Steam, Steel Ships and an End of Wooden Shipbuilding

Well before 1900, Bath had become Maine’s shipbuilding center, successfully converting from wooden ship building to metal. Metal working skills grew out of the steam boiler building business and large scale machine shops which hardly existed anywhere else in Maine. Other Maine-built steamers bought engines and boilers from Bath or out of state.

Down Easter 'Dirigo'

Bath Iron WorksBath Iron Works

Established in 1884 by Thomas Hyde in Bath, Maine to consolidate his various maritime companies.
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prospered, not by building commercial vessels, but by building shipsShip

A vessel with three masts, all square-rigged.
for the U.S. Navy, a tradition that continues. Trying to extend the sailing ship era, Bath’s Sewall shipyard built a few steel sailing ships and barksBark

A sailing vessel with three masts; square-rigged on the fore and main masts and fore-and-aft rigged on the mizzen.
. The first, in 1894, was the Scottish-designed four-masted bark, Dirigo, named for the Maine State motto. The Sewalls then built other steel sailing ships, particularly for the case oilCase oil

Kerosene packed in five-gallon cans, two cans to a wooden case.
trade to the Far East. Yet like the Down Easters and the great schooners, they fell out of use in favor of the larger, more reliable steel steamersSteamer steamboat,steamship

A mechanically-propelled vessel in which the principal motive power is steam, as opposed to a sailing vessel or motorship. Steamboats traditionally were the sometimes sizable coastal steamers, while steamship referred to ocean going vessels.
, most of which were built in Great Britain.


Steamer 'Sedgwick' Under Construction Launch of Steamer 'Tremont'

The U.S. Government contracted for construction of a number of large schooners to carry cargo during the First World War. Most were not completed until 1920, after the war was over. A post-war glut of shipping ended most wooden shipbuilding in Maine and elsewhere; however, some shipbuilders continued building wooden vessels. Shipyards that had built large sailing ships and schooners switched to fishing boats, lobster boats, and sardineSardines

Small herring, preserved in oil or sauces and canned. Maine had many sardine factories.
carriers, most engine-powered. Some commercial schooner construction persisted until about 1940. During the Second World War, there was a fresh flurry of wooden shipbuilding and boatbuilding in the historic shipyards in Camden, Rockland, Thomaston, and East Boothbay. Mine sweepers and a wide range of support vessels, up to 200 feet long, kept wooden shipbuilding skills alive for another generation.


'Shipyard' by Carroll Thayer Berry Launch of Dragger Hilda and Helen

Click here to view shipbuilding images from PMM's photo collection.

After the war, Maine wooden shipbuilders continued to build smaller fishing, commercial and recreational craft, until these were superseded by steel and fiberglassFiberglass

The generic term for a rigid solid made by taking woven or matted fibers of spun glass or other materials such as Kevlar and carbon fiber and saturating them with a liquid resin that hardens over time. It is more accurately described as Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) or fiber reinforced polymer (FRP).