Warner Publishing Newcastle, Maine

119 pages, $14.95.

New book explores circus ship sinking

There is something for almost everyone in this meaty little book about the Royal Tar maritime disaster that took place on October 25, 1836. Vinalhaven native Mark Warner has taken a sea catastrophe and expanded it into a look at the 19th-century Downeast world that produced the tragic spectacle of a steamship filled with circus animals and over 90 passengers and crew, which was consumed by flames.

Warner grew up on Vinalhaven in a house that overlooked East Penobscot Bay. As the house was being built in 1836, he writes, “Workers spotted the fire on Royal Tar and sat on the ridgepole witnessing the tragedy unfolding a little over a mile away.” As a child, Warner tells us, “He heard many tales surrounding the Royal Tar and the fate of her animals.”

Warner begins the story in Carlton, New Brunswick, where Royal Tar was built. We are told that this part of Canada exported quantities of “soft wood” lumber to ship builders in Great Britain, America and the West Indies. Warner then gives a detailed description of the way ships were designed, using wooden half models as scaled-down versions of the larger vessel that would eventually be built.

Following the description of the shipbuilding process, Warner tells us that the 164-foot Royal Tar was both a steamer and a sailing vessel with the advantages and disadvantages of each. (Sails were used on ocean crossings and were a valuable backup on coastal routes if the engine broke down or ran out of fuel.) The author spends a chapter describing the early steam propulsion engine and the potential difficulties that could arise. Needless to say, there were many.

Well into the book we are introduced to the traveling circus, one of the chief forms of entertainment in early nineteenth century North America. In the fall of 1836, the circus in question had completed an exhausting three-month tour of the Maritime Provinces.

The book’s pace quickens when we get to the author’s description of the fateful trip. In October 1836 Royal Tar was booked to take a traveling circus-including an elephant named Mogul, a Bengal tiger, a zebra, a hyena, two lions, two dromedaries and assorted smaller animals-from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Portland, Maine. In addition, there were 90 passengers and crew. It is significant that two of the ship’s four lifeboats were removed to make room for the animals.

A century-and-a-half later it is impossible to know exactly what caused the fire, but Warner suggests it is likely that the ship’s boilers were almost dry by the time Royal Tar entered Penobscot Bay en route to Portland. The overheated tanks ignited a pair of wooden wedges beneath a special stall for the elephant and fire quickly spread throughout the ship’s hold, where the firefighting equipment was also located.

As fire consumed the ship, the desperate captain attempted to beach his vessel on the eastern shore of Vinalhaven. He never made it. Some passengers managed to get off Royal Tar in the remaining lifeboats, though 31 drowned. Fortunately the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service vessel Veto showed up and saved 60 people. Most of the animals swam frantically around the boat, eventually drowning. Others perished in their cages. The body of Mogul, the elephant, was found floating near Brimstone Island a few days later.

Author Mark Warner packs a great deal of information into 119 pages, while admitting that much of what happened in the ship’s final hours can never fully be known.

Another came out recently about the Royal Tar. The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen (Candlewick Press), written for children (see “Island readers program takes The Circus Ship to 10 islands,” The Working Waterfront, October 2009). This book is based on the historical event but has a happier ending: the zoo animals swim to Vinalhaven, and are taken in by islanders.

Harry Gratwick’s new book is Hidden History of Maine (The History Press).