When Isaiah K. Stetson died in 1940, a newspaper headline over the prominent Bangorean’s obituary identified him as having been associated with “Shipbuilding’s Golden Days.” Shipbuilding once had been a major industry along the Penobscot all the way to the head of navigation at Bangor and Brewer. For the Stetson family, shipbuilding was just one part of an economic empire that included ice, lumber, railroads, banking and politics. It was the ships, however, that caused people to remember Isaiah and his brother Edward, long after the river was abandoned to sewage, and after exclusive organizations like the Conduskeag Canoe Club and the Bangor Yacht Club were just memories.
During those “golden days of Maine shipping,” the obituary noted, “it was possible to walk from the toll bridge to High Head [roughly where the cities’ upper and lower bridges are today] by stepping on the decks of vessels and ships [that sailed] from the Port of Bangor … to the seven seas.” E. & I.K. Stetson’s shipbuilding and repair operation had spanned the river, with offices in Bangor and a building operation and marine railway in Brewer.
A century ago, the business of building big, wooden sailing ships was about over in the Bangor area except for a brief resurgence during World War I. One of the last and one of the biggest schooners ever launched in Bangor harbor was the four-masted Augustus H. Babcock, built by the Stetson brothers. Given its harrowing demise some years later, the Babcock is a good choice to represent the end of the area’s shipbuilding business in the first decade of the 20th century.
Ship launches were spectator events like circus parades. The newspapers estimated 1,000 people turned out to see the Babcock slide into the river at 10:15 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, 1904. Several hundred were standing on the deck of the 216-foot vessel, while a few hundred more stood in the yard. Hundreds more viewed from across the river on the Bangor bank or from the river itself in a wide variety of craft ranging from canoes to yachts.
As president of a local coal company, Stickney & Babcock, Augustus H. Babcock was an appropriate choice for the name of the schooner. Built “for the general coastwise and West Indies trade,” the Babcock was “as large as the average of the big ones which come up the river with coal and take out ice if there is any to go.” If she did bring coal to Bangor, the Babcock could probably carry about 2,400 tons, “which is as much as 10 or a dozen of the little old-fashioned coasters used to bring,” surmised a Bangor Daily News reporter well versed in nautical terms and shipping facts.
By then, Maine had lost its edge in the lumber industry, which had been a major reason why it once was a shipbuilding capital. The Babcock’s masts were “beautiful sticks of Oregon pine,” and the frame made of hackmatack from Canada. The “heavy, hard pine” sheathing was probably from some southern state, as promised by E. & I.K. Stetson’s advertisement in the Bangor city directory.
Many of the fittings, however, like the Knowlton windlass manufactured in Camden and the Hyde steering gear made in Bath, were Maine products. And Maine still maintained a supply of skilled shipbuilders including J.J. Wardwell of Rockland, the vessel’s designer, and William H. Black of Bath, the master builder. Fifteen years later when river ports tried to revive their industry, however, it was said they had trouble mustering skilled men and the results were less than perfect.
The launch went smoothly, unlike some in which vessels got stuck or smashed into the opposite shore. As the Babcock touched the water, the daughter of a prominent local businessman, 13-year-old Pauline Savage, wearing a white sailor suit with a red jacket and tam-o-shanter, smashed a champagne bottle. A cacophony of cheers and tooting horns rose to the sky. Anchors were dropped, and the Babcock stopped 50 yards from the Bangor shore. The tug Ralph Ross turned her around and the onboard guests were landed at a pier just above the yard. A luncheon was then held for invited guests, including the Boston owners, in the drafting room with speeches and toasts.
“The Augustus H. Babcock is a Maine made vessel and as such will be a standing monument to the skill of the builders on the banks of the Penobscot river,” the Bangor Daily Commercial proudly stated on the day of the launch. But like so many vessels, she had a tragic and ignominious ending after such hopeful beginnings. The Brewer historian Mildred N. Thayer documented most of it.
While carrying a cargo of case oil and gasoline in January 1919 (130 miles northeast of Bermuda, according to one source), the Babcock caught fire and burned over a period of days. Three surviving crew members were rescued by a passing Chinese freighter, Hwah Yih. The schooner’s “beautiful sticks” of Oregon pine burned and fell into the sea.
The day that the Babcock was launched, the Queen City of the East still had a respectable shipping trade. On that Saturday, the Eva Lynch cleared Bangor harbor for Rio de Janeiro, the Julia Baker sailed for Boston and the William F. Campbell headed for New York. All were carrying lumber. The Lucinda Sutton, loaded with coal, was the only important arrival that day.
Shipping was down from a decade ago and wooden ship building was much reduced from the 19th century. But local business leaders whose primary focus was on the past looked confidently ahead to a future with more shipping and shipbuilding when the economy picked up. The truth was something quite different by 1931, as George S. Wasson pointed out in his book, “Sailing Days on the Penobscot.”
The old days had been almost completely erased in just a couple of decades. “In fact, so strikingly free of all navigation is the river now, at times, that recently the trip from Bangor to Castine, six miles down the Bay from Fort Point Cove, was made in a small sloop without meeting or even seeing so much as a rowboat in motion,” Wasson wrote. “The once familiar sign, ‘Sail-loft,’ is still to be traced high on the sides of certain old buildings near the river, and is almost the only indication left that Bangor ever had the least connection with sailing vessels.” Even that’s gone today.
Thanks to Kelly Page of the Maine Maritime Museum for providing a good deal of useful information for this column. Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.