History of the Cheseborough Program

The Cheseborough
The Cheseborough

In 1889, a ship named the Cheseborough sailed the world and, through tragedy, began an international friendship.

Despite poor weather, the ship set sail in order to beat a rival ship – one faster than the Cheseborough and also loaded with sulfur – to New York City. The Cheseborough floundered for days in another severe typhoon off the coast of northern Japan, in the Sea of Japan. As the storm receded, the battered ship ran aground on a shoal a mile off shore near the small village of Shariki, Japan.

The townspeople saw the damaged sails and set out in boats to rescue the ship’s crew. Three sailors were rescued, and one man washed ashore nearly dead and was revived by a village woman by warming him in her kimono. A few townspeople ran 40 miles in the sleet, eating balls of rice for sustenance, to fetch a translator from the City of Aomori. The villagers tried to determine the sailors’ nationality, asking, “Are you Napolean?,” “Are you Bismarck?,” “Are you Washington?”

Cheseborough Wreck in the New York Times
The Cheseborough wreck as reported in the New York Times, November 1889

The sea was yellow with spilled sulfur and strange wreckage, such as novel foods, belongings, and animals, washed up on the beach. A seed from a pear washed ashore and was planted in Shariki village; today there is a large and beautiful pear tree.
The crewmen were housed and cared for and people from miles around brought chickens and eggs to help feed them. Those who survived lived for days with the villagers, and when they returned to their homes in the United States, their families wrote letters of friendship for many years.

The villagers of Shariki held Buddhist and Shinto services for the sailors who perished. These services have continued every year since the tragedy, including during World War II when Japanese-American relationships were strained.

Eighty years after the shipwreck, a granite monument displaying the story of the Cheseborough was built over the beach where the shipwreck occurred. Children in the village to this day are taught the story of the shipwreck and rescue as a piece of their community’s history.

Approximately one hundred years after the wreck, a delegation of Shariki village officials traveled to Bath, Maine to propose the creation of a formal relationship. Papers were signed and Bath and Shariki became sister cities. From this partnership came the sister-state relationship between the State of Maine and Aomori Prefecture of Japan as well as multiple other sister-city relationships between towns in Maine and Aomori.

Within a year, Shariki established the first annual Cheseborough Festival and Cheseborough Cup. Held in early August, the highlight of the festival is the international swimming competition in a cove of the Sea of Japan near Shariki. The goal of the race is to eventually swim the 10,200 km distance between Shariki and Bath.

Shortly after the initiation of the sister city relationship, Shariki and Bath developed a student exchange program, which is still going today. The purpose of the exchange is to develop a better understanding of each community’s life and culture by learning from the other city. This is accomplished by placing visitors in local homes and introducing them to the local community; its history, schools, museums, attractions, and most importantly, its people.

The Sister-City Proclamation
The Sister-City Proclamation

In 1990, the first group from Bath to visit Japan included a delegation of city officials. In the following years, Bath swim teams traveled to participate in the Cheseborough Cup. Now the program participants are primarily Bath area middle school and high school students who travel with chaperones for a two week home-stay and extensive touring. The richness of the experience has had a permanent influence on all who have traveled. For many Maine students the trip has been life-changing and has a significant impact on their perspective on the world.

Also each year, a group from Japan comes to Bath for a visit. This trip is available to 8th grade students who have studied English, accompanied by City and program officials. In 2006, the village of Shariki, population 10,000, merged with four other small villages to form Tsugaru City. Tsugaru chose to continue the relationship with Bath and soon after sent an official delegation to re-sign the binding documents. The exchange program has continued and thrived with the new city’s support.

From the beginning, the Bath program has been run by casually organized volunteers and focused on the annual exchange visits. With a few dedicated participants, the traveling students organized the exchange and had orientation sessions with help from earlier travelers. The group realized that a loose volunteer organization has significant weaknesses and in 2007 the decision was made to formally organize, incorporate, and seek charitable status. The primary motivation for the change was to ensure the stable continuation of more cultural exchanges to enrich and support the exchange program within the community. An additional goal was to accomplish more fundraising and to solicit business and community sponsors and broaden travel opportunities for those who cannot afford the cost of travel. Finally, formal organization enables the formation of stronger relationships between the City of Bath, Regional School Unit #1, and sponsoring organizations.

For more information, view this short video on the history and activities of the program.

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(Translated by Naoto Kobayashi from a speech given in Aomori, Japan on October 5, 1997)