The History Press (2009)

Paperback, 128 pages, $19.99

Tales of Penobscot Bay

In the 1940s, Edith Quinn looked at the window of her kitchen on Eagle Island in Penobscot Bay and saw a submarine. She called to her husband, Jim, and they both ran outside, where Jim took a photo.

Was it a German or American submarine? I won’t give away the end of this fascinating story (the photo is included), but it’s an example of why Harry Gratwick’s new book, Penobscot Bay: People, Ports and Pastimes, is so much fun to read.

Gratwick’s book is history at the personal level. It includes the voices and the stories of those who have lived it or study it. Gratwick taught history for 46 years at the Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, so he gets the nuts and bolts of the bay’s history right. But he knows that it is people’s stories that make history come alive. (Readers of this newspaper know Gratwick, who is a regular contributor. Many of the stories in this book originally appeared in Working Waterfront and the Island Institute’s Island Journal).

The book is organized around several themes: ship stories, stories from wartime; accounts of island historical societies; and tales of island baseball and basketball players (including a tale of the author’s experience as a left-handed pitcher for the Vinalhaven baseball team).

To begin the book, Gratwick takes us on a trip up the Penobscot River, starting from Vinalhaven, where he has summered since the 1940s. This is not just a literary device: Gratwick has taken this trip in his own boat. It’s an excellent way to begin. It brings us back to the days when the river was the highway. And it also introduces many of the waterfront communities in the bay: Castine, Searsport, Winterport and Bucksport.

Along the way, Gratwick sprinkles in interesting historical tidbits. For example, in the 1880s men from Searsport captained 10 percent of all United States-flagged full-rigged ships. Or that Winterport got it’s name because, before the railroad, all goods shipped on the Penobscot River in winter had to be unloaded at Winterport and taken north by sleds.

We meet Earl Morrill in this chapter, one of the many engaging people that make this book so enjoyable. “Earl on the River” as he is called is a retired mechanical engineer who now builds ship models. Through his hobby, Morrill has become an expert on shipbuilding and the river’s history. Morrill lives in the house built in 1867 by his great-great-grandfather, who was the captain of a three-masted schooner. Morrill tells us the schooner wintered over in the cover near his home, where even today are the timbers of old sailing ships. From Morrill we get the sense that history, like the Penobscot River, as a living thing, passed from father to son and mother to daughter.

That sense of a personal connection to history continues in the chapter on island historical societies. We meet the remarkable Lewis Haskell, first president of the North Haven Historical Society. He is so dedicated to the cause that he broke into a burning store to try and salvage artifacts from the past. He picked up items at the island dump and took them home. Gratwick writes that his house eventually became an informal museum. Haskell built additions to this unique museum, and then donated his home to the historical society.

This is an eclectic, entertaining collection told with an engaging style and a flair for storytelling.