Lost Calais Sailors Honored at Cutler Lighthouse

Launched on April 11th, 1891 from the Rideout and Lord shipyard at the bottom of Barker Street, the Julia A. Warr completed many successful voyages before being lost, along with her crew, in 1897. Two bodies were recently connected with the ship and a plaque has been installed at Cutler Lighthouse. (Photo courtesy St. Croix Historical Society)

By Lura Jackson

 

While modern Calais does not boast a seafaring fleet of trading vessels, there was a time when it was one of the busiest ports in the United States. That was the case in 1897, the year in which the Calais-built vessel Julia A. Warr, operated by a crew of five local men, went missing. Though a frantic search ensued, no trace of the men could be found – until earlier this year, when historian Debra Baldwin confirmed the connection between two bodies that washed ashore in Cutler 120 years ago. A plaque for the five crewmen was placed at Little River Lighthouse last month.

The Julia A. Warr was among the many vessels built at the Rideout and Lord shipyard, located at the end of Barker Street. The schooner was launched in 1891, and, per Al Churchill of the St. Croix Historical Society, it was a “pretty good-sized ship.” Based on Churchill’s research, the ship was built for and named by its captain, George D. Warr of St. Stephen. Warr’s brother had a wife by the name of Julia who had passed away just before the ship was finished. 

“[Warr] captained it throughout his life,” Churchill said. The ship made numerous successful journeys down the coast, traveling to the Caribbean and as far as South America. It was primarily bearing lumber from Calais, often obtained from the Murchie Lumber Yard. Warr completed approximately 25-30 trips in the vessel before its fateful final voyage. 

From local records, it can be determined that the Julia A. Warr had been loaded with lumber on December 7th, 1897. At the time, the ship was crewed by Captain Warr, Mate Leon “Fred” Wilson (married the week prior to his departure, and in the midst of planning his honeymoon), Cook Arthur Moses (who had a 9-month old baby at home), Seaman Willis Warr (Captain Warr’s nephew and father of two young sons), and Seaman Campbell McKay (father of two young girls). Captain Warr intended to leave port on December 17th and arrive in Martha’s Vineyard by Christmas. The weather, however, had other intentions.

“Those days, the weather was pretty much unknown,” Churchill said, describing how vessels would frequently find themselves at the mercy of the seas. “They didn’t have information on it.” A gale had formed off the coast, and the Julia A. Warr was trapped in it. “At that point, they disappeared,” Churchill said. 

The Julia A. Warr wasn’t the only vessel affected by the gale, and many others had to be abandoned by their crew. No one lost their lives, though, and all crewmembers were accounted for – all but those of the Calais schooner. Rumors began to come in of a ship spotted floundering with its hull floating above the water, and another from a lighthouse reported a sighting of a ship matching its description. Nothing panned out, and the search for the sailors continued.

On Christmas Eve the same year, the lighthouse keeper of Little River Lighthouse, Roscoe Johnson, made a grisly discovery – two bodies that had washed ashore. With no way of identifying the men and no knowledge of the missing ship, the bodies were buried the same day. The location of the graves was not clearly marked, though local legends were passed down in the community, and, a few years ago, a Boy Scout troop re-located and marked the informal cemetery with stones.

The ship itself was finally located in March of 1898 when it washed ashore on Long Island. It became clear that the ship had gotten caught in the gale and contemporary investigators surmised that the crew had perished, whether they had made it into a lifeboat or not. 

The two missing sailors buried at Cutler would have remained anonymous but for the efforts of Debra Baldwin. Baldwin, a lighthouse enthusiast and professional writer, had traveled to the Calais area to visit Whitlock Mills lighthouse, and from there she met with Churchill to discuss her suspicions. Following additional research, it was confirmed that the most likely identities of the two men were crewmembers of the Julia A. Warr. A plaque honoring the five seamen was formally installed at the Little River Lighthouse on September 19th during a formal presentation.