Ship sinkings outpaced construction a century ago

Posted Jan. 03, 2010, at 9:07 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Maine ships were sinking faster than they were being built a century ago. “A net reduction of 8,000 tons in Maine’s vessel fleet occurred the past 12 months because of the failure of the shipbuilding yards of the state to keep pace with the marine casualties, which involved property losses of nearly $1,000,000,” explained the Bangor Daily Commercial on Dec. 13, 1909 on the front page.

The greatest disaster had been the loss of the Maine Steamship Co.’s Horatio Hall in a collision with the H.F. Dimock in Pollock Rip Slue (off Cape Cod) on March 11. The next-heaviest loser had been J.S. Winslow & Co. of Portland, which lost four of its vessels. One of them, the four-master Alice Clark, bound from Newport News to Bangor with a load of coal, struck a ledge in Penobscot Bay. Companies based in Thomaston lost three large vessels. The only Maine wreck in which lives were lost was that of a four-masted schooner out of Bath, the William C. Tanner, which disappeared with a crew of nine on a voyage from Massachusetts to Key West with a cargo of stone.

Even the launching of the schooner Wyoming in Bath two days after this newspaper story appeared could not make up the difference, said the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 18. At 3,800 tons and six masts, the Wyoming was described as the largest wooden sailing vessel in the world.

These events had major implications for Bangor, which still transacted much of its commerce on the Penobscot River. In fact, more lumber was shipped from Bangor and more coal received on the river than the year before, the Bangor Daily News reported on Dec. 4. This was despite growing competition from railroads (with 92 new miles of road built in Maine in 1909), as well as the Bangor & Aroostook’s new seaports at Stockton Springs and Searsport.

Besides many tons of coal, the 1,166 vessels that came up the river to the Queen City between April 2, 1908, and Dec. 3, 1909, brought many other products. They included water pipe, kerosene, gasoline and naphtha, bricks, lime, white lead, sand and gravel, paper, cement, powder and dynamite, lumber, iron, phosphate, pitch, salt, oil, rope, wagon fellies and shafts, putty, vinegar, whiting and zinc, paint, cod fish, barrels, coke, sulfur, borax, turpentine, clay, wheelbarrows, harnesses, axle grease, cans, hoops, knees, blue stone, brimstone, fly and harness oil, hoof and soap oil, shellac, boxes, mackerel, stone, tongues and sounds, cartridges and guns, chicken and hen feed, soap, charcoal, steel, baskets and cans. So reported the harbor master John C. Wilson in the Commercial on Dec. 28.

The Kenduskeag Stream was still a busy thoroughfare as well. F.H. Sylvester, who ran the drawbridge allowing vessels into the stream, reported an increase in traffic. One hundred twelve vessels had entered to serve businesses along Broad and Exchange streets. “Most of the schooners entering the Kenduskeag are small two-masters …,” reported Drawtender Sylvester in the Commercial on Dec. 1. “There have been but two three-masters in the stream this year, and several of the 112 vessels were single stickers, fishing boats or small lumber scoots.” The award for the most entries went to the William H. Jewell, which made 15 trips through the draw taking lime to R.D. Dunning & Co., a cement and lime dealer.

Despite this little uptick in Bangor’s seafaring economy, change was in the wind. The old ways were making way for who-knew-what. The Bangor Daily News had mournfully marked the changes occurring in an almost heretical editorial that past summer on Aug. 16. Shipbuilding and shipping were far from its only concerns. The lack of big mills and factories was another one.

“Take away the mill at Morse & Co. from Bangor and the Eastern Manufacturing company from South Brewer, and the working people of Bangor would feel very lonesome. Of course, there are scores of other manufacturing plants that are very useful — foundries, saw and grist mills, stone and marble yards, shops where clothing and many useful articles are made, but remains the sad fact that Bangor is sadly deficient in manufacturing industries. With no woolen mill this side of Old Town or Newport, with no cotton mill this side of Waterville, with no shoe factory worthy the name this side of Augusta, with no cheese factory within a radius of 10 miles, with no canning establishment this side of Winterport … these are our conditions.

“Where now are our shipyards that once adorned every cove from Bangor to Camden and beyond? Where be our multitudinous brickyards that sent their flaring smoke heavenward day and night for all summer? What has become of our convenient ice houses … What has become of our kindling wood mill, our factory for making steel ball bearings and calks for river drivers to wear? Where are the stockyards that were to be erected in Brewer and supplied with hardy cattle from the blueberry plains of Washington County …?” the editorial writer continued. “Cannot we do something to set the tide to flowing in the opposite direction.”

That was the mood among some Bangoreans a century ago as the old economy declined and a new one evolved that would boost population and wealth in the decades ahead. But who knew what was coming at the time?

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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