The Russians Come to Southwest Harbor

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The Cimbria

In researching both Portland and now Mt. Desert Island, I’m often struck by how these seaports have always been so well-connected with international affairs.  Take, for instance, the story of the Cimbria, the Russian ship that made its home in Southwest Harbor for six  months in 1878 at the height of the Russo-Turkish War.

What was it doing there?  That’s what the folks of Southwest Harbor wanted to know when the steamer with a crew of 700 men first arrived.  That’s also what the reporters from the New York Times, Boston Globe and other national newspapers wanted to know as they rushed to the little village on Mt. Desert Island “like a flock of locusts upon a field of grain,” according to one wry local report.  And that’s what the British Naval Attache from Washington was sent to find out, arriving in Bar Harbor pretending to be just another early tourist intent on fishing off the landing pier but actually spying on the Russian officers who would arrive daily for refreshment at the Bar Harbor Club.

While residents of Southwest Harbor initially feared the foreigners, they quickly adjusted to their new visitors once they learned that the Russian ship was merely laying low in their remote part of the world and had no ill intent towards them. They had a fight to pick, not with the Americans, but with the English. As war raged between Russia and Turkey, intervention from England on behalf of Turkey looked likely.  That meant tensions between Russia and England were building, and Russia intended to send some “commerce destroyers,” or privateers, into the North Atlantic to intimidate England.

The Cimbria, it seems, was just marking time while a Philadelphia shipbuilder fitted out three American steamers and built a fourth for the purpose of antagonizing British merchant vessels.  The 700 naval personnel on board the Cimbria had evidently arrived in the U.S. to serve as crews for the Russian ships once they had been refitted in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, they waited for six months in the remote village of Southwest Harbor, Maine.

The folks of Southwest Harbor soon began to enjoy their new neighbors on the Cimbria, especially since they were constantly in need of supplies and became good customers of local merchants.  The crew came ashore every afternoon; they were well-behaved men, mostly Finnish rather than Russian, well-disciplined and friendly according to local reports.  But they had one habit the modest, retiring Downeasters found a bit perplexing: they would bathe in the brooks near the village, fully nude.

For their part, the crew seemed to enjoy Southwest Harbor except for one drawback:  no vodka.  Maine’s early prohibition laws confounded them, and a national newspaper reported that “the Draconian code of the State of Maine takes precious good care that they go back to the ship as sober as when they come to land.”

The officers from the ship seemed to have more freedom than the crew and moved more freely about the whole region.  They not only frequented the Bar Harbor Club but also dined at the homes of many local families.  These families in turn were invited for dinners on board ship, where local women were captivated by the fine linens.

Mt. Desert Island had at least one Russian resident, a man who lived near Otter Creek and worked as a gardener for many of the summer residents.  One would think he would be eager to meet his fellow Russians, to hear his native language and tales from home.  But instead of seeking out his countrymen, he disappeared from the island and remained out of touch until the Cimbria was gone.  Residents never knew why but speculated that he had been afraid of being captured and pressed into service by the Russians.

The Cimbria remained a fixture in the harbor throughout the summer months and into the fall. Finally, when the other ships were ready in Philadelphia, the Cimbria and its crew left its temporary Maine home for what proved to be an uneventful trip back across the Atlantic.

Tensions between Turkey and Russia lessened, and the Russian ships never needed to antagonize British merchant ships as they had planned.  No doubt the Finnish crew and the Russian officers eventually went back to their own villages and told tales of the strange Yankees who were scandalized by their bathing habits and never touched liquor.

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About Luann Yetter

Luann Yetter is the author of Bar Habor in the Roaring Twenties, Portland's Past and Remembering Franklin County, all published by the History Press. She is a writing instructor at the University of Maine at Farmington. She has had a life-long interest in social history beginning with a steady diet of Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a little girl in the Midwest. She now lives in an 18th century house in a small town in Maine and loves to "time travel" when she writes.
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