This is the first of a short series of posts that I’m writing while visiting coastal Maine.
This week I’m in Down East Maine. It’s a beautiful part of the world and I’m not really here to do historical research. All the same, I am visiting some local maritime museums and historical societies and I am curious to learn if this far corner of the New England coastline has historic ties to the coastal world where I grew up in North Carolina.
The connection between the Maine coast and the North Carolina coast that jumps out to me so far is shipbuilding.
Beginning around 1840, Maine shipyards turned out an incredible number of deep sea, square-rigged ships: big carriers, far larger than any sailing vessel ever built in North Carolina shipyards, capable of transporting vast quantities of cotton, grain, lumber and other bulk cargo.
By 1855 Maine yards turned out ships weighing a total of 215,000 tons, more than a third of the tonnage in the entire U.S. That decade the Bath custom district’s yards alone turned out 232 vessels ranging from fishing schooners to majestic, fully-rigged ships.
With the rise in the costs of labor and materials after the Civil War, the shipbuilding industry in southern New England declined and the construction of wooden sailing ships concentrated even more in Maine, where both labor and material costs were lower.
From the Civil War into the 1890s, Maine’s yards grew famous for building large, sleek, fast-sailing 200-300-foot long square-riggers that that came to be known as “Down-Easters.” In the words of the authors of New England and the Sea, a classic maritime history of New England, they were “of good model and excellent finish.”
At one point, in the 1880s, ten percent of all masters of U.S.-flagged square-rigged sailing ships were captains from a single town on Penobscot Bay– Searsport, not far west of where we’re staying on Mount Desert Island.
At the turn of the century the Maine yards also began to turn out big coastal schooners, sometimes with four, five or even six masts, and often built especially for the bituminous coal trade.
In the Maine maritime museums that we have visited so far, I have seen two important ways that the state’s shipbuilding industry was historically tied to the North Carolina coast.
The first was the popularity of “North Carolina yellow pine” in Maine’s shipyards. (The wood was also called longleaf pine or heart pine.) From Bath to the Penobscot River and beyond, Maine shipbuilders preferred to use white oak for keels, beams and frames but they looked to southern yellow pine for planking.
Maine was the “Pine Tree State,” but its shipbuilders found that “North Carolina yellow pine” was harder than the state’s native white pine and had a greater ability to bend with the frame while still remaining strong.
You can find a good review of the other woods used in Maine shipbuilding in the 19th century at the Education Section of the Penobscot Marine Museum’s web site.
The four-masted schooner Pendleton Brothers, seen under construction in this photograph from the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, was typical in its use of North Carolina yellow pine.
The Pendleton Brothers was built in 1903 at F. C. Pendleton’s shipyard in Belfast, Maine, just down the road from here on the west side of Penobscot Bay. She was Maine-built, but much of her lumber came from the coastal forests of North Carolina.
While her frame was made of white oak and her cabins made of a variety of other woods, the master builder, O. R. Webster, used North Carolina yellow pine for her planking and much of her interior work—the staterooms, wood house, engine room, etc.
Vast quantities of North Carolina yellow pine sailed out of North Carolina ports in the last half of the 19th century. While much favored by Maine shipbuilders, the wood also gained a general reputation for strength, flexibility and durability that made it widely used in other industries and perhaps the single best-known product originating in North Carolina at that time.
You can read more about North Carolina’s lumber boom in my recent blog post on the historical connections between Ocracoke Island and Philadelphia.
You can get some sense of the general popularity of North Carolina yellow pine in this 1928 photograph of the F. N. Vote Planing Mill in Houlton, Maine, which comes from the Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum in Houlton. The photograph also gives us a sense that it wasn’t only North Carolina’s yellow pine that had grown popular in other parts of the U.S.
Though located in Maine’s far north, almost on the U.S.-Canada border and on the edge of Maine’s Big Woods, one of the mill’s signs advertises “North Carolina Pine and Cypress.”
Next time– more on the history of Maine ship building and the North Carolina coast