Newspaper column: Half Seas Over: A blaze of Hollywood fame

Of the thousands of ships built in Maine, most if not all have had interesting events, careers, and fates. Sadly, many have been long forgotten, except perhaps by a curious maritime historian compiling a database, or noticed as a painting hanging in a living room, a picture in a nautical book on a library shelf, or as an entry in a dusty logbook. locked away in a museum, or seen as a trapped photo, faded behind a glass frame.

Which is a bit of a shame, if you think about it, because all of these ships represent our Maine maritime history…and each has interesting stories, facts, and memories associated with it. And it would be a tragic thing if they fell into oblivion and were forgotten.

I was fortunate to receive several Hyde Windlass Co. pamphlets of Maine-built ships from an interested reader. The Hyde Co. of Bath produced steering gear, windlasses, winches and capstans for virtually every size and class of vessel in the naval and commercial services.

Hyde Windlass was the precursor to today’s Bath Iron Works and was founded in 1895 to manufacture deck machinery. As America became more international in this age of globalization, demands for shipping increased the size and scope of the Bath Company’s operations. Recognized for their quality, they sent products all over the world.

At one point, the company issued a series of large flyers or newspaper advertisements, each highlighting a particular vessel built in Maine. Of course, they mention Hyde products, but they also include useful data such as the launch date, dimensions and tonnage of that particular vessel.

A picture or photograph of the ship is also found there, usually followed by various excerpts of historical facts and events throughout the ship’s career. These snippets are often interesting, concerning certain aspects of his life and/or his destiny.

Take, for example, the Courtney C. Houck. Built in 1913 at the GG Deering shipyard in Bath, she was nearly 219 feet long. The five-masted 1,627-ton steel schooner was launched on July 8 of the same year in the Kennebec River.

It cost $85,000 to build and sported three decks. Money has not been spared for its finish. The large aft cabin was trimmed in mahogany and ash and included a spacious master’s quarters, with a bath and pantry. Each of the five decent sized cabins had their own clothes closet.

The steel schooner is named after one of the brokerage firm MW Houck & Brothers. The namesake’s wife named the ship when it was launched in 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I.

The Courtney C. Houck spent most of her career sailing under the Deering flag, but after the war she lay dormant, barely used and left to slowly deteriorate. Like many other sailing ships at that time, her abandonment and fate seemed certain.

That is until he was discovered by an exciting new industry from California known as Hollywood. Wanting it for a silent film shoot, the producers chartered the ship in 1921 and moved it to Boston Harbor.

Author Peter B. Kyne exiting a United Air Lines flight in the 1930s. Source: Los Angeles Times https://digital.library.ucla.edu/catalog/ark:/21198/zz002cvf67

There, it would be part of a movie based on a popular Cappy Ricks book series by author Peter Bernhard Kyne. A prolific American novelist, Kyne published dozens of books and short stories between 1904 and 1940. He was born and died in San Francisco.

Many of his works were adapted into screenplays during Hollywood’s early years, and over 100 films were made from his books between 1914 and 1952, including the Kyne-created character Cappy Ricks.

In 1921, Hollywood wanted to film this popular character and this book series. Veteran actor Thomas Meighan has been cast as Ricks, a soft-spoken, crispy Scottish captain aboard his schooner Retriever. The ship’s stage name even meant that the Courtney C. Houckthe ship’s name had to be temporarily changed on the official ship’s register.

One of the film’s highlights included a big fight scene aboard a ship between Ricks and a giant sailor named Ole Peterson. The tall sailor was played by Ivan Linow, a Latvian-American wrestler, whose good looks and size helped him become a character actor in American films of this era.

Actor Thomas Meighan, left, as Cappy Ricks in a still from the 1921 American film Cappy Ricks, the fight scene aboard the Courtney C. Houck, the ship’s stage name Retriever. Michael A. Dean. Public domain image

Hyde’s publicity leaflet contains a sketch of the scene as it was filmed aboard the schooner. It must have been quite a show. An image also survived from the film showing Cappy Ricks with his fists raised.

Unfortunately, it’s unknown if a complete copy of this Cappy Ricks movie still exists. The Library of Congress Database of American Silent Films reports that the UCLA Film and Television Archives lists a preserved but incomplete copy of the film.

After the schooner’s brush with Hollywood fame, the ship fell into disuse and disrepair. At some point, probably around 1930, she was towed to Mill Cove in Boothbay Harbor and virtually abandoned.

Courtney C. Houck in her final resting place on the mudflats of Boothbay at Mill Cove, stripped but not emptied. Andrew Toppan, Haze Gray & Underway at https://www.hazegray.org/about.htm

Boothbay’s Mill Cove became a popular dumping ground for large, obsolete schooners during the Great Depression. At least five of them, possibly more, sat in the mud. Some were eventually stripped and emptied, others were removed for use as barges, and some were left to rot, including the Courtney C. Houck.

Zebedee E. Cliff, left, Courtney C. Houck and Edna M. McKnight at Mill Cove in the late 1930s. Andrew Toppan, Haze Gray & Underway at https://www.hazegray.org/about.htm

Finally, his remains were sold for scrap in 1937. The price was $255. Stripped to where it lay, the remaining hulk was left to rot alongside fellow schooner Edna M. McKnight. In 1945, to celebrate the victory of the United States over Japan in World War II, the two former schooners were burnt down.

One hull burned to the waterline; the other remained partially intact. Locals speak of three ships being burnt that night, but nothing has been confirmed about this. If you look closely today you can still see some of the remains of these ships, although which is which is not entirely clear.

Either way, the Maine-built schooner Courtney C. Houck ended his life in a burst of glory. Come to think of it, much like a lot of Hollywood stars.

Charles H. Lagerbom teaches AP US history at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at [email protected] He is the author of “Whaling in Maine”, available on Historypress.com.

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