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Maine History Online

Maine History Online
MHS (Maine Historical Society)
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Trade & Transport

The characteristic trait which distinguishes the province of Maine is that it is at the same time an unsettled country and a maritime province. The United States has no coasts richer in bays, in roadsteads, in harbors of grandeur and beauty. ... The maritime position of the eastern province influences all the conditions of the country itself and the people who settle there. " – Talleyrand (1794)

Future French Foreign Minister Charles de Talleyrand-Périgord journeyed to Maine a few years after the American Revolution scouting economic opportunities for his employers.

While he wasn't overly impressed with some segments of Maine society –lumbermen and fishermen were particularly suspect –he was awed by its coasts, so favorable to shipping, and believed in its promise, as yet unrealized.

Hardly noticed by the rest of the country (even Massachusetts, according Talleyrand), Maine was nonetheless "destined by nature to play an important role in the American federation."

Talleyrand explained further, "One can only auger well of a great province, which combines healthfulness and fertility, whose whole coast is one vast harbor of the sea, which is watered by rivers, lakes, ponds, creeks, and streams in abundance according to the most fortunate distribution."

Maine's location provided not just the raw materials necessary for scraping a living from the land, but also connected vast natural enterprises – fishing, quarrying, lumbering among others – to global markets via Maine-built ships of extraordinary design.

Shipping brought goods into Maine just as it drew materials from its recesses for transport elsewhere. A growing network of roads, bridges, ferries, canals, and railroads facilitated those exchanges, bring more people to the region, and strengthen Maine's connections to the rest of the world. Those connections and the many enterprises they encompass help to make Maine what it is economically, socially, and culturally.

Building for the River and Sea

Smack, bateau, canoe, clipper, schooner, brigantine, gundalow, steamer, trawler, bark, sloop, destroyer, submarine, and the Down Easter are among the diversity of watercraft that Maine has launched into the world, and sluiced along its own waterways over the centuries.

Dugout canoes, then the birchbark canoe, slender, deft, lightweight, surprisingly strong, were the conveyances of choice for Maine's native peoples for centuries. The birchbark canoe was the perfect vehicle for navigating the region's multitudinous rivers and lakes, while not too difficult to portage over rough country and around cataracts.

Penobscot and Passamaquoddy canoe makers remain in high demand even now due to the artistry and quality of these graceful boats. As suitable as the canoe was to indigenous use, however, Euro-American ambitions required different craft.

A commodious vessel that could be handled by a single oarsman, the American bateau began as a pack boat for French skin and fur traders throughout the colonial northeast. Benedict Arnold and his men used bateaux for their desperate march to Quebec in their efforts to gain French support for the American cause during the Revolution. Steady and strong, these boats were later adopted by timber companies for managing the river drive, and transporting supplies to lumber camps.

During the colonial period, shipbuilding became more intensively situated along the coast and tidal waterways, developing concurrently with growing trade networks and competition among European rivals.

Largely serving English interests until the Revolution, Maine advanced its shipbuilding capabilities once freed from colonial dicta, and even more so following statehood and independence from Massachusetts in 1820. Maine shipbuilders improved on traditional techniques through local innovations to make their mark in coastal and deep-water ships of the highest order.

Although each was profitable much earlier, lumbering, shipbuilding, and shipping conjoined in Maine over the arc of the 19th century to further the nation's industrial and trading ambitions.

In the process, Maine's place in history as a premier shipbuilding site was secured. Maine's harbors, forests, and riparian landscape were absolutely essential to these allied endeavors.

The location of major shipyards –– at Kennebunkport, Bath, Yarmouth, Waldoboro, and Portland, for example — testify to the links between milled lumber, navigable rivers and coastal port cities.

In addition to log breastworks needed to support a ship's construction, wooden sailing vessels required vast quantities of peeled and cut lumber for spars, masts, hulls and planking. Fast flowing rivers not only brought the lumber downstream, they powered scores of sawmills throughout the colonial period and well into the 19th century.

Clustered in the churning waters below dams and falls, mills were among the most important businesses of Maine's past. Called "privileges" these mill sites often gathered villages around them much as off-ramp gas stations form the nucleus of small enclaves near the interstate.

They produced enormous quantities of cut lumber for an impressive array of wood products for local and distant use — barrel staves, shingles, housing members, fence posts, eventually railroad ties, and above all frames and planking for ships. Larger shipyards even had their own mills on site.

The schooner, specially fitted for bulk cargoes such as lumber, lime, cotton, coal, and granite, became the state's major wooden trading vessel. This ship particularly appealed to American and European buyers who valued its workmanlike design and carrying capacity. Quite versatile, square-riggers of various sizes plied both the coasting and carrying trades. Although in decline since the 1880s, schooners endured into the 20th century as serviceable, practical and reliable conveyances for volume cargoes.

Clipper ships, on the other hand, were built for speed to capitalize on the China trade in tea and luxury goods, and the California and Australian gold rushes. Shipyards at Kittery, Damariscotta, Rockland and elsewhere launched dozens of the elegant craft during the 1850s.

Emphasizing speed over carrying capacity and built during a comparatively brief period in the 19th century, Maine clippers have been romanticized and their impact exaggerated. By demonstrating the possibility of global reach swiftly achieved, however, they helped open the way for steel and steam.

The 20th century brought with it the demands of a more industrial age, and Maine shipbuilding responded by designing and building iron ships. This segment of the industry was especially well suited for large merchant marine and military applications. Known for its private and racing yachts, Bath Iron Works bent its talents to the nation’s military preparedness on the ramp up to World War II.

BIW and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard were among many Maine yards awarded major contracts during the war, delivering destroyers and submarines to the U.S. Navy and Liberty merchant ships to help America's ally, Great Britain. The Cold War brought additional prosperity to the state’s iron ship works, but the major shipyards today regularly face competition and threats of closure as the nation's military needs change.

Benefiting from favorable trading practices and consumer demands, Maine shipbuilding also was subject to the vagaries of other forces. The industry suffered under national crises like the Panic of 1857, and the economic policies of various administrations such as Andrew Jackson's infamous tariff of 1828. Wars and their aftermath offered near simultaneous boom and bust times for shipyards as they hustled to respond to wartime challenges, then struggled to adapt to peacetime demands.

Shipbuilding has proven itself a resilient and resourceful enterprise over the years, one that has brought glory and prosperity to the state, but one that must continually demonstrate its relevance in the face of ongoing challenges. Currently, Maine's smaller wooden vessels are enjoying a renaissance as their classic lines attract devotees who appreciate fine craftsmanship.

Trading on Location

Maine has all three basic requirements for a shipping industry to thrive: marketable goods, favorable elements (such as weather, climate, currents, and tides), and hospitable harbors.

Former Yale President Timothy Dwight visited what was then the District of Maine in 1797 and again 10 years later. He described the topography, discussed town histories, quoted population statistics, and editorialized on people's religious inclinations. He praised Maine's numerous harbors, describing Portland's as "safe, capacious, and rarely frozen" and "sufficiently deep to admit ships of the line."

Not surprisingly, Maine's primary exports emerged from its natural resource economy. While lumber was of major significance, Maine also supplied other materials to local, regional, and global markets.

Granite quarries at Vinalhaven and throughout the Penobscot Bay area attracted skilled immigrant labor and contributed cut and polished stone to the erection of museums, office buildings, customs houses, post offices, and other significant structures, public and private, across the nation.

Wood-fueled kilns converted limestone culled from Rockland area cliffs into lime, which was used in fertilizer and as a critical ingredient for plaster and brick mortar. It was understandably in high demand during the 19th century's building boom.

Lime is especially tricky to transport because it is flammable when exposed to water. Shipping was profitable and worth the risk until 20th-century building technology replaced lime with less volatile materials.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Following the logic of the landscape, early roads often smoothed and widened well-used native trails to connect communities to each other and to existing water routes to the coast.

Talleyrand detailed one such road and its connections as he observed it in 1794: "A single road, opened by the public authority, traverses the whole country in an east to west direction. It touches close to the head of all the bays, encountering thus the principal existing settlements, and bringing letters from Boston as far as the adjacent plantations every two weeks.

"As far as Machias and Passamaquoddy this road, cut only two years ago and passable only by very intrepid pedestrians and the half-wild horses of the country, was determined rightly by the existence and present location of habitations and not calculated to correct the course of migrations.

"This could be changed only by opening roads in an entirely different direction, and they would have to be very good to counterbalance the powerful attraction of the landing places which are graduated according to all needs, from the canoe to ships of commerce."

Now a scenic highway, Route 1 is nonetheless recognizable from Talleyrand’s description.

Acknowledging both the significance of Portland and the importance of roads to Maine's well being, Timothy Dwight reported, "No American town is more entirely commercial; and, of course none is more sprightly. Lumber, fish, and ships, are the principal materials of their commerce. Several roads from the interiour of New-Hampshire, and Vermont, partly made, and partly in contemplation, are opening an extensive correspondence between Portland and these countries. The importance of this fact needs no explanation."

Nineteenth-century logging companies spearheaded road building into the interior for their own ends, although local communities often benefited. Not until the middle of the 20th century, when the post-war push for highway construction mandated greater access in the name of civil defense, did a full network of roads emerge in Maine.

Even so, seasonal ice, flooding, and frost heave can mean potholes, detours, and an altogether unnerving drive, particularly along the minor routes that inevitably followed "the course of migrations." Rivers, long used as primary routes of travel in Maine, declined in importance as roads developed. Still potent, most are now used recreationally.

The need for water permeates history, just as its abiding presence in Maine has conditioned human activities. Efforts to direct or impede the flow of water developed in the earliest river valley civilizations of Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt and the technology has continued to develop over time.

Maine also diverted its waters to address domestic and commercial demands, channeling it through sluices to control log runs, building dams to power sawmills, and gouging canals to facilitate transport.

Canals throughout the northeast expanded inland access to major sea or lake ports. While many were begun in the 1790s, their heyday occurred between the 1820s and the 1850s, when rail transport largely supplanted them. Built over stages, the Erie Canal, for example, ultimately connected Hudson River traffic from New York City north and westward to ports on the Great Lakes by the 1820s.

Maine's Cumberland and Oxford Canal, constructed in the 1830s, linked towns on Long Lake to those on Sebago Lake, and on down to Portland. The Telos Cut canal, in conjunction with dams, diverted logs away from New Brunswick toward Bangor area mills, sparking a regional conflict in the process.

Serviceable for a short period of time, canals generally were eclipsed by the extension of the railroad, which offered superior and rapidly expanding continental connectivity.

What shipping did for Maine's association to the world at large, the railroad did for its relationship to the rest of the continent. Early railroads in Maine were limited affairs, built to expedite transport of cut lumber to port cities like Calais, Machias, and Bangor for loading on waiting ships.

Most of the state acquired more complete rail service by the mid to late 19th century, funded through creative combinations of private speculation and public monies. Aroostook County was the last, but among the most important to be served, considering the impact rail transport had on stimulating the lumber and potato economies of the area.

It took years for local, state, and national practices to mesh, particularly in standardizing track gauges, connecting trunk lines, and establishing fixed schedules for arrivals and departures. Once those aspects were in place, Maine was ready for the many promotional excursions targeting urban hunters and fishermen, outdoor enthusiasts, and tourists as railroads coordinated service with popular resort and recreational destinations.

Mainers also ventured by rail to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair where they could visit their state's many exhibits including a mounted moose, a grand collection of canned goods, an award-winning shipbuilding display, and an entire building created from Maine granite, which, "being at the extreme end of the line, was a favorite resting place for the weary."

Transportation infrastructure over the years also included experiments in turnpikes and other toll roads, major and minor bridge building activities, public and private ferries, and city trolleys.

Except for that last, Timothy Dwight seems to have traveled on all the above at some point during his two trips to the area commenting on the "new toll-bridge" near Portland, the "good turnpike road" at Dover (whose "toll-gatherer" estimated the annual income to be $4,000), and a ferry at Bath where he crossed the river "safely in a boat of moderate size; but not without anxiety."

Maine used its natural transportation advantages in conjunction with its natural resources to build ships, transport raw materials and manufactured goods, bring goods and tourists into the state, and connect Maine to the region, nation, and the world.