For 120 years, the two shipwrecked sailors buried near Little River Lighthouse in Cutler, Maine have rested in total anonymity. Lighthouse keeper Roscoe Johnson, who buried them in 1897 when they washed ashore at the lighthouse, did not know to which wreck they belonged nor the possible names of the crew.
That has officially changed as of September 19, 2017. Family descendants, community members, and Lighthouse Digest staff met together in Cutler’s Bell Circle for a Lighthouse Digest sponsored dedication ceremony for a memorial plaque which provides details of both the ship and crew.
After a group hymn of “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” Lighthouse Digest editor Timothy Harrison began by recounting the story of how a letter, written to keeper Charles Seely at Machias Seal Island Lighthouse in 1898, started a chain of research that led to the discovery. The letter had been donated to Lighthouse Digest many years ago by long time Lighthouse Digest supporter Judi Kearney. While the wreck was identified in 2012 by Harrison’s initial research as the Julia A. Warr, and subsequently written up by him in the July/August issue of Lighthouse Digest that year, the identity of the crew remained unknown.
Through research and family contacting over the past two years, Lighthouse Digest historian, Debra Baldwin, was able to find the information which led to the memorial plaque being created to mark the graves on Little River Island.
Other speakers at the ceremony included Will Tuell from the Maine House of Representatives District 139, Debra Baldwin, and Carrie Norman who is the great, great granddaughter of Captain George D. Warr, the master of the vessel on that fateful trip.
Representative Tuell spoke of the importance of preserving this history and pointed out the impact of the early ship trade for which the Julia was constructed. He also talked of the irony that the ceremony was being held under similar circumstances of inclement weather that caused the Julia Warr to wreck. The effects of Hurricane Jose were due the next day in the Cutler area. But thanks to the efforts of Capt. Andy Patterson of Cutler, this did not prevent the descendants of the Warr family from briefly visiting Little River Island to view the graves.
Debra Baldwin spoke to the attendees giving an account of the shipwreck according to historic newspapers at that time. She also read a poem she had composed on Little River Island during Memorial Day weekend four months earlier when she had constructed the ocean rock pedestal base upon which the plaque is now mounted.
Carrie Norman from Baileyville, Maine then gave some interesting profiles and stories of the Julia A. Warr and her ancestors that had been passed down in the family. She spoke of the work and writings of her grandmother who had done a lot of personal research in the1960s through 1980s on the ship and its crew.
The plaque was then unveiled, and as each name of the crew was read, Kathleen Finnegan, managing editor of Lighthouse Digest, rang Little River Lighthouse’s historic fog bell, which is displayed in the town circle where the ceremony was held. All felt the emotional impact of the special moment.
The five crew members of the Julia A Warr were Captain George D. Warr, mate Leon “Fred” Wilson, cook Arthur Moses, seaman Willis Warr, and seaman Campbell McKay. None survived the shipwreck.
Following the unveiling, Jim Sherman of the chanty group “From Away Downeast” sang Crossing the Bar a poem written by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1889 about three years before his death. The tune, which was appreciated by all, was most recently created by Rani Arbo of the band Salamander Crossing. The ceremony was then brought to a close by Timothy Harrison, leading everyone in A Sailor’s Memoriam prayer.
Three Maine TV station crews were in attendance to record the event and interview those present for news stories that were broadcast later that evening on several regional TV channels.
The ceremony was felt to be a very successful and uplifting event by all who attended, especially the family members who had not known of one another and whose branches of the family had not met together since the wreck occurred 120 years ago.
Bringing families together through events like these, and Lighthouse Digest’s continual grave marker ceremonies to honor lighthouse keepers, help to motivate family members and those individuals with lighthouse keeper ancestry to preserve their history for their future generations.
In the case of the Julia A. Warr, while it may not be known exactly which two of the five crew members are buried on Little River Island, all of them were honored in the creation and dedication of the plaque. For 120 years, they have been referred to as the “unknown sailors” on Little River Island. But now their names are restored and their story told, thanks to the efforts of Lighthouse Digest Magazine.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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