15,000 in imported lace ($470,000 in 2021 dollars) was ruined and a grand piano was lost.

The ship was raised a week later with the help of pontoons and was towed into Rockland in a “triumphal procession with the salvage fleet, local cottagers, shore whistles and steamers all making an uproar.” Temporary repairs were made in Rockland and the City of Rockland was towed back to Boston for proper repairs.

NY Times June 8, 1906

Accident #2: Sisters Collide

Around midnight on June 6, 1906, the City of Rockland was traveling North and managed to collide with its southbound sister ship, the City of Bangor, 20 miles off Portland.

The City of Bangor suffered only minor damage while the City of Rockland had railings torn from her three decks and five of her staterooms were smashed in.

Accident #3: Rockland vs Chisolm

In July of 1912, the City of Rockland collided with a coal ship called Chisolm near Boone Island, 20 miles from York, Maine. The coal ship was undamaged but the Rockland partially sank again. Two hundred summer tourists returning to Boston had to be transferred to the Chisolm to finish their trip. The City of Rockland was once again towed to shore for repairs.

Accident #4: Another Collision

The following year, the City of Rockland managed to collide with another ship, the Schooner H.P. Havens. It had to be towed to Boston for substantial repairs to its bow.

After the collision with the H.P. Havens

Accident #5: Sinks at Pier

On February 24, 1921, the City of Rockland somehow managed to partially sink while moored to the pier in East Boston.

Partially sunk while tied to pier in East Boston

Accident #6: Aground on the Kennebec

On the night of September 2, 1923, the City of Rockland was en route from Bath to Bangor with 350 passengers onboard. It had made it past the trickiest part of the river, no thanks due in part to the lighthouse network. But in a thick fog, the ship struck a reef and ran aground near Popham at the mouth of the Kennebec River.

The badly damanged City of Rockland on the rocks at the mouth of the Kennebec

In his book Storms and Shipwrecks of New England, Edward Snow described the scene: “The castaways were good natured and made the best of it. The children, while sliding down the sloping sides of the steamer into the boats, enlivened the proceedings by their songs, singing at the top of their voices, ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas Today,’ or ‘Barney Google,’ the favorites of the period.”

NY Times, Sep 3 1923

Passengers were ferried by the Coast Guard to nearby Dix Island where a huge bonfire was started and they were fed food that had been brought to the ship.

They spent the night on the barren island and the next afternoon, they were transferred to the steamship Wirurna and brought back to Bath.

The ship was very badly damaged, with huge rips in the bottom of the boat. Witnesses didn’t think the ship could be saved.

The End of the City of Rockland

The wreck was towed to Boston where she sat tied up for a year. Eventually, it was decided that the ship was not worth salvaging so she was towed to Salem. She was stripped of valuables and then towed out to Misery Island (a fitting name) where she was burned and sunk.

Her remains can still be seen at low tide.