For those interested in sunken treasure, somewhere in Penobscot Bay, Maine, not far from Vinalhaven, are the charred remains of the side-wheeler Royal Tar, and her treasure chest of $35,000 in gold and silver.
The 164-foot side-wheeler steamer was a new ship, having been built the previous spring of 1836 in St. John, New Brunswick. Truly a show palace on the water, she was often considered the sturdiest and safest craft on the run between Maine and New Brunswick.
It was small wonder, therefore, that a circus returning to the States after a highly successful summer tour of New Brunswick should charter the Royal Tar for the voyage home.
The circus was so big, however, that the steamer was almost too small to hold it. This necessitated the removal of several of the Royal Tars lifeboats in order to fit the troupe aboard. The removal of the lifeboats was to have fatal consequences later in the voyage.
When the wide-wheeler sailed for Portland, Maine, on October 21, 1836, she rode low in the water with her decks crowded with huge cages filled with horses, camels, and other circus animals, including the shows headliner, Mogul the gigantic Indian elephant. When the circus wagons and other gear were added to this, it should have been plain to all that the vessel was overloaded. But in spite of her tremendous cargo, the sturdy Royal Tar encountered no major problems on her journey down the coast, until the unexpected happened!
As the steamer lay at anchor about two miles off the Fox Island thoroughfare in Penobscot Bay, disaster hit without warning. One of the boilers became dry and quickly overheated, causing the wooden timbers to burst into flames.
Whipped by winds of near-gale force, the fire grew with lightning intensity until it was beyond control. The flames raced at will through the overcrowded decks of the anchored steamer. Realizing the futility of the situation, Captain Reed immediately ordered the few lifeboats filled and lowered.
Seven hours after the fire had begun, the Royal Tar sank beneath the waves. It is estimated that, in the meantime, she had drifted some 20 miles, as the captain had pulled the anchor.
What is interesting to the treasure hunter, however, is the fact that $35,000 in the pursers safe was untouched by anyone during the fire. It is understandable that all concerned had to abandon the ship too hastily to think about saving the money. At least, this was the report of all those questioned following the disaster.
So the treasure was still on board the Royal Tar when she sank, and the facts seem to indicate that it is still there, on the bottom of Penobscot Bay.