For years, Maine resources flowed out of the western side of Penobscot Bay on ships. Ship captains in the area had two options as they worked their vessels up and down the coast. Mariners chose either Muscle Ridge Channel or Two Bush Channel.

Muscle Ridge Channel is a long stretch of water along the west Penobscot Bay shoreline in Knox County. It runs from Whitehead Island up to Monroe Island off Owls Head and the entrance to Rockland Harbor.

Owls Head Lighthouse looks out toward Monroe Island and the end of the Muscle Ridge Channel. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

Two Bush channel starts near Metinic Island and parallels the Muscle Ridge Channel as it points up into Penobscot Bay with Little Green and Large Green Island on its eastern side and Andrews Island to its west. There are also a set of ledges called the Northern Triangles which have snared some unwary vessels. More on that later!

In the days of sail and early steam, each channel presented its own set of challenges. Two Bush is located more out in the middle of Penobscot Bay, with fewer islands and reefs to deal with. But the open water exposed ships to weather. On the other hand, Muscle Ridge is more protected from the elements, but ships have to work their way among numerous islands and ledges.

Many vessels opted for the more protected Muscle Ridge, which got its name in colonial days from its sea level resemblance to the bicep muscle in your arm. The Muscle Ridge Islands are an archipelago, over a dozen tiny bits of land off South Thomaston in Knox County. At the last census, island population was six.

For early mariners of Penobscot Bay, the entrance to the MRC was the easily seen bleached granite shoreline of Whitehead Island; hence its name. However, to complicate matters, a nearby island called Norton Island also exhibits whitened rocks. This led to many shipwrecks and strandings as captains mistook one for the other.

As early as 1798, local Mainers called for a lighthouse to be built at the entrance to the MRC on Whitehead Island. They reported over 200 vessels a week passing through the channel. The ships listed ranged in sizes up to 120 tons. And this went on for nine months of the year.

In 1804 on the eastern side, Whitehead Island Lighthouse went into operation, but traffic continued to increase. In a 90-day span in 1842, nearly 2,400 vessels were recorded to have gone by the lighthouse. Eventually, a lifesaving station was established at Whitehead Island.

The MRC is pretty well known for its wildlife, such as ducks and shorebirds. Numerous harbor seals also inhabit its waters. The scenic views are tremendous. But the place is also known for its ledges, shoals and fog.

For diving, the conditions in the MRC have to be pretty decent. Currents can become strong. We got into a current one time off Northwestern Ledge while diving on the shipwreck City of Portland. Not fun!

Divers explore the City of Portland in Muscle Ridge Channel. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

Those same currents can be dangerous with sailboats as well. If one enters the MRC from the south on an ebbing tide, a southwest current can be almost two knots. There could also be quite a chop at the surface, with water depths in this area over 80 feet.

The American Coast Pilot, published by Edmund Blunt, stated in its 1822 sailing directions to not use Muscle Ridge channel at all. Keep to the main route into Penobscot Bay through Two Bush Channel, it advised.

Still, many vessels did not. As a result, Muscle Ridge Channel has seen many shipwrecks and groundings over the years. Some, like City of Portland, which struck Northwestern Ledge and sank on May 8, 1884, are fairly well known.

Others include the 129-ton schooner Champion out of Searsport. The 80-foot-long vessel had been built in Belfast in 1831 by Isaac and Philip Gilkey. Champion had one deck, two masts, and a square stern. Its billet-head at the bow was a simple scroll. For more than 50 years, it worked as a fishing vessel in New England waters.

Pictured is an example of a one deck, two-mast fishing schooner, much like Champion. From collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

In May 1885, after fishing off Gloucester, Mass., Champion headed for its homeport of Bangor with a cargo of pickled fish and 2,000 pounds of fresh halibut. Under Master Benjamin Richardson Jr. and a three-man crew, it hit rough seas in the MRC on the night of May 16. Another source says it was March instead of May.

The vessel grounded on Yellow Ledge, one mile east of the Whitehead Island Life Station. The crew abandoned ship but found the life-saving station had closed down, which may support the idea that the wreck was in March rather than May.

Whatever the month, the fishing schooner in the meantime washed off the rocks and sank, still with its sails set. The crew returned to the vessel when the tide was lower but found the ship had started to break apart. Its masts had become unstepped and the single deck had burst open.

The men worked quickly to salvage what they could, mostly sails, rigging and anchor. According to some reports, they even saved some of their cargo of halibut. The shipwrecked crew remained at the lighthouse four days, until they were finally able to arrange transport home.

Then there is the steamer Vinalhaven, built in Searsport in 1892. At 186 tons, the vessel was 100 feet in length and 23 feet wide. Called “The People’s Little Boat,” it worked its way around Penobscot Bay.

Vinalhaven was barely a year old when in 1893 a fire heavily damaged it. Rescuers had to scuttle the ship to put out the flames. The steamer was raised, cleaned, rebuilt and its engines overhauled. In 1905, 15 feet were added to is hull.

By the 1930s, Vinalhaven operated as a ferry out of Rockland mostly to Vinalhaven Island. It was condemned in 1938. On Nov. 11, 1938, another source says the day before, Vinalhaven caught a guard rail on Tillson’s wharf in Rockland Harbor and sank.

Steamer Vinalhaven sank at Tillson’s wharf in Rockland. From the collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

It sat in the mud for nearly two weeks until raised and sold to Isidor Gordon, who stripped the vessel and left it to rot. It was eventually towed off Owls Head and intentionally sunk on the Monroe Island Bar.

Monroe Island Bar is the final resting place for Vinalhaven. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

Today, Muscle Ridge Channel is well-marked and popular for sailors of pleasure boats and fishing boats. Still following Blunt’s 200-year-old advice, however, bigger ships tend to swing out into the wider and deeper Two Bush Channel to the east.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. 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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