Out of Our Past

Suspicious Wartime Activity

Wed, 01/13/2021 - 8:00am

Rice Brothers shipyard in East Boothbay evolved, as did most local shipyards, from modest beginnings. One brother, Frank, started building small yachts at the end of School Street in 1882, and he was joined by younger brothers Will and Henry in 1891. Though they were very successful, Frank left to go back on his own next door in 1903.

Will and Henry had one of the earliest production lines for vessels, turning out streams of small power boats and sailboats. Additionally, they had a machine shop and foundry, which allowed them to create fittings and build their own engines. They supplied the U.S. government with lightships, rumchasers, tugboats, subchasers, and minesweepers. By 1954, when the owners were aging and ceased operating, they had built 783 vessels, many as large as about 150 feet.

Regarding the below story, there weren’t ordinarily night watchmen at local shipyards, but the Navy insisted watchmen be on site when their vessels were being built. Also the American population was constantly urged to be on the lookout for enemy activity, particularly along the coast.

Henry’s son, Baxter Rice, told the following story to his son, Robert Rice. I thank Robert for his help. – Barbara Rumsey

One night during 1942 a night watchman at Rice Brothers shipyard was making his rounds. While down on the wharf he noticed a blinking light north up the Damariscotta River. The watchman reported it to Henry Rice who in turn called my father, Baxter Rice. By the time my father got down to the shop the blinking light was gone. The following night at about the same time it happened again. This time my father got to the shop in time to see it. Sure enough it was a light up the river blinking on and off. Being a member of the Civil Defense, he had to report it, and the following night Navy personnel from Bath and the Coast Guard assembled on the Rice Brothers wharf and all saw the light blinking on and off just as if signaling a submarine in the river.

After investigating two nights later it was discovered that a man who had a place up river, directly in line with Rice Brothers, walked nightly down to a well in the middle of a field to draw his water. He carried a lantern which swung as he walked — hence the apparently blinking light. Baxter said that it was Thod [Theodore] Bryer who lived up in the Pleasant Cove area. I asked my cousin Kendall Hussey about this and sure enough he said he remembered it well, as the whole family got a big laugh over it at the time.