In its earliest days as a tourist destination, Bar Harbor was reached not by planes, trains, and automobiles, but by coastal steamer. “For Mount Desert [Island] direct,” one travel writer noted in 1871, “the favorite route from Boston is by rail to Portland, and thence by steamer to Southwest and Bar Harbors.” People who couldn’t stomach (literally) this sea-going route could take a train to Bangor and come down by stagecoach, but in that case they would “miss one great charm, namely, the ocean views of Mount Desert [that] must be seen from every point of approach.”
The last large side-wheeler steamer used in New England for both passenger and freight service was the 214-foot J. T. Morse, built in 1903-04 in East Boston for the Eastern Steamship Company. Powered by a 600-horsepower, single-beam engine, it traveled the Rockland, Maine to Bar Harbor run from April to October or November each year. Its side-wheel design was important in steadying the boat in shallow waters as the Morse made a dozen or so landings each day on her way up and down the coast, and ran among coastal ledges in often foggy conditions. The beam engine (as opposed to an inclined one) allowed for more cargo space and more efficient operation.
The ship was named for James Thomas Morse of the well-known maritime (shipping and towing) family from Bath, Maine. Morse’s nephew, Charles W. Morse (1856-1933), had made a fortune in the ice business, and subsequently founded the Eastern Steamship Company in 1901.
With a crew of 40, the Morse was licensed to carry 347 passengers. During the 1904 season, it left Rockland every day except Monday at 5:00 a.m., and traveled via Stonington, Southwest Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Seal Harbor, and Bar Harbor. (The trip took between five and seven hours, depending on the amount of freight carried.) The following year, stops were added at Dark Harbor, Sargentville, Deer Isle, and Brooklin. Return trips left Bar Harbor daily except Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
After 1913, when the Car Wars ended on Mount Desert Island, less people began traveling by sea. The steamer was sold to the Union Navigation Company of New York in 1933 and removed entirely from service in 1941.
FUN FACTS: From 1903 to 1908, a steamboat ticket from Boston to Bar Harbor cost $4.25 one-way or $8.00 round-trip. The Eastern Steamship Company was consolidated with two other lines in 1911 after Charles W. Morse had been convicted of violating federal banking laws and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The following year, he was pardoned by President Taft, who had been told by a panel of Army doctors that Morse was near death. Later, after Morse had been sent to a spa in Germany to recuperate, Taft learned that he was not sick at all, but had faked his illness by drinking a mix of chemicals and soapsuds.