The sinking of the <I>Lusitania in 1915 was front-page news in newspapers around the world. Nine months before it was torpedoed, the Lusitania was front page news when it made an unscheduled and somewhat frantic stop in Bar Harbor after encountering German warships on the Atlantic.

Ellsworth couple booked passage, but canceled due to premonition

ELLSWORTH — “One great tragedy is in the minds of all,” announced The Ellsworth American of May 19, 1915.

And indeed it was. Twelve days earlier, a German submarine had torpedoed and sunk the transatlantic liner Lusitania. In the waters off the Irish coast, nearly 1,200 of the almost 2,000 passengers and crew lost their lives.

What was most newsworthy in Ellsworth, however, was the news of who was not on board the ship when it went down.

“It is of pleasing interest to Ellsworth friends of E.B. Bowen and wife, of Newton, Mass., to know that Mr. Bowen, who had booked passage on the ill-fated Lusitania, had cancelled his passage at the last moment,” said The Ellsworth American of May 12.

headline about bar harborWhy would Ellsworth readers care about Mr. and Mrs. Edward Beecher Bowen of Newton, Mass.?

Mrs. Bowen was the former Pamelia Whiting, adopted daughter of Ellsworth merchant Samuel Kidder Whiting (for whom today’s S.K. Whiting Park is named).

Edward and Pamelia were married in Ellsworth on June 19, 1893, by Justice of the Peace Hannibal E. Hamlin — son of Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president and a future Maine attorney general.

Why had the Bowens planned to sail on Lusitania? In 1915, they were living in Newton, where Edward carried on his family’s tradition of working in the shoe manufacturing business and had made a name as something of a magnate.

They lived at 105 Sumner St., a house that still stands and is described as “monumental” in a modern-day brochure. With its “veritable forest of high-peaked dormers” and a “delicately balustraded stone terrace,” the home is still said to be “the grand dame of Sumner Street.”

Passport paperwork shows Edward often made trans-Atlantic trips to countries including Holland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. Six months after Lusitania sank, for example, he was taking samples of leather to Europe “for the purposes of securing orders” for the Peabody Leather Co.

Though he reportedly had an important business obligation in London in May of 1915, Bowen later said he opted at the last minute not to sail on Lusitania because of a premonition.

“A feeling grew upon me,” he said, “that something was going to happen to the Lusitania. I talked it over with Mrs. Bowen and we decided to cancel our passage.”

lusitania-new-york-times-newspaperThe sinking of the Lusitania came nine months after World War I broke out in Europe. The German embassy had placed an ad in newspapers warning travelers not to sail on the ship, but it is not clear if the Bowens saw that warning.

Warnings and premonitions are also associated with one of the most famous names on the list of Lusitania losses: 37-year-old Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, heir to more than a third of his father Cornelius’s $72-million estate and something of a playboy.

Like many rich and famous folks of the day, Alfred spent a lot of time in Newport, R.I. Others in the Vanderbilt family also liked Newport, but spent time in Bar Harbor as well. Among those known to visit the Maine coast were some of Alfred’s close family members.

An 1884 family photo at Devilstone — the family cottage in Bar Harbor — shows Alfred’s grandparents, aunts and uncles, for example.

In addition to the newspaper ad placed by the German embassy, Alfred reportedly received a personal warning the morning the ship was to sail. It was a telegram that said, “THE LUSITANIA IS DOOMED. DO NOT SAIL ON HER.” It was signed “MORTE.”

Supposedly, Alfred had booked passage on the Titanic three years earlier but “cancelled due to a premonition by his mother,” according to the website The Lusitania Resource.

When reporters asked him about the ominous telegram he received May 1, 1915, Vanderbilt is said to have replied he thought it was just “somebody trying to have a little fun at my expense.”

After the ship was torpedoed, Vanderbilt reportedly spent his time helping women and children to safety — even though he did not know how to swim.

“People will not talk of Mr. Vanderbilt in future as a millionaire sportsman and a man of pleasure,” said The New York Times of May 11, 1915. “He will be remembered as the children’s hero and men and women will salute his name.”

The Vanderbilt family was not Bar Harbor’s only connection with Lusitania. Less than a year before the ship was torpedoed and sunk, it had been heading across the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool as World War I broke out in Europe.

The New York Evening World of Saturday, Aug. 8, 1914, said the Lusitania several days earlier had run “across the German Atlantic cruiser squadron on her attempted trip across the Atlantic,” prompting her to turn around and head “back to American waters for safety.”

“LUSITANIA DASHES BACK, PUTS IN AT BAR HARBOR” was the double-deck, above-the-fold, across-the-page headline in the New York paper’s “War Extra” edition.

Using its planned itinerary as a guide, the Evening Herald speculated the British ship had met German vessels “somewhere near mid-ocean and that the chase back to Bar Harbor lasted two exciting days.”

There does not appear to be any mention of the Lusitania’s visit to Bar Harbor in The Ellsworth American in August of 1914. Its stay was likely only a brief one, but a bigger factor was likely that its brief presence was pre empted by the arrival only days earlier of the German liner Kronprinzessin Cecilie.

Like the Lusitania, the Cecilie had left New York headed for England. It turned around, however, for fear of being captured by the English navy (the German ship had gold and silver onboard worth $13.6 million at the time).

The Cecilie remained in Bar Harbor until later in 1914, then went to Boston, where it was later commandeered for use by American forces when the nation entered World War I in 1917.

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
Steve Fuller

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