Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
The sun had just come up. That’s when they saw it, through the morning haze on Casco Bay. At first, they thought it was a submarine coming toward their boat, five miles off Cape Elizabeth. When it got closer, Portland fishermen Ole Mikkelsen and Ejmar Hairgaard could see it was a living thing.
The creature had a long neck and a broad head held up, out of the water. It stopped 125 feet from their boat. Though they could see no eyes, they knew it was looking at them.
That summer morning, Mikkelsen and Hairgaard had come face to face with Cassie, the fabled monster of Casco Bay. That was 59 years ago this week, on June 5, 1958.
“I won’t soon forget it,” Mikkelsen told famed Portland cryptozoologist Loren Coleman in 1985.
Cryptozoology is the study of hidden or unknown animals and it was Coleman who named the creature Cassie.
Mikkelsen’s description was so earnest and detailed, it gave Coleman goosebumps.
“It was like he saw JFK,” Coleman told me on Saturday at his International Cryptozoology Museum on Thompson’s Point. “He was re-living it.”
Coleman believes Cassie to be a mammal, because of the whale-like way it’s said to swim — as opposed to the side-to-side wriggling that would indicate it was some kind of snake.
Mikkelsen and Hairgaard were not the first to see Cassie, though. People have been seeing strange things in the waters off Maine since the 18th century.
In June 1779, future U.S. Navy hero Edward Preble, then an ensign, said he encountered something in Penobscot Bay. Preble said it was a hundred feet long and thick as a barrel. His commander ordered him into a longboat, telling him to shoot the animal. When shots were fired, it swam off, unharmed.
Cassie made an appearance in Portland Harbor on July 12, 1818. Several people on Week’s Wharf said they saw it. In 1836, the schooner Fox saw something slithering through the surf near Mt. Desert Rock. It too, held its head out of the water.
On August 5, 1905, a 60-foot, mottled brown monster, with a snake-like head, circled a sailboat for ten minutes off Wood Island Light. Maj. Gen. H.C. Merriam and his sons were on board and said the creature lifted its head four feet above the surface.
The steamer Bonita saw Cassie again in Casco Bay on August 20, 1910. Folks on board said it was more like 80 feet long, with spots.
Eastport had some sightings in the 1930s and 40s. A woman reported seeing something definitely Cassie-like off Biddeford as late as 2002.
Mikkelsen said the animal he and Hairgaard saw was brown, with a lighter underbelly. It had a forked tail, like a mackerel, only it was horizontal, like a whale. As it sat there in the water, looking them over, the Portland lightship blew its fog signal, not far off. Each time it sounded, Mikkelsen said, Cassie turned its head in that direction, as if it was listening.
The encounter unnerved Hairgaard. He was ready to cut their fishing nets and make a run for the lightship. But Cassie came no closer. After about 45 minutes it swam around them in a half-circle and continued south.
What did those two men see out there? What did all those folks see over the years? I don’t know, however that doesn’t mean those things didn’t happen. I’ve never seen Cassie but that’s no indication it doesn’t exist.
You see, everything has an explanation but not everything has yet been explained. Let that sink in, especially at the beach this summer, when that piece of seaweed brushes your leg.
Note: Today’s story is brought to you, in part, by “The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep” by Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe and “Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology”
by George M. Eberhart.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.