Twilight Time

Interesting Research Related to Maritime Maine
By Charles H. Lagerbom | Apr 29, 2021
Photo by: Charles H. Lagerbom The damaged mid-ship is clearly visible on the Twilight, which sank in Moosehead Lake in 1921.

The current passenger excursion boat on Moosehead Lake is called the Katadhin, or more affectionately, Kate. I saw it a few summers back while exploring the Greenville region. Then I discovered that Katadhin was sister ship to an earlier vessel named Twilight, actually Twilight II. When I found out that particular Twilight had sunk in the lake at its anchorage and was still there and accessible to scuba divers, I was hooked!

At 118 square miles, Moosehead Lake is huge. It is the pride of northern Maine, the state’s largest body of fresh water, and largest mountain lake in the eastern United States. Nearly 40 miles long, its widest point is distant enough that the earth’s curvature prevents you from seeing the far shore. Its deepest point is 230 feet, right off the towering Kineo cliffs. Moosehead is also known for its lake passenger steamers, some of which are wrecks located beneath its waters.

The lake was used by native Americans, then explorers, then loggers and then “sports,” those who come to fish and camp and vacation along its shores. In 1836, an early settler named Hogan built the first steamboat on the lake. He was a logger, dam builder, and river driver. Sources suggest the vessel was named Moosehead.

A succession of steamboats soon followed, many of which catered to the growing vacation industry highlighted by the large hotel at Mt. Kineo. Many of the vessels sported special amenities for passengers and this growing summer trade. Tourists, vacationers and rusticators flocked to the area.

Many visitors, as well as local schools and organizations willingly paid for scenic voyages up the lake, especially since roads were few and far between. These excursions were usually accompanied by bands playing and flags flying. If you have ever been at Moosehead Lake on one of those flawless, gorgeous summer days, you know what they were seeking.

The steamboats stayed financially viable during the off-season by towing booms of logs and hauling freight. They could carry quite a bit, especially using towed barges alongside them, or behind, if the weather turned bad.

Steamboats such as Fairy of the Lake, Governor Coburn, and Ripple operated on the lake during the 1860s, '70s and '80s. Twilight I was operating by the mid-1880s. This first Twilight was built in Bath and then brought by rail to Guilford. From there, 50 oxen pairs hauled it uphill to Greenville. That must have been quite a sight!

Twilight II was built in Greenville Junction in 1910 as another excursion boat for the lake, owned and operated by the Coburn Steamboat Co. It was patterned off the older version of the same name. This newer Twilight was 96 feet long with a beam of 20 feet. Propulsion was originally steam and propeller, until it was converted to diesel after World War I. Twilight was ironclad to the waterline for protection against ice, especially since it was stored over winter at a mooring just outside Greenville — which is how it met its fate.

During a particularly cold and nasty winter in February 1921, Twilight was damaged by thick lake ice which holed the vessel, causing it to gently settle into the water, its bow still moored to the pier. Located just off the appropriately named Steamboat Point a little way up the lake from Greenville Junction, the wreck today is accessible only by boat — shore access is prohibited. Twilight is protected by the state of Maine; nothing is allowed to be removed.

So there sits a shipwreck that can be found just below the surface and slopes downward to about 40 feet, is easily accessible by boat and located in a beautiful Maine lake. Sounds like a road trip to me! Our visit turned out to be a great experience.

Finding the actual coordinates at first was kind of challenging, but cellphones and Google Earth helped us eventually to pinpoint the site. As we motored over the spot, the brilliant sunlight made it difficult to see if there was anything below. I grabbed my mask and fins and jumped overboard to see if we were close.

When I put my face underwater, the entire wreck became startlingly visible. The lake water visibility was incredible — I could see the bow just below my fins and the length of the vessel trailing off into the deepening blueish-green water. The hull appeared intact, but the mid-ship superstructure looked quite broken up. I could not wait to get the rest of my scuba gear on and investigate further.

Some of the original pier still exists, but the part that had moored Twilight was all smashed up, settling just below the surface. The ice that February must have been devastating, enough to take part of the pier down with Twilight. It looked like the steamer was still moored, its bow pointed toward the surface, about 5 feet above. I gave the pier debris a cursory examination but then turned my attention to the main attraction.

Starting at the bow, I followed the vessel slowly on its downward incline until I reached the stern at about 40 feet deep. Twilight sits quietly in the mud and looks like it just settled gently along the shore incline once it had been holed by the ice.

The bow shows an access hatch just behind the stem, kind of beckoning me to check it out. I glanced in as I swam by but declined the offer to enter; confined submerged environments require more experience and scuba training than what I had at the time.

The decking area was quite intact, except in the area around the superstructure, where ice had smashed most of the woodwork. In fact, the mid-ship area showed the most damage; much of the bridge and upper housing were not much more than splintered boards.

It was clear that each successive winter’s ice had done a number on the decking and structure while it sat at water level, until the vessel settled further and further below the surface. In the deepening gloom, I tried to make sense of what I was looking at, trying to image the wheelhouse, or where the passengers gathered. Later, using contemporary photos of the Kate helped me envision more of the Twilight’s deck layout.

The tangle of superstructure debris was now home to many fish, many of whom came out from the recesses to investigate me as I swam by. Bass and perch seemed particularly abundant. They would come out, look at me and then go back into the dingy shadows.

After the wreckage of mid-ship, the rest of the vessel was remarkably intact. A wide expanse of intact decking continued to the stern. Remainders of the aft superstructure also offered access into the vessel, again tempting me to enter, but not wise for me to do so. I would swim to the opening and peer into the murky interior. Glimpsing remnants of a jumbled pile of stairway debris, I tried to picture what it might have looked like back in the day.

The more I explored Twilight, the more I felt the nostalgia practically pulsating off the ship as I swam along. That really hit home when I arrived off the stern. To me, the rounded stern was the most interesting and haunting aspect of Twilight. Maybe it was because I was at the deepest part of the ship, the light had subtly changed and the atmosphere was more somber.

Visibility was still excellent, but everything had taken on a deeper greenish tinge that gave it a more melancholy-like atmosphere. With only the sound of my breathing and exhalations, the stern area was hushed and soft, like a clearing in the forest or a quiet chapel. I felt contented, at peace.

In my mind I could picture passengers from an earlier century thronging the deck as they leaned on the railing and watched the lakeside scenery go by, while on a tour of the area or possibly on their way for an extended vacation at the Mt. Kineo House half-way up the lake. In the silent water, I could almost hear echoes of excited voices and laughter as Twilight chugged along. I half expected to see a bowler or straw hat or an elegant parasol. The sense of history and life and old-time summers in Maine was palpable. I gave a small salute to those ghosts gathered at the stern and then ascended toward the summer sunlight and surface.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through Historypress.com.

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