Dan Donnell has been a few places in his life — New York City in eighth grade, a cross country trip not long after high school, sailing down the East Coast once or twice. But he has been more than content to call York Harbor home, this small bit of coastal real estate that has been in his blood and in his family’s blood going back nearly to the dawn of York.
In good health, spry, quick witted with an understated sense of humor, Donnell will turn 100 Friday, March 16. He looks back on a century of life well lived here in York; but the future holds sway as well, as he looks forward to his twice-weekly volunteer days at York Hospital. Last year, he was a recipient of the United Way of York County Spirit of Service Award for his work there.
For nearly 50 years, he has lived on the second floor of a cinder block building at the bottom of Simpson Lane in York Harbor — above a space that once housed Cap’n Dan’s restaurant, started by his late wife Georgiana. Every day, he walks up and down the outside steps to his home, which has panoramic views of all sides of the Harbor.
“I think really, it’s volunteering and my stairs that keep me going,” he said. “I don’t touch booze. I’d play cards, and every once in a while I’d have a glass of sherry but I got off that.” He does take a lot of pills every day, mostly to do with past heart problems and recurring issues with shingles. “But other than that, I’m doing pretty good.”
Donnell was born in 1918, to a town markedly different than it is today. His father, Capt. Daniel A. Donnell, was a tuna fisherman, lobsterman, charter boat captain, and for 60 years the harbor master. His mother, who died a few months shy of her 102nd birthday, was born in Ireland and came over as a teenager.
He grew up on Barrells Mill Pond, just the other side of the Route 103 bridge. It was a childhood tied to the water. Grandfather Frank, who lived next door, had “a good sized boat shop right near the bank. That’s long gone. He used to build lapstrake dories that would be fastened with copper rivets. I remember as a kid it was my job to pick up the remains of the copper and give them to my grandfather. I don’t know what he did with them. Probably he could make some money.”
Growing up, he remembers his entire yard being covered in “stages” — frames stretched with chicken wire used to salt and cure cod and pollock. “That’s how Stage Neck got its name. The Donnells at one time owned most of Stage Neck,” he said.
“When I was a kid, we’d pile up the fish at night with the skin side up and in the morning we’d flip them to the meat side to cure,” he said. He and his father would also go clamming, “and we’d haul the clams in sleds in the wintertime and sell them around the mill pond and different streets.”
York Harbor was markedly more bustling during the summer months than it is today, said Donnell. As a teenager, he worked at a drugstore owned by Morton Frye — just down the road from the Lancaster Building, which had a movie theater. “We’d make frappes and sodas. We’d work 70 hours a week straight pay. But we could eat all the ice cream we wanted,” he said with a laugh.
The Marshall House, where the Stage Neck condominiums are now, and the Emerson House, where St. George’s Church is now, both hired “a ton of college kids. They were everywhere. They’d come in the evenings from the hotels. The sidewalks would be packed.”
A lot more vessels visited the harbor during his younger years, he said. His father had a dock at the end of Varrell Lane where transient boaters would tie up — not a few of them well known personalities of the time. When he was a young boy, Donnell remembers, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh stopped by on their honeymoon. Later, so did actor Robert Young and his wife, “who had a 75-footer. I just wandered over. He was on his honeymoon going up Maine and was fueling up.”
His father became friends with Gen. Billy Mitchell, considered the father of the U.S. Air Force. Mitchell came to York Harbor many summers. “He loved to go out tuna fishing with my dad,” said Donnell.
After returning from service in the Navy during World War II, Donnell took stock. He figured he could capitalize on the busy summer boat traffic in the harbor and enlarged his father’s Varrell Lane dock. “My dad and I dug in a lot of those pilings. They were made of green oak and they are heavy as the dickens.” In his mid-20s, he began Donnell’s Dockage, proving fuel and dock space for boaters as well as renting row boats for recreation. His dad, meanwhile, continued his lobster pound operation.
Meanwhile, he also worked at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, retiring as a general foreman. It was his job to build “from scratch” the massive, tall cranes that today dot the shipyard’s skyline. “We’d get them in pieces and we built them.”
By the time he retired at 53, his children were running Donnell’s, and he and his wife bought the wharf next door at the end of Simpson Lane. “I didn’t want to buy this place. Thank God for her, she said we should have it. We lifted the roof up and made a second floor.”
It was then that she opened Cap’n Dan’s Restaurant.
“She’d get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and boil lobsters,” he said. “She cooked every single day and picked out the meat. She’d stay until 9 or 10 at night. She was a great lady.”
It was a difficult adjustment for him after she died in 2004, Donnell admits. But not long afterward Donnell began volunteering at the hospital.
“At the time, I guess it was about the only place to volunteer,” he said. “It’s a great place to meet people and I’ve met some fantastic people both on staff and volunteers. On Mondays, I’m at the entrance and I escort people to wherever they want to go. I like that. On Thursdays, I work in supply.
“I love it. If you stay home, you don’t meet a damned person,” he said with a laugh.
Friends and family will gather Saturday, March 17, to celebrate Donnell’s centennial birthday. There will be an open house at the York Harbor Inn from 2 to 5 p.m., and those who know him are invited to stop by and wish him well.
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