City Of Ships

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The town’s shipbuilding past is brilliantly preserved at the Maine Maritime Museum, recently moved from a scattering of sites to the grounds of the old Percy and Small shipyard, a mile and a half south of the town center on the banks of the Kennebec River. Visitors can easily spend hours wandering the ten acres that hold shop buildings and a new exhibit hall and visiting an authentic schooner docked in season nearby on the river. In the original shipbuilding shops various exhibits explore the seafaring trades: caulking, apprenticing, lobstering, and handline fishing from dories, the last a New England tradition that is now passed down only within a museum’s walls. If you eventually suffer from museum feet, a delightful restorative is the fifty-minute narrated cruise on the museum’s vessel Hardy II , which features excellent views of the Bath Iron Works. Boat owners can put in overnight at the museum dock for a fifteen-dollar fee, which includes one ticket of admission.

It’s just as rewarding to stroll Bath’s streets past a fine collection of architecture from its days of maritime eminence. Don’t expect to find the classic New England village, its houses and church clustered around a green, a bronze Civil War soldier at its heart. Here the green is replaced by a shady park that stretches along the river, crowned with a William Zorach sculpture of a sturdy woman titled The Spirit of the Sea .

The Popham colony lives on in maritime history as the site of the first oceangoing vessel made by Englishmen in the New World.

“The houses are generally neat, and some of them superior to this description,” wrote Yale’s president Timothy Dwight around 1810. “The streets run parallel to each other and at right angles with the river. Bath carries on a considerable commerce and wears the aspect of thrift,” he concluded.

The aspect of thrift, best seen in the recently restored brick commercial buildings along Front Street, is punctuated by houses of real splendor on the residential streets, many of them still inhabited by descendants of the families that built them. (None are regularly open to the public, but some are now bed and breakfasts.) Two of the most distinguished—83 and 71 South Street—were built by brothers, Isaiah and William Donnell Crocker, whose shipyard lay at the foot of the street. Isaiah built number 83 in 1820. After a quarrel William constructed a house in 1832 that was even grander and cut off his brother’s expansive view of the river.

This fraternal architectural duel somehow seems more a part of, say, Manhattan in the Gilded Age than it does of a New England seafaring town, but beyond Bath’s unique attractions the area remains appealing essentially because of its unaffected Maine surroundings. Two state parks with white-sand beaches are close by, and a delicious lobster dinner is never hard to find. Several lightly populated islands southwest of Bath extend fingers toward the Atlantic Ocean, and a drive along their windy roads reveals fishing coves at every turn. Later in the day the sunset seen from an island’s steep shore offers a color-washed view of pine-studded peninsulas and shimmering harbors beyond. At these times the coast seems nearly as untouched as when Sir George Popham arrived with his band of adventurers.

Julia Trotman TO PLAN A TRIP