More than just memories remain of schooners Hesper and Luther Little

Pieces saved lay forgotten years after ships were dismantled
Posted:  Tuesday, July 14, 2015 - 5:15pm
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It’s been 17 years since the old schooners, Hesper and Luther Little, once a landmark on the Wiscasset waterfront, were broken up and hauled away to become fodder for the landfill.

With that said, remnants of the famous schooners abound, including a small pile of odds and ends at the former town dump. The pieces have laid there in a heap since the ships were broken up in 1998. The pieces will likely stay put until someone figures out what to do with them.

To understand how these forgotten remains of the “most photographed ships in the world” wound up in a junk pile, readers need to turn the calendar back to the spring of 1998. That was when the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen decided it was time for the derelict ships to go.

Up until the previous winter, before its bow section collapsed into the mudflat, the Luther Little still resembled a ship, although one of its fours masts had long since fallen off. Father Time hadn’t been as kind to the Hesper, the larger of the two schooners. It had been minus its masts for decades, its deck charred by two separate Fourth of July fires. By the late 1990s, time and tide had reduced it to a pile of rotting, blackened lumber.

Several attempts were made at saving the old ships in the 1970s. None were successful.

Ben Rines Jr., chairman of the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen, recalled it wasn’t easy seeing the old schooners removed from waterfront.

“I remember watching them being broken up and thinking of the times my friends and I spent playing on-board them as kids.”

That was in the 1960s when the ships were safe and sturdy enough to climb onto their decks. A few of the braver souls even made their way below decks to explore the ships’ cabin and cargo holds.

Rines said when the schooners were broken up, the town salvaged what pieces it wanted, including among other things the masts, bow sprint, rudder and iron bollards. 

The rest (and there was plenty left over) was hauled to the landfill and piled into a small mountain that stretched nearly the length of a football field. For posterity’s sake, a picture was taken of the mound and placed on the back cover of that year’s town report. There the pile sat until the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) took notice.

“The DEP told us the pile had to go, and the board of selectmen, which I was a part of then, got the idea of offering pieces of the ships as souvenirs to anybody who wanted them,” Rines said.

The town publicized its offer and the national press soon picked up the story. As Rines explained, anyone who had ever passed through Wiscasset had likely laid eyes on the old ships. They were a favorite subject of artists and photographers. Songs and poems were even written about them. The opportunity to get a piece of the schooners was a huge success and attracted hundreds of people who showed up to pick through the remains. They were permitted to carry off whatever they wanted.

“I remember we had people who showed up from as far away as New Jersey,” Rines said. What was left behind was later run through a massive chipper, ground into bits and hauled away for good.

The pieces the town had salvaged during the ships’ demolition were inventoried and stacked beside a storage shed for safekeeping.

Bob Blagden, also a selectman at the time, recalled that there was talk about displaying some of the items at the waterfront along with other schooner memorabilia.

“The idea was to raise some money and put up a small building where these pieces of the ships could be displayed along with pictures of them and other historical information,” Blagden said.

No monies were ever raised, the project was abandoned, and the ships’ remains stayed locked behind a fence at the landfill. Four years passed when one day a man with a woodworking business expressed an interest in acquiring the masts of the Luther Little.

“He wanted to saw them down into pieces and make clocks out of them,” Blagden said. The town manager at the time gave him the masts and received one of the clocks in return. It now hangs on the wall in the hearing room of the municipal building. Blagden said a few of the unused masts, now considerably shorter, were eventually returned to the town.

“I know because I went and retrieved them for the town and took them back to the landfill.”

Pieces of oak taken from the old ships were also used to make commemorative ballpoint pens and key chains by a vendor based in Old Town.

Blagden said that after the ships were demolished he kept a length of chain from one of the ships and a few brass spikes.

“If you asked around, you could probably find pieces of those ships all over town and far beyond,” he added. “I remember a section of the stern being saved with the name “Hesper” carved into it, but I don’t know what happened to it.”

Bill Sutter, a former Wiscasset harbor master, said the town had also saved a good deal of what remained of the ships’ iron.

“I clearly remember seeing some top-fittings and turnbuckles in that pile up at the landfill but whether they’re still there I don’t know,” Sutter said. “It’s been years.”

Sutter said early on after the ships’ demolition, Maine Maritime Museum was invited to take whatever pieces they wanted. “I know they took a few pieces for their museum in Bath.”

Steve Christiansen, a town employee, said anything of any value had been salvaged or pilfered from the ships ages ago. After the ships were left abandoned by its owners in 1932, no one was around to keep an eye on them. Over the years, the brass fittings, ship’s wheels, lanterns, blocks, rigging and anything else anyone wanted disappeared.

One mystery that’s never been solved is what happened to the ships’ anchors. Some, like Sutter, say they were sold for scrap maybe during World War II. Others claim they’re still there at the waterfront buried somewhere in the mudflat.

After being left exposed to the elements for 17 years, the remains of the Hesper and Luther Little at the landfill are pretty deteriorated. Still, Christiansen isn’t giving up hope of one day seeing the ships’ iron bollards returned to the Wiscasset waterfront. Their purpose was to secure the mooring ropes or possibly the anchor.

“They’d make a nice display,” Christiansen said. “The problem is people have forgotten they’re even up there and that this stuff was part of the old ships, part of the town’s history.”