Maine Maritime & Shipbuilding Heritage

Bath Ironworks

Shipbuilding continues today at Bath Ironworks in Bath, Maine - "The City of Ships"

Geography, Weather and the Maine Character

Maine has a legendary aloofness. This image has as much to do with the fact that Maine is tucked like a remote outpost in the upper corner of the northeast as it does the capricious weather that pummels its coast, and the stone-faced rusticators and fishermen who have struggled to work the land and sea since the days of Maine’s first settlers. Geography and weather create a certain stock of people, and Maine’s precarious location to extreme and turbulent conditions, be it the arctic mountain chill or the coastal Nor’easter, have forced centuries of Mainers to live a hardscrabble life of survival. Anyone who has ever been to Maine knows that the weather is unpredictable. One day of brilliant blue sky can easily be followed by five days of thickening fog. In order to make a living off the land and sea, Mainers had to learn to adapt to nature’s fickle mood.

When historians discuss Maine’s character, old Calvinistic ideas like “hard work is the only virtue” and “nothing can change my fate” are often brought up. However, the reserved and hardworking Yankee character is as much a New England trait as it is a Maine sensibility. The poet Robert Frost, a long time New Hampshire resident, once wrote: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Whether this is a commentary on Yankee reticence or a verse that laments a lost agricultural past, one thing is certain, when you drive through the interior of Maine there is no shortage of crumbling stonewalls marking the perimeters of old rural farms. The old fences and past grudges are part of the landscape.

The Rise of the Boatyard and the Power of Trade

After the American Revolution, Maine’s economic growth was built on two industries. Inland communities relied on farming and fur trading. The coastal communities depended on shipbuilding and maritime trade.

Shipbuilding is one of the oldest industries in Maine. The craft can be traced back to the Native Americans who navigated the rivers and waterways in birch bark canoes. However, Maine’s shipbuilding heyday came with the Colonists. From New Bedford, Massachusetts to Penobscot, Maine, boatyards and ship building communities sprang up along the coast. In no time, what started out as workplaces that made modest vessels for fishing and trading had morphed into a powerhouse industry that built square-rigged clipper ships, Down Easters and schooners. If you are interested in seeing what these schooners look like, take a cruise on one of the classic vessels in Maine’s Windjammer Association.

With faster, sleeker and better-built boats, maritime trade exploded like fireworks on Independence Day. Maine-ported ships could be seen hauling cargo all over the globe. Ship captains amassed fortunes by trading lumber for sugar and rum in the Caribbean. In fact, the town of Searsport was solely developed as a sea captains’ community, and each of the colonial-era houses had a Widow’s Walk, a railed, rooftop platform that faced the sea and allowed wives to watch for their husbands’ safe return.

A Safe Passage: Touring Maine’s Lighthouses

With so many ships arriving and departing from Maine’s harbors, the 19th century became the age of the lighthouse. Most of the lighthouses in Maine are constructed of stone. No full-time keepers still live in these beacons of safety and light, as all of Maine’s lighthouses became automated in the 1960s and 70s. If you are looking for that old Maine magic, then the sight of these nautical structures nestled along rocky outcrops or standing defiantly on windswept beaches is sure to impress. Maine has no official Light House Trail, but you can easily spend your vacation connecting the dots from one lighthouse to another along Maine’s jigsaw coast.

The Portland Head Lighthouse, in Cape Elizabeth, is one of the most visited and photographed lighthouses in Maine. Its scenic position by the Atlantic and 80-foot beveled tower create a perfect postcard photo. The Portland Head Lighthouse was the first lighthouse built by the U.S. government, and George Washington ordered that the tower be constructed from local stone. He also appointed the first keeper. This is one of Maine’s best lighthouses, but the state is home to at least 60 more. Be sure to take a look at one of these.

  • The Burnt Island Light in Boothbay Harbor
  • Bass Harbor Head Light on Mount Desert Island
  • Curtis Island Light in Rockland
  • Owls head Light in Penobscot Bay
  • Robinson Point Light on Isle au Haute

Maine Maritime and Naval Museums

Maine’s seafaring industry is on display throughout the state. If you do not have a chance to get out on the water and live a day in the life of the Ancient Mariner, then touring one of these museums is your next best option.

The oldest federal shipyard is in Kittery, and the Kittery Historical and Naval Museum highlights the maritime influences and shipbuilding trade of the city’s illustrious past. The highlights in the museum include: a replica of John Paul Jones’ 14-foot sloop, shipbuilding displays and nautical carvings by John Haley Bellamy.

Bath was a shipbuilding powerhouse in the 19th century. Its Maritime Museum was founded in 1962 and is a 20-acre shipyard devoted to exhibits that portray life at sea. From the Percy and Small Shipyard, which launched 42 schooners in its heyday, to the Bath Iron Works, a modern, full service shipyard whose motto is “Bath Built is Best Built,” it is no wonder that Bath is known as the City of Ships.

The Penobscot Maritime Museum, in Searsport, is the oldest maritime museum in Maine. Its permanent collection includes: regional watercraft, marine art, navigation instruments, ship models and genealogy records.

Are you looking for something quirky and off-the-beaten path? Located in Jonesport, the Sardine History Museum is an homage to the fifteen different canneries that once existed in town. From fishing and processing to canning and shipping, this special interest museum is your chance to learn about Maine’s canning history.

Maine Maritime Museum

Grand Banks Schooner Sherman Zwicker at the Maine Maritime Museum.

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