On a recent vacation in Maine, I asked a native of the state what her favorite Maine small town is. She lives in Blue Hill and works in Castine, two quaint and beautiful towns. I was a little surprised when she proclaimed Bath her favorite town. I’d always whizzed through Bath on Route 1, looking at the shipyard and assuming the town was less historic and quaint than others I’d spent time in. Clearly I had not done my research! On this trip, my friend and I stopped in Bath to form our own judgement. We explored the historic city blocks next to the Kennebec River and spent several hours at the Maine Maritime Museum. I love a good maritime museum, and this one did not fail, especially because it’s a museum and historic site rolled into one package.
This impressive museum sits on 20 acres along the Kennebec River on the site of the last surviving wooden hull shipyard in the country, the Percy and Small Shipyard. This is where huge four, five and six masted schooners were built between 1897 and 1920. Bath was known as the City of Ships. There were over 200 shipyards on the Kennebec River in the past, and 22 at one time. In the period after the Civil War, Maine was building more than half of America’s wooden ocean-going sailing ships, and half of those originated in Bath.
Dominating the entire site is New England’s largest sculpture, a full size representation of the largest wooden sailing vessel ever built. (The height of its masts which had to be reduced for safety reasons). The 329 ft. long white frame depicting the six-masted schooner Wyoming sits on the very site where the original was built and launched in 1909. Breathtaking in its scale, it towers above the landscape drawing a visitor’s eyes upward. One can’t help but gaze at the installation. It’s brilliant in its inception and purpose. It clearly communicates the site’s main story with one glance in its direction.
While the exhibitions in the museum’s main building feature fascinating artifacts and explain the shipbuilding industry in Maine, the site’s five original 19th century buildings plus a few reproduction buildings, provide insight into the shipbuilding process.
The Mould Loft where designers laid out patterns and defined the ship’s shape, the blacksmith shop, the paint and treenail building, the caulker’s shed, a ship launching demonstration and even a Victorian-era shipyard owner’s home. All told a piece of the story. But the great wooden ship story came to a rather sudden end by 1921, replaced by steel steamships.
As I gazed at a photo of the shipyard’s employees gathered for one moment in time, I looked at these sturdy men (no women allowed in the yard) and wondered what their lives were really like. It can’t have been an easy job, but to see the product of many days of labor finally launched must have been a time of great celebration. Even today, a working shipyard, the Bath Iron Works, sits within eyesight of the museum and produces destroyers for the American Navy. The City of Ships may not be as busy as it once was, but Bath’s ties to the shipbuilding industry remain strong.