Raining bones

By Daniel Dunkle | Mar 28, 2019
Source: The Courier-Gazette A YMCA ad from April 1919.

Last week found me at the Cushing annual town meeting, where they were talking about what to do about an abandoned barge that had been mired in the mud at Pleasant Point Harbor for 14 months. One of the questions posed was whether there was any way to destroy it without bringing in a crane and so on to save money. I found myself picturing someone with a shoulder-mounted missile launcher firing on this barge from shore, which only shows that I've watched far too many '80s action movies.

However, the following item from April 1919 shows that in the old days, people didn't mess around. They used dynamite.

The headline was: BLOWING UP A WHALE

"A spectacular incident took place Saturday last on Pemaquid Point facing Johns Bay, in the blowing up of a gigantic dead whale that drifted ashore high on the rocks last summer. Dynamite Contractor Charles Sherman assisted by E. M. Gammage, under inspection of Health Commissioner W. Fossett of Bristol with the writer, witnessed the pyrotechnical display."

This is followed by a rather lengthy and technical explanation of how a bunch of dynamite was stuffed in the dead whale and connected to the battery 500 feet up the shore. You can picture this if you've ever seen the cartoons where the coyote pushes down on the plunger to set off the bomb that always fails to kill the roadrunner.

"The carcass was sixty feet long and estimated to weigh over twenty tons. Not much had disappeared after the blubber was taken off last fall."

Even in 1919, they still would have harvested whale blubber for the precious oil it provided. The discovery of oil from the earth played a role in bringing about the end of whaling. It's good that we no longer hunt these wonderful creatures, but now overuse of fossil fuels may bring about the end of the world, so as is usually the case with history, it was a bit of a mixed bag.

"At a warning to a few spectators well out of danger, Charlie Sherman pulled the pump handle and with a roar that shook ground a black mass of dead whale, bones, fat, earth and stones, filled the sky with a dark cloud, rising fifty feet or more. One rock weighing a hundred pounds fell behind the safety line and plowed deep in the pasture. The shore front in all directions was filled with broken bones and flesh and a perfume not from 'Araby the blessed' came eastward on the strong wind blowing."

It still took more effort to eliminate the carcass entirely and some 60 pounds of dynamite.

The Bristol Board of Health was "commended for efforts to protect public safety and relieve the residents and summer folks of what threatened to be a serious menace."

This dispatch appeared in The Courier-Gazette, but was reported by "Uncle Dan" in the Lincoln County News. Your guess is as good as mine as to why his byline was "Uncle Dan." But one good Dan deserves another.

When I was doing research on whaling for my book, I read accounts that people on shore could smell the ships before they could see them coming in, so you can imagine the stench that carcass kicked up. Another quick note: if the spectators were "well out of danger," how did that boulder land across the safety line?

Massive YMCA effort

The newspapers 100 years ago were full of plugs for the YMCA.

There was an entire supplement in The Courier-Gazette, titled "Reconstruction for Maine."

The lengthy headline states: "Intelligence, Character, Christian Integrity and National Patriotism to Meet the Bolshevism of Class Hatred, Ignorance and Brutalism —-Common Sense Plan to Enlist State's Young Manhood, Backed by Business Interests, Church and Educational Organizations—$350,000 Required for Two Years’ Operation of the Plan—Great Training Center to Be Established on Shore of Lake Cobbosseecontee."

The interior pages include maps, charts, diagrams, plans to organize with military precision.

There was an ambitious plan to raise $350,000 between April 7 and April 14, which would be used to improve YMCA buildings and reach even "...the remotest town and the smallest hamlet of the state."

It would also establish a 200-acre training center with 29 new buildings, complete equipment and a large staff of instructors and lecturers at Lake Cobbosseecontee, Winthrop; ...to care tor and instruct 2,500 men and boys annually."

The education would include class work, leadership training including public speaking, "Americanization" to teach English and citizenship, Bible classes, physical education, athletics, thrift and budgeting. Boys would also learn clean speech, clean sport and clean living.

The purpose of all this?

"The Program is Worth Your Support -- It is a Distinct War Issue -- We Must Replace the Leaders Who Will not Return — Our Maine Boys Are the Hope of the World."

So it appears this was about replacing the young men and future leaders in the community who had been lost in World War I.

The mention of Bolshevism got me curious and I found an interesting NPR article online about the U.S. military intervention in Russia right after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

"The words 'Secretary H. B. Emmez, American YMCA' are carved in English above a cross into the granite slab. There are no dates, epitaphs or other inscriptions," Lucian Kim writes in the May 2018 article, titled "In Russia, Scant Traces And Negative Memories Of A Century-Old U.S. Intervention."

"Emmez is one of the Americans who didn't come home from a U.S. military intervention that began in 1918," Kim wrote. "He died of typhus while part of a YMCA group that entertained and ministered to American troops sent to protect military stocks in the violent aftermath of the Russian Revolution."

You can read that full article at npr.org.

Daniel Dunkle lives in Rockland. He is author of the novel, "The Scrimshaw Worm." Send in your stories, photos and memories via email at: ddunkle@villagesoup.com; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Vintage Ink columns rely on back issues of The Courier-Gazette for source material. Other sources will be cited specifically.

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