Luther Little and Hesper

By Phil Di Vece

The story of the Luther Little and Hesper, the so-called “last of the four-masted schooners,” is the story of a once-upon-a-time landmark on the Wiscasset waterfront. Gone for almost 30 years, the old ships are fondly remembered by one generation but unknown to those born after 1998 whenthey were unceremoniously broken up and hauled away to the landfill. There were numerous attempts to do something with the odds and ends of the old ships that were salvaged. Nothing of any consequence happened and now even those pieces have disappeared.

All of which has me curious about this renewed interest in Wiscasset’s famous schooners and plans for Wiscasset Schoonerfest, a 5-day event “celebrating the town’s colorful nautical history.” Wiscasset’s maritime history certainly goes a lot further back in the past than the Luther Little and Hesper. With that said, the old ships were something fantastic to see. Nobody who ever saw them could forget them.

The Luther Little, the smaller of the two schooners was the one beached closest to the shore. When I first saw her in the 1970s all four of her masts were still in place and a length of anchor chain hung from her bow. The Luther Little was built in Somerset, Massachusetts at the Read Brothers shipyard. She was launched Dec. 17, 1917 and measured roughly 200-feet from stem to stern, with a beam of about 40-feet and depth of just under 20 feet. The Luther Little’s builders equipped her with a coalfired steam boiler and “donkey” engine that was used for powering the capstan raising her sails and hoisting the anchors. The boiler also provided heat and hot water for the cabin. Her owners were Rogers & Webb of Boston; W. P. Richardson was her first captain. She was fitted out as a merchant ship and turned a profit for her owners through the 1920s.

It was under Capt. Richardson’s command that the Luther Little gained national notoriety in June 1918. On that day her crew rescued two balloonists, Arthur R Houghton and Edward B. Packard off the coast of Delaware. After lifting off from Cape May, New Jersey the balloonists soon found themselves into trouble and rapidly began losing altitude. The Luther Little crew spotted the balloon watching as it came down crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. Captain Richardson ordered his helmsman to steer the ship to the rescue. Not only did the crew save the pilots, they also managed to salvage the balloon by hauling it aboard.

But by the 1930s, the days of sailing ships were waning; no matter how strong the winds blew schooners could never compete with faster steam-powered vessels. The Luther Little’s sailing days ended and in June 1932 she was auctioned off to Frank W. Winter of Auburn, Maine who bought her lock stock and barrel for $600. Winter was an enterprising man who owned the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railroad, a narrow-gauge line. Winter had an idea to carry timber harvested in northern Maine over his railroad to Wiscasset where he’d then off-load it to the Luther Little. His plan was to ship his product to markets in New York and Boston. Winter had the Luther Little towed and to Wiscasset and berthed in the harbor. Unfortunately, Winter’s plans fell through and the Luther Little never went to sea again. The final curtain fell in 1936 when her steam winch was started for the last time and used to haul the ship to her final resting place in the mudflat near the present-day Wiscasset Memorial Pier.

Hesper and Luther Little

The Hesper, the larger of the two ships was closest to the Sheepscot River. Her hull leaned over on its port side and blackened from the weather and missing all four of her masts which were cut down in the 1940s. The Hesper shared a fate similar to the Luther Little. She was built in 1918 by the Crowninshield Shipbuilding Company located in South Somerset, Massachusetts and measured 210 feet, with a beam of 41 feet and depth of 20 feet. She was built for Rodgers & Webb of Boston and launched on July 4, 1918. The Hesper suffered a bad omen on the day of her launching when the wooden “ways” collapsed under her weight delaying the launching. It’s was late August before the Hesper finally took to the water majestically cruising down the Taunton River to the Atlantic.

Also, a cargo ship, the Hesper made several trans-Atlantic voyages, one to Lisbon, Spain and another to France. She carried cargos of coal, case oil and fertilizer. The Hesper too, turned a tidy profit for its owners at least until the early 1920s. But from then things took a turn for the worse. In February 1925 the Hesper fully loaded with timber ran aground off Boston Harbor. All the lumber had to be off-loaded and nine tugboats needed to tow her to deep water. The winter of 1928 found the Hesper without work berthed in Rockland, Maine. Later she was towed to Portland where she remained until purchased by Frank W. Winter in September of 1932. She too was brought to Wiscasset harbor only to suffer the same fate as the Luther Little.

Now about their names; Hesper, shortened from Hesperus, comes from classical Greek mythology and means the Evening Star. Hesperus was the son of Eos, Goddess of the Dawn. But maybe the name had nothing to do with the Greek god, and instead was in honor of the famous narrative poem The Wreck of the Hesperus, penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1842.

Longfellow drew inspiration for his dramatic prose from a shipwreck where all souls were lost that may have had a Wiscasset connection. Part of the poem appears to refer to the ill-fated schooner Favorite that shipped out of Wiscasset. The Favorite was wrecked one stormy night in December 1839 at Norman’s Woe, a rocky reef off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. All 20 hands were lost, among them a woman found washed ashore the following morning tied to a mast. One verse of The Wreck of the Hesperus would seem to recall the Favorite’s tragic fate: " At daybreak, on the bleak sea beach, A fisherman stood aghast. To see the form of a maiden fair, Lashed close to a drifting mast... "

The Luther Little was named for American Naval hero Luther Little, a midshipman aboard the Revolutionary warship Protector. Little, born in 1756 on his family’s farm in Marshfield, Massachusetts went to the sea at the age of 15. He’s remembered for having taken part in a memorable sea battle that ended in the sinking of the Admiral Duff, a 32-gun British warship.

Midshipman Little commanded a gun crew manning a 14-pound cannon near the stern of the Protector. He was severely wounded, by an enemy cannon blast as the enemy ship was sinking. After recovering Little rejoined the crew of the Protector in time to capture the 100-ton brig, the Good Design, a British merchant ship. Little was placed in command of the captured ship and later rose to the rank of captain.

Before concluding I want to share with you a mystery of the old Wiscasset schooners that’s never been solved. What happened to the ships’ anchors. There are some who say they were sold for scrap during World War II. Others however claim they’re still there at the waterfront buried somewhere in the mudflat north of where the ships were abandoned. There might be some truth in that. The late Chris Roy of Westport Island had collected a great deal of memorabilia about the old ships. He once told me a few years back the seven-ton anchors were buried in the mudflat a short distance from where the ships were grounded. Chris said he knew exactly where the anchors were, although never shared the spot with me.

In 1994 Roy compiled an informative pamphlet called, “The Wiscasset Ships – A Remembrance.” Along with being a good read, it’s one of the best researched essays on the Luther Little and Hesper.

Phil Di Vece earned a B.A. in Journalism studies from Colorado State University and a M.A. in journalism at the University of South Florida. He’s the author of three Wiscasset books; “Wiscasset and Its Times”, “More Wiscasset and Its Times”, and “The Town Crier”. Contact him at pdivece@roadrunner.com