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Filmmaker dives to sunken steamboats in Moosehead Lake

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In a quiet cove of Moosehead Lake, the sun filtered through the water in long beams stretching down to dance over the wreck of Twilight II. A steamboat measuring nearly 100 feet in length, the Twilight was covered with algae and rust. It’s wooden bow lied in the shallows near the shore, just an arm’s reach from the surface of the lake. And from there, the wreck tilted into the deep.

Scuba divers Ryan Robbins and Matt Kane swam along the ship’s railings on Aug. 12, descending slowly to the stern of the vessel, more than 40 feet below the surface. The two divers were capturing footage for a historical documentary “Sunken Steamboats of Moosehead Lake.”

This summer, the Moosehead Marine Museum received two separate $10,000 grants from the Libra Foundation and the Fisher Charitable Foundation to support production of the film, which will include underwater footage and other imagery, combined with stories told by local residents.

“Next year, we’ll be doing the bulk of the underwater production,” said Robbins, the film’s director and founder of Moosehead Lake Divers, an informal group that scuba dives to shipwrecks, dump sites and interesting geological features beneath the surface of Moosehead Lake.

More than a dozen steamboats lie on the floor of Moosehead Lake. Some have been identified — such as the Twilight II, the Kineo and the Priscilla — while other wrecks remain nameless.

“I suspect that there are more vessels that haven’t been documented that are just lost to time,” Robbins said.

Starting in 1836, at times as many as 50 steamboats cruised Moosehead Lake, transporting passengers, mail, livestock and supplies from the train station at Greenville Junction to the many resorts and sporting camps on the lake. One of the most famous of those resorts, the Mt. Kineo House, had a dining room that seated 400 people, an orchestra that played twice a day, a golf course, horse stables and a group of guides to lead guests on outdoor adventures throughout the area.

“This was an area that was valued for its pristine waters and fresh air, and people from the cities along the eastern seaboard would bring their entire families up to this area to spend the summer,” said Liz McKeil, executive director of the Moosehead Marine Museum.

Steamboats remained a major mode of transportation on the lake until the 1930s, when automobiles quickly became popular and roads were developed around the lake. No longer needed, the steamers sat idle, and over the course of decades, many were stripped of their hardware and scuttled.

“They’d burn them to the waterline and sink the hull,” McKeil said.

Now scattered on the bottom of the Moosehead Lake, these wooden ships have been explored by a handful of divers since the 1960s. One of these divers, Christopher Hugo, documented a number of the wrecks in the 1990s, and provided a binder of photographs, sketches and text about the sunken boats to the Moosehead Marine Museum. Robbins has found this resource invaluable in his research for the documentary.

On Aug. 12, Robbins held a GoPro camera out in front of him as he swam alongside the Twilight II. Here and there, Kane paused to peek under debris or inside a hatch, hunting for fish. As the two swam deeper, the sunlight faded until they had to switch on their flashlights to illuminate the collapsed upper deck of the boat and the intact hull, listing to one side.

Built in 1910, the Twilight II was one of the last steamboats to operate on Moosehead Lake. As the use of steamboats declined on the lake, both the Twilight II and its slightly larger sister ship, Katahdin II, found a new purpose as towboats, hauling rafts of logs as big as 30 acres across the lake during the log drives.

Twilight II sank at its mooring off Shipyard Point in the winter of 1943, likely due to ice busting through the boat’s wooden hull. That day, the Katahdin II became the last of the great steamships on the Moosehead Lake.

Years later, in 1975, the Katahdin II participated in the nation’s last log drive and was then gifted to the Moosehead Marine Museum and designated as a National Historic Landmark. Known by locals as “The Kate,” the steamer undergoes constant restoration so the museum can continue to operate it on the lake as a living exhibit, cruising passengers to various islands.

“When I was a kid, I remember when the Kate was sort of just getting started and they were just trying to get her going,” said Robbins, who grew up on Moosehead Lake. “I remember coming to town one day … and seeing this old dilapidated boat. They were still working on her and it smelled like varnish, and they invited me on and gave me a little tour. I was maybe 8 or 10, and I remember just being blown away by the whole experience.”

Now a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, Robbins has a background in technical theater direction and audio production, and he also has a love for adventure sports. A few years ago, he spotted an online Groupon discount for an open water diver course in a nearby town and decided to give scuba diving a try.

As it turns out, breathing air from a 35-pound steel tank while exploring underwater worlds is just the type of adventure Robbins enjoys. It only seemed natural for him to return to Moosehead Lake, his childhood stomping grounds, to discover what lies beneath the waves.

“[As I kid], I knew there were wrecks. You could see them from the surface,” Robbins said. “I was always fascinated with what was down there and what other stories might be down there.”

Scuba diving is a much safer activity if done with a companion or in groups, so Robbins called Maine scuba shops in Waterville and Portland to find diving buddies. And in 2015, he founded Moosehead Lake Divers to make networking easier for divers specifically interested in exploring Moosehead Lake. The group now has 178 members on Facebook, in it includes divers located throughout New England.

“The very first dive we did was the Kineo wreck, and we discovered the shipways [the wooden ramp a boat is built on and slides down to launch] and the Kineo, and I remember coming up [out of the water] absolutely bug-eyed,” Robbins said. “At that moment, everything kind of came full circle, and I said, we gotta share this. This is something that people need to see. There’s some history here that’s fascinating.”

“You record the condition they’re in now so that in 20 years, when they’re much worse, something’s left,” Matt Kane said.

The goal is for “Sunken Steamboats of Moosehead Lake” to be complete by summer of 2019. Time is of the essence, not only for the sunken steamers, but also for the older residents in the community who have stories to tell about that prosperous period of time in the Moosehead Lake region.

“The whole project, including the oral histories, tells a story of a different era for the Moosehead Lake region, a time of thriving economic activity,” McKeil said as she stood in the museum display room on Aug. 12. “For us, as we move into a period of time where our economy has declined and we’re looking at ways of trying to rejuvenate it, looking at this earlier time has a real impact on where we go and what we decided to do. Lessons of the past are important.”

Just outside the museum, Katahdin II waited for its next group of passengers at the landing.

McKeil paused in her speech, then smiled and added, “Then it’s just cool.”

Bangor Daily News photo/Aislinn Sarnacki
SUNKEN STEAMBOATS OF MOOSEHEAD LAKE — Scuba diver Matt Kane, left, stands on his boat with Executive Director of Moosehead Marine Museum Liz McKeil and founder of Moosehead Lake Divers Ryan Robins on Aug. 24 on Moosehead Lake. They spent the day scuba diving to steamboat wrecks in the lake to gather photos, footage and information for a documentary that Robbins is producing in partnership with the museum.

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