The Wreck of the Annie C Maguire at Portland Head Lighthouse on a Stormy Christmas Eve, in 1886, in Southern Maine
One of the most memorable events that occurred at Maine’s Portland Head Lighthouse involved the Annie C Maguire, which shipwrecked next to the beacon on Christmas Eve, in 1886. Joshua Strout was lighthouse keeper at the time.
The Annie C Maguire was a converted bark vessel that was originally built as an extremely fast clipper ship, named the Golden State, narrowly breaking sailing distance records on some of its voyages. As a clipper ship, it had a 30-year career involved in trade with China. Afterwards, it was converted as a three-masted bark sailing vessel for carrying heavy cargo. Its owners however, had run into financial difficulties and owed money to their creditors. A few days prior to Christmas Eve, in 1886, a sheriff’s officer had received word that the Annie C Maguire may be passing by, or anchoring near Portland Harbor. He stopped by the Strout’s house next to the lighthouse and asked Joshua to keep an eye out for the vessel and to notify him if the vessel was sighted along the Casco Bay.
On Christmas Eve, in 1886, members of the Strout family were gathered together for the Christmas holiday at the keeper’s house. Joshua’s wife Mary had killed eight chickens a few days prior for baking her famous chicken pies. Joshua went up to the tower to remain on look out while everyone was settling in for the night, ready to enjoy Christmas dinner the next day. As the evening wore on, the winds were blowing, but not gusting, and a mixture of rain and snow was falling over the area from a heavy storm that was raging off shore.
That same night on Christmas Eve, around 11:00 p.m., the Annie C. Maguire was headed for Portland Harbor on route to Quebec coming from Buenos Aires, Argentina. On board were two mates, thirteen crewmen, and Captain Thomas O’Neil’s family, including himself, his wife, and teenage son, Thomas Junior. The captain had made the decision to wait out the impending storm in Portland Harbor. The waves were starting to get rough as the Annie C Maguire started up along the coast. The temperature was fairly warm for that time of year with rain falling along the shore, mixing in with occasional snow squalls. All of a sudden, around 11:30 p.m., the vessel ran aground on the rocks nearly 100 feet from Portland Head Lighthouse. Apparently Captain O’Neil could not see the lighthouse in either the heavy rains or possible snow squall and misjudged his location. To keep the vessel lodged on the rocks, he quickly had the crew take down the sails and lower the anchors. He realized they had landed right next to the lighthouse and knew they would be rescued shortly.
Joshua saw the wreck from the lighthouse tower and couldn’t believe his eyes. He ran into the keeper’s house and burst through the door yelling, “All hands turn out! There’s a ship ashore in the dooryard!” The family had felt the ground shake and heard the noise from the impact of the vessel slamming into the nearby rocks. As his son Joseph quickly put his clothes back on, he ran out the door and was shocked to find the rather large vessel on the rocks listing to one side nearly 100 feet from the lighthouse. Keeper Strout’s wife Mary, grabbed a blanket, cut it into strips, and soaked them in kerosene. She lit them so they could be used as torches to light the area for rescuing the crew. Joshua and his son Joseph rigged an ordinary ladder as a gangplank between the waves and rocky ledges that separated them from the wreck. One by one, Joshua and Joseph helped each survivor over the makeshift plank to the warm safety of the keeper’s house. They rescued all eighteen people safely while the ship lie wedged on the rocks.
When they reached the keeper’s house, the survivors, freezing from the icy waters, had all their drenched clothing cut off and removed and were given warm blankets and clothes. Mary soon had hot coffee and food for the survivors, and helped in rubbing their hands and feet with warm kerosene and glycerin. They found that the crew had been on food rations of salt beef and macaroni for weeks, mixed in with limejuice to keep them from getting scurvy, and were quite famished. In fact, after they were provided a Christmas day dinner the next day, consisting of Mary’s famous chicken pies, they loafed around for three more days consuming any food that was left. The Strout family, although only able to manage a plateful apiece of the delicious delicacies, felt it was their duty to oblige their unexpected guests. Keeper Joshua Strout did try to convince the crew that they were not at a lifesaving station, where there was plenty of food for large groups, but at a lighthouse station, were food was limited. This seemed to fall on deaf ears as the survivors continued to stay on and fill their bellies with any food they could find. Captain O’Neil and his family were very gracious to the Strout family and very appreciative of their efforts, although the Captain had problems trying to manage the angry crew. Strout still felt obliged to help his guests, which is a valuable testament to the kind character of this lighthouse keeper.
The following morning on Christmas day, the deputy sheriff, notified of the wreck, came to claim the ship and put Joshua Strout in charge of salvaging anything from the wreck for the creditors. When two cases of scotch whiskey were brought in the house, the selfish crewmembers drank the contents at once, got very drunk and proceeded to beat up their ship’s cook for their meager rations they were served during the latter part of the trip. The scuffle was broken up before anyone was hurt badly. Joshua Strout’s son, Joseph, kept a spear like device from the ship as a souvenir, which was probably used to fend off the local natives at a faraway port that may have been trying to board the ship.
Because the ship was so beaten up, the creditors received only $177 at auction. In trying to serve the angry creditors, the sheriff searched the ship’s sea chest for special papers and cash, but came up with nothing.
Just over a week later, on New Year’s Day of 1887, another storm came along and destroyed what was left of the Annie C. Maguire. The crew of the ill fated vessel had been discharged a few days earlier and sent home by the British Vice Counsel. Years later it was discovered that the captain, with the help of his devious wife, had ransacked the chest and carried the cash, papers, and other items of value in her hatbox during the rescue.
When Joshua Strout retired as Maine’s oldest lighthouse keeper in 1904 at the age of 79, his son Joseph, already an assistant keeper, was appointed as the next generation keeper at Portland Head Lighthouse. He had a joyful reputation like his father and was affectionately called “Cap’n Joe” by the locals and mariners alike. The family also had a parrot named Billy for many years. The parrot learned that when inclement weather was coming it, would shout “Joe, let’s start the horn. It’s foggy!”
Joshua Strout passed away a few years later at the age of 81. The Strout family combination of father and son were keepers of Portland Head Lighthouse for a total of 59 years from 1869-1928. When the assistant keeper position was traditionally promoted to John Strout, Joseph’s son, on his 21st birthday in 1912, he became the third generation Strout to serve in a government position at Portland Head Light.
It was on his birthday that John Strout decided to paint an inscription to commemorate the location of where years ago the Annie C Maguire had wrecked on the rocks close to the lighthouse. He had to chip a large portion of the rock away in order to create a flat surface on which to paint. After mixing mortar, sand, and some paint together, he painted the words “In Memory of the Ship Annie C. Maguire, Wrecked on this Point Christmas Eve, 1886.” He had a wooden cross, placed on top of the rock as well. The wooden cross has long since washed away along with the original painting, but the inscription has been periodically renewed and repainted over the years. It has evolved into a simpler inscription reading “Annie C Maguire, Shipwrecked Here, Christmas Eve 1886” which displays today for residents and tourists alike.
The Strout family of four generations served a total of 128 years as lighthouse tenders, with over 100 years of combined service between family members, including Joshua’s mother’s tenure as housekeeper, at Portland Head Lighthouse.
Exploring Portland Head Lighthouse and Grounds
The lighthouse is situated over picturesque rocky cliffs inside Fort Williams park and there are plenty of trails covering over 40 acres. You can also visit the fort, play around the beach nearby, hike around this area, picnic, and even go kite flying. For those that want a unique experience, try a narrated historic tour aboard Maine Duck Tours where you can ride these amphibious vehicles through Portland and into the water as they pass by Portland Breakwater and Spring Point Light. There are many other boat tours leaving the Portland waterfront where some pass by Portland Head lighthouse, or the two other beacons nearby, Spring Point lighthouse, and Portland Breakwater light, also known as “Bug Light”.
Have a wonderful holiday season, and if you get a chance to visit Portland Head lighthouse, look for the painted inscription to commemorate one of the region’s most famous rescues. You’ll also find the Portland Head Museum right next to the lighthouse to learn more about Maine’s oldest lighthouse and discover all kinds of marine artifacts and historical documents.
Here are some of my favorite photos I’ve taken of Portland Head light.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, haunted lighthouse stories, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekend explorers.
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