City of Ships Building Ships for 400 Years

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on May 28, 2009
Bath Iron Works The USS Sampson was built at Bath Iron Works.

Seagulls squawk overhead and sailboats share the Kennebec River with excursion boats filled with camera-toting sightseers in Bath, Maine. The river flows so close to the city's downtown that weary pedestrians often take a break along the shore at Waterfront Park.

Boats and the sea have played a significant role in Maine since the first English settlers arrived in 1607 at the mouth of the Kennebec River, 12 miles south of present-day Bath, and attempted to establish the Popham Colony. A year later, the colonists launched the Virginia-the first oceangoing vessel built in the New World-and sailed back to England.

Today, Bath (pop. 9,266)-known as the City of Ships-takes pride in both its maritime heritage and workmanship. The town is home to Bath Iron Works, which employs 5,900 people and has been building ships for the U.S. Navy since 1891.

"It's the only major industry in town," says Nathan R. Lipfert, 57, senior curator of the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. "At one time, it was the largest private employer in the state."

Over the last 400 years, boat builders along the Kennebec River have launched thousands of ships, from wooden fishing boats to fast-sailing clipper ships, and steam-driven tankers to turbine-powered destroyers.

In the mid-19th century, Bath-named after an English city known for therapeutic hot springs-was home to 20 shipbuilders. At the time, "no other place in Maine built as many ships as Bath, and no other state built as many ships as Maine," Lipfert says.

Bath was an ideal location to build ships because of its protected deepwater harbor, access to hardwood and softwood lumber, and an abundance of skilled laborers and Yankee ingenuity.

Between 1894 and 1920, 41 wooden schooners were built at Bath's Percy & Small Shipyard, including the six-masted Wyoming, the largest wooden sailing vessel ever constructed in the United States. Now incorporated into the 25-acre Maine Maritime Museum grounds, the historic shipyard provides a fascinating glimpse into the city's shipbuilding past and features a full-scale steel sculpture of the Wyoming.

As wooden hulls gave way to steel ships, Bath Iron Works-a former foundry-recognized an opportunity and began building commercial and naval vessels. In 1891, the shipyard launched the USS Machias, the first steel-hulled ship built in Maine, and over the years forged a reputation for quality and reliability. During World War II, it launched a new warship every 17 days.

Since 1984, Bath Iron Works has built ships exclusively for the U.S. Navy, including the latest class of guided missile-launching destroyers, among the most technologically advanced warships in the world.

The region's boatbuilding heritage continues on a smaller scale too, as local craftsmen continue to make traditional wooden boats.

In the 1950s, Richard Nichols, 60, of nearby Phippsburg, spent his childhood summers lobstering in a West Point Skiff built by Alton Wallace based on his father's late-19th-century design. "When Alton passed away, nobody kept the West Point Skiff tradition alive, so I decided to," says Nichols, who builds the 16- to 20-foot pleasure boats. "I make the skiffs in the traditional way with no epoxy or fiberglass-just wood, screws and nails."

Each summer, Bath celebrates its maritime traditions during Heritage Days. The family-friendly event includes an old-fashioned downtown Fourth of July parade, followed by a procession of boats on the Kennebec River featuring graceful antique models, flag-bedecked party boats and modern fiberglass pleasure craft.

In the City of Ships, revelry and reverence for boats and boat builders, the river and the sea go hand in hand.