Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Maine: Bath Maritime Museum - Wooden Shipbuilding

     Over the last fifty years, an impressive historical legacy has been assembled in Bath.  It is the grounds and the collections dedicated to Maine's rich history of commercial and pleasure sailing and boat building.  

     The sculpture pictured above mirrors the dimensions of the premier wooden sailing ship build in Bath - the Wyoming.  The ship spanned some 450 feet, held over 3,000 tons of cargo and was the last six masted schooner built on the east coast of the United States.  The sculpture mirrors the exact spot the ship was built, a desirable spot because of the gentle natural slope down to the river.  This made it much easier for the ship to slide down the cradle into the water when construction was completed.  By the way, this is the spot that Doug and Linda Lee, who we met aboard the Schooner Heritage rebuilt their first schooner - the Isaac Evans.

     The ship saw heavy use for 15 years, finally succumbing to heavy seas and sinking in 1926.  Here is one of these six masted schooners loaded down with coal and under sail.  

     The museum did not start out anything close to what it resembles today.  In fact it started as a book.  A local newspaper writer was retiring and wanted to get paid to write a book on the history of shipbuilding in Bath.  A couple of people got together and formed a trust which turned into a non-profit which then took on a life of its own.  The museum started in a small store downtown, and after a few years a local resident donated an old mansion to house it.  It then acquired a church whose sanctuary they used to deliver lectures.  It now encompasses several acres and includes numerous historical buildings as well as the main museum and administration building shown below.     

     There is no way I can do service to the many people who contributed to this effort - many of them have already passed on.  But there is one man I had the privilege of spending a bit of time with who was instrumental in the museum's success - Charlie Burden.

     Charlie was Bath's pediatrician for better than 40 years, and as such he got to know just about everyone in town.  Early in his career he bought an old house that happened been built many years before by a schooner captain.   In his quest to learn more about the man who had built the house Charlie came across the fledgling group of men who had set out to write a book.  The group was wise enough to see that there were many artifacts of the shipbuilding industry in the area that would disappear over time as people passed on or moved out of the area.  So they started collecting artifacts, and according to others none was so zealous in the task as Charlie.  Charlie spent better than 40 years and much of his own money acquiring artifacts from all sorts of places - flea markets, antique shops, people's basements and attics - anywhere there was a chance of finding things related to the area's nautical history. 

     Charlie has a couple of great stories - in the photo of him above you will notice the big carving of a man used as a mast-head.  Charlie found this artifact a couple hundred miles south in Massachusetts but could not get it back in his vehicle.  So he enlisted the help of the town's mortician.   He had to drop a cadaver off in southern Maine, so they took the Hearse on down to pick it up.   On the return trip they had it in the back of the vehicle with the curtains open, and Charlie says there was many a gawker who slowed down to look at the massive man in the back of the hearse. 

      Another great story of Charlie's has to do with scrimshaw - the intricate paintings sailors did on various types of ivory.

(photo from Savannah Georgia's museum)

     An older lady from the area had mention to Charlie numerous times that she had an old captain's chair that she would like to give to the museum - but she never seemed to be willing to set a time for Charlie to pick it up.  Finally she set a day and Charlie showed up and loaded up the chair. 

     The woman hemmed and hawed for a bit, then said she had another artifact he might want.  She finally went and got a huge whale tooth that had been carved with what Charlie says were some of the most graphic pornographic scenes he has ever seen.  The woman was deeply embarrassed but had not been able to bring herself to throw it out.  She said she was so relieved that he was a doctor, otherwise she wouldn't have been able to bring herself to show it to him.  It is in the museum's large collection of stored items, and Charlie says maybe one day society will be more accepting of these things and they will display it for the public.  (My SD card went bad and I lost the set of photos that had this museum's collection of scrimshaw.)

     But perhaps Charlie's biggest contribution was the site the museum sits on today.  Back in 1966 he heard about an old shipyard that was up for sale that had many of the original buildings on it.  He tried to talk the other board members into acquiring the property, but none of them saw fit to do it.  The property even included an old shipyard owner's house, that today is furnished with 1800's furnishings and open to be toured.

      Charlie invited a local couple who had some money over for dinner one night and after plying them with a glass or two of wine talked them into buying the property and holding it for the museum.  It wasn't until the 1980's that the board finally saw the wisdom of the purchase and acquired it from the couple.  Meanwhile, the couple were able to preserve the original buildings until others "saw the light."

     Charlie, being a pediatrician, has been strong in his push to make the place "kid friendly."  There are several play areas built specifically for children.

     But Charlie envisions something even better - he has all manner of ideas for a whole building of hands on displays that can teach the very young to appreciate nautical history.

     The community is deeply involved in this place.  There are over 250 volunteers who give of themselves in all sorts of capacities.  Many have logged thousands of hours of volunteer work, and all are quite passionate about the history of the area.  

     Some of them act as guides, such as Dave Mashl.  Dave retired from a career in the ITIS field, and decided that since he had always been terrified of public speaking, he would volunteer as a guide at the museum.  You would never know he had been so afraid of it - he along with the others do a marvelous job.

     The guides don't take you through the museum - they take groups of visitors through the outside displays and give an overview of how these ships were built.  

     One of the buildings that survives is the drafting and layout building.  

     In this building planners took the dimensions of the small models that served as a guide and expanded the dimensions up to full size.  It was here that the orders were given to the carpenters and the metal workers as to the size and shape of all the various components they were to build.

     Another cluster of buildings housed the blacksmiths, the rough and the finish carpenters and the painters.

     It was here that rough cut trees came in and were shaped into all of the pieces it takes to assemble a ship.  Maine's large oak forests provided the raw materials for the structural support pieces.  On the right hand side you can see the ramp they would drop the pieces down to the assemblers.

     Big shaping tables and saws handled the job of shaping the wood.  The equipment shown here is not original - in World War II the originals were scavenged to be melted down and used to build war ships.

     Then came the assemblers.  They used specialty axes called adzes and long wood boring implements.

     The wood pieces were fastened together using large wooden dowels called treenails.  The large auger bits bored holes through the various pieces and then the treenails were driven in.  Locust was the favorite wood to use for these because of its strength. 

     Here is a lathe used to cut some of the tens of thousands of treenails it took to assemble just one of these large vessels.

     There were numerous shipyards in Bath.  Shipyard owners only hired a few employees of their own.  All of this other work on the boats was done by "sub-contractors" - smaller companies that specialized in the various phases of building a ship.  Among these were the painters.

     Back in that era the pigment for white paint was derived from lead, so painters had all of the associated ailments that came from lead poisoning.  There were no unions, safety standards or workmen's compensation back then, so you worked for a few years and were ruined for whatever life you had left.

     One of the buildings that was recently rebuilt was the blacksmiths shop.  Because of the flames they could not build it out of wood as was the original.

     Back then a shipyard was a fire waiting to happen.  There was wood, rope, sawdust, flammable paints and pitch and tar - a disaster when a shipyard went up.  Smoking was only allowed in the blacksmiths shop, and in the long Maine winters this was the only place you could really warm up.  So the blacksmiths shop was a popular place.

     Thousands of iron brackets, fittings, hinges and the like went into building a boat.  As you take the tour one of the volunteers shows the techniques used back then to create the required metal work.

     Another of the original buildings is the caulkers shed.

     Wood shrinks and swells under various conditions, and that makes for a leaky boat.  So the caulkers took Oakum - which is basically the hemp fibres used to make rope - and twisted them into long braids.  These along with a tar product were driven into the seams between the wooden planks.

     Hammers and chisels were used to do this, and in the photo below you can see the heating pot and the applicator used to put the pitch on the seam  The constant hammering rendered most caulkers deaf within a few years.

     Rope making required its own special facility.  This model of a long narrow building shows how the hemp fibres were braided to make lengths of rope.

     When one John Smith retired after 45 years of rope-making here, they calculated that he had walked 140,850 miles back and forth as he spun the rope.  And half of that distance he walked backward !!

     Sail making was a completely separate skill.  The implements used to sew and insert grommets are shown below.

     Once a ship was built it has to be outfitted.  That supported another whole industry - provisions.

     Two other buildings house a great collection of personal watercraft from Maine. 

     It is a great way to see the evolution of these vessels over the last couple of centuries.  Here is one of the earliest crafts with an inboard motor.

     And here is an old Kayak that had its own sail.  

     There are dozens of beautiful old boats, each significant in its own way and each with its own unique story.

     Another building houses the modern day woodshops that the museum runs.

     Rough cut wood still arrives here and is worked into the intricate shapes required to build boats.

     But these days it is for teaching purposes - there is a full calendar of children and adult boat building and boat restoring classes offered to the community.

     Yet another building touches on the history of commercial fishing and lobstering in Maine.

     All this - and we have not even set foot in the main museum yet.  We have an appointment to meet a couple of the key people who keep that facility running the day after tomorrow - so tomorrow we will look around the City of Bath.

     That brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd," spotted walking down the sidewalk in town.

     And today's parting shot - sitting in the children's area of the museum:

Make it a great day !!

Click Here if you can contribute a few dollars to help with this effort, and you can email me at

1 comment:

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