Thursday, August 27, 2015

Maine: City of Bath

     After Exploring the local waters and spending a day Learning About Wooden Ship Building, we are in Bath to explore the town a bit.

     This city was originally named "Long Reach" in reference to the straight 3 mile stretch of deep and protected river waters.  According to the local historical society, there is evidence that the Vikings visited here in the 1100's.  Europeans started trying to settle the area in the mid 1600's but didn't really get a foothold until the early 1700's.  It was later named Georgetown and then finally incorporated as Bath in 1781.

     Aside from the local museum, the area has a long history of philanthropy by locals.  There is a beautiful free library and town hall, both built and donated to the city by previous residents. 

    Many of the local ship building and commercial shipping people made good, and made it clear that they cared about where they live.  

      Although some of the areas are literally carved out of granite, for the most part there is a gentle slope alongside the river that was ideal for ship building and deep water access.

     In northern Maine we saw tides running almost thirty feet - and while the tides are not that severe here they still large enough that seven miles up the river sees a six to eight foot differential.  Early settlers saw this as a great power source, and as shown below tidal driven saw mills were constructed across the river.

     Unlike the ship builders to the north that so mistrusted steam power that they ultimately went out of business, the builders in Bath embraced the technology.  Here is an early steam ship that still had sails.

     I saw a reference in a book to these ships as "Hermaphrodites," but in the museum a "hermaphrodite" ship was shown as a schooner that had 1 mast set up as a square rigger.  Which ever it is, I get a kick out of the name.

     The major wars have been a boon to this area.  Before World War I there were several major shipyards here, ultimately shrinking to a single one, Bath Iron Works.  

     At its peak production during WW II, this area was launching a new naval vessel every 17 days.  That is an amazing amount of material and work, and much of it was done by women as the majority of the men were off to war.  

     A lot has been accomplished in this town over the years, and the love the residents have had for the community isn't just something they have paid lip service to.  You can walk through the downtown areas and see that careful planning and thoughtful improvements have been made with the well being of the residents in mind.  One decision of vital importance that was very controversial at the time was when Bath refused to jump on the Urban Renewal bandwagon a few decades ago.  In a rush to "modernize" cities many historic buildings were torn down and much of the character was lost in many cities nationwide.  This area had the wisdom to resist it, and the result is a downtown that still has structures representing numerous eras of architecture.

     We saw a little bit of the great legacy the previous generation left Bath in the form of a museum, and as that generation passes on a new one is picking up the torch.  Meet Andrew Deci, Director of Planning and Development for the city since 2010.

     Andrew was raised and educated in Virginia, and had an opportunity to work as planning director in a city there.  But he came to Bath because of the love the people have for the area.  Andrew was wise enough to realize that if he wanted to do more than just draw a paycheck in a job like this, community participation is crucial.

     I can say that I have witnessed this attitude all through Maine, and I love the people for it.  It shows in all kinds of little things.  Like the banks.  Most every town has its own bank - people don't patronize the big Wall Street firms.  When you ask people why they tell you that if you want to have a thriving middle class you have to support them.  If you want to have money recirculate through the community, you have to spend it with locally owned businesses.  So you see a lot fewer of the big box stores and the chains here than you do other places in the country.

     And, by the way this is a heat wave in Maine.  The other day it hit 90 - much hotter than folks are used to here.      

     One of the many tools Andrew is using is a template for historically minded community revitalization called "Main Street USA." 

     This is an organization made up of local business owners, concerned citizens and local government officials.  The goal of the group is to implement improvements that are conducive to local residents, local businesses and visitors.  I attended one of their meetings, and space by space, block by block and area by area the group makes a big difference.

     Signage is always a big deal in Maine.  Billboards are banned, and you rarely see a sign for a business bigger than 4 feet by 8 feet.  Although this is a hurdle in some ways, it makes Maine much more appealing to the eye.  

      Locals are continually giving small plots of land for parks and suggesting improvements to existing areas.  Also attending the meeting was the city's arborist, ready with suggestions and insights as to how the city's green areas can be improved.

     But as much as anything the existence of this committee helps with the exchange of ideas throughout the community.  People have an avenue to government and feel that they can contribute to the well-being and the improvement of their city.  One resident recently paid to revamp an old YMCA into a community theater - on his own dime.  Another, while I was there, had a piece of property that he had planned to use for something else but decided to turn it in a small park and make it available for public use.  And I heard of numerous projects that have been completed with equal contributions from merchants, citizens and the city.  One of the topics at the meeting was a gala they are planning for next year that will help raise funds for further improvements to the downtown area.

    It is worth noting that the 3 years ago the town won the Great American Main Street Award.  The video they produced for that endeavor can be accessed by Clicking Here.  The video gives a better perspective of the area than I am able to get with still shots.  Another neat thing they have started is an annual Random Acts of Kindness Day.

     The town has slowly been building a string of parks and a board-walk along the river.  A developer recently purchased this property on the end of town and they were able to negotiate an extension of the current boardwalk to run along this section.

     Another old warehouse is coming available, and Andrew is actively looking for someone who can turn it into a micro-brewery or some other socially oriented business along the river.

     This downtown area that we are talking about all lies on one side of the bridge of the main route through town - US 1.  In the picture below it is on the far side of the bridge.

     To the left is the sprawling complex that makes up Bath Iron Works.  

     This shipyard was started in 1884 by a local civil war veteran.  One Thomas Hyde started out purchasing a small shop that made miscellaneous iron parts for boats, and then through expansions and acquisitions slowly developed it into a ship manufacturing company.  Naval vessels built here during the wars earned the respect of sailors who coined a phrase "Bath built is best built."

     Up until 1981, the company built numerous types of commercial vessels along with the military ships.  However, in the last 35 years the shipyard has only had one client - the United States Navy.  

     Prior to 2001 the company built the ships on the natural slope of land and launched them in the time honored fashion of letting them slide down ramps into the water.  (This is the location of John Wayne's Famous Ship Christening.)   

     In 2001 they built a large concrete area with rails that move sections of the ship into a movable dry dock.  (shown below)  

      The dry dock is then towed out into the river and sunk, allowing the vessel to float free.  Oddly, in a city where many of the best iron workers in the world reside, the company had the dry dock manufactured in China and barged in.  

     The company currently makes these "Zumwalt Class" stealth destroyers.  Originally the navy ordered 32, but as costs of the new technology escalated they cut the order several times, clear down to 7 ships.  A congressional memo a few years back claimed that these ships are now costing us 6 Billion dollars each.  Billion.

     As I talked to retired Bath Iron Workers and other locals, I heard about a long history of this company's involvement in the community.  But in 1995 ownership shifted from locals to General Dynamics.

     Over the last few decades General Dynamics has become a large consortium as it has gobbled up smaller companies that specialize in military equipment.  As this transition has taken place, the company's demands upon the community have risen and their contributions fallen.  I am told that of over 5,000 employees only about 500 actually live here now.  More than one person talked about the constant downward pressure on compensation.  The company's website boasts a profit of about 2.5 Billion in 2014 with a total of just under 100,000 employees.  The math says the company profits about $30,000 an employee per year - pretty hefty when you consider execs making over 100 million a year.  I would be interested to know if the company makes more per employee than the workers themselves do.

     The company has alternately "played hardball" and plead poverty in recent years, and I have to wonder how far they can push.  The geography of Maine is beautiful, but the resourcefulness and resilience of the people is even more impressive.  The people here will be fine with or without General Dynamics.  ( I want to make clear that none of the locals talked bad about the company - these are my own observations based on what I heard and read.)    

    This is the nicest piece of commercial land I have seen in Maine.  Given its proximity to downtown I can think of many things that could be situated here that would better serve the city.  Perhaps they would be well served to look at Wilmington North Carolina where we saw the city reinventing itself and its riverfront.  There are all kinds of talented shipbuilding folks still in this area - part of the land could be a very successful business incubator.  Or maybe the recent trend of corporations loathing the notion of social responsibility and community cooperation will reverse.  It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years.

     Back at City Hall Andrew has a few neat things to share.  There are two display cases in the entryway that contain old town newspapers.

     One of them always has "today's news" from 50 years ago displayed and the other the day's news from 100 years ago.  Andrew says it is weird how often he will be dealing with an issue, glance at these papers and see that the townspeople were dealing with the exact same issue all those years ago.

     Back in 1889 a Bath built ship wrecked just offshore the Japanese city of Tsugaru.  The Japanese cared for the sailors, and since that time a relationship has grown between the cities.

     In 1993 the cities signed a declaration that they would be "sister cities," and since that date a student and cultural exchange program has been set up.

     The town hall's cupola holds an old bell - one made by Paul Revere's shop and with a serial number that matches the time period that Paul was involved in the work himself.  

     Another project being undertaken by locals is the construction of a duplicate of what is most likely the first ocean going vessel built in North America.

     In 1607 there was a colony known as the "Popham Community" established just outside Bath at at the mouth of the river.  They were ill equipped to survive in the harsh conditions here and had no way back to England.  (It is interesting to note that this colony preceded the "Plymouth Rock" colony by over a decade.)

     But a shipwright was living among them, and they took it upon themselves to build a ship that would take them back to England.  Locals are currently building a duplicate of that ship to serve as a "floating classroom" on the science of ship building.

     There is tremendous community interest and support for the project - just another way that the area is preserving its heritage.

     On the modern art scene, here is a sculpture in the front of a local tire store.  Locals call it "the creature."

     Which brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd" - a rosy cheeked lad spotted at a local restaurant.

     And today's parting shot(s) come from the permit section of Bath's town hall.  They have the big rack of pre-printed forms for use when applying for various permits.

     There amongst heating permits, blasting permits and the like is an unusual form.

     I can just hear old Bubba saying: "Mildred, I am heading out to get the blasting permit for that daggum boulder, a heating permit for the barn and while I am there I am going to demand a few answers about those pesky head lice."

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Make it a great day !!


  1. Interesting read. Unfortunately you are very wrong that the town will do fine with or without General Dynamics. This is the only place in Maine I can think of where people who have no college degree can make a very good wage with excellent benefits. Growing up in Bath, I am embarrassed to admit I was a snob about people that work at BIW. Now I am grateful that my husband works there, hourly as an outside machinist, not a salaried white collar job, and I have been able to be an at home mom to our son for 12 years. If GD/BIW goes away, I honestly do not know what would happen to my family or the thousands of other families for work. If anything new came along, it would be much smaller and not able to support all these families. It is ludicrous to so lightly say Bath would do just fine. The lack of criticism of the company should tell you we all feel the same way, deeply grateful for the company being here. Also, the Navy cut the Zumwalt program to 3 ships, not 7.

  2. Hi there,

    I'm a proud resident of Bath. I appreciate your lifting up our small city and all of its beauty.

    There was a single sentence that troubled me, however. Out of respect for Maine's heritage, its Native people, and the opportunity to widen awareness, would you be willing to change it?

    You likely drew this sentence from local materials (if so, please tell me where) or considered this a simple explanation, but it's a harmful and unfair casting of history to say that "Europeans started trying to settle the area in the mid 1600's, but were repeatedly driven out by the local Indians."

    Maine has been home to Native peoples for thousands of years, but by 1400 CE there were as many as 20,000 Indians in what we know as Maine. When white settlers arrived here -- as elsewhere in this country -- they rarely viewed Native Americans as human beings, instead treating them as "pests" to be displaced, driven out, or exterminated. Of course the Native peoples resisted. Of course they were upset when strangers arrived, speaking unknown languages, and tried to take their land and resources.

    Although it's used to describe the act of settling the U.S. in many different communities, the sentence " "Europeans started trying to settle the area in the mid 1600's, but were repeatedly driven out by the local Indians" implies an innocence on the part of settlers, and an overbearing violence on the part of Native peoples. In fact, it was the other way around. Everywhere.

    I'm white, but am aware that our relationships of respect are as important in Maine as they are anywhere else. We have the chance to extend respect when we take extra care in telling our history, especially when we realize that the current telling favors those who did the taking.

    Thanks for hearing this request in good faith, and thank you again for visiting our City of Ships.

    1. Nice job, Erika.

      And David, this might have understandably escaped your attention, but Bath also has the best yarn store in the world -- Halcyon Yarns, located in one of those old warehouses near the river.