"A hundred years ago there were dozens of these things cruising around here," said a man who'd suddenly appeared next to me at the dock as I watched the approaching steamboat. He'd startled me out of my reverie, my gaze caught somewhere between the shimmer that dances across Moosehead Lake and the seaplanes taking off toward Mount Katahdin.
I grew up in the US state of Maine at a smaller lake not far from here, and I spent many summers taking day trips to Moosehead Lake with my family. But this was the first time I boarded the historical Steamboat Katahdin, the last of a once-numerous fleet that used to ferry hordes of well-dressed elites from nearby train depots to the area's luxury resorts for their summer holidays.
Even though the lake is 310 sq km (the state's biggest), it was hard to imagine as many as 50 vessels cruising around it. "What happened to the rest of them?" I asked.
He pointed down to the murky water. Apparently, many are sitting at the bottom.
From roughly the 1830s to the 1930s, when the steamboats were in operation, this lake and surrounding woods in northern Maine were as popular for American tourists as a visit to the Hamptons or Cape Cod today. US author Henry David Thoreau was captivated by these millions of acres of forestland. In his 1864 book, The Maine Woods, he recounted standing at the top of Mount Katahdin: "I could see… boundless forests, and lakes, and streams, gleaming in the sun."
People would take a train or stagecoach to Greenville on the south shore of the lake, and then board one of the dozens of steamboats (Credit: Denis Tangney Jr / Getty Images)
As the era's logging industry made the area more accessible, summer tourism bloomed around Moosehead Lake (which Thoreau described "like a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table"). People from major East Coast cities would swarm in for the season, reaching the remote area by taking a train or stagecoach to the village of Greenville Junction on the south shore of the lake, and then boarding one of the dozens of steamboats – also used for hauling logging equipment, mail and cattle – that would zip them to grand hotels, like the famed 500-room Mount Kineo House. One of the largest hotels in the country at the time, it boasted a bowling alley, telephone, electricity, three steam yachts and even its own baseball team.
"I don't think many people realise the extent of how much tourism the Moosehead Lake region had at the turn of the century," said Ryan Robbins, who grew up on the shores of the lake. "It was a boomtown because of its natural resources, remoteness and awe-inspiring beauty. The steamboat industry was the backbone that allowed it all to happen. At the time, the region was known country-wide and was published in sporting magazines and directories all over."
But when roads were built between major towns around the lake and logging started to dwindle, there wasn't much use for these steamboats anymore. Resorts began to close and tourism declined; the Great Depression and World War Two made things even harder.
The 500-room Mount Kineo House was one of the largest hotels in the country in the early 1900s (Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Images)
Keyth Carter, who lives in Moosehead's most populated town of Greenville (where she was a schoolteacher for 35 years) is the granddaughter of Stillman Sawyer, a boat captain and builder of the steamboat era. Stillman's wife, Bertie, kept a detailed diary of those times. On 8 April 1935, Bertie wrote: "Stillman got word he was released from the mail contracts so no more boats. I am feeling sad about it."
"Every time I read this entry, I pause and think about the worry and stress she must have felt for their future," said Carter. "Stillman's life, their family's life, had everything to do with the business of running boats on Moosehead Lake. What would they do now without the business of the mail contracts? Now that the road to Rockwood was completed, would people still need the services of the passenger boats to transport them or their supplies up the lake?"
Between the 1940s and '70s, the steamboats indeed met their end. Some vessels were salvaged for parts and one was accidentally wrecked, but many were scuttled in Moosehead Lake when owners realised they were consuming more time, space and money than they were worth.
The Steamboat Katahdin started ferrying passengers in 1915 and now sails a variety of public cruises (Credit: Ryan Robbins)
The last one left was the Steamboat Katahdin, which had started ferrying passengers in 1915 and which closed out the US logging era in the nation's last log drive in 1975, helping to transport timber down the Kennebec River off Moosehead Lake. "The Kate", as she's affectionately known, was initially destined to be scuttled too, until a group of local citizens organised to have her donated to Moosehead Marine Museum, where she was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and now offers a variety of public cruises daily from late June to mid-October.
"Listening to my aunts and uncles talk about their trips with their father on the boats was always interesting," Carter said. "In 2019, on a special family cruise aboard the Katahdin, my 98-year-old Aunt Ginny took the wheel of the ship and was telling the captain, Rocky, where the cruising channel was and what rocks to look out for."
From roughly the 1830s to the 1930s, when the steamboats were in operation, this lake was as popular for American tourists as the Hamptons today (Credit: Moosehead Marine Museum)
As a teenager, Liz McKeil spent her summers volunteering at the Moosehead Marine Museum. Today, she is the museum's executive director. Soon after taking the job in 2013, she came across a binder as she was going through office files: it contained dive maps of Moosehead Lake. McKeil was already well acquainted with the lake's history but had never seen these underwater maps, which had been drawn up by local diver Chris Hugo back in the '90s and detailed the locations of five scuttled steamboats. "They really captured my imagination – almost like a treasure map would," McKeil said.
"I came up from my first dive in Moosehead [Lake] bug-eyed and realised that others needed to see this"
Robbins, however, was already familiar with Hugo's dive documents. Having grown up on the lake, he had been curious about the wrecks since childhood. Eventually he realised that he wanted more than the occasional glimpse of submerged steamboats when the sun hit the water just right, and he got his Scuba certification so that he could explore beneath the surface.
"I came up from my first dive in Moosehead bug-eyed and realised that others needed to see this," said Robbins, who went on to found the Moosehead Lake Divers Club in 2015 and make short videos of his dives. As of today, there are nine known intact steamboats under the waters.
The Priscilla is one of several steamboats that were scuttled in Moosehead Lake (Credit: Ryan Robbins)
A mutual friend introduced McKeil to Robbins, and the two dreamed up a project based on their shared interest: a documentary about the sunken steamboats and an oral history effort to preserve stories of their glory days. With the help of a slew of locals – including former steamboat workers and residents who remember the tail end of the lake's vacation era – they recently completed Sunken Steamboats of Moosehead Lake, which they are currently submitting to film festivals.
"The steamboats are symbolic of a time when our region was prosperous and bustling with activity," said McKeil. "The local population was almost twice what it is today, and families thrived serving the various needs of the hospitality and lumber industries."
Today, there may not be any 500-room resorts in the area, but tourism is still alive. Folks these days come to enjoy the simplicity of going to "camp" (local slang for taking up residence at what others may know as a cabin, cottage or lake house). They check into one of the historical inns and perhaps book a moose-spotting tour or seaplane ride – or board the Kate for a cruise, as I did.
Hopefully, they also find the chance to talk to locals, who can share stories of the area's rich past, both above and below the water. "The Katahdin, as the last remaining steamboat, reminds us of who we are as a community," McKeil said. "She provides a sense of constancy and assurance that, with perseverance, our region can return to prosperity."
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