Lost and Found
For one maritime history buff, losing himself in the artifacts at the Maine Maritime Museum leads to a better understanding of b
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Images Courtesy Ellen McDermott/Maine Maritime Museum
I’ll come right out and say it: I’m a boat geek. Seriously, when it comes to maritime history I’m an unabashed nerd. I pore over old logbooks and tattered nautical charts with the same enthusiasm as many people tap away at their iPhones and Blackberries. Which is why when Nathan Lipfert, senior curator at the Maine Maritime Museum, hands me a hand-illustrated navigation exercises book that a Dresden ship captain created in 1805, I think I’ve sailed off to heaven.
Francis Rittal’s sixteen-page volume was never intended to last two centuries — he appears to have created the lessons for his sons, at least one of whom followed him to sea — yet his puzzles and artwork have actually gained in relevance over the intervening years. How many mariners today, if someone snatched away their GPS, could compute their latitude based on distance traveled from “the island of Seguin” and cosine of the course they have just steered? And who knows what the first wooden lighthouse on that nearby isle of Seguin, constructed in 1795 and replaced in 1819, looked like? Rittal’s meticulous drawings of it, likely done with a metal dip pen, were created well before a photographic record of the light could be made and serve as perhaps the only record of this famous Maine beacon.
Perhaps my fascination with one man’s nautical doodling — as well as with the dozens of rowing boats, nineteenth-century machinery, and scores of other salty artifacts scattered around the museum’s twenty-five-acre campus — isn’t so weird after all. I call my friend Earle Shettleworth, the Maine State Historian and director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, for reassurance.
“Understanding maritime history is critical to understanding not only the history of Maine, but how and why so many communities here developed,” Shettleworth says. “The earliest vessel in the New World, or at least the English New World, was launched at Popham in 1607, and as far as shipbuilding and seagoing is concerned, maritime industries have been integral to the life and economy of Maine ever since.”
Suddenly my fetish has validity. Soon Lipfert is leading me on a tour of “the orlop,” the shipboard term for the level where the museum stores that part of its permanent collection not on display in the exhibit halls upstairs. A cannon from a Maine-based privateer, a sperm whale’s tooth from New Zealand — the stories practically seep out of these climate-controlled rooms (tours are available, with prior reservations) just as they do from the galleries, boat-barns, and outdoor exhibits here alongside the Kennebec River.
“The wonderful thing about any collection is that it is going to mean different things to different people,” Shettleworth says. “If you create a collection that is wide enough and deep enough it will be a resource to many different people who will come with all sorts of different needs and interests.”
Count me as one who’s very, very interested.
- By: Joshua F. Moore