Bath Maine has been a shipbuilding powerhouse literally from its 17th-century founding, making small pinnaces and large 6-mast schooners, through clipper ships, WWI and WWII naval ships to present-day destroyers. It also has a lovely historic downtown and a wonderful Maritime Museum. Although we didn’t visit it on this trip, here is a report of this wonderful museum, which provides a compelling history of Maine’s and especially Bath’s important role in the country’s sailing and naval history.
The Bath area, along the Kennebec River, was one of the largest shipbuilding areas in the country during the mid-to-late 1800s. At its peak, the region housed 230 shipyards which, combined, built more than 4,700 schooners, more than any other state. These ranged from the early two-masted ships of the 1850s, to Clipper Shops, to the huge, six-masted ships. The largest of these, the Wyoming, was the biggest wooden vessel ever built in the U.S.–325 feet in length (444 to the end of its bowsprit with 177-foot masts and a draft of 27.5 feet, with a full load of 6,000 tons).
The exhibits, most of which were in buildings that originally housed different aspects of the shim along the process, were comprehensive and informative. The sculpture that represents the full size of the huge Wyoming–on the very spot it was built–is extraordinarily impressive. The most interesting part of our visit, however, was an introductory tour. We learned:
- The reasons the Kennebec River was such a popular place for building ships (including the slope of the banks, the depth of the river, and the proximity to lumber);
- The huge scale of the shipbuilding operations and how they evolved;
- The pay of the workers (from $1 per day–$23 in today’s dollars–for laborers to $4.50 for the most skilled shipwrights;
- How new ships were financed (by selling shares to wealthy investors) and the returns that owners could earn (as from gross profits from shipping fees to the sale of the ship);
- The range of goods shipped–especially coal from Virginia to the other states, cotton to and immigrants from Europe, as well as oil and cotton to Japan, sugar, and rum from the Caribbean, hides from Argentina, and sea bird guano (for fertilizer) from Chile and, in the case of a few Maine ship owners, slaves from Africa;
- The huge profits that ship owners earned during WWI, how the demand for wooden shipping vessels plummeted in favor of steel ships after the war, and how Bath Iron Works has maintained at least some of Bath s shipbuilding heritage by building a huge navy and commercial ships.
Overall, it was an impressive museum and a fascinating visit.