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Questions answered about the first steamboat on Moosehead Lake

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GREENVILLE — A recent book review in the Piscataquis Observer concerning the first steamboat on Moosehead Lake and a man named Moses Burnham who settled in The Forks in 1836 piqued my interest. There had been some controversy over the years regarding this steamboat, aptly named The Moosehead, and whether she was truly the first to ply the waters of the lake.

According to a research paper written by Edmund D. Muzzy, Jr. in 1962, “it seems (that name) at one time or another was the name of practically half the boats on the lake.” During those early days, the shores of Moosehead Lake were covered with vast forests of magnificent trees, just waiting to be harvested by newcomers to this previously wild and untapped area of Maine. Steamboats were the ideal way to transport logs, which were gathered into huge rafts or booms – some being many acres in size. The steamboats slowly pulled the logs down lake to the east and west outlets of the Kennebec River.

Moosehead steamboats

Photo courtesy of the Moosehead Historical Society
THREE SHIPS — From left, The Katahdin I, The Moosehead II and the Twilight II (all part of the fleet of the Coburn Steamboat Company) tied up at West Cove on Moosehead Lake circa 1895.

Moses Burnham, as noted in the review, was involved in the Moosehead Lake Steam Navigation Company, a forward-thinking organization responsible for that first steamship. When he hastily left the area under suspicion of murder, he sold his share of that company to the Coburn brothers and Joseph Clark, all of whom were major landholders in the upper Kennebec region of the state.

According to Muzzy, a Mr. Hogan from the Moosehead Lake Steam Navigation Company and Captain Fred Bigney were involved in the construction of that first steamship, The Moosehead in 1836. Later, in 1844 her hull, according to notes made by Bigney, was incorporated into the hull of the Amphitrite and this beamy vessel was used as a towboat for the many rafts of logs being harvested around the lake. For four years, she was the only steamboat on the lake.

In 1848, to address the need for a passenger boat, Capt. Bigney oversaw and paid for the construction of the steamer Moosehead. Henry David Thoreau wrote about these two boats on his trip to Moosehead Lake in 1853. He also recalled seeing two or three large sailboats – a two-masted schooner and a couple of smaller one-masted vessels.

Then there’s a bit of an historical snag. According to author Walter MacDougall in a letter to the Moosehead Historical Society, the Lumberman might have been the first steamboat on the lake. He cites Louis Hilton’s article “Navigation on Moosehead Lake” which says the Lumberman was the first steamboat, and was renamed The Moosehead. MacDougall also concurs that the Amphitrite ended up with The Moosehead’s hull, as stated in Bigney’s notes.

MacDougall wrote: “Unless some new and definitive source can be found, it is impossible to settle the question of the name of the first steamboat. The problem is complicated by the fact that both steamboats and steam scows were built and named. Moreover, names were often used over again with no attention to numbering as, indeed, at the time there was no need to do.” Later, however, he concludes “after much study” that indeed the first boat was The Moosehead after all.

Photo courtesy of the Moosehead Historical Society
MOOSEHEAD II — The Moosehead II docked at East Cove circa 1900.

I’d like to think that was the case. MacDougall is a scrupulous historian, with an eye to great detail and the ability to ferret out tidbits of historical lore. There was even an 1836 newspaper article in the Whig and Courier (out of Bangor), which reported, “The Steamer Moose Head, of 130 tons, burthen, with a cabin on deck to accommodate 30 or 40 gentlemen, will devote two months (of water travel)… commencing on the 4th of July. The boat will run on the Lake as a summer retreat.”

Not many years later this beautiful region of Maine became more and more populated, and there was a need for more boats. By 1875, four were added to the fleet of steamships plying the lake. According to notes from Capt. Bigney, the Fairy of the Lake was built in 1854, the Lumberman was added six years later. Then came the Governor Coburn in 1872 and the William Parker in 1875. All these vessels were side-wheelers, with giant rotating paddle wheels similar to those you can see on the Mississippi River boats. Only in the case of the Moosehead steamboats, the paddle was mounted on the side.

According to Muzzy, “The ‘Fairy,” as she was called, “was 140 feet long and 25 feet wide, with a low pressure engine of 200 horsepower. She could attain speeds of 8 to10 miles per hour… She had two decks, gangways fore and aft on the main deck, and could carry 300 people. There was also a nice lounge on the main deck. The Governor Coburn was a palatial 2-decker that could go from Greenville to Kineo in a mere two hours.” The Mist was added in 1870 and the Twilight two years later. Interestingly, the Twilight was built in Belfast and hauled overland to Moosehead Lake in 1889. What a sight that must have been!

Before the turn of the century (1900), more than 16 steamboats were busy traveling up and down the lake, including another version of the Moosehead and the original Katahdin. Charles Harrington of Bath built the latter and even then that craft was given the title Queen of the Fleet by the Moosehead Gazette. It’s nice to know that the Katahdin II still sails the waters of Moosehead Lake during the summertime. Even though the original did not survive a devastating fire, they were able to salvage some of the iron hull and she was reborn at Bath Iron Works in 1914. Her cruises give passengers a hint of the opulence some of those elegant steamboats must have had – she’s a floating museum that celebrates well those early days of lake transportation and all the boats that preceded her, including The Moosehead.

Thanks to the Moosehead Historical Society for information regarding the early steamboats on Moosehead Lake. The Carriage Barn at the Eveleth-Crafts-Sheridan House is open all winter for research. Call 695-2909 for information. Visit them online at www.mooseheadhistory.org. You can learn more about the Katahdin and her summer cruise schedule by visiting the Moosehead Marine Museum’s website: www.katahdincruises.com.

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