September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
Crossing the Kennebec River into Bath, you immediately notice “Number Eleven,” a fourhundred-foot-tall red-and-white-striped crane that dominates the low, leafy town. This landmark may be rather homely, but it signals the shipbuilding prowess that distinguishes Bath from its quainter lobstering neighbors along the Maine coastline. Known for years as the City of Ships, Bath has launched more oceangoing vessels from its milelong riverfront stretch than any other area of comparable size in the world.
“Bath must have been a fine place to live in, a century ago,” Robert Tristam Coffin wrote in a 1937 history of the Kennebec River. “The streets smelled of far countries. The shop windows were pages of a geography book. And all day long there was music through the air, the sound of a thousand wooden mallets driving home the treenails in the planking of a dozen hulls. … At the end of every street there were white sails, and ships were going by like high summer clouds.”
For today’s visitor it is the 107-year-old Bath Iron Works (BIW), owner of Number Eleven, that speaks of the town’s shipbuilding past. This is just one of three yards in the country outfitted to produce large warships that are considered to be the most technically advanced in the world, and one can sense the pride built into the operation, just by strolling past it. “Through these gates … pass the best shipbuilders in the world,” proclaim signs at every entrance. Even though the yard doesn’t offer tours, visitors can see most of its workings from outside the gates or by taking a boat cruise down the Kennebec River.
Men of Bath were building ships even before the landing of the Mayflower , but their first vessel was the product of desperation rather than commercial enterprise. In August 1607 Sir George Popham, accompanied by 120 male settlers, landed on the Phippsburg Peninsula and there established the first colony in New England.
The colonists were greeted by a warm and pristine coastline, but the inviting landscape soon gave way to a harsh, bitterly cold nightmare as winter came down. Freezing and afflicted by disease, many of the men died, including Sir George, while the remainder battled starvation. Robbed of their leader and fearful of spending another winter in the colony, the survivors constructed the thirty-ton pinnace Virginia and set sail for England in 1608, after barely a year in the New World.
Although the Popham colony failed, it lives on in maritime history as the site of the first oceangoing vessel made by Englishmen in the New World. Fishermen returned to the area within ten years or so, drawn by the Kennebec River, a major trade route, which has supported the shipbuilding industry ever since. Settlers in the Bath area found the river’s deep harbor and broad waterfront ideal for sending ships down the ways; they also prized the hundreds of square miles of timber—their main raw material—that extended beyond their back doors.
“When the Revolution ended and the Americans stood up as a nation, something tremendous happened to the Kennebec,” wrote Robert Tristam Coffin. “It started rising, and it kept on rising until its waters covered the Atlantic, poured down around the Horn, out across the Pacific, and met themselves coming around Good Hope. It had circled the globe, and neighbors in Bath and Bowdoinham said how-do-you-do to one another in every port of the world.” While still supporting shipbuilders, nowadays the Kennebec attracts tourists and boaters to its riverside parks and clear waters twelve miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
Although it has witnessed its share of business cycles, the shipbuilding industry has enabled Bath to prosper for more than two hundred years. During the 179Os, when Congress adopted a protectionist policy to promote the country’s merchant marine, Bath entrepreneurs took up the call. They were ready to meet the demand for the square-rigged clipper ships that would rule the high seas by the mid-nineteenth century, when Bath produced almost half of all the sailing vessels built in America.
Despite its name, the Bath Iron Works was born during the climax of the wooden-ship era, when the enterprising young Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hyde returned home from the Civil War and purchased the Bath Iron Foundry. Hyde began by constructing parts for ships; later he enlarged his foundry with an eye toward the more financially rewarding business of manufacturing whole vessels.
From the start BIW sought out contracts from the U.S. Navy, building steel gunboats and torpedo boats. During World War II the yard supplied one-quarter of all U.S. destroyers, launching one every two or three weeks. Today the yard is occupied with filling billions of dollars of Navy contracts for Aegis destroyers and cruisers—which, with their highly sophisticated electronic weapons systems, are used primarily as escort vessels for battle groups. Several BIW Aegis cruisers were present for the Gulf War; the last of eight is scheduled to be delivered at the end of 1992.
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 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.