The history of the Bath Freight Shed
The area which is now the City of Bath Maine was within the ancestral homelands of several Wabanaki tribes. Although there is archaeological and historical evidence for villages in all directions from Bath, there is little evidence of any villages in what is now Bath. However, Weymouth, Champlain, Popham, and Biard exploring the Sagadahoc River in 1605-1611 all met numerous natives in canoes traveling on the river in the area that is now Bath.
The first known European settlers to live in Bath were Rev Robert Gutch and his family in about 1655. They had a farm on the Point, which was the island of high ground at Front and Centre streets, with a creek to the north and marsh to the south. Their house was on the southwest side of the hill near where Halcyon Yarn is now. By the early 19th century, this area was owned by William King who in 1820 became the first Governor of Maine. His house was on the southeast side of the Point on land now occupied by the Bath Custom House. The area east of that property, including where Commercial Street, the Bath Freight Shed, and the ship yard are now, was known as King’s Wharf and was mostly part of the river.
The Kennebec & Portland Railroad started the construction of tracks from Portland to Bath and Augusta in 1847. This work was completed to Bath in 1849. William King who was about 80 sold much of his land to the railroad including the wharf. Commercial Street was created from Broad Street to the railroad terminal (under what is now the US-1 viaduct). The area east of Commercial Street was still part of the river.
Before the railroad came to Bath, almost all freight and passengers came by sea up the Kennebec River. With the coming of the railroad, Bath became a hub for exchanging freight between ship and rail and for the supplies from both to the many shipbuilders along the Kennebec River in Bath, and for the exchange between transatlantic and domestic cargo. Bath was the terminus of this branch of the rail line, but by 1853 the tracks led north to Montreal and Bangor, and south to the whole eastern part of the United States.
From 1852 to 1861, Bath was the fifth largest port in the United States (after New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) and one of the largest shipbuilding centers. The 1850s was also the boom time for Bath shipbuilders as finding gold in California created a huge requirement for fast ships, and US laws would only allow US built and manned ships to trade on these domestic routes. The shipping companies in Bath had close trading relationships with southern ports such as Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans.
In 1852 a new Custom House was built in Bath to support the large amount of foreign trade. Forty years later the Maine Central RR Freight House (now Bath Freight Shed) was built across Commercial Street from the Bath Custom House.
During the Civil War, both international and domestic cargo was significantly diminished as ships were sunk and major domestic markets in the southern states were closed. By the end of the 1860s, the transcontinental rail lines and the opening of domestic shipping to foreign ships significantly decreased the importance of Bath as a port, but it continued to be a major shipbuilding center.
In 1871 the Knox & Lincoln Railroad, with a large investment from the City of Bath, opened tracks to Rockland. Trains crossed the Kennebec River by ferry. Most train cars were small, and the ferry could only hold three cars on a single track. The Bath side operations for this ferry were at the current location of the Bath Freight Shed, with a repair shop and the ferry dock. The wharf that had been on the site was filled in, and Commercial Street was extended Oak Street. In 1870 the Kennebec & Portland Railroad merged into the Maine Central Railroad but the ferry and tracks to Rockland were not part of this merger.
In 1890 Maine Central Railroad took over operations of the Knox & Lincoln Railroad thus creating a continuous line from Portland to Rockland. Maine Central invested heavily in major renovations of the Bath rail infrastructure which included a wheelhouse, improved switching, and a new station. As part of this work in 1892 the ferry and freight areas were moved with a much larger dock for ferry operations, and a newer and much larger ferry (Hercules) was added which allowed more and larger train cars to cross the river. The freight handling moved to the current Bath Freight Shed location, and along with it the freight shed was either moved or constructed at the current location.
The Maine Central RR Freight Shed (labeled Freight House in the maps) was strategically placed in the flats next to the Bath Customs House and Post Office. The street elevation at this point shows 10 feet (the Customs House is at 20). Several tracks extended from the switching area to the freight area, including one close to the river side of the freight shed. There were 17 weighted lift doors on the river side, and 7 cargo doors on the street side. By 1903 the maps show a platform along the river side that would allow goods to be directly moved from box cars into and out of the freight shed. The 1892 freight shed extended farther to the south than the current building and included a car repair shop. The car shop was later removed, and a single-story office area was built on the south end of the freight shed.
The first decade of the 20th century continued the decrease in cargo traffic in Bath. The era of wooden sailing ships was ending, and Bath was no longer able to handle the large cargo ships. World War I created a brief reprieve to this trend. A two-story office building replaced the earlier single-story office area of the Bath Freight Shed and the customs operation was moved to this area as the Post Office took over the entire Custom House. Cargo was once again being transferred for the business of creating destroyers and liberty ships. Following the war, all the shipyards in Bath went out of business. The largest of them, Bath Iron Works, was sold at auction but emerged from receivership to become the only shipyard in Bath.
The depth and current of the Kennebec River at Bath made bridging it a major technological challenge. In 1927, the Carlton Bridge was opened allowing both train and motor transport across the Kennebec without a ferry. Soon thereafter, most of the switching yard and freight handling were removed and the land they occupied was sold to Bath Iron Works. A small freight operation continued at the site of the Bath Freight Shed, but the dozens of ships along the wharves of Bath from 30 years earlier were gone. Along with them, the warehouses along those wharves went unused and were torn down.
The drawing shows a conceptual drawing for the Kennebec and later Carlton bridge drawn in 1925, but with the freight shed and harbor buildings as they were in 1910.
World War II caused another increase in cargo traffic as BIW went into overdrive to quickly replace the US naval fleet of destroyers. Following that war, almost all cargo operations at Bath either by train or ship quickly diminish as trucks and cars took over. Around 1950 the two-story office building was torn down leaving the freight shed at its current dimensions. The interior office area at the south end of the freight shed appears to be from the 1940s and little maintenance was done after that.
In 1960 with the growth of car and truck traffic, Maine Central Railroad stopped all passenger service and greatly reduced its freight business. Most of the railroad property was sold, including the Bath Freight Shed, and only occasional freight trains used the tracks. The Bath Railroad Station became a dental office.
In the following decades, the center door on the Commercial Street side was converted to a garage door, and a new garage door was added to the north end. The freight shed was used as temporary storage by a moving company. It was later was used for automobile and boat storage and maintenance. Most of the other doors were sealed shut. The other warehouses in the area were torn down.
The Bath Freight Shed’s character is industrial and utilitarian. It has neither grace nor architectural ornamentation. It was modified as required when the needs changed. We should not infer from this a lack of importance; the intermodal transport of freight that it represents is central to the existence of Bath. A century ago, Commercial Street in Bath had about forty warehouses with storage for coal, wood, and ship parts. The Bath Freight Shed is the last survivor, but it was a close call.
By 2010 parts of the floor were missing and the roof so bad that it rained inside the building. The foundation was rotted in many places. No paint was left on the outside of the building and many of the clapboards were damaged.
Then two things happened: Theodore+Theodore Architects founded the Bath Freight Shed Alliance and started a kick-starter project with the Bath Farmers Market to save the building as a community center, and Maine’s First Ship got permission to start boat building in and around the building.
Since 2010 the Bath Freight Shed has taken on these two roles, as a community center, and as a shipbuilding location. The significant work of stabilizing the building’s roof, foundation, floor, walls, doors, and windows was done by the Bath Freight Shed Alliance and Maine’s First Ship. The Bath Farmers Market moved into the building in 2013 as its winter market location. In 2017 the Bath Freight Shed Alliance merged into Maine’s First Ship.
By 2019 the clapboards and soffits had been fixed and the entire building painted yellow with red trim as was seen in older images. A deck was built on the river side of the building in a similar location to the railroad platform of a century earlier.
In 2021 a wharf was added on the river next to the Bath Freight Shed as the home of the pinnace Virginia. On June 4, 2022, Virginia was launched in front of a couple thousand people near the Bath Freight Shed, which is now her permanent home.