Quarry cruise

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The Plouff’s V-8-powered Sea Ray 215 Express Cruiser Tegoak rests easily in the anchorage created by Birch, Dix and High Islands. Photo by Nat Smith

By Tim Plouff
For Points East
It’s a late-August Saturday, and we are joined by our friends and boating partners, Diane and Nat Smith, for a weekend trailer-boat adventure. We are bound for Rockland, Maine, and the islands of western Penobscot Bay. Little did we realize the richness of the history we’d find, and how memorable the next two days would be.

By 10:30, we finally splash our Sea Ray 215 into Rockland Harbor; the sun has warmed the air quite comfortably. We have two goals today: Get several lighthouse shots for Nat’s extensive photo collection, and explore Hurricane Island, just south of Vinalhaven, across the bay.

Before leaving Rockland Harbor, we check off item one in a hurry: the old lighthouse, on the Owls Head side of the harbor, is part of a residence now. Unlike the Owls Head Lighthouse proper at the head of this port, this low-slung structure is easy to miss unless you follow the charts and squint.
During the ride across Penobscot Bay, numerous lobsterboats are hard at work, the ferries to North Haven and Vinalhaven are both making trips outbound, and countless pleasure craft are plying the calm waters of this deepwater bay. We motor along easily, taking in the grand views on this 11-mile ride. We are ever mindful of the ledges and hazards around the White Islands as we enter Hurricane Sound between Vinalhaven and Hurricane Island.

On the surface, Hurricane Island does not appear to be very different from many of Maine’s rugged offshore islands. However, this rock has many stories to tell, and we are about to learn them. It’s easy to forget, in our busy lives, that our predecessors arrived via the sea and chiseled out onerous existences on New England’s islands and shores long before there were settlements inland. In fact, some of Maine’s islands provided fish to feed the Plymouth colony during its early years as it struggled to grow sufficient amounts of food to survive.

As we approach the mooring field in Valley Cove, and the dock for Hurricane Island, it’s hard to imagine there was once a working village here. As many as 1,100 souls lived on this island and provided granite for construction of many city buildings and other structures. There were at least six boarding houses, holding up to 50-men apiece, plus 40 homes, a meeting house, a school, and countless finishing sheds to sculpt Hurricane’s granite as well as stone from other islands.

One General Davis Tillson, who’d cashed in on the limestone quarries around Rockland after the Civil War, purchased Hurricane Island with two partners in 1870. Workers came from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Finland and Sweden, as Hurricane Island joined commercial operations on nearby Vinalhaven, Dix, and High islands, competing with quarries in Stonington and Mount Desert Island.
In its heyday, the village on Hurricane Island even had streetlights. Wooden granite-hauling barges made regular visits to the island, and, for decades, the island was prosperous.

In the fall of 1914, one of the last shipments of granite from Hurricane Island went down in a storm while delivering stone blocks for the Rockport, Mass., breakwater. Days later, foreman John Landers died of typhoid fever, and quarrying ceased that day. Workers laid tools where they were, houses were abandoned with tables set for dinner, and the village at Hurricane was gone just like that. Even the buildings were removed over the next few years.

Today, the softwood trees have returned to the shallow soil of this 125-acre granite rock. Roughly 20 buildings remain from the island’s second notable community, the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. As we explored the mile-long island’s numerous trails, remnants of stone projects in process are everywhere, including finished pieces waiting for a final destination. An old crane rests next to a loading dock, and the six-foot flywheel for a steam-driven air compressor used for cutting stone is still in its cradle. Remnants of plugs and wedges used to cut stone are evident in pieces of rock.

Yet Hurricane is still alive with activity. On our visit, students from the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership – a research and learning non-profit organization for high school and college students – are busy scurrying around the central meeting house and dock in preparation for a farm-to-table fund-raising dinner that night.

The Hurricane Island Foundation negotiated a 40-year lease with current owner Dr. James Gaston, of New York City, and he has the only residence currently on the island. Gaston received the island as a wedding gift from his father after Gaston senior purchased the island in 1936 from bank receivership.

The Foundation inherited the buildings built and used by the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, founded by Peter Willauer in 1964, some 50 years after the island was first abandoned. Peter modeled the school after the first Outward Bound School, established in 1941 at Aberdovey, Wales, to help Merchant Mariners survive sinkings by German submarines. Peter’s school “passed” over 100,000 students through its rigorous self-reliance training over more than four decades. Alas, in 2006, the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School also left this ocean treasure.

As we explore the island’s sloping ledges, trails and beaches, Hurricane Island’s personality oozes from every visual perspective. There are still rope falls and climbing gear on the smooth faces of the steep quarry wall from HIOS exploits, right next to cutting tools and giant links of chain. Spontaneous stone sculptures catch the eye, reflecting artistic interpretations of visitors to the island.

After climbing several trails, walking the shore paths and beaches, and finding several of the former HIOS tent platforms deep in the woods (but none of the hoped-for cemetery stones), we retreat to the dock area as visitors start to arrive for the dinner. Nat and I tease my wife Kathy about staying for the meal, which lights up her face with the prospect of fresh seafood, wood-fired pizza, and fresh vegetables, but we tell her she has to pay. The fundraiser is $300 per couple, and her glee turns to disappointment as we return to our boat for crackers, cheese and lukewarm beers.

After a slow spin over to view Heron Neck Lighthouse to the east, we cruise into Carvers Harbor, at Vinalhaven, to catch the last of the fishing fleet returning for the night. Few boats are still moving about, and we decide we should head west, back to Rockland.

With a setting sun and a steady wind on our bow, we take heavy spray crossing the open bay, yet we make decent time and sneak by the Rockland breakwater with plenty of daylight left. A slow cruise around the inner harbor while waiting for enough water for pullout results in our fetching a wayward dinghy for a sailboat crew.

After a full day on the water, we pull up to the Old Granite Inn B&B, a fitting haven after our quarry adventures. With a great view of Rockland Harbor, the ferry terminal and the full moon rising over Penobscot Bay, sleep comes swiftly.

Sunday morning dawns with a slight overcast and the promise of a warm day. After a hearty B&B breakfast and a stop for boat gas and food, we head down Route 73 to Tenants Harbor for launching. We’d overnighted in Tenants Harbor years ago, grabbing moorings inside the protected harbor, and I wanted to do more exploring here. We quickly learned that the lack of trailer parking is a hurdle: The truck and trailer would spend the day at the local post office parking lot rather than at the actual ramp.

Once afloat, we resume checking off the area lighthouses on Nat’s list, including the interesting landmarks on the Wyeth’s Southern Island, at the mouth of the harbor. From here, we head northeast into the Muscle Ridge Channel, photographing the light at Whitehead Island, and then east over to Two Bush Island, where an eagle holds court on the lighthouse rail.

Heading north, we take the outside, easterly loop around Andrews and Camp islands in the Muscle Ridge archipelago, to enter the cove nestled between High, Birch and Dix islands. Birch is a popular local destination, with numerous beaches scattered around this V-shaped escape. Unfortunately, our midday arrival coincides with high tide, yet this did not deter Kathy and Diane from scouring the beach for sea-glass. With heads bowed, digging revealing untold treasures, Nat and I circumnavigate the island in search of other novelties.

With more boats arriving by the hour, it is easy to tell that summer is winding down, and this may be one of the last good days; and that Birch, High and Dix are important to the locals. With lunch finished, we take the inflatable to High Island, where a massive stone pier dominates the island’s vista.

Once ashore, we find a huge quarry at the center of the island, long inactive, but full of lush greenery and plenty of fresh water. An elevated path to another long-ago dock has a “bridge” in the middle, where the teams of oxen probably passed back and forth on this once-busy granite-producing island. As we follow the trails, several debris dumps reveal evidence of residences, but the tools of the granite industry are not as evident here as on Hurricane.

Returning to our boat, we watch a large sailboat ease past us, heading straight for the moorings at Dix Island. We have seen this boat before; we remember the laundry hanging on the rail. Just the evening before, the folks on this sailboat had arrived at Hurricane with their two small dogs. Tidied up for dinner, they all went ashore. Moments later, the female member of the party had scurried past us, drenched from head to toe. She’d been knocked off the Hurricane dock by one of the dogs and needed a makeover to return for dinner. Their home base was Dix, as evidenced by such labeling on the stern of their yacht.

Dix Island was acquired by Horace Beals in 1850 in payment for a debt. When he first arrived at the island, he reportedly proclaimed that the island “was a good place to commit suicide.” Beals apparently changed his mind as he built 80-acre Dix into one of the coast’s largest granite operations, supplying stone for Philadelphia and New York post offices, among other large structures.

Like at Hurricane, Beals imported workers from many European countries, and, at one point, there were 150-buildings for the Dix Island Granite Company, including two boarding houses capable of holding 500 men each. The community had a theater, 50-stone sheds for cutting, shaping and finishing granite, a team of 52-oxen for pulling blocks out of the quarry, plus a small rail track. Dix’s population once swelled to 2,000-people. Like Hurricane, Dix was quickly abandoned in 1880 when contracts dried up.

Today, the island is almost a flat piece of granite gracefully facing the sea. Some private residences are scattered about the southern and western shores, yet visitors can walk grassy trails to survey remnants of an era in the not-so-distant past.

We slip the anchor at Birch and head toward Tenants Harbor. The wind changes to the southwest just as we head in that direction. The harbor is quiet as the sun is dimming, with few signs of activity.
Our timing is poor; the ramp is almost empty, but we are close to mean low tide. I push the boat trailer way beyond the end of the ramp and Kathy powers up close enough to winch the last few feet of the boat securely onto the bunks. I start my little Honda water pump, hook up the hoses, and we wash down the boat, inflatable, trailer – and ourselves – using the water tank in the bed of the truck. This is the third day in a row of retrieving the boat at low tide with no issues, so I am thanking my lucky stars.

As we start the long ride up Route 1, around Penobscot Bay, bound for home, we view the myriad islands and only wonder about how our predecessors looked upon these islands and the labors of their lives. We now get to play in places that formerly were worked very hard – pearls in a necklace of coastal Maine entertainment, which were once cold, hard, forbidding islands.

Part Two of Quarry Cruising will appear in the July issue, and will include the Stonington, Crotch Island and Green Island quarries. Tim has been trailer-boating with the 2000 inboard-V-8-power Sea Ray 215 Express Cruiser Tegoak (“place of breaking waves”) since 2005. He spent the previous two decades paddling Maine’s coast. He writes the weekly “On The Road Review” automotive column for “The Ellsworth American,” while his day job is as wholesale oil and Shell gasoline sales manager for Dead River Company.