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Shipbuilding and Shipping in the Period of Ascendency

Lawrence C. Allin

In addition to fishing, the coastal Maine economy depended on two closely related maritime trades: shipping and shipbuilding. During colonial times, shipyards of one sort or another lined the banks of virtually every harbor, saltwater creek, or tiny bay in New England. During this period, Boston, Essex, Salem, and the lower Merrimac River towns dominated the small-vessel industry, but gradually Maine ports usurped this position. By 1880, some fifty towns between Kittery and Machias were engaged in building vessels, employing in one way or another more than two-hundred thousand people. Although Maine's small ports continued the tradition of small-boat building, the construction of large vessels gravitated to a few of Maine's larger ports. In the second half of the century Maine's preeminent shipbuilding families not only pioneered the development of new vessel types, but also carried the craft of wooden shipbuilding to its apogee. This grand maritime tradition, still very much alive today, was founded on some of the same geographic, natural, and economic conditions that fostered Maine's preeminence in fishing.

By sea, Maine was not only close to magnificent fishing grounds, but also to a variety of excellent markets for fish and other products: the burgeoning urban-industrial complexes of the Eastern Seaboard, the fertile tidewater regions of the southern states, the sugar ports of the West Indies, and the cotton textile districts of England. Countless harbors and inlets offered cheap land for shipyards. Down the gently sloping banks of these tidal stretches slid thousands of vessels into deep, sheltered water, to be outfitted by the same skilled laborers who built them.

Maine's forests of pine, spruce, oak, and tamarack provided the diverse woods necessary to build sailing ships, and this inexpensive supply of timber was easily transported to coastal shipyards by a vast river system. White oak, which grew in abundance along the coast of Maine, provided dense, tough wood for the ship's ribbing, which was encased in lighter planking of pine or spruce. Larch (tamarack), an iron-hard, water-resistant wood, provided "ship's knees," the bracing that joined ribs to the deck timbers. Cut during the winter when the sap was dormant, trees for the hull were rough-hewn and hauled to the building yards. There the wood dried for several seasons before it was shaped into frame, planking, knees, and deck house. Before the vessel "swam" -- before it was launched--caulkers forced oakum, or loosely braided rope, into the tight seams between the ship's planking. As the planks absorbed water, they swelled against one another, making a dry seal. The salt that preserved the enormous quantities of fish New Englanders exported also helped keep this cargo dry: before launching, the majority of Maine's sailing craft had the substance poured between their outer skins and their inner ceilings. When the salt melted, it permeated the wood, acting as a preservative. In tropical waters, it also protected the wood from teredo worms, which bored into wooden hulls and weakened them.

Because Maine's white pines were so plentiful, easily worked, and comparatively long lasting, they yielded masts not only for local vessels but also for those of the British and American navies. As with other shipbuilding woods, pine masts were cut in winter, hauled to the building yards, and trimmed and rounded. Once shaped, the masts were ready to step, or place, on the ship's keel. Unlike the seasoned woods used in a vessel's hull, the masts had to be "wet"; the sap remaining in the wood made the masts more supple, so that they might withstand the enormous energy forces brought against them by wind and sail.

In addition to these natural resources and geographical advantages, coastal Maine supplied thousands of carpenters and sailors whose skills were honed by generations of dependence on the sea for sustenance and travel. Since Maine resisted industrialization until quite late, there were no booming inland cities to draw off these mariners, fishermen, and artisans, as in Massachusetts and other New England states. As wooden ships evolved, not only did ship's carpenters, mastwrights, and caulkers lend their labor to the construction, but so, too, did cordwainers, block makers, pump makers, and a host of other skilled craftsmen. The cordwainers operated the ropewalks in which they spun cotton or manila hemp into lines, hawsers, and anchor cables. Block makers made huge wooden contrivances through which two, three, or four lines ran to the masts, spars, and sails. The blocks provided leverage, guidance, and smooth passage for the lines that worked the sails. Pumps, each made of dozens of pieces of wood, were necessary because the enormous force of heavy seas and strong winds against a vessel's hull inevitably caused some leaks.

Excellent shipbuilding sites, good river and coastal transportation, a diverse supply of local timber, and a tradition of maritime skills were the circumstances that fostered the state's seaborne commerce. As important as the experience in building and sailing were Maine's skills in managing the vessels financially. To wrest a living from the sea, Maine people had to think as well as act; they deployed these vessels, large and small, as economic tools to generate profits and livelihoods. Without astute business management, they would have been nothing more than expensive floating cargo spaces.

Maine's shipbuilding skills were continually tested against the ever-changing demands of the maritime trades. The sea offered a variety of opportunities to make a living, each requiring a distinctive class of vessel. During colonial times, for instance, small, locally built shallops were used for fishing, while sloops, measuring around sixty tons, carried dried fish, lumber products, and foodstuffs to the West Indies. Cargo vessels fell into two broad classes: coasting vessels and deep-water sailers. The coasting trade ran from Maine ports down the coast to the West Indies. Later, it extended from Maine all the way around Cape Horn to ports located on the West Coast of the United States. The deep-water trades extended across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans to foreign ports.

As we have already noted, codfish, sugar, rum, and salt were the elements of Maine's earliest seaborne commerce. This trade diversified quickly. Coasting vessels supplemented their cargoes of fish destined for the American South and the Caribbean with all kinds of Yankee-made wooden products, along with groceries from the Middle-Atlantic states. Once in the West Indies port, the shipmasters loaded boxes of crystallized sugar, great hogsheads of molasses, or distilled rum. Since the islands also grew indigo, cotton, cloves, and cocoa, other opportunities for profit existed. To reward their ship's officers and men, some captains allowed them to use cargo space to store a few pounds of "light pay," as these goods were called, to sell in their home ports at handsome markups.

At about the time of American Independence, schooners (fore-and-aft rigged vessels, some measuring a hundred tons) and brigs (two-masted, square-rigged vessels) moved into the "sugar" trade. While Maine shipping remained heavily oriented to the coasting trade, some of these larger deep-water sailers carried Caribbean goods, especially the rum, to Europe and returned to American ports with manufactured items. This deep-water trade received a tremendous boost during the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1809), when most European merchant ships were driven from the sea by France or England. Maine ships (the specific vessel type with three masts and square sails), some measuring 150 tons, moved into this lucrative "North Atlantic ferry route" as neutral shipping, carrying goods from the Caribbean colonies to US ports, and then "reexporting" them to the mother countries. Federal bounties, which heavily encouraged shipbuilding, fishing, and sailing, added further incentives for growth after 1819.

Much of the cargo carried in Maine vessels was, like salt cod, a home product. Building materials were the most important of these. Such materials included lime from the Rockland area, granite from the mid-coast headlands and islands, bricks (especially from Brewer), and the most spectacular of Maine construction products, lumber. Almost all Maine ports exported some lumber. Some, such as Pembroke, in Washington County; Franklin, in Hancock County; and Wiscasset, in Franklin County, had small hinterlands, or areas from which they took their exports and to which they brought in goods. Nevertheless, even these ports sustained booming lumber and shipbuilding trades until after the Civil War, when their hinterlands were cut over.

Larger rivers, such as the Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot, tapped deep hinterlands covered with seemingly inexhaustible stands of timber. Bangor's rise to national preeminence as a lumber-shipping port stimulated a prosperous shipbuilding industry on the Penobscot. During the nineteenth century, over five hundred vessels were launched in Bangor and its neighboring towns of Brewer, Orrington, and Hampden. Almost all these vessels left the Penobscot carrying some form of rough or semifinished timber. Among the most unusual were wooden "bricks" for paving factory floors or even public streets.

Because the "lumber-droughers" (vessels used to transport lumber) were constructed as general merchandise freighters and built to carry heavy commodities, they were difficult to handle when loaded with a light cargo like lumber. A conjunction of native Maine products and Yankee "know-how" helped solve this problem. Since the state abounds in good marine clays, ship masters consigned bricks as a complement to their relatively lighter loads of lumber or hay. Thus, while Bangor shipped lumber, its cross-river neighbor, Brewer, became a brick-making center of national reputation. Each winter, Brewer brick makers collected scrap wood from the sawmills, and when spring came they dug clay (the city is built around its old clay pits) and prepared it for firing. Since lumbering was primarily a winter occupation, brick makers had a ready supply of labor in the spring after the log drives reached safe water. Clay was shaped, dried, and stacked in and around wood to make the kilns. After brick makers fired and tore down their kilns, they furnished cheap bricks to sea captains who wanted to load their lower holds with balancing, weight to make their vessels perform well at sea. Often the captains loaded casks of lime from the lower Penobscot Bay, making a complete "construction cargo" of bricks, lime, and lumber.

The mid-coast lime industry also created a demand for vessels to carry wood. These were usually two-masted schooners built in just about any port on the Maine coast, or "Johnny woodboats," small sloops or schooners built principally on the St. John River in New Brunswick. Larger, tighter and newer schooners, some four-masted, were used to carry the lime to its major distribution point, New York City. The lime trade helped make Camden, Rockland, and Thomaston major shipbuilding centers. Granite quarries created another cargo which also required specialized sloops to carry the stone.

The cargoes of construction materials were profitable partly because eastern cities were growing at such a phenomenal rate, and partly because sea captains found a steady return cargo in coal. Beginning in the 1820s, steam-powered engines gradually but steadily replaced the waterwheel as a source of mechanical energy. First wood, then coal fired these voracious steam boilers. Eventually, coal also fueled locomotives, tugboats, and steamships and supplied heat in cast-iron stoves and furnaces in large urban homes. But it was as much the need for light as it was for steam power that gave the coal trade its first boost.

It is little remembered that the Clapp brothers, William and Asa, were the first Portland entrepreneurs to use coal for light. In 1849, they set up a small coal gasification plant in Portland and piped the flammable vapors made by their little retort to twelve gas lamps in the yards of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railway. The lamps provided light so that the laborers from their shipping business could handle merchandise day and night.

In the years after 1849, similar coal gasification plants were built in other Maine cities. Scuttles to handle coal appeared on the waterfronts and, by the time of the Civil War, the trade in coal for gasification was booming. Streets were torn up and gas lines laid, supplying light, heat, and cooking fuel for homes, factories, and offices. Coal imports increased markedly in the gaslight era--the 1850s--then boomed with industrial expansion based on steam power after the Civil War.

Maine's deep-water carrying trade received another boost from the cotton textile industry in England and New England. In 1802, the brig Androscoggin, owned by Maine's first governor, William King, returned from New Orleans loaded with southern cotton. The voyage was successful, and for the next eighty years Maine dominated the carrying trade in raw cotton. Maine-built brigs and then ships dropped down the coast to the south's great cotton ports--Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans--carrying lumber, bricks, hay, or whatever cargoes they could find in northern ports. After taking on a cargo of baled cotton, they sailed for Liverpool, Le Havre, Bremen, or back up the Atlantic Coast to the mill cities of New England. European-bound vessels returned to the East Coast with manufactured goods or cargoes of immigrants; the human freight paid approximately the same rates for passage as inert cargoes.

This carrying trade also required a special design. Broad-beamed and bluff bowed, the cotton freighter had a high deckhouse and a deep hold, rounding out under water like a kettle. Two circumstances affected the way Maine built these vessels. One was taxes. In 1789 the new federal government passed a law taxing vessels according to a simplistic formula that did not account for how a vessel's hull was formed. The resulting "rule-cheaters," with their relatively narrow decks and wide waterline widths were less safe than conventional vessels, but they gained advantages in federal taxes. The second circumstance affecting the design--something of a countervailing influence--was the length of the voyage from Maine to New Orleans. The cotton droughers had to be well built to withstand the considerable punishment that often came on that difficult passage.

Perhaps the most famous of the early cotton freighters was the Rappahannock, built by Freeman Clark and William D. Sewall of Bath. Launched in 1841, she ran 179 feet in length and 37 feet at the beam and measured 1,133 tons. At this time, the Rappahannock was the largest vessel in the world--actually, one of the largest merchantmen built in the Western world since the Romans launched their great grain carriers at the time of Christ. In addition to the cotton trade, the ice industry created a demand for specially built Maine vessels. Again, local industries proved complementary: Maine's busy sawmills supplied cheap wood to build the ice houses, the mountains of sawdust with which to insulate them, and the vessels that carried the ice. One of the largest vessels in the trade used over two hundred cords of sawdust as insulation for its perishable cargo. Earlier cargoes went to market in brigs and two-masted schooners, but as demand grew, larger vessels, mostly schooners with three, four, and then five masts, were built to carry it. On board were finely crafted pumps to discharge water from the melting ice, along with any seawater that found its way through the seams. The schooners were built of the best materials, because their cargoes were heavy and the melting water subjected them to rot. Because their cargoes were perishable, they were also built for speed. In late summer or early fall, schooners sometimes carried bushels of Maine apples in their upper holds. Cooled by the ice below, the apples arrived in southern ports well preserved. The versatile schooners usually returned form the South laden with coal.

A fair way to describe the spirit and ingenuity of Maine shipbuilders is to examine the fabled but short-lived clipper-ship era. The bold creativity of American ship designers had been brought to the fore during the Napoleonic Wars, when a premium on speed as means of escape from privateers and war vessels dictated some daring departures in ship design. During the War of 1812 similar conditions produced the "Baltimore clipper," a schooner-rigged brig associated with the Chesapeake yards. After 1815, New York's East River shipbuilders produced a series of transatlantic packet ships that continued the quest for speed under sail.

But the true clippers emerged in the 1840s, combining in some fashion three square-rigged masts, a long hull tapering from the bow to a deeply concave stern, and a narrow beam, located farther aft than in earlier designs. Their long, thin, shallow-draft hulls were made for speed, and their sails were legion, catching whole rivers of wind to drive the clippers at startling speeds. Authorities bestow the title "clipper" only on vessels which made the passage from New York to San Francisco in 110 days or less, or equaled this feat on other voyages. Names bestowed on these vessels expressed the romance of this brief era: Sovereign of the Seas, Flying Cloud, Hyperion, Romance of the Seas. Their captains made handsome salaries, but drove their vessels relentlessly, running at times under full sail in conditions that defied caution.

The master artists of clipper-ship design was Nova Scotia-born Donald McKay, who worked in the yards in New York's East River, in Newburyport, and in East Boston. McKay's famous Flying Cloud was the epitome of the clipper. The 1,782-ton ship made the voyage between New York and San Francisco in eighty-nine days, carrying up to fifty-two sails and a crew of almost three score to work them. The Flying Cloud could make eighteen knots on a long passage, but like other clippers she sacrificed a third of her cargo space for speed, an economically unsound proposition in the long run.

Like other vessels built in Maine and elsewhere, the clippers were designed to meet specific needs--in this case, rapid deep-water passage and minimal cargo space. The California Gold Rush, which brought booming markets in San Francisco and Sacramento and a mass movement of gold-hungry easterners, stimulated competition after 1849, as did a later gold rush in Australia and a lucrative trade in low bulk, high value products from China--jades, brocades, china, tea, and spices. Six Maine-built vessels hold clipper records, and probably the best of the lot--the Red Jacket-- was built in Rockland. The fabulous returns on transoceanic voyages, however, were not to last, and by the mid-1850s, the rush to build these exquisite "racehounds of the sea" had largely dissipated.

In addition to producing their share of clippers, Maine shipbuilders created what were probably the finest commercial sailing vessels ever built, the great "Down-Easters." An exclusive New England design, the Down-Easters combined speed, handiness, cargo capacity, and low operating costs to a degree never before obtained in square riggers. According to Howard Chappelle, the best informed authority on American sailing ships, the Down-Easters were the "highest development of the sailing ship."

The Down-Easters were designed specifically to capture the Pacific grain trade, which began at midcentury when rudimentary improvements in health care caused a population explosion in Europe. Cheap wheat, grown in Argentina, Australia, Russia, and the American West, fed the burgeoning cities of Europe, and the cost of its transportation on these great transoceanic voyages played a large part in its final price. California was an important focus of this trade. After loading wheat in San Francisco, the Down-Easters often sailed westward across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, around the Cape of Good Hope, to Liverpool. On these long voyages, they became moving, floating warehouses; recent developments in the undersea telegraph meant that the wheat could be bought and sold several times en route.

Just as it is difficult to define a clipper precisely, it is difficult to define a Down-Easter. For our purposes, they were square-rigged sailing vessels which measured over a thousand tons and had slab sides, capacious mid-bodies that encompassed great cargo holds, and large but simple sail plans. Unlike the clippers, they featured steam winches to work their sails. The epitome of the Down-Easter was the Henry B. Hyde, a vessel built by Chapman and Flint at Bath in 1884. The Hyde measured 2,463 tons and ran 286 feet with a beam of 45 feet and a draught of 29 feet. On ten consecutive voyages, she averaged 116 days running from New York to San Francisco. Searsport, which bred around 10 percent of America's deep-water ship masters at midcentury, contributed a Pendleton or a Colcord to command the Hyde on many of these passages. Three times she made a clipper's passage of less than 110 days and twice more recorded a run of 113 days. Like most Down-Easters, the Hyde carried wheat from San Francisco Bay to help feed Europe's millions.

To win the carrying trade for Pacific grain, Maine shipbuilders built capacious, fast ships. They designed heavily timbered keels and frames, and thick, strong planking to withstand both the brutal weather of the lower latitudes and the strains produced by a shifting cargo of wheat. Maine shipbuilders were able to drive down production costs partly by using low-wage labor and partly by building ships of huge size. They used masts of "Oregon pine" (Douglas-fir), since Maine's great white pines were gone. Maine shipwrights used considerable amounts of metal for bracing in these great square-riggers.

The Down-Easters, the last of the large square-rigged vessels built in Maine, were eventually pushed out of the grain trade by steam vessels, and many ended their lives in a unique manner: plying the Alaska salmon trade. Beginning in 1893, the California-based Alaska Packers Association bought many of the great vessels, loaded them with box shooks, oil, tin plate for cans, fishermen, and laborers, and sent them north in the spring. Once in Alaskan waters, the Down-Easter tied up at a cannery wharf where fishing boats brought the salmon. The laborers processed the fish, made the cans, and packed the fish. At the end of the season, the Down-Easters sailed for San Francisco with a full cargo of fish and a crew of tired cannery workers.

The Down-Easters had another interesting facet in their careers: many ended their useful days in the "Hollywood Navy." Producer Cecil B. DeMille and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, among others, bought the aging vessels for a song and took them to sea to make movies. Later, presumably, they were hauled up on deserted beaches and burned, so that the metal in them could be sold for scrap.

Wooden sailing ships remained a vital component of Maine's coastal economy through World War I and even experienced a brief revival during World War II. But increasingly in the second half of the nineteenth century the industry was on the defensive. Steam ships, made (usually in England) of iron, then steel, proved more efficient and dependable, and eventually they drove Maine's wooden sailing ships from the waters. But for a half a century after the Civil War, Maine shipbuilders met this challenge by producing wooden sailing ships to meet specialized markets. Just as Maine coast fishermen responded to the crisis in deepwater fishing by adapting to new markets, Maine shipbuilders continued to use their traditional skills and resources to meet new demands. The coastal economy survived the crisis of fishing and shipbuilding in the second half of the century, demonstrating again the versatility of Maine's resources and the adaptability of those who used them.

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