The Star-Herald

It’s ‘ARRR-gust,’ International Pirate Month

Have you ever seen the website BrownieLocks with its listing of weird, unusual and bizarre holidays?  Well, according to that site, this is “ARRRR-gust,” or International Pirate Month, which always brings to mind one of my favorite historical stories from Presque Isle.  That is the story of Sidney Cook.  

Cook was actually a pioneer in the field of marine salvage and his is an interesting story.  However, “pirate” sounds much more romantic and it could be used in the sense that he went in search of someone else’s “loot,” so allow me some poetic license, if you will.  

Sidney Cook was born in Ellsworth in 1837 and moved to Ashland with his family in the 1840s.  At the tender age of 18, he set out to make his way in the world as many young men of that time did.  Although rather than venturing West, he went to Boston, where he signed on with a whaling ship.  Sidney soon realized that not only did he have a true love of the sea, but that he was a talented sailor. 

In 1862, he heard of the shipwreck of the steamer SS Golden Gate off the coast of Manzanillo, Mexico (at a site now known as Playa de Oro), that had been carrying gold and coins.  The SS Golden Gate was carrying $1.4 million in newly minted gold as well as 338 passengers and crew, many of whom had made their fortunes in the California Gold Rush.  Two hundred thirteen of the 338 on board perished.  Some of the sunken treasure came from abandoned money belts and lost baggage. 

Confident of his diving abilities, Cook put together a crew and went in search of treasure.  He and his crew discovered three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of gold and coins from this shipwreck.  In fear of being cast out of the United States if they kept the money, the crew reported the booty to the rightful owners, claiming a salvage reward.  In essence, Cook and his crew were the forerunners of today’s modern treasure salvaging companies.  The court rewarded one-third of the recovered treasure to the crew.  

Cook knew there was more to be had and returned looking for more.  By this time, other sailors had heard of the find and were also seeking the shipwreck.  Cook’s skills at navigation again helped.  He and his crew beat all other contenders to the treasure, where they recovered even more.  Cook and his crew decided not to return to the United States with the treasure at this time.  It is not known if they did not want to share their bounty with anyone, or if they were simply avoiding the Civil War which was in full swing in the United States.  

In March 1865, Sidney returned to the area.  As his parents had moved to Presque Isle during his absence, he chose to settle here as well.  He married Hattie Perry (daughter of Nathan Perry), and built a grist mill and saw mill.  Business was good.  He and his wife built their home on State Street around 1870.  

At the age of 40, Cook decided to go back to California to the diving business.  When this proved less than profitable, he moved to Florida to raise oranges.  The orange industry was not all he had hoped, either.  Cook returned home to Presque Isle to retire.

Sidney Cook was involved in numerous other ventures here in Presque Isle, such as operating a steamship on the Aroostook River. He served as fire chief from 1897 to 1899, and also as an author under the pen name of — What else? — “Amphibious.”  

His legacy is still alive in Presque Isle as his descendants own and operate Cook Florist on Main Street.

Kimberly R. Smith is the secretary/treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society.

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