Ice, cut from the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers and other sources, and packed in sawdust from Maine mills, was both a necessary refrigerant and a luxury good for sweltering southern ports. Prized by West Indies planters, ice also shipped to South Asia with surprisingly little loss from melting despite the long voyages over warm seas.
Sugar cane harvesting in Cuba, 1873
Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society
The West Indies formed Maine's bread and butter trade, particularly during the late 18th and much of the 19th centuries when ports were opened to American ships after decades of colonial policies unfavorable to their interests. Maine took advantage of the changing political climate to supply goods critical to West Indian plantations.
The islands had been essentially deforested for planting and processing sugarcane in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their need for cut lumber was urgent and insatiable, and Maine was well positioned to supply it, often in the form of box shakes for sugar and barrel staves for rum and molasses. The islands also imported quantities of food since their own acreage was given over to cultivation of cash crops.
A few Maine-built ships even participated in the Atlantic slave trade transporting stolen African labor to tend those crops.
While Maine was busily cutting lumber and assembling ships to send out to distant ports, it also received ships and cargoes from elsewhere. Schooners returned from the sugar islands with shipments of partially refined molasses to be transformed into rum in northeastern distilleries, some in Maine.
The largest schooners brought coal from the Appalachian south to fuel the rapidly industrializing cities of the northeast corridor at the end of the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Other common import cargoes included raw cotton for northern mills, guano for fertilizer, and, surprisingly, southern lumber, so voracious was the demand for wooden ships and timber products in the 19th century.
Pepperell Workers, ca. 1900
Item Contributed by
Dyer Library Archives / Saco Museum
Corn canneries from the northern and western portions of the state and sardine canneries from the eastern areas, paper mills from the interior, and textile and shoe industries from central and southern Maine provided finished goods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to complement the state’s lime, lumber, ice, and granite cargoes.
The Pepperell mills of Biddeford made fine cloth, mostly drills, that were popular in China and other eastern locations. At the turn of the 20th century, Pepperell was shipping large quantities of its cloth to the Orient.
Canneries closed, factories outsourced, demand for raw materials flagged, and shipping suffered accordingly over the course of the 20th century.
Into the 21st century, however, some shipping remains in Maine with active cargo ports in Eastport, Bangor, Bucksport, Searsport, and Portland.
Eastport, the easternmost port in the U.S. and hence, the closest to European markets, shipped or received 358.075 metric tons in 2006. Forest products and other goods make up much of the cargo. Bucksport, Portland and Searsport receive numerous tankers and fuel barges.
In 2001, Maine exported $1.8 billion worth of products, with paper, computer and electronics, forest and wood products, and fish leading the way.
Grand Pitch, West Branch, Penobscot, 1921
Item Contributed by
Patten Lumbermen's Museum
Getting from Here to There
Maine possesses an astonishing number of large rivers, mostly arrayed along a north-south axis and emptying into the sea. The rivers and the sea affected life patterns well in advance of colonization.
Native peoples traveled seasonally from the wooded interior to the coast, supplementing regular water travel with pathways along the shoreline and deep into the interior. These they traversed while trading, foraging and hunting; footpaths followed deglaciated terrain and meandered accordingly.
Few of these paths could accommodate horse traffic, and none could handle a wagon. Horses, carts, and other conveyances arrived with European settlement, which ultimately mandated surveys, roads, bridges, and ferries. Given the ready availability of waterways, and a sparse colonial presence, these things were exceedingly slow to develop.
Seventeenth-century colonial law mandated the creation of roads and bridges at least "sufficient for horse and man," and the maintenance of ferry service as necessary for local transport of carted goods. As difficult as these were to create, the need for serviceable roads only grew more acute as settlements moved eastward and further inland over the 18th century.