The Royal Tar, nickname of King William IV of England, was built in New Brunswick, Canada in 1835 and launched in November of that year. The Tar was unique in that she was both a steamer, equipped with a sidewheel, boilers and two tall smokestacks, and a sailing vessel, with one square mainsail and two triangular jibs. On Friday, October 21,1836, coursed to Portland, Maine, she set sail with 90 passengers and a lard assortment of animals from a traveling circus, snakes, two big lions, an elephant named Mogul, a Bengal tiger, two Dromedaries, a Spotted Leopard, six Arabian horses, one Zebra, a Hyena and more.
The wind and weather was forceful down along the seaboard for the next several days causing the Tar to drop anchor twice, but on Monday, at midnight, all seemed well and she resumed course. On Tuesday in the early afternoon, Captain Tom Reed was informed by a panicked crew member that the boilers were smoking. The captain immediately dropped anchor then ran to the engine room. (They were one and a half miles off Fox Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine.) The fire around the boilers and the thick black smoke it produced eventually overwhelmed the crew. The captain ordered the lifeboats to be lowered, but was stunned to learn many of the boats were removed to accommodate the circus wagons. Then in utter disbelief from the side railing he watched sixteen men lower one of the few remaining boats over the side and row away, leaving the woman and children to fend for themselves. The captain ran back to the helm and desperately tried to sail the ship toward land, but the mast and rigging caught fire causing the vessel to move further out to sea.
Drifting away the Tar was now in complete chaos with passengers running in all directions. Woman began throwing their children and themselves overboard. Children were sobbing uncontrollably and the caged animals were screaming wildly for release. A few of the larger beasts broke free and scrambled wildly across the rolling deck then lunged into the horrified crowds gathered at both ends of the ship. Mogul the elephant thundered through the smoke and flame then leaped into the sea. The huge pachyderm flailed about in the water smashing a makeshift raft and drowning several people. Many of the animals swam around the ship till exhaustion took them under.
The U.S. Revenue Cutter Veto happened upon the disaster and pulled many from the water. In all, over 30 people perished along with all of the animals of the caravan. The Royal Tar was last seen about 10 pm smoldering six or seven miles away, its flames blackened by the distance and the darkness of the night. Mogul’s body was reportedly seen floating off Brimstone Island a week later.
The tragedy of the Royal Tar was a legendary event passed down for years from one fascinated generation to another. Unfortunately, most of the tales surrounding the wreck have been lost forever in time. Some say the manager of the circus stayed on board till his clothes caught fire then grabbed a rope and dangled over the side of the ship. Several people who were dangling on other ropes next to him ended up eventually clinging to him because their ropes burned through. Others tell of a man who filled his socks with silver dollars, tied them around his waist then jumped into the sea only to go straight to the bottom to be stuck in the mud forever. Perhaps the story with the oddest twist is the tale of what happened to Captain Reed, the hero. He survived the wreck and returned home to St. Johns, Canada the following Saturday only to discover another tragedy awaiting him. The newspaper that day described it this way:
“Died, on Tuesday morning, after a short illness, William Grant, son of Captain Thomas Reed in the 18th year of his age. Funeral on Saturday at 3 o’clock, from his father’s residence.”
His son died the same day of the wreck, unexpectedly. A few hours after coming home Captain Reed attended his son's funeral.