William and Mary 1830 - 1878

The work of a curious fellow
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1830 was a hard year for William. His beloved sister drowned in a skating accident and his mother committed suicide shortly afterward. Under the guidance of his father, William studied shipbuilding, ship handling and navigation, with the idea that he would go to sea. At the age of 19 he sailed his own sloop to Salem, MA and selling the boat there, shipped out on a voyage to the China via Cape Horn.

It was summer in 1833 before William returned to his father's house in Bath. Although Tom had written to William of his wedding, the letter never caught up to him. William was surprised but pleased to find his father happy and quickly took to his stepmother.

William was also surprised and thrilled to find that there was a vessel under construction that his father intended him to captain one day. He had advanced to third mate on the China trip. It would be about a year before the brig, to be christened the Sophie D, was to be ready to sail. William would spend the year in the shipyard working as riggers helper on the brig.

In Bath in those days lived a man named Henry Knight. He and his wife Amanda had a daughter in 1812 named Mary. In 1829 Amanda died of a wasting illness. The seventeen year old Amanda tended house for her father who worked delivering coal for a company in Bath. In August 1833 on a Sunday afternoon Mary Knight was sitting in a small park on the Bath waterfront.

William was feeling on top of the world. He could see the his father’s brig coming together on the ways. His friend Jacob Penn, former first mate of the ship William had taken to China and back had agreed to serve for a year as Captain of the Sophie D while William gained experience. Then Jacob intended to move up to one of the new heavy schooners being built at that time.

As William strolled along the Bath waterfront he noticed a young woman sitting alone gazing out over the Kennebec river. Feeling especially bold, William touched his hat brim and spoke.

“It’s a grand day isn’t it miss?”

The young lady turned to him, smiled and nodded.

“It certainly is”, she said.

William stood for a few seconds then walked on by. Suddenly he stopped and turned.

“Excuse me miss. May I sit with you for a moment. I have recently returned from three years at sea. I have no notion of how to properly meet a young lady but as I was to walk on, something from the depth of my very soul stopped me with the idea that to continue would be a great mistake. If I am breaking some sort of rule to tell you this please forgive and correct me.”

Mary was rendered momentarily speechless by this revelation from William. She was silent for so long that William feared she was insulted.

“In my experience”, she said, “the usual way young men and women meet is in some sort of organized event designed to throw them together. Perhaps a dance or outing of some kind. Or perhaps a contrived meeting arranged by older people, as a dinner or a house visit. I have to tell you that what you just told me is a great improvement. I would dearly love to get to know you better.”

So William and Mary set out to know each other better. William came to a boil somewhat before Mary. He wanted to marry within months but Mary was concerned about his plan to move to Boston when the Sophie D went into service. She felt obliged to remain where she could continue to look after her father and stay with him during William’s long absences at sea. In the summer of 1834 the Sophie D. was fitted out and William sailed away. In May of 1835 William became Captain of the Sophie D.

He stayed in Boston as long as he could stand it but in 1835 began finding his way back to Bath between voyages. On the thirty-first of October 1836 William and Mary were married. On June 16, 1837 their daughter Mary Emmaline (Emma) was born. In 1839 William had a house built across the Kennebec from Bath at Woolwich. In 1840 their son William H. Dustin was born there.

In 1847 William and Mary were looking for a farm where they might live when William kept his promise to leave the sea after a dozen years of marriage. They decided on a place in Litchfield, ME about 25 miles inland. They purchased the property on Oak Hill in the fall.

On March 18, 1849 the Sophie D. set sail from Boston with a load of lumber and a crew of 29 bound for the English port of Bristol. There were no passengers on this trip. On the return trip they would stop in Galway Ireland to pick up passengers bound for Boston.

The weather was clear and the wind from the south making for good sailing. Before dark on the 22th the wind shifted to southeast and clouds settled in. Throughout the night the seas built and wind was gusting. About dawn it began to snow. The last star sight just after midnight showed the Sophie D to be 60 miles southeast of St. John’s on the Newfoundland coast. During the day the wind increased to a half gale.

William reduced sail and tried to press on but late in the afternoon on the 23rd the lookout reported debris in the water ahead of the ship. The debris turned out to be huge logs probably lost from some ship carrying uncut logs from North America to Europe. During maneuvers to avoid the log jamb one of the logs struck the rudder tearing it from the back of the ship in the heavy seas. A sailing ship is steered by a rudder hung on the stern post at the back of the ship. Turning the rudder redirects the ship to control the angle of the sails to the wind. Without a rudder the ship is pretty much at the mercy of the fate.

With the wind out of the southeast William’s only option was to try to get in to St. John’s on the southeast tip of Newfoundland. He deployed a sea anchor, a heavy canvas bag dragged behind the ship by its open end so that it filled with water and kept the ship headed down wind. The wind speed might be 40 miles per hour but the ship speed would be only about 2 miles per hour with the sea anchor deployed. That meant 30 hours or so to reach the Newfoundland coast.

About mid-day the 25th the Sophie D came within sight of the Newfoundland shore. Not near the harbor at St. John’s but farther to the west near the village of Petty Harbor. William's plan was to lower the ship’s anchor to a depth of about 50 feet and when it dragged on the bottom and caught, to let out additional line to get the ship as close to land a practical so that the crew had a chance to get to shore. It was a delicate maneuver with lots of opportunities to go wrong.

Two things went wrong and one thing went extremely right. The anchor never caught the bottom hard enough to stop the ships drift onto the land and an underwater ledge off the shore hit the ship broad side and began to pound her to pieces in the heavy waves. The thing that went right was that someone on shore noticed the ship’s plight and sent for help.

The rescue party from Petty Harbor arrived on the shore with a small cannon that fired a plug with a line attached to it across the deck of the doomed ship. The crew pulled on the line bringing over a heavy rope that carried a breeches buoy allowing one person at a time to be carried ashore.

Site of Sophie D. Wreck
Site of Sophie D. Wreck

Captain Dustin was the last person removed. It was a testament to the skill of the Bath shipbuilders that the Sophie D held together long enough for all 29 men to get ashore. In fact when night fell the ship was still pounding on the ledge. In the morning there was no trace of it. From launching to drowning, the Sophie D lived to the day, exactly as long as the girl for whom she was named, having paid her owners several times over.

The loss of the Sophie D caused Captain Dustin to decide that he had enough of the seafaring life and when he made his way back to Woolwich, he sold his shore property and moved the family to their farm in Litchfield.

Captain Dustin, his wife Mary and their two children became farmers and did well. In 1863 Emma married Charles Frost. Emma and Charles settled down on a portion of the Dustin property. In 1878 Captain Dustin died and Mary remained on the farm.

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