HOME: The Story of Maine

"They Came by Sea"

TRANSCRIPT

Narrator:

During the following program, look for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network web markers which lead you to more information on our web site.

Narrator:

Join us for HOME: The Story of Maine where you'll discover the stories of a State whose history is intricately linked to the creation of an American identity.

This on-going series offers insight into contemporary Maine through a collection of narratives from the State’s rich past.

Voice of Harriet Beecher Stowe:

The sea, living, beautiful and life-giving, seems, as you ride, to be everywhere about you behind, before, around. Now it rises like a lake, gemmed with islands, and embosomed by rich swells of woodland. Now you catch a peep of it on your right hand, among tufts of oak and maple, and anon it spreads on your left to a majestic sheet of silver, among rocky shores, hung with dark pines, hemlocks, and spruces.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Letter from Maine," 1852

Narrator:

When we think of the coast of Maine, romantic images come to mind. The beauty and serenity of the sea attracts thousands of visitors. It’s a vacation spot, a place to relax.

But the rockbound coast and the vast sea beyond it have always had a very different meaning to the people who live there.

John Battick, Professor Emeritus, University of Maine at Orono

Well people go to sea or at least they went to sea in the great age of sail and particularly in connection with Maine history to make a living.

Narrator:

Making a living from the sea has been a hallmark of Maine life since the 1600’s when the first European fishing stations were built. Long before then, the bounty of the sea supported the Native people who lived there. And the coast was where these two cultures set up trading posts for exchange.

Ed Churchill, Chief Curator, Maine State Museum:

One of the first people over here who really realized how important this area was going to be was Bartholomew Gosnold who had come over from England in 1602. What Gosnold saw was a tremendous quantity of fish and he told great stories of how easy it was to catch fish. He was followed then by Martin Pring in 1603 and George Weymouth in 1605 who went back with essentially the same story. In fact Weymouth was so excited, he said, "I don’t know why they’re not coming down here from Newfoundland because the fishing is so much better, they ought to come here.

Narrator:

It wasn’t long before the Europeans realized that January through March were the best months to fish. Rough seas during these winter months made the long journey to and from Europe extremely dangerous. The solution was to build fishing stations where people could stay for longer periods before returning home with their catch.

Ed Churchill:

The first one we find was on Damariscove Island and that was in 1622 and we don't know much about it. It had a dozen or so men there.

Narrator:

In some cases, these fishing outposts became settlements. Whole families arrived as early as the 1630s and men and women survived by working together to farm and fish

Nathan Lipfert, Library Director, Maine Maritime Museum:

Every kind of fish that is here has been used commercially and every kind of method you can imagine has been used to catch them.

Debbie Morehouse, Education Coordinator, Penobscot Marine Museum

There was a whole variety of fishing styles. There was fishing with nets, there was fishing in weirs along the shore where they would basically build traps into the water to catch fish. There was certainly the hand line fishing. There was lobstering, there was a great variety of fishing going on about 100 years ago.

Narrator:

Today, fishing families still work together. The Brewer family has been fishing for generations in Southport.

Sarah Sherman Brewer

Like many other families in Maine, my husband’s family has fished here several hundred years, starting with mackerel schooners, lobstering, ground fishing, that sort of thing.

My family actually came from Scotland and we were captured by the British and sent on a prison ship to the Saugas Iron Works in Massachusetts and eventually gained their freedom and migrated to Maine.

I guess the reason my family stayed in fishing so long is varied. A love of the ocean, an independence, being your own boss is definitely a big plus. . It is just a good way to make a living. To us it is more than just a job – it’s a way of life, it is what we do. It is what we are. We are very proud of it. As most families are along the coast. I don’t think we would have it any other way.

A typical day for a lobsterman definitely is an early rise, probably 4:00 in the morning. Get up, get some breakfast, pack a lunch, go down to the boat. It is a long days work. Sunup to sundown usually.

James P. Stevens:

My father’s father was a fisherman all his life. He fished - he was born in 1830s and started fishing in little vessels called pinkies and they fished mostly on the inner banks - George's and the local banks. Then my father didn't like the thought of becoming a fisherman so he studied drafting and served an apprenticeship in the drafting room at the Bath Iron Works.

Narrator:

James Steven’s father met up with a man by the name of Wallace Goudy and in 1920 they started Goudy and Stevens in Boothbay Harbor.

James P. Stevens:

They rented a building back away from the water and they built mostly small wooden boats through that period. The biggest one was a passenger boat that was built to run on the river here between Boothbay and Bristol and Damariscotta and she was about 50 feet long.

As a child why there weren't there weren't the laws about hazard or anything like that so the kids were playing around in the chips in the shipyards all the time. Once in a while there'd be an owner of the yard that would kick you out like that but most generally they were pretty tolerant of you and they'd let you play around so you just actually grew up into it and sometimes you know there'd be a man out sick or something who might be doing one of the simpler jobs on the boat and they'd holler at you and say take this and put these plugs in the bungholes on the boat or like that.

Narrator:

James Stevens’ childhood experiences occurred at a time when Maine’s golden age of shipbuilding was long past.

Ed Churchill:

Although there were earlier precedents, shipbuilding and boat building started in Maine probably in the latter part of the 1700s.

John Battick:

In the early years vessel building was almost a cottage industry in some parts of Maine. Any place next to a deep enough body of water - a river or a large stream - you might find small vessels being built there out of lumber which was harvested right there.

Ed Churchill:

Shipbuilding was probably in its prime between 1820 and 1860. This is really Maine’s economic golden age – a period when shipbuilding, shipping, the timber industry and all kinds of small businesses and industries were doing very well.

Nathan Lipfert, Library Director, Maine Maritime Museum

In the mid 1800’s Maine was an industrial center and Maine was an incredibly cosmopolitan place. People from Maine traveled all over the world on business, essentially. They sailed ships all over the world. They were engaged in trade to all the major ports of the world.

The trades that Maine participated most directly in were coastal trades. We shipped out of Maine: lumber, lime, ice, granite and fish. The vessels that sailed out of Maine ports by a vast majority were carrying one of those cargoes.

Narrator:

Excellent shipbuilding sites, good river and coastal transportation, a diverse supply of local lumber, and a tradition of maritime skills all fostered the state’s seaborne commerce.

Nathan Lipfert:

There were vessels built in Maine for every purpose that you can imagine. There were vessels built for the deep-water trade, for traveling across oceans and around the world. Some of them with cargo carrying as the prominent feature of their design, sometimes with speed as the prominent feature of their design, sometimes with a compromise between those two, but they were built for the oceans of the world.

The classic woods that were used in the shipbuilding industry were white oak for ship frames, Elm for keels, and some form of pine for planking the vessel, and white pine for the masts of the vessel. Having said that though, every type of wood, every type of hard word in particular has been used and was used on the Maine coast for building vessels.

James Stevens:

For the bigger ships like those in the Colonial times, the King had reserved the larger pines in the State. There was no - no one was permitted to cut a pine tree that had the King’s broad arrow chopped on the side of it which indicated the pine was reserved for the English Navy.

Narrator:

By the mid 1800s, the Pine Tree State was the premiere shipbuilder in the nation. Maine was also home to many sea captains and a class of wealthy merchants grew up along the coast.

John Battick:

If you drive down Route 1 through Thomaston, through Searsport, through Belfast, through Bath, and you see these great big houses with their gambrel roofs or mansard roofs and the porticos and so on - those are the physical relics of fortunes which were made by going to sea.

Narrator:

William McGilvery of Searsport was one of those who prospered on the sea.

John Battick:

He had economic interests from Aroostook County to South Carolina. He owned real estate in Searsport, Stockton, Portland. He had railroad company shares, bank shares, insurance company shares. He was kind of a one-man conglomerate. He owned a shipyard in Brewer and a shipyard in Searsport. I don't know if he also owned a buggy factory but he was into transportation in a big way.

Debbie Morehouse:

Oftentimes, schooner captains would also be the owner of the schooner. Sometimes they were a part of a larger company, a larger company that would own a number of schooners and hire their captains. But oftentimes like an independent trucker will own his own truck these days, an independent captain would own his own schooner. So there was a lot of comparison between today’s trucking industry and yesterday’s shipping industry along the coast.

Narrator:

Maine’s natural resources were in demand and merchants like McGilvery shipped goods such as lumber and granite all over the world.

Debbie Morehouse:

The granite industry was a big industry. A lot of islands were mined, basically mined for granite. The rock was cut out and much of the granite was shipped to cities to become everything from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Washington monument, to post offices and libraries in many of the big cities – many of the big public buildings. Granite was not just cut in big hunks and taken away raw. . It was most often carved up into beautiful forms that you see on the buildings by stone carvers that were brought in specifically to carve the stone and then shipped off all done. So it must have been like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle when you got it to the big cities. They were all pre-done and just beautiful.

Nathan Lipfert:

This was an interesting aspect of life on the coast of Maine because it involved the importation of a labor force that did not exist here already, which was skilled stone workers. Many of the skilled stone workers that were brought to Maine by the quarries in the late 19th century were Italian or of other European origin so this made a big impact on the small Maine communities that were use to being very homogeneous and very Anglo in nature. It made a lot of sense economically to carve the stone to its final shape where it was harvested, where it was quarried rather than shipping huge blocks off to New York and then carving away half of it in the shaping of the final product there.

Narrator:

Maine’s sea captains carried cargo to far away places. Oftentimes, they brought their families with them.

John Battick:

The women went to sea on their honeymoon begat bore and reared their children at sea. For women it was an extremely trying existence. She didn't have another woman to talk to. Her husband was master of the ship. He was Jupiter she was Juno and she dare not descend from Olympus to converse with members of the crew. This would have been crossing a caste line.

Debbie Morehouse:

Girls had it especially bad, they were definitely not allowed to talk to sailors, sailors were not allowed to talk to them. They lived a very, very restricted life in some respects on the other hand they saw more of the world than anybody else did and the other women on shore for the most part. So it had its drawbacks, but it had its advantages as well. Children on board would be taught by their mother and sometimes their father, their lessons, so they would be getting schooling while they were away. So when they came home they would not be behind. Often times they would actually be ahead of the kids that were left behind.

John Battick:

The women also wrote diaries or wrote long diary letters to be sent back home when they reached port and in the case of one woman, whose diaries I've gone through very thoroughly, Maria Higgins Murphy from Bath, she kept a running series of diary letters to send back to her family back in Bath and she was very apprehensive very often at sea.

Narrator:

Maria Higgins Murphy wrote of harrowing journeys around Cape Horn in South America.

Voice of Maria Higgins Murphy:

No one slept that night - Jim was on deck all the time - there great seas would board the ship ten feet above her taffrail, and ran forward to midship, submerging the decks five feet below the rails – This big sea was south and the wind s.w. We would have to shout at each other on deck to be heard. By four o'clock Monday morning it began to moderate.

Our second Sunday on the ocean, and we have not made much progress, as you will see. One solid week of head gales and strong winds, with big seas. Today the wind is more in our favor.

June and I try to keep occupied so the time will go faster – she does very nice embroidery. We have not seen a vessel with one exception since we came around the cape - so don't know where our companions are.

John Battick:

She kept it up for four roundtrips around Cape Horn until finally in the last of the series of her diary letters she said I know that James will miss me and the children but my nerves can't take it anymore. I've got to go home. So she went back to Bath. She went back to sea later of course but this is real courage. This is real courage to stick with something that had you on the edge of nerves for extended periods of time and do it time after time - because it was expected. It was something the sailor's wife had to do to be with her husband and give him a family life at sea.

There were so many families up and down the coast of Maine going to sea that it was not unusual for a Maine-owned vessel to pull into Callao in South America or Shanghai or Hong Kong or Melbourne or Rio or somewhere like that and find three, four, six or a dozen Maine ships there and they would have old home week alternate evenings they'd go to different ships for dinner might make a party and go into town and take in a show or an opera or go on a picnic or take a train ride somewhere.

Narrator:

And sometimes ships would meet in the middle of the ocean and the captains’ families would get together. Life for the sailors was different. They went to sea without their families and many hoped to one day become captains themselves.

Debbie Morehouse:

Sailors were often folks that needed to work. They needed a job and many of them went because it seemed like an adventurous thing to do. They did everything on board. They climbed clear to the top of the mast to adjust the sails even in the worst weather. They often only had one change of clothes with them so if they got wet they stayed wet until after a storm. Living conditions were pretty minimal. They lived all together in one cabin with many bunks.

John Battick:

If you look at the crew lists of the ships they're all young men they're in their teens and early twenties. A few of them are in their thirties and you’ll maybe even find some that are in their forties. But if you hadn't made it to the quarterdeck by the time you're in your thirties you'd better start looking for another line of work.

Debbie Morehouse:

They weren’t the lowest of the low but they were not very high up the echelon probably either. Their families of course were always left behind. So families at home may not see their loved ones for years. It could take a couple to three years to go to China and come back again. In the meantime they had to somehow support themselves at home. Sometimes they would get an advance on their pay but not very often. Enough to keep them going. So they were definitely working class folks.

Narrator:

Another fact of life at sea was death.

John Battick:

The family that sailed together sometimes perished together. It's unusual of course for such a catastrophe to take place and wipe out everyone but it was not unusual at all for a member of the family to die in a foreign port.

Narrator:

There are cemeteries in Maine with headstones memorializing those lost at sea. There are no bodies in these graves and, in many cases, no one knows what happened.

Narrator:

The impact of the Civil War combined with the advent of the steamship to bring the Golden Age to a close. Although 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, the grand era of shipbuilding began a long, slow decline.

Nathan Lipfert:

The decline continues to this day. The only shipbuilding industries that continue are building small vessels and building naval vessels. That is true more or less though out the United States and it is true in Maine as well.

What changed was the focus of the nation. The emphasis changed nationally from being concerned with worldwide trade, to being concerned with opening up our own west.

John Battick:

Well for a while there, New England of course was the cradle of ships, and Maine stayed in the business of building large wooden vessels longer than anywhere else in the country.

Nathan Lipfert:

We were a little bit slow in changing from wooden shipbuilding to steel shipbuilding, it did happen but not in a big way. We were pretty far from the centers of steel production in this country. So Maine shipyards tended to stick with wooden construction into the 1920’s, long after it actually had been abandoned in other parts of the country and other parts of the world. So essentially, we got left behind by the shipbuilding industry.

What took its place on the Maine coast was largely the tourist industry. There started to be a change in the way people lived their lives. People started to take advantage of leisure time. It became socially acceptable to take vacation. It became economically feasible for many people in different classes, essentially the upper classes, the business classes, and the middle classes were all able to have leisure time.

Debbie Morehouse:

A hundred years ago in the advent of the steam ship people from the cities decided, gee, they could come up to Maine and get away from the city for a while and visit and go back home again. But what they needed was a reliable source of transportation. Roads were terrible, but the water was a great way to transport people. When steam engines came along they could keep a schedule. . If you are out sailing in a sailing ship and you are trying to get to Bar Harbor by 9:00 on Tuesday morning and the wind dies, you are not going to make it. But if you have a steam engine you are going to get there a lot closer to schedule, which meant they could also get back home and get back to work again on schedule, which they liked. So, that brought a lot of people up here to visit and started our whole tourism industry which, of course, still goes today.

Narrator:

The beauty of the sea continues to attract visitors from around the world. And although coastal tourism has become a major industry in Maine, there are still many people who make a living in more traditional ways – by boatbuilding, shipping fishing or lobstering. The Stevens and Brewer families carry on a unique heritage that began hundreds of years ago.

Sarah Sherman Brewer:

To me the Maine coast is a symbol of being an individual. It is rocky and rugged like life is. It is a great place to raise your children without worry. I don’t think I would want to live any other place.

Narrator:

To learn more about Maine’s maritime history visit our website at www.mpbn.net.

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