I will be sharing with you an historical “nugget” involving the Gold Rush at Perkins Cove in 1960. But first let me introduce myself. I am Jay Smith, a lifetime resident of Ogunquit, Maine. I am now 75 years of age so I was 14 years old at the time of the events that I am about to describe. I also lived on the backside of the Cove and therefore actually participated in this significant event in the history of Perkins Cove and the Town of Ogunquit. I have many photos documenting the events of that time but only a few will be shown in this special presentation. Although I have titled this presentation “The Gold Rush at Perkins Cove”, it could easily have been titled “Ogunquit’s Flash in the Pan”. This presentation is part of the library’s Gabby Gatherings ongoing programs.
The story really begins on March 24, 1959, when the Perkins Cove Committee comprised of William “Billy” Tower, Roby Littlefield, an Gordon Brewster along with O.V.C. Manager Percival Wardwell appeared before the State of Maine Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs. These four men appealed to the Committee to pass Legislative Document #1013 titled “An Act Relating to Completion of Josias River Project in Ogunquit”. In the interest of getting to the core story, I will greatly ignore the legislative events but it is relevant to quote from the Design Memorandum prepared by the US Army Corps of Engineers (located in Waltham, Mass). To wit, the project is based on “removal of 4,000 cubic yards of ledge rock and 28,000 cubic yards of ordinary materials” that normally constitute marshland. This same document stated “in view of the popularity of the Cove as a summer attraction and the dependency of the Ogunquit Village Corporation’s economy on summer business, a request is made to defer start of construction to the Fall. Award of contract is scheduled for the latter part of September with construction starting mid-October (1959). Construction is scheduled to take about 3 months with completion of the project in January 1960.”
The contract to accomplish this expansion project was awarded to The Ellis C. Snodgrass Company of Portland, Maine. The Engineer-in-Charge of the project was Irving Pickering from Hampton NH, an important player in the discovery of the gold. And so work began in the Fall of 1959.
This old chart used for a prior dredging is useful for us to recognize the location of the channel before any dredging commenced in the fall of 1959. A close examination shows that the channel hugged the easterly edge of the Cove and wound by the property currently known as Barnacle Billy’s and Barnacle Billy’s Etcetera but known then as the Brush & Needle and the Whistling Oyster. The channel then turned south westerly in front of Cap’n Scotts and John Todd’s property and meandered its way to the Josias River Falls in the lower left hand corner of the map where the Hill and Smith property is designated. Everything labeled as Marsh would disappear during the dredging of 1959-1960.
This photo dated November 1959 shows work well underway to remove the marsh one truckload at a time. The photo shows the Snodgrass crane in the middle of the photo with the Hawthorne Lodge aka Country Store & Breakfast Deck shown to the left and the Whistling Oyster Tea House and Shop to the right and the Brush & Needle shop (now Barnacle Billy’s) to the far right. It is interesting to note that a roadway was created between the Breakfast Deck and Cap’n Scott’s house to haul the marsh muck to Cove Road and then to its ultimate dumping location.
This photo dated January 1960 shows that substantive removal of the marsh has been accomplished. Significant to our story of the “gold rush” is the barge with a crane on it. This barge would be instrumental in the removal of the ledge, the disturbance the marsh, and disruption of the riverbed of the Josias River where the gravel and gold nugget were dredged up.
Utilizing a rig on the barge, holes were drilled in the ledge, loaded with dynamite and then lit off, spewing water and rocks high in the air.
Between the dredging and the blasting, the marsh and the ledge and the old channel were gradually removed in favor of a five foot deep anchorage – an anchorage that could handle several more watercraft as shown in the following photograph
While removing thick layers of marshland mud, the drag dredge hit gravel in the old riverbed. The town parking lot was in need of resurfacing, so representatives of the Ogunquit Village Corporation instructed Irving Pickering to have the gravel dumped in piles on the cove parking lot (as well as in a nearby field owned by Leon Perkins). In the process Mr. Pickering became intrigued by the texture of the material. The fine alluvial sediment and small stones had been flowing down the Josias River from Mount Agamenticus for eons. Mr. Pickering stated that it reminded him of the gravel in which he had once found tiny flecks of gold at another site in New Hamshire. Following a hunch, Mr Pickering borrowed a gold pan from local rock-hound Fred Kemp Jr and sifted out a gold nugget the size of a coffee bean. After panning the rest of the day, he collected a half a thimbleful of gold dust. His total take for the day was around $8. Back at his office he jokingly put a sign over the door that read “Klondike Town Hall”. Fred Kemp got word of the “mother lode” and quickly retrieved his gold pan from Pickering. He and several others were at the Cove parking lot first thing the next day. The glitter in the pan, caused by a tiny nugget and some dust, electrified the Town. The local papers quickly picked up on the story. In today’s lingo, you could say the story went viral. Within days 2,500 prospectors appeared in the parking lot and along the banks of the Josias River.
Besides The Portland Press Herald, The Portsmouth Herald, Kennebunk Star, Boston Herald, Lewiston Daily Sun, and yes, even The New York Times carried the story. Gold seekers came from all around with prospecting tools in hand. Panning operations began in earnest as shown in the next two photos.
This Portsmouth Herald photo shows the discoverer of the strike, Mr Pickering, alongside rock-hounds Fred Kemp and Town Manager Wardwell. The story goes that Police Chief Chris Larsen was alarmed by the burgeoning crowds and banned all prospecting on Town property. OVC Manager Percival Wardwell, an amateur mineralogist himself, reversed the Chief’s decision perhaps bowing to the pressure from business owners who welcomed the gold diggers and enjoyed the boon in off-season revenues.
But not to be outdone by folks from “away”, local teenagers Jay Smith and Kenney Bassett got in the spirit and contributed to the cause.
I, (Jay Smith), had the advantage of living on the Cove and could gauge my panning expeditions to not interfere with the changing tides and potentially dangerous dredging activity. Scouring a couple of inches of gravel into their pans, Smith and Bassett dipped up some water and began to swirl the pan with growing dexterity. Little by little the swirling water slopped the sand and light pebbles over the side of the pan. In the sand that remained, yellow flakes shone and glinted in the sunshine.
The April 17, 1960 issue of The New York Times ran the following lengthy headline: “MAINE’S GOLD RUSH; An $8 Strike Brings the Rock Hounds Flocking to the Pine Tree State”. And the beat goes on.
As most treasure seekers know, it is helpful to have a map that marks the spot where the gold is buried.
The Kennebunk Star ran this photo (with “X” superimposed) to assist enthusiasts in identifying the source of the gold strike, although most panning was done in the gravel dumped in the parking lot abutting Oarweed Cove.
All told, nobody, including this narrator, became a millionaire. In fact, within weeks everyone had gone home. It was reported in the Lewiston Daily Sun that “the claims in the cove parking lot gravel were scarcer than parking spaces on a hot August day”. Disgruntled prospectors complained that the only similarity between Ogunquit and the Klondike was the weather. Most of the money made during the 1960 Ogunquit Gold Rush ended up in the pockets of local merchants so not all was lost.
In true prospecting tradition, nobody ever says just how much gold they found, but I will break that tradition. Here, in this vial, is the gold dust I managed to save for the last sixty years.
I will be donating this plastic tube, numerous photos of the dredging and all newspaper articles I own on this topic to the Ogunquit Heritage Museum on Obeds Lane. I have been assured that the Museum is putting my gold in a maximum security vault.
Any further comments or questions?
In early Summer of 1960 the enlargement of the mooring basin was completed. The official dedication of the enlarged Perkins Cove was held on August 23. Among other fitting ceremonies, a parade of boats was held.
One of the entrants in the parade was an outboard captained by now 15-year-old Jay Smith dressed up as a prospector with a pick ax and pan. Most notable was a huge three-foot round gold “nugget” situated prominently amid ships. The nugget was obvious to the crowd and drew applause as the onlookers recollected Ogunquit’s gold rush and national press coverage and their moment in the sun.
Items will be added to this history as the become available.