When William Lowder opened his shipyard above Bangor on the Penobscot River, he was familiar with shipbuilding, having trained at Robert Treat’s shipyard just a bit downriver at the mouth of the Penjejawock Stream. Lowder may even have been on hand for Treat’s first large production ship, the two-masted schooner Susannah.

An aerial view of the mouth of the Penjejawock Stream shows site of the former Red Bridge and Robert Treat’s shipyard where the schooner Susannah was built and launched in 1793. Courtesy of the collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

Susannah was the first large ship built in the area, certainly the first such built on the river above Fort Point. It was owned by wealthy Frankfort resident Robert Hichborn and Boston merchant John Lord. Hichborn, a cousin of Paul Revere, was born in Boston and had participated in the famous Tea Party in 1773. Now a large landowner, he purchased Cape Jellison in 1791 and built a large house there the following year.

Susannah’s keel was laid down in 1791 and the ship launched two years later during spring freshets, which allowed it to clear an extensive gravel bar that, at that time, jutted into Penobscot River from the Penjejawock Stream. That gravel bar eroded away after the railroad embankment, built in the 1870s, stopped any further gravel deposits being washed out of the Penjejawock Stream.

Susannah (another source says Susanna) was named for Robert Hichborn’s wife. The two-masted topsail schooner was 90 tons, 68 feet long and 20.9 feet wide. Its depth of hold was 7.5 feet, distance from deck to keel. The vessel had a billet head, meaning no figurehead, as well as a square stern.

The schooner’s launch was celebrated by a large gathering, many reportedly exhibiting great rejoicing, no doubt due to the copious amounts of food and drink provided. The Susannah was referred to as “the Treat ship” when it launched near the red bridge, which spanned the Penjejawock Stream. It was the pride of the community.

For owner Robert Hichborn and Susannah, more popularly known as Sukey, the next few years became a major asset in the economic development of Bangor. John Lord was the schooner’s first master and it regularly plied waters between Bangor and Boston. That is, until its loss in October 1798. Not only was it a financial blow to the community and to Hichborn, but Susannah was also a personal tragedy for many Bangor families.

In 1795, Susannah’s owners were listed as Robert Hichborn and his brother Philip. Robert was listed from Prospect and Philip from Boston, although this is probably in error as brother Philip Hichborn had died in 1764. More likely it was Philip Hichborn, Robert’s son and father of Sarah Hichborn.

Under Capt. Daniel Jameson of Penobscot, the schooner departed Bangor for Boston in mid-October. It is not clear if weather played a part in the tragedy or not. New England storms in October can be sudden and deadly. At the time of the wreck, the weather was reported to have been thick; it is not clear whether that was just typical New England fall conditions or if there had indeed been a storm.

Regardless, on Oct. 18, 1798, the schooner struck a large rock quite a distance from shore between Halibut Point and Sandy Bay on Cape Ann. According to one chart, it struck ledges known as the Little Salvages or Dry Salvages, located off the northeast point of Cape Ann. Waves crashing to shore brought in wreckage, strewing it from Sandy Bay to Pigeon Cove.

According to a newspaper account, the schooner struck, turned over to the waves and was then pounded to pieces on the rocks. Its sternpost and rudder were missing, and the foremast looked like it had been cut away. No ship boat or oars were ever found, which at first gave hope that maybe some had survived, but after nine days of nothing but wreckage coming ashore, hopes grew dim.

Personal items such as clothes and trunks washed ashore, many with their owners’ initials. There were umbrellas, gunstocks, hats and assorted clothing — but no bodies. Only one source mentions five bodies found onshore, but whether they were even connected to Susannah is not clear. The fact the chests and clothing came ashore long after the ship wreckage itself, made observers think the vessel had broken open to the sea some considerable distance from shore.

The Rev. William Bentley of Salem, Mass., recorded in his diary that Susannah had been lost with 15 men and five women passengers, three of whom were family members of Robert Hichborn. There were also crew members lost. The total was 26 lives. “We have the alarming report that the loss of the schooner Sukey will probably prove the loss of many valuable lives and of many excellent women.”

Several Bangor residents had relatives aboard Susannah when it was lost. Many of the victims were second generation U. S. citizens, born to men and women who had played important parts in the American Revolution and the development of Bangor. I find that especially intriguing and poignant.

Among the dead were Sarah and John Pulling, children of Capt. John Pulling. Young John may have been in his teens; Sarah was 25 years old. It is likely that they had been visiting the Hichborns in Maine, as the families were old friends and were on their way back to Boston. John Pulling Sr. had been the man who on the night of April 18th had daringly climbed the stairs of Boston’s Old North Church and hung two lanterns in the steeple to signal Paul Revere that the British were coming by sea.

The shipwreck also took the life of 19-year-old Robert Treat Jr. He was firstborn son of the shipyard owner where Susannah had been built. Treat Jr. had actually been born right in the middle of the disastrous Penobscot Expedition of 1779. His father, Robert Treat Sr., had been instrumental in the history of Fort Pownal and Jonathan Lowder’s Truckhouse during the war, as well as early Bangor development.

Another victim was the “universally liked” 21-year-old Seth Noble Jr. He was shipping lumber to Boston when the disaster occurred. Susannah had been built within sight of his house. His father, the Rev. Seth Noble, had been involved with the Revolution in Maine, especially around Machias. He, too, was one of Bangor’s early citizens, believed to have been responsible for naming the town.

Noble received news of the tragedy just two days after the wreck. On Oct. 20, 1798, he recorded in his diary “Oh death! My son Seth lost at sea; and all who were with him; supposed to be at Boon Island. All in number who were lost was 26.” A chest of his son’s clothes washed ashore. The loss most likely played a part in Noble’s later decision to move west to the Ohio territory.

The schooner captain was 35-year-old Daniel Jameson. His father-in-law was Jeremiah Coburn, first to settle near the Penobscot Indians. Coburn had been an Indian interpreter and participant at Jonathan Lowder’s Truckhouse during the war. Capt. Jameson owned a tavern at the first framed house in Bangor, located above present-day Eastern Maine Medical Center near Robert Treat’s shipyard. It had also been used as a truckhouse during the war. The umbrella recovered had Daniel Jameson’s name on it.

Another passenger was 28-year-old Joseph Potter of Bangor. His death occurred on his two-year wedding anniversary with Rhoda Mann Potter. His father had built the first sawmill in Bangor.

Susannah’s owner, Robert Hichborn, had been a participant at Griffin’s Wharf for the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Not only was he owner of the schooner, but he lost daughters with the wreck, 23-year-old Susannah and 13-year-old Elizabeth, known as Susan and Eliza. Another victim was 10-year-old Sarah Hichborn (another source says 5 years old). There are conflicting genealogy records; Sarah may have been a third younger sister or a niece, daughter of their brother, Philip Hichborn.

Especially tragic is the oral history that has been passed down in the Hichborn family that Susan had been on her way to be married in Boston and that many of the passengers aboard Susannah were traveling with her to be part of the wedding party. It was also said that her betrothed was the one who discovered Susan’s chest of clothes washed ashore, identified with “S.H.” in brass-headed nails. This poignant element to the tragedy is reminiscent of the Ghost Bride Lydia Carver and her shipwreck aboard the schooner Charles off Richmond Island 20 years later in 1807. More on that story later!

After the Susannah tragedy, Robert Hichborn was never quite the same. One letter to his cousin Paul Revere describes himself as having lost control, as well as much of his mind, with the loss of his daughters. It may have led to his early death 24 months later at age 59 on Oct. 18, 1800 — exactly two years to the day after the shipwreck. His wife, Susannah Hichborn, died in 1807 and was buried in the old graveyard at Boston Common. It is likely that she removed herself to Boston after the death of Robert.

When I visited Robert Hichborn’s grave site at the Mt. Recluse Cemetery in Stockton Springs, it was a gray, somber day with spitting rain. I noticed his marker had no other Hichborns around it and that his repaired stone had at one point been shattered into several pieces.

The grave marker for Robert Hichborn is at Mount Recluse Cemetery in Stockton Springs. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

Probably just as his heart had been shattered with the terrible news of the Susannah shipwreck 223 years ago.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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