It’s time for some more light summertime literary adventures…and some wine to go with it! This is the second article in my ongoing series “live blogging” one of my summer reading books, Edward Rowe Snow’s adventure- and mystery-filled 1962 volume Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast. My first installment dealt with the long-enduring mystery of Dighton Rock, an unusual boulder in Massachusetts covered with petroglyphs. Tonight’s installment features a double mystery: first, what happened to the passenger steamer SS President, which vanished after leaving New York in March 1841, and second, where can I find the wine that RockinRed Blog author Michelle Williams, who’s feeding me wine suggestions this summer, thought would be fun to sample while reading this very interesting chapter? As it turns out, the answer to neither mystery is particularly clear!
Edward Rowe Snow, amateur New England coastal historian and armchair adventurer, opens Chapter 5 of Mysterious Tales with a brief description of the President, which was last seen leaving New York for Liverpool on March 11, 1841, and then immediately launches into two discoveries more than a century later. Sometime presumably in the early 1950s a man named Alden B. Carpenter found a mysterious book hidden in a barn in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The book, whose author is unknown (I love this literary trope!), describes a fantastic tale of what happened to the President. A few years later, John Blake of Hull, Massachusetts–Snow even gives his address–was exploring the shore near his property when he found a 7-foot-long plank floating in the surf, with faint letters painted on it reading PRESIDE. Snow tells us that “experts” examined the plank and determined it dated from between 1820 and 1860. How it was bobbing around out there for 110 years and only then happened to wash up on shore is anyone’s guess, but given how flotsam works in the real world, it’s not nearly as far-fetched as it may sound at first blush.
No one was there to see the President go down, but this 19th century artist’s conception is probably pretty accurate.
After dropping these two factoids on us, Snow launches into the backstory of the President. Once the world’s largest ship, it was a very early entrant into the sweepstakes of the transatlantic steamship trade, with every luxury afforded its wealthy passengers. On the final voyage they included London actor Tyrone Power, the great-grandfather of the guy who starred in Billy Wilder’s film Witness for the Prosecution. The President sailed on March 11, 1841, and promptly dropped off the face of the Earth. A violent gale struck New England the next day. To modern observers (and to Snow himself, apparently) it seems obvious that the President was wrecked in the storm. But that would be much too pat for a book on famous mysteries. Snow details how a waiting game got going in England with the press, the line’s owners and even Queen Victoria becoming increasingly more anxious for news on the ship, which by early April was long overdue, and how they were all punk’d and trolled by a series of vicious hoaxes, false reports of sightings and downright fabrications by popular newspapers who kept reporting that the President had been seen here, or there, or had had engine trouble and was delayed, or something. Each of these hoaxes went viral, at least by 1841 standards, but after a few months passed it was obvious the ship wasn’t coming back, and she was written off as lost with all 121 hands aboard.
Snow finally returns to the discoveries in Massachusetts, starting with the manuscript from the West Pittsfield barn. This is where the real adventure of the chapter is, because the manuscript, at least as Snow describes it, is a great story but completely unbelievable. In the anonymously written tale, the captain of the President alters course to try to catch up with a boat they see on the horizon. (Why he would do this, adding time to a transatlantic voyage his passengers paid for, is unexplained). Two firemen aboard the ship are incensed and try to make up for the delay by running the engines hotter and faster. They go too far and the boiler blows up. But wait! The ship doesn’t sink! Although half her passengers are dead, the President limps along, only to be captured by a pirate schooner named (get ready for this) the Dragon’s Tail. The pirates take the ship’s surviving passengers, now only seven left, to a secret island in the Pacific called Dragondome. Eventually only one survivor, an officer, escapes from Dragondome, with a pretty Native American wife no less, but he’s recaptured and the wife commits suicide. The violins on the soundtrack swell…fade out.
The wine, suggested by Michelle to pair with this chapter, that I was looking for: Boneshaker Zinfandel.
This story is utter rubbish and Snow, although maintaining a pretense of “allow[ing] the reader to decide whether it is fact or fiction,” seems to scoff at it. But hey, tales of swashbucklers, shipwrecks and pirates are why we’re reading this book in the first place, right? Snow evidently thought the plank found in Hull proved the President went down off the New England coast. He’s probably right, but 50 years after he published the book, nothing more of the ship has been found.
Now, the second mystery. My friend Michelle Williams, who writes the great RockinRed wine blog, suggested a California Zinfandel called Boneshaker would go well with the bold, audacious and mysterious fun of this book and this chapter. Here are her notes on this wine:
Boneshaker 2012 Zinfandel: This Lodi Zinfandel was crafted of 88% Zinfandel and 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. It poured a deep rich garnet with purple and black highlights into the glass. It poured a deep rich garnet with purple and black highlights into the glass. After resting open for an hour the Boneshaker Zin intoxicated the nose with rich aromas of dark ripe berries, dark chocolate, espresso, wet tobacco leaves, leather, baking spices and vanilla. This was a voluptuous wine; yet it was well-structured with a round acidity and surprisingly restrained tannins. SRP $18.
The wine I found: Leese-Fitch California Zinfandel, 2012. A bit grassy tasting, but that was actually good!
I was really enthusiastic to taste this wine…but finding it was like trying to find the President itself! I live in Oregon, where our wine imports are a little haphazard compared to the rest of the country, and the closest I could get was a wine shop that said they could order it–but not in time for this article. While I admit I didn’t find it bobbing in the surf, another bit of flotsam (figuratively speaking) did come to me in a little wine shop. Leese-Fitch Zinfandel, 2012, made by The Other Guys Wines of Napa, California, proved a pretty surprising bottle. It was very flavorful, as Zins should be, but the adjective that comes to my mind quickest is “grassy.” Maybe not the best fit to drink while devouring a salty sea story, but I enjoyed it just the same!
I’m not sure what’s next from this book, but I’m not done reading it, and will bring you another mysterious tale soon enough. Keep enjoying your summer!