Bath’s Living History

How the City of Ships preserved so many of its historic treasures.

A shipyard owner built this Italianate house in 1854.
A shipyard owner built this Italianate house in 1854. Photographed by Bob Dennis

Step onto the brick sidewalks in Bath’s downtown and you don’t have to stretch your imagination to visualize the city’s 19th-century heyday, when it bustled with boatyards, sail lofts, and chandleries. That history is equally evident in the Italianate Customs House downtown and the regal mansions lining residential streets. Bath brims with antique buildings, from Federal- and Queen Anne–style manors to grand homes, churches, and civic buildings built in traditions of Greek, Colonial, Georgian, Gothic, and Romanesque Revival.

Winter Street Center
Sagadahoc Preservation Inc. saved this 1843 Gothic Revival church. It now serves as the group’s home base. Photographed by Benjamin Williamson

“I can teach 125 years of architectural history on a single street in Bath,” says Robin A. S. Haynes, a historian who manages the Sagadahoc History and Genealogy Room at the Patten Free Library. The variety of architecture reflects the fact that many of the shipyard owners, merchants, and sea captains who were based in Bath had traveled the globe, Haynes says. 

It was a mecca for shipbuilding and trade, situated on a deep, straight stretch of the Kennebec River, with easy anchorage and plenty of wood. Shipyards started popping up in Bath in the 1760s, Haynes says, and by 1854, 19 yards lined its shore. As boatbuilding shifted away from wood, Bath was buoyed by companies that transitioned to steel hulls, like Bath Iron Works, founded in 1884.

The city’s prolonged stretch of industrial activity “created a very strong economically stabilizing influence in the community,” state historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. says. “It led to a great deal of wealth over a long period of time.”

The boomtime left an indelible mark on the skyline, thanks to the people and groups who started working in the 1960s to preserve buildings from Bath’s most prosperous era. The Marine Research Society of Bath, which later became the Maine Maritime Museum, formed in 1962 and preserved landmarks like the Percy & Small Shipyard, which produced wooden vessels from 1894 to 1920. 

In 1971, a group of residents organized Sagadahoc Preservation Inc. to save an 1843 Gothic Revival church from demolition. (The building, now called the Winter Street Center, serves as the group’s headquarters.) A few months later, SPI rallied to save another Gothic Revival church, this one from 1847, which became the Chocolate Church Arts Center. Volunteers from SPI went on to complete an architectural survey of Bath, and led the charge to get areas of the city designated as National Register Historic Districts. This work “raised awareness within the community of the importance of its historic structures,” Haynes says. City officials invested in historic touches to the streetscape, like brick sidewalks and streetlights styled to look like they were forged in the 19th century, then placed 34 historical markers around town to share its rich history.

The Italianate Customs House, completed in 1858, sits at  1 Front Street.
The Italianate Customs House, completed in 1858, sits at 1 Front Street. Photographed by Benjamin Williamson

Today, the push for preservation is stronger than ever. The city council recently established William King Square, outside the Customs House, to honor native son William King, Maine’s first governor. SPI organizes an annual historic home tour and leads classes in architectural history for elementary schoolers. 

And many of the city’s residents are carrying on the legacy, investing money and labor in rehabbing landmark buildings. That includes Tom Johnson, executive director of Portland’s Victoria Mansion, who recently bought a classic Greek Revival home that was built in 1841 and served for 105 years as a home base for the Cosmopolitan Club, a women’s community-service group. In the two years since Johnson moved from Cumberland, he has been restoring the building to its original grandeur. For years prior, he had admired the property — as well as Bath’s overall wealth of intact houses and commercial buildings from the 1760s on. 

“People take such pride in the heritage of the city,” Johnson says. And he was eager to take advantage of the lifestyle he could have there, which also seemed to hearken back to another era. “Being able to walk to a downtown that actually has a market and a pharmacy — how many Maine towns have that any more?”

All Hands on Deck

In addition to celebrating seafaring history, Maine Maritime Museum is inspiring kids to become part of its future.

More than 55,000 visitors pour into Maine Maritime Museum each year to check out its trove of nautical objects and rare documents and learn the story behind Bath’s centuries-old shipbuilding industry. And while the museum celebrates Maine’s seafaring past, a lesser-known part of its work involves getting the next generation of Mainers into the boatshop to experience the joy of boat-building for themselves.

Each Friday, middle schoolers from four local public schools spend the day in the museum’s workshop learning basic woodworking techniques and building skiffs, which they’ll launch at the end of the school year. Executive director Amy Lent hopes the Discovery Boatbuilding Program helps kids see opportunities to stay in Maine and join its maritime industry.

“If we want kids to stay here, we have to show them what’s special about Maine, help them appreciate it and care about the ecology and history that is so interesting,” she says. “We want kids to see the impact Maine’s maritime industry has had on the world, but we also want them to understand, in a personal, hands-on way, what these traditional things mean and get excited about how they can leverage them in the future.”

This summer, the museum is launching Mariners Adventure Camp, where kids can tackle traditional maritime skills, like how to make treenails, steam-bend wooden planks, tie basic knots, read nautical charts, and raise and trim sails aboard Mary E, the 1906 wooden schooner the museum recently restored. The program augments the museum’s Kennebec Explorers day camp, which offers an immersion in nature and all things nautical with crafts, science experiments, beach trips, and more.

The museum has its own long tradition of building boats. Until 1995, it operated an apprentice shop where adults could learn traditional boatbuilding skills. Then, the museum shifted to focus on caring for its historic boat collection and restoring vessels that have been donated to the museum. It also launched a youth boatbuilding program in partnership with South Bristol School. Since that time, the museum has expanded its partnership to three other schools, and 60 kids go through the program each year. 

Grown-ups who want to bone up on their woodworking skills can get in on the action too. The museum offers classes for adults on how to build glued lapstrake kayaks, kitchen stools, Shaker boxes, and Adirondack chairs. This year, the museum added a toboggan-
building class to complement its Frozen Kingdom exhibit.

Kurt Spiridakis, the museum’s director of watercraft and traditional skills, loves seeing kids get stoked about a craft that has captivated Mainers for centuries and shaped so much of its history. “We’re trying to preserve the traditional skills of wooden boatbuilding, not just because the students like it, but because it’s a hands-on look into their history,” he says. “And these aren’t skills that are easy to find anymore.  They’re learning something that, in 2020, most people don’t know how to do.”

Learn more at mainemaritimemuseum.org.

See more at visitbath.com