The 400 year legacy of shipbuilding in Bath Maine

The pinnace Virginia 1607

The city of Bath Maine lies 10 miles north of the mouth of the Kennebec River (12 if you are on the water). The population is now only 8,400 but during WWI it was over 20,000. At one time there were over 22 shipyards in Bath, putting out about 25% of the wooden ships built in the US. Now there is just one active shipbuilder left (two if you count Maine’s First Ship).

This section of the river is tidal and is protected from storms. The sloping shoreline and deep water make it ideal for shipbuilding. In the days of wooden shipbuilding, there was also a ready supply of the wood (primarily oak and pine) used to make frames, planking, decking, and masts.

The legacy started in 1607 at the Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River. At the same time as the Jamestown colony in Virginia, the Plymouth Company sent two ships to establish a colony in the northern part of Virginia (later named New England). The colony only lasted 14 months and was disbanded due to death in the leadership, a harsh winter, and difficulties with the native people. However, one of its accomplishments was that within this colony the 30 tonne pinnace Virginia was built. When the colony was abandoned in late 1608, Virginia sailed to England carrying some of the colonists, and then crossed the Atlantic again to sail to Jamestown. This made her the first English ocean-going vessel built in the Americas. The Popham Colony also appears to be the earliest site of iron smelting in what is now the United States.

Later in the 17th century, a number of small ships were built as English colonists came to Maine.

Bird's Eye View of Bath 1878 (Patten Free Library)

From the 1740s, shipbuilding in Bath became a permanent business. It was a time of rapidly expanding shipping between the colonies, and several shipbuilders worked along the shoreline in Bath. They built sloops, schooners, and brigs, and many smaller vessels as well. These ships were built using the ready availability of wood, the ready availability of skilled craftsmen, and an ice-free river protected from storms.  These ships carried local products such as lumber, fish, and ice to the cities farther south as far as the Caribbean. The ships returned with manufacturing goods, cotton, molasses, rum, and sugar. These ships also participated in the slave trade.

After independence, larger ships were built for shippers all along the US coast. US laws required that US goods be transported on ship built and maned in the US. These ships were also participating in European trade, trans-shipping goods from southern ports and the Caribbean. Cotton and sugar became major trade commodities.

By the 1840s the age of the large schooners had arrived, and the shipbuilders in Bath were major players in this market. Several fleets of locally built, owned, and managed ships roamed the world. Bath became well known for shipbuilding around the world and participated in worldwide shipping. During this time several local families made vast fortunes and their names still echo in the names of public institutions in Bath. The Pattens, McLellans, Sewalls, and Crookers all built vast mansions with the money from shipping.

Schooners being built in Bath

By the 1850s, Bath was the fifth largest port in the United States, and the California gold rush created a requirement for fast clippers to get the California led to a boom in shipbuilding. There were then 22 shipyards operating along the Bath shoreline. The Civil War disrupted shipping with the southern ports, and the trade in both cotton and sugar was heavily hit. European shipping was greatly affected by British mercenaries acting for the Confederacy. Shipbuilding in Bath was also affected as European trans-shipping dried up.

After the Civil War, more than half of the ocean-going wooden sailing vessels in the US were built in Maine, and the majority of these were built in Bath. Most of these ships were built for non-local and foreign shippers, and after being built were not seen in Maine again. The Downeaster became the ship most associated with Maine. The transcontinental railroad and changes to shipping laws meant that Bath was no longer a major port.

Both the age of wooden ships and the age of sailing ships were ending. Metal steam ships became mainstream and the Bath area was no longer an ideal location to build them.

But this was also the era of the massive schooners. The first four-mast schooner on the east coast was built in Bath in 1880. In 1909, the largest wooden sailing ship ever built in the US, the six-mast schooner Wyoming, was launched from Bath’s Percy and Small Shipyard; but it heralded the end of an era.

Bath Iron Works on the Kennebec

There was a surge in shipbuilding during World War I. However, as ships became larger and with a larger draft, it became harder for the ships to navigate the Kennebec River channel, and the logistics of building them in Bath became too difficult. During World War I, Bath saw its largest population and many ships built, but following the war, all of the shipyards in Bath went out of business. Bath Iron Works was sold at auction but was resurrected to become the only remaining shipyard in Bath.

During World War II, Bath Iron Works produced a destroyer every 17 days. It is still the sole commercial shipyard in Bath and continues to build destroyers for the US Navy. It is now the largest public employer in Maine.

MFS boadshed from Waterfront part with BIW crane behind it

A quarter mile north of the cranes of Bath Iron Works, Maine’s First Ship built a reproduction of the 1607 pinnace Virginia to honor the 400 year (and continuing) legacy of quality shipbuilding in Bath.

A mile south of BIW, the Maine Maritime Museum now occupies the site of the Percy and Small shipyard with many exhibits about the maritime history of Maine, including the shipbuilding in the Bath area.