Rowing Friar Roads

Eastport’s rebuilt downtown breakwater. There is also an industrial terminal at South End. Photo by Scott Snell, Blount Small Ship Adventures

By Joseph Gough
For Points East

In my low-powered old age, I return to rowing, as in my boyhood, in Friars Bay at Welshpool, Campobello Island, New Brunswick. On this same bay, Roosevelt, tutored by islanders, became an expert sailor with his own sloop by age 16. It’s the last day of May, calm, with neap tides, and I feel safe enough shoving off at an hour ebb. I row past salmon cages alongside Friars Head.

Here, the Roosevelts and other “summer people” liked to climb rocks or socialize in the gazebo on the summit. They frolicked not far from the old house and dock of Benedict Arnold. After leaving the new United States of America on impolite terms, Arnold had, for a time, operated a trading station on the Snug Cove side of Friars Head.

One day decades later, Franklin, still a boy, and my grandfather Russell, the same age, were throwing rocks at Arnold’s abandoned house. A ghost appeared at a window, and they took to their heels. Later, they learned that the apparition was only a tramp of dangerous reputation who had gotten on the island.

Today, I’m already out past the stone figure of the Old Friar, and North Lubec is coming into view on the American side.

Years ago, I flew along that shore with a small-plane pilot who was spotting herring for his family’s seiner. Visible from the air were underwater structures built in the 1890s to extract gold from seawater. An ordained minister, the Rev. Prescott F. Jernegan, of Edgartown, Mass., and his business partner had convinced investors of the riches to be had by accumulating miniscule, but precious, particles from the fast-running tides. At a certain point, the promoters ran even faster, Jernegan winding up in France with his saltwater booty.

As I row across the Canada/U.S. line, I see Lubec proper. This is a lovely hillside town connected to Campobello by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge, businesses and marriages, and a mutual segment of our souls. But today I’ll skip it for Eastport, which used to be our prime destination.

Maine’s smallest city has always had a certain attitude. To quote an old rhyme:

“Calais for lumber,
Eastport for pride.
If it weren’t for herring,
Lubec would have died.”

Though Lubec is the easternmost town in the continental U.S., Eastport always and boldly claimed top billing as the easternmost city. That hint of dominance may stem from its location. After Europeans came into the territory of the indigenous Passamaquoddy people, naval captains liked Eastport’s commanding position.

From a high point in the town, you can look over Cobscook Bay to the west and St. Andrews Bay to the north – two major water bodies now sorted out as American and Canadian within Passamaquoddy Bay. From Eastport you can also see down Lubec Narrows to the south. And to the northeast, between Campobello and Deer Island, you overlook Head Harbour Passage, the main entrance to Quoddy.

Despite their pride, Eastporters got along well with the British naval officers and men who ruled the town from 1814 to 1818, even after the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson had thought that taking over Canada would be “a mere matter of marching,” but things worked out differently.

In that era, Eastport and Campobello were already growing, by means of fishing, West Indies trading, and a notorious smuggling industry. Quoddy fogs helped operators evade the punitive tariffs. Smuggling dropped off in later decades, but cross-border marine traffic stayed heavy right up to our current century.

Now I’m rowing past American lobster buoys as I approach Treat Island, officially part of Eastport. This is where Upham Treat built one of the very first lobster canneries, around 1842. Even then, the small island had a vigorous history. During the Revolutionary War, an early owner, Col. John Allan, had organized indigenous allies against the British. Today, nobody lives on Treat Island, but it’s in the good hands of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

I’ve been pausing to drift, look around, and make notes, so by the time I pass the red-rock beach at the north end of Treat Island, it’s almost two hours ebb. The current is getting stronger. Near the island’s tip, whirlpools are circling, a lobster buoy has a two-inch bow wave, and a tide-surge lifts me like a gentle but sudden hand.

I’m about to cross the main outlet of Cobscook Bay. This sub-bay of Passamaquoddy is a wonderland, with its own set of bays and islands. Even today it is little visited except by fishing boats.

Many years back, my father took my mother (an Eastporter: They had eloped on a fishing boat to get married in Lubec) and my little sister for a pleasure cruise on his herring carrier, from Welshpool into Cobscook, looking for the reversing falls there. He had no chart for the area, but had been told he needed to steer inside a two-tree islet.

After finding his way past many twists and turns, he saw one that looked right. But it was the wrong two trees, and he ran aground on the mud flats. It was half-ebb, with six hours to wait between the islet and a Pembroke farmstead, whose owner happened to have a loudspeaker on his barn. Every so often he played, at top volume, “Cruisin’ Down the River,” a hit song of the day.

But Dad, if you’re listening, today, I’m doing all right. I’ve now got across the half-mile mouth of Cobscook to the South End of Eastport – called Sodom by the North Enders, who, in turn, were called Dog Islanders.

The whole waterfront was once lined with fish-processing wharves, just as in Lubec, with herring the main harvest. The settlers building up this fishery used nets in conjunction with brush weirs adapted from the native people, and smokehouses to cure herring.

Though Eastport has history by the hogshead, fish are only part of it. In 1866, hundreds of Irish Americans, many with military experience from the Civil War, mustered up in Eastport to seize Campobello from the British. With fertile Irish imagination, they figured that our little island – yes, nine-mile-long Campobello – would become an international focal point for the liberation struggle back in Ireland.

British naval vessels sailed from Halifax into Friar Roads, militias mustered at the New Brunswick border, and American authorities helped disperse the Fenian Brotherhood, as they were known. To their further frustration, the much-publicized threat boosted the move for union among Canadian provinces, separate until then. In 1867, these entities came together in a united Canada. The abortive Campobello raid helped give birth to a country.

Let me try stretching Campobello’s historical significance a bit further. If young Franklin Roosevelt – a coddled rich boy with multiple servants – hadn’t been able to mix with ordinary people on the island and see how impressive they could be, and if he hadn’t made good friends living under the British Crown, would he have put the same effort into the New Deal, the western alliance, and the Second World War? Did not Campobello shape part of his character and, thus, of our fate?

Anyway, harking back to the pre-FDR waterfront, the early smokehouses had used large herring. Then a New York businessman and colleagues learned of the small ones in Quoddy and neighboring waters. Eastport started producing Maine sardines in the 1870s, and, by 1900, the state had 75 canneries.

Lubec and Eastport held most of them – 51 in total – and a later offshoot, along with fertilizer and fish meal, was the “pearl essence” made from herring scales. Over the decades, small rowboats and sailboats gave way to larger carriers and pumpers and seiners, mostly Canadian, bringing in herring beyond counting.

Today, after rowing near Eastport’s impressive port facility that ships out wood pulp and other goods, I’m passing the skeleton stakes of old sardine-factory wharves. No canneries are left in Maine. And I’m the only boat moving on the water.

But hey, I’m nearing the can-plant wharf – the still-standing remains of an American Can Company building where sardine tins were manufactured. It’s a large structure, resting on huge cylindrical supports.

My rowboat is named after my grandfather Russell, and though never a big rum-runner during Prohibition, he did make the odd trip. One night of thick fog, he was cruising along the Eastport waterfront with a load from St. Andrews, at full speed but slightly off in his reckoning. The can-plant wharf loomed at his bow, unavoidable. But it was half-tide and he just powered underneath, luckily between the supporting piers. Now I’m taking the Russell through that route.

Another Welshpooler shared the local superstition that corduroy was unlucky. While running a boatload of rum, he discovered that one of the summer people had left her corduroy jacket aboard. He tossed it overboard, it snarled the propeller, and the U.S. Coast Guard caught him. After months in prison at Portland, the jailers sent him off with $10 and a new suit – made of corduroy.

Now I’m heading in to Eastport’s downtown breakwater, passing a boat named Life Is Good, skirting the Triple Trouble, and tying onto the Pier Pressure. Then, after reporting to Customs and Border Protection, nothing will do but lunch at the Waco Diner, said to be Maine’s oldest restaurant.

When Canadian boats used to bring families and friends from Campobello, Deer Island and Grand Manan to Eastport for Saturday shopping, the Waco, closest bar to the waterfront, was crowded with captains. It was, however, at another bar that I once heard an Eastporter answering his companion, “You mean that guy over there? Sure, he’s Canadian; look at the arm on him.”

Besides the trips by fishing boats, summer people’s yachts and the daily mailboat, the Welshpool men would row over for rum or beer, to be sampled on the way home. Old bottles are a feature of the Friar Roads bottom habitat. So, before leaving the Waco, I lift a drink to the ghosts of those “over-homers,” as Eastporters and Lubecers call us.

I untie from the Pier Pressure, a fishing, towing, and whale-watching boat belonging to Capt. George (Butch) Harris, of Eastport Windjammers. He plans to set up a passenger shuttle to Welshpool, and that will bring more life to Friar Roads.

Leaving the dock, I steer away from North End. Going that way would put me under the influence of Western Passage, running between Eastport and Deer Island. In this major outlet of St. Andrews Bay lurks the Old Sow, said to be the largest whirlpool in the western hemisphere. With half-tide approaching, currents will be at their strongest, and Cobscook and St. Andrews Bay both feed into Head Harbour Passage.

So instead of crossing the Passage, I will stick with Friar Roads. I row back to South End and point my bow toward Friars Head, at the southwest end of Friars Bay. I keep that compass bearing, and, sure enough, as I cross the mile and a half of open water, the current carries me down to the bay’s northeast end, where stands Welshpool village. On the way, I gaze up Western Passage toward St. Andrews, in Passamaquoddy Bay, founded by Loyalists getting clear of the American Revolution.

The attractive town became a fishing and transportation site, but most notably, a colony for the moneyed elite. These included William Cornelius Van Horne, the American visionary who led construction of Canada’s cross-country railroad. Farther up the St. Croix River – which forms part of the Canada/United States border – is the little island where Samuel de Champlain, together with Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Monts, and their men established a French foothold in North America.

Making for Welshpool Wharf, I pass near the Owen House, historic home of William Fitz William Owen, one of two 19th-century British admirals from Campobello.

For roughly a hundred years, members of the Owen family ran the island as something of a feudal proprietorship. And those two admirals ranged far beyond, adventuring, making charts and strengthening the British grip on the world’s oceans.

From the phone booth at Welshpool Hall, I call toll-free to a Canada Border Services center in Ontario. “What was the purpose of your trip?” I was asked.

“I wanted to row to Eastport and back,” I responded.

“That’s a good enough reason,” I was assured. With any suspicion, he could have sent officers from the Lubec-Campobello bridge to check on me, but I guess I’m harmless.

Welshpool Wharf and Welshpool Hall, where Eleanor Roosevelt used to go to the dances, together make up Welshpool Landing. I’m part of the non-profit group trying to rejuvenate this particular waterfront, and we get additional help from the island, Eastport and elsewhere. These volunteers know what they’re doing and get no pay, which shows that Friar Roads has not only ghosts but angels.

And, finally, I’m rowing up Friars Bay, past more salmon cages to our cottage, which, by family circumstance, stands within the Roosevelt Campobello International Park. A harbor seal takes an interest in me, following about 150 feet behind. And there ahead is my wife on the beach. Now we can share a “tide-walker.” That’s a drink named after pieces of driftwood that hang vertical in the water, head sticking above.

I’ve made the circle. And if we can keep improving Welshpool Landing, loosen a few regulatory restrictions (which is starting to happen), and get passenger and private boats back into the habit of crossing the border, Friar Roads itself will circle back toward its old-time liveliness.

Joseph Gough, a resident of Orleans, Ontario, Canada, has worked at commercial fishing and on ships, as a journalist, and as a Canadian public-service executive. He is the author of “Managing Canada’s Fisheries: From Early Days to the Year 2000.”