Of the many shipwrecks that have occurred around Penobscot Bay, one of the more peculiar and uniquely tragic was the 1836 wreck of the Royal Tar. You may have heard about it — the ship that caught fire while crowded with circus animals, or the reports of elephants and tigers swimming in Penobscot Bay.

Royal Tar was a 160-foot-long, 24-foot-wide wooden sidepaddle-wheel steamship built in Carleton, Canada, at the shipyard of William and Isaac Olive. It was named in honor of England’s King William IV, the young monarch in a sailor suit affectionately called the Royal Tar. The $40,000 ship was launched in November 1835.

Royal Tar displaced 400 tons and had one square-rigged mast situated between two smokestacks at the bow. The coastal steamer was built to carry passengers and freight between St. John, Eastport and Portland. Its new boiler system was the talk of the town. In fact, on June 5, 1836, Royal Tar set a speed record between Eastport and St. John with a passage clocked at less than five hours. Maine maritime history was becoming modernized!

By October 1836, Capt. Thomas Reed was in command. On Oct. 21, Royal Tar departed Peter’s wharf in Eastport for Portland. The steamer was jam-packed with cargo, passengers, a brass band, and numerous exotic animals from a circus menagerie. Various reports put the number of people aboard between 90 and 100, including a crew of 21.

Burgess’ World Famed Circus and Menagerie of Wild Animals, Birds and Reptiles was also known as Burgess and Dexter’s Zoological Institute. They had chartered Royal Tar to take them to Thomaston after traveling extensively through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They had just given an exhibition in St. John and now planned to return to the U.S.

Managed by a man named Fuller, the circus, sources said, consisted of an elephant, two camels, and a variety of captive beasts and birds. The elephant, camels and a number of the caged animals were all situated on deck. Another source says the animals included six Arabian horses, some lions, a leopard, a Bengal tiger, two camels, an elephant named Mogul, several monkeys, pythons, cobras and other reptiles, most of which were kept in cages below deck. The elephant, too large for the hold, was reportedly chained to the upper deck.

Besides exotic animals, there was also a large waxwork exhibit, and a huge show-wagon called an omnibus, which had to have been lashed to the deck, too big to go below. In addition, a large number of horses and wagons were aboard. One source notes two of the vessel’s four lifeboats had to be removed in order to clear the deck for this assortment of cargo.

Royal Tar that trip also carried Dexter’s Locomotive Museum brass band and all their instruments. The overcrowded ship and cages made it difficult to move around on deck, so most passengers opted to stay below in their quarters.

A huge crowd at the St. John wharf gathered to catch a glimpse of the exotic animals and hear the band play. It was a festive occasion. A quick trip to Eastport and all seemed well.

But then Royal Tar encountered bad weather. Out of Eastport, they diverted to Little River near Cutler to sit out some fierce winds. For nearly three days they waited, then finally decided to push on. Foul weather continued and they put into Machias Bay until midnight when winds finally moderated.

About 1:30 p.m. the following day, they were in eastern Penobscot Bay, when the ship’s fireman reported the water in the boiler was too low for safety. This apparently had been due to the neglect of the second engineer. Capt. Reed ordered the engine stopped, safety valve opened, and their anchor dropped. They were less than two miles from the Fox Islands.

The fire in the boiler was put out, but at 2 p.m. the steward reported flames below decks. One source says the fire was near the animal cages; others stated the animals had all been caged on deck.

The heat and flames became too intense for the crew to reach the nearby fire engine, so they were unable to battle the blaze. Flames quickly consumed the firefighting equipment, producing so much smoke and heat that it prevented use of the ship’s steam engine to more quickly get to shore.

When Royal Tar first caught fire, it had been anchored near the channels at Deer Isle. The vessel’s cable was promptly slipped, and its jib and mainsail set as they tried to make for nearest land. Rising northwesterly winds quickly fanned the flames.

The ship drifted while afire and Capt. Reed, with two crewmen, lowered one of their two remaining lifeboats at the stern and got into it. His plan was to use rafts to save as many as possible. However, 16 men lowered the second and larger lifeboat and rowed away, leaving everyone else to their fate. Those 16 safely reached Isle au Haut.

The scene aboard Royal Tar was horrific. Amidst the screams of caged animals, the trapped, terrified passengers watched the flames creep closer. Several people jumped into the water and grabbed hold of a wooden raft. One source states the panicked elephant jumped off the ship at this time and swamped the raft and people on it. The two camels were pushed overboard and started to swim to land, but never made it ashore.

Royal Tar afire in Penobscot Bay (from S.A. Howland’s Steamboat disasters and railroad accidents in the United States, 1840)

Another story tells of one passenger who tried to take all his gold and valuables with him as he jumped overboard, fighting to stay afloat until his greed dragged him under. Still another story tells of local fishermen helping save passengers and feeding exotic animals on the islands.

A small schooner, the Revenue Cutter Veto, commanded by Howland Dyer of Castine, arrived to assist within half an hour of the fire. Its small boats were not much help; one source suggests the cutter captain did not get too close to the burning vessel for fear of the gunpowder he was carrying. Capt. Reed was able to rescue about 40 people from the water. Survivors eventually went on to Portland.

All the zoo animals and 32 passengers and crew perished in the blaze; one source states only two horses survived among all the animals. Another source says four men, nine women and 10 children had been lost.


Newspaper account of the tragedy (from The Courier October 29, 1836).


The only bit of wreckage reported to have been recovered was a travel trunk, supposedly filled with cash. Royal Tar burned for four more hours, drifting about five or six miles and then eventually sank off Vinalhaven. On Nov. 21, its burned hulk was spotted by a schooner near Cash Ledge. The vessel was apparently uninsured; losses totaled over $100,000.

It was one of the biggest events to happen in the state’s 16 years. Burials for some of the victims were reportedly attended by 22,000 people. An impressive funeral service was held, led by the Rev. Mr. Brooke. Then a brief address was made by the Rev. Mr. Sohon of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Those to be deposited in their last earthly rest were all strangers. Some of them were members of the same family, and, in one or two instances, surviving relations were present. One mother, a German, whose husband is among the lost, cast herself upon the coffin of her two only children, in agonies seldom witnessed.”

Over the years, the tragedy has survived by the retelling of it. For some time, survivors apparently gathered for a yearly dinner. There is something poignant about imagining the flames on deck, no lifeboats available, people and animals retreating from the conflagration as it neared. Various artists have used the story as their muse.

Charles Codman’s painting of the disaster is striking, with the ship heeling over in dramatic waves all ablaze, while animals and passengers flounder in the water.

Charles Codman’s 1836 depiction of the Royal Tar (from Documentary Art Nova Scotia Archives accession no. 1979-147 #71)

Sally Caldwell Fisher’s tribute in oil shows various components of the circus underwater seemingly still in fanciful performance. Artist Anne Bailey’s work is a moving scroll view box of the tragedy. It is entitled “The Account of the Royal Tar” and can be seen on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/161933008).

Local legends tell of exotic snakes taking over North Haven or Crotch Island, zebras seen swimming in Penobscot Bay, “Mogul” the circus elephant washing up on Brimstone Island, or tigers coming ashore only to be shot by alarmed island residents. Maritime historian Edward R. Snow wrote of the tragedy and included a photo of his daughter holding an apparent elephant tooth, found by an islander. There are also stories of wild howls and African animal noises heard on dark nights among the islands.

And if that is not enough to whet your appetite or hook you with this story, Royal Tar’s iron safe was said to have been filled with gold coins, proceeds from earlier performances. It had apparently not been saved from the fire and is believed to be among the wreckage, somewhere under the waters of east Penobscot Bay. Probably right next to that camel skull.

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.


filed under: