The tragedy of the waitresses: A 1902 boating accident claims 14 lives at the Isles of Shoals

Fourteen people died in Kittery, Maine on July 17, 1902.  I came across a list of the dead by accident, while browsing through some old Town Reports. All who died were young, including three pairs of sisters. How had these young people died at the Isles of Shoals? And why had I never heard about this event in Kittery’s history?

I soon learned that all perished by drowning, victims of a capsized whaleboat 200 feet off the shore of Appledore Island. Most of the dead, 12 women and two men, served as waitstaff at the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island, thus the event is recalled as the “Tragedy of the Waitresses.”

At the turn of the 20th century, the Isles of Shoals remained a mecca for summer visitors.   The Oceanic Hotel and the Appledore House attracted college students, teachers, and others for the same reasons that young people today take on similar jobs: they offer a great opportunity to spend the summer earning money in a fun social place.

Sources differ in explaining the details of exactly what happened on that overcast July day.  Some, including the skipper, Fred Miles, said the boat was overcome by a squall that struck as the boat was pulling into the harbor, while others say the accident resulted more from bad luck than angry seas.

This sketch of the Ipswich whaleboat accompanied a news story in the July 20, 1902 edition of the Boston Daily Globe.

In his book,  The Isles of Shoals in Lore and Legend, Lyman Rutledge provides an account based on interviews with shore witnesses. In this version, the whaleboat, loaded with its 16 passengers, set off for an afternoon excursion from the dock at Star Island under gray skies that suggested a brewing squall. After a short sail, the boat was returning to the harbor as the squall struck.

A witness interviewed by Rutledge says that the whaleboat was returning just as the afternoon steamer was completing its crossing from Portsmouth.  On the whaleboat, skipper Miles tacked to starboard to pull into Appledore Harbor. With the turn, the boat listed to its port side, and the young women on the boat crowded over to the starboard side, from where they could get a better view of the incoming boat.

But as the whaleboat passed into the lee of the steamer, the heavy wind was cut off.  As the sails went slack, the leaning boat shifted hard to starboard. With all the weight concentrated on the starboard side, water began to pour over the gunwales, overcoming the boat. Loaded with rock and iron ballast for stability, the whaleboat sank, stern first, within seconds. Most of the passengers drowned because the suction generated by the sinking boat pulled them under the water.

The capsize must have been a scene of utter chaos, as waves rocked and pulled at the other small boats trying to rescue the waitresses. Skipper Miles and two young women survived, but all the others were lost. As the harbor calmed, rescuers retrieved nine bodies, which were laid out on cots in the music room of the Appledore Hotel. A diver recovered the five remaining victims in the days that followed.

Kittery’s coroner, Edward E. Shapleigh, set out from Portsmouth at around 9:15 that evening to carry out the grim task of documenting the dead.

Most of the dead were young women, including sisters Mary and Ena Adams of Portsmouth, and Laura Gilmore, of Exeter. At the last minute, Ella Adams and  Hattie Gilmore, both sisters of victims, decided not to go. The Adams’s brother Oliver, rowing a dory, was the first to reach the victims (July 19, 1902 edition of the Boston Daily Globe).

The dead included two Harvard students who reportedly perished as they tried to hold up some of the young women. Nobody was wearing life jackets, which might have saved them, but even today, it’s unlikely that adult passengers on such an excursion would don life vests.

Fred Miles, the whaleboat skipper, was  devastated by the accident. He died of tuberculosis in 1911 at age 57.

News organizations from New York to San Francisco reported on the tragedy of the waitresses, with a mixture of facts, hearsay, and imagination. Coroner Shapleigh ruled the sinking an accident, and concluded that no further investigation was warranted, but that didn’t stop the media, families, and  community from casting blame.

Some blamed the captain for heading out when a storm was brewing. Others blamed the dockmen for regularly loading too many people in the whaleboat, although Skipper Miles claimed that the boat could hold many more passengers. Miles reportedly blamed the girls for not shifting in the boat, although the event happened so quickly, it’s unlikely that 16 people could have scrambled to the other side in time to prevent the capsize.

A fisherman and lifelong mariner, and the father of 13 children (two who died in infancy), Miles originally hailed from Nova Scotia, but had lived in Portsmouth for many years.

The headline from the July 19, 1902 edition of The New York Times. All victims eventually were recovered by divers.

The New York Times reported that when Miles was interviewed at his Hunking Street home the following day, he was “in a state bordering on prostration.” Newspapers around the country circulated the quote below was widely circulated newspapers around.

Skipper Miles, quoted in the New York Times. His explanation places more emphasis on the squall, compared to Rutledge’s account, in which bad luck (combined with the storm)  plays a larger role.

The Adams sisters are buried in Portsmouth’s South Cemetery. Mary, age 31, had worked for eight years as the order clerk at the Oceanic House, and was considered a valuable employee, along with younger sister Ena, age 22. They lived with their adult siblings in the family home on Marcy Street, their parents having died earlier. Their four brothers served as pallbearers at their funeral.

Her obituary describes Exeter’s Laura Gilmore, age 20 and a recent graduate of Robinson Seminary, as a “charming young woman”, and one of 12 siblings who were “peculiarly attached to one another,” with the older brothers and sisters working to save money to send the youngest one to college.

From the porch of the Appledore House, on Appledore Island, horrified visitors watched as the boat overturned and sank. The hotel, built to house 500 guests, closed a year later, and burned to the ground in 1914 (Library of Congress image).

I wonder how Fred Miles persevered after the tragedy. His wife gave birth to their 13th child that November, a baby girl died two years later. Miles developed tuberculosis and died in 1911, at age 57, leaving behind his wife Mary and 11 children.

This summer, I’ve been taking sailing lessons. As a novice, I am easily confused by the trifecta of sails, wind, and boat dynamics. I crash into the dock on almost every landing, have capsized the boat in a light breeze and no waves, and even managed to bust the tiller.  Although Skipper Miles was an experienced mariner, I now better understand how rapidly changing conditions could result in such an event. Sudden squalls happen out at the Shoals every summer, sometimes doing extensive damage to boats, docks and anything else on the water.

The day after the sinking, at the Oceanic House, “guests came from their rooms…in silence and seemed confused as they entered the dining-room where only a little handful of  waitresses with haggard faces were there to serve them,” writes Rutledge. “Out of the twenty-two, sixteen were absent, fourteen never to return.”

A Dr. Parks, interviewed by Rutledge, noted, “Had you been an ardent Shoaler at that time could you have forgotten it? Could you have attended a single session for the next fifty years without at least once during the week recalling that fearful tragedy?”

The Oceanic Hotel, where most of the accident victims worked, circa 1900 (Library of Congress photo). The Oceanic Hotel remains open today, serving as a conference center, but individual guests can also stay there on a space-available basis. Star Island is also a great destination for a day trip.

Sources and resources

Comments and additional information appreciated, especially in regards to the technical details of how or why the whaleboat capsized.

“Last chapter: All bodies of drowned on way home.” July 22, 1902, Boston Daily Globe.

“Terrible Drowning Accident: Fourteen Persons Go Down to Death Off the Isles of Shoals.”  July 18, 1902, Portsmouth Daily Chronicle (in vertical file at Portsmouth Aetheneum).

“Their last sad journeys: Bodies of the Isles of Shoals victims sent to sorrowing families” July 19, 1902, Boston Daily Globe.

“Tragedy of the Waitresses.” In The Isles of Shoals in Lore and Legend, by Lyman V. Rutledge. Star Island Corporation, 1971.

For more information on staying at the Oceanic Hotel, visit the Star Island Corporation website. Today, Appledore Island is home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory, which offers a variety of visitor programs.


About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
This entry was posted in Seacoast (mostly) History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The tragedy of the waitresses: A 1902 boating accident claims 14 lives at the Isles of Shoals

  1. Clay says:

    Sad, yet intersting story – sounds like the making of a thrilling novel. Seems as if it could happen – even today, though the dress of the time period probably had a hand in the drownings as well. I would like to believe that something like that wouldn’t happen today, but life preservers aren’t likely to be worn for a short two to three hour sailing adventure. Any plans to take this further?

    • Yes, a similar accident could definitely happen today, although boat design/safety is probably better. I don’t have any plans right now to take this further, but I view the blog as an opportunity to explore what interests me and which at some point will generate a longer project.

      The Isles of Shoals have a long and fascinating history — John Smith wrote about them in 1614 and Basque fishermen used them as a summer fishing base before that. An 1872 double-murder also generated nationwide publicity, and I long knew that it had novelistic potential, but Anita Shreve beat me to it when she wrote the bestseller, “The Weight of Water.”

  2. Angela says:

    Fascinating piece of uncovering local history, Ms. Fallon! I also wondered if the dress at that time- waitresses might have been wearing heavy dresses, corsets, etc.– might have contributed to the risk of drowning, plus the fact that they might not have been taught to swim. Still, it seems unlikely that they would have survived even under different circumstances. I also like the fact that you empathized with Captain Miles in light of your recent sailing lessons. Keep these posts coming!

  3. Alisa Reynolds says:

    Thanks so much! For this. Fred Miles was my great great grandfather.

    • Hi Alisa-
      I’m glad you found the post. As I researched this piece, I wondered a lot about Fred Miles, and how this event impacted him.  I’m guessing that it was devastating to him, but he had to carry on somehow. He must have many descendants in the Seacoast.

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