BATH, Maine — In 1607, a group of Englishmen who were among the first Europeans in the New World made history with the construction of a ship called the Virginia at the mouth of the Kennebec River.
Cold, isolated and suffering from a loss of leadership, the settlers of the Popham Colony boarded the Pinnace Virginia — which they built from scratch in about 8 months’ time — and abandoned the settlement in 1608. Further south at Jamestown, Va., another group of Europeans who arrived in the New World at the same time as the Popham colonists kept their settlement going and today Jamestown, not Popham, is known in the history books as the cradle of western civilization.
While Popham’s place in American history is known to relatively few, its prominence is well-known among locals, some of whom are in the midst of a $1 million effort to recreate the historic ship Virginia. In an an old freight shed and adjacent boat building on the Kennebec River in downtown Bath, the 51-foot Virginia replica is ever so slowly taking shape.
Several years after the project was first envisioned, the keel is laid, four heavy rib frames are erected and the towering bow stem juts proudly toward the heavens. With only a fraction of the work complete, a group of volunteers and an organization called Maine’s First Ship is determined that eventually, this vessel will hit the water.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm going on right now,” said Orman Hines of Phippsburg, who is Maine’s First Ship’s president. “We’re pushing the project along.”
Originally, Maine’s First Ship had hoped to complete the Virginia in time for the 400-year anniversary of the Popham Colony in 2007. But fundraising struggles and differences of opinion about the scope of the project scuttled that goal. Now, Hines said he hopes the project will be finished in the next four or five years. After that, the organization hopes to use the Virginia replica as a sort of floating museum to teach people about this little corner of the Maine coast’s near-miss with the history books.
As donations trickle in, which in turn allows the organization to purchase expensive white oak and other materials, a core group of about 10 volunteers toil away on the project on Wednesdays and Saturdays. For local volunteer and technical advisor to the Maine’s First Ship Board of Directors Jay Coffey, the building process is as exciting as the completion will be.
“It’s a labor of love,” he said Saturday in between making adjustments to the heavy wooden keel, which weighs several tons. “Every day I work on this, it’s just like Christmas for me. The longer it goes on, the happier I am.”
Hines said the group has enough material on hand to keep the volunteers busy through the winter, but still needs tons more white oak, hackmatack and pine. Just the support ribs, for example, take about 70-80 man-hours to construct and assemble with wooden treenails — and the Virginia needs at least another 20 ribs before volunteers can start mounting siding planks for the hull.
The original Virginia was sturdy enough to cross the Atlantic at least twice — once from Popham to England and again from England to Jamestown — but little is known about its ultimate fate. As Coffey explained, wooden ships of the era typically lasted only about 8 or 10 years before the elements made them unusable. The Virginia replica, on the other hand, is being built according to Coast Guard safety standards and is hoped to be in service for decades to come.
Hines said that in addition to funding for construction, the organization hopes to collect an endowment to support ongoing maintenance and operations. He said that as the Virginia takes shape, the project is picking up momentum.
“Things seem to pick up as we accomplish things,” he said.
To support the effort and spread the word about the history, Maine’s First Ship, located in a building known as the Bath Freight Shed on Commercial Street, will host an open house on Saturday, October 6, as part of Bath’s Autumnfest and Citizen Involvement Day. Anyone interested in contributing to the project through either donations of cash or volunteer hours, can contact Maine’s First Ship at 443-4242 or by emailing email@example.com.