Maine Maritime Museum
Topsham, ME - Events of Monday, August 26, 2013
Bath, ME, which is located on the banks of the Kennebec River only about 10 minutes from Topsham Fairgrounds where we were staying, is best known for its role in shipbuilding. The Maine Maritime Museum located in Bath has extensive exhibits that let visitors explore Bath's maritime heritage. We headed there on Monday.
The first ship was built in the area around 1608 when members of Popham Colony located a few miles south of Bath at the mouth of the Kennebec River decided to abandon their colony. They successfully built the New World's first ocean-going ship and returned to England.
Commercial shipbuilding in Bath began in 1743. Since that time, approximately 5,000 ships have been launched in the area. At one time, there were as many as 200 shipbuilders in and around Bath.
The Maine Maritime Museum was founded as the Marine Research Society of Bath in 1962. For the first two years, they rented a storefront to display their collection of marine artifacts until the Sewall family, who were prominent in Bath shipbuilding, donated their mansion to use as a museum. In the 1980s, the museum occupied two separate sites, and visitors were transported by ferry between the sites.
In 1989, a new 30,000 square foot museum building was completed. The new building is located on the banks of the Kennebec River and includes the site of the Percy & Small Shipyard, which was a builder of wooden ships back in the day.
In addition to their many exhibits, the museum offers nature and lighthouse boat cruises. There is also a trolley tour (actually a small bus dressed up to look like a trolley) of the neighboring Bath Iron Works. Bath Iron Works is a major shipyard and builds private and commercial vessels as well as ships for the U.S. Navy.
The trolley tours are offered from mid-May through late-October. There are only two tours a day during summer (one per day in spring and fall), and there are only 26 seats on the trolley, so tours sell out quickly. If you want to take the trolley tour (which we highly recommend), buy your tickets online or by phone at least a couple of days in advance.
We pre-purchased tickets for the 12:30 tour of Bath Iron Works on Monday. The tour of Bath Iron Works costs $35 and includes admission to the museum. Admission to the museum only is $15 ($12 for seniors 65+).
They want you to check in at least 30 minutes before the tour, but we arrived about an hour and a half early so we would have time to look around the museum first. Paul had to try out the tow boat pilot house that was located right inside the door.
The museum building has displays of artifacts relating to sailing and shipbuilding. Whaling was an important business in the late 1700s and early 1800s because of the great demand for whale oil for lighting. One area of the museum was devoted to whaling.
On long whaling voyages, sailors often passed the time by doing scrimshaw on whale teeth or bone. Fine lines were engraved into the surface, and the designs were highlighted with dark pigment.
Another display that caught our eye was a ditty bag. We had heard the term, but never knew what it meant. A ditty bag is a bag that contained tools and supplies that a sailor would need while working, especially when he was aloft in the ship's rigging. This bag contained mostly materials for mending sails.
Paul loved seeing the details in the dozens of ship models in the museum. There were models of yachts, fishing boats, sailing boats, steamers and naval vessels. Unfortunately, it was hard to get good pictures because of all the reflections from the plastic cases.
One of the temporary exhibits was a salute to the U.S. Coast Guard. It featured many signaling devices and equipment used for search and rescue. There were also videos that detailed several rescue missions.
There was a model that depicted the launching of the schooner Joseph Zeman from the Percy & Small Shipyard. The Joseph Zeman was the second to last wooden ship launched in the south Bath area. The last was the Carroll Deering launched in 1919 from the shipyard to the right of Percy & Small. All ships after 1919 were steel.
Only one major shipyard in the Bath area made the switch from wooden to steel-hulled ships because the methods and skills for building of each type of ship were so different. Steel hulls require metal cutting, welding and pipe fitting. Workers with those skills would have come from engine plants and from boiler factories. Shipwrights used to cutting and fitting wooden pieces together would not likely have been able to learn metalworking skills, so the entire workforce and almost all the equipment in the shipyard would have had to be replaced.
Bath Iron Works is located a short distance down the road from the museum, and many ship models in the museum represent ships built there. Bath Iron Works is one of the largest defense contractors in the world, so many of their models are Navy vessels.
We finished up the indoor part of the museum at just about the right time for the trolley tour of Bath Iron Works. Because the plant is a secure defense facility, photography is not permitted. You are not even allowed to carry a camera or cell phone on the tour, so Paul took ours out to the car before the tour started.
The tour began with a short video about the Bath Iron Works. The company began in 1826 as Bath Iron Foundry making anchors, anchor chain and other metal parts for wooden sailing ships. The foundry was bought by Thomas Hyde of Bath in 1865. In 1884, Hyde expanded into the iron shipbuilding business and changed the name of the company to Bath Iron Works. The first ship launched was a 232-foot passenger steamer in 1890.
Bath Iron Works has built over 425 ships including around 245 military ships, mostly destroyers and frigates for the U.S. Navy. During WWII, one quarter of all warships were built at Bath Iron Works. During the war, they launched a ship on the average of every 17 days.
Bath Iron Works was bought out by General Dynamics in 1995. In 2001, General Dynamics revamped the entire shipyard.
On the trolley tour, we not only learned about the history of the company, but we also learned about modern shipbuilding. Steel plates and beams are cut at a facility about three miles away from the main shipyard. These components, as well as some sub-assemblies, are brought to Bath Iron Works on flatbed trailers. All parts are received on a just-in-time basis, meaning parts are made and delivered as they are needed and are not stockpiled in advance.
Steel ships are assembled as modules that start upside down. Unlike the early days of shipbuilding when all work was done outside, modules are assembled inside large buildings. After assembly progresses to a certain point, the large pieces of the hull are turned right side up, and assembly continues. All permanent, internal parts such as bulkheads and piping are assembled into the module as it is being built.
Picture from the Bath Iron Works website of a module being assembled
Once completed, modules are moved outside and joined together with
other modules to form the completed hull. When the basic ship is complete, heavy-duty trolley wheels roll under the the metal supports that are holding the hull upright. Jacks built into the trolley assemblies raise the ship, and it is then rolled onto the drydock, which is sitting on a concrete and steel base under the water. The drydock and ship are then floated by emptying the drydock's ballast tanks.
A picture from Bath Iron Works website of the huge cranes used when the modules are being put together and the drydock used to launch the ships
The drydock is then winched out into the deepest part of the river where the ballast tanks of the drydock are refilled causing it to sink thus allowing the newly-completed ship to float on its own. Tugs then push the ship to a dock where it will spend another year undergoing final fitting and testing of all systems.
Ships are a lot bigger, more complicated and way more expensive than they used to be. Of course, they are capable of much more, too. Destroyers used to have big guns mounted on the deck. They still do, but now they also carry guided missles. Ship guidance systems and sonar are a lot more sophisticated as well.
Bath Iron Works is currently building several destroyers. Some are a more traditional type of destroyer known as the Arliegh Burke-Class, named for a famous WWII destroyer officer, Admiral Arleigh Burke. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyers currently being built are 509 feet long and have a top speed of over 30 knots (35 mph).
Bath Iron Works also has contracts for three of the newest type of futuristic-looking guided missle destroyers known as the Zumwalt-Class, which is named for Admiral Elmo Zumwalt who was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and who was the youngest man to ever serve as Chief of Naval Operations. With their tapered superstructure, these ships look like the Confederate ironclad ship the Merrimac from the Civil War. The sharp-pointed hull is designed to cut through waves rather than to ride on top of them, and the angular design and composite superstructure are less visible to enemy radar. The Zumwalt-class destroyers are 600 feet long and have a top speed of over 30 knots (35 mph).
The photo below shows the Bath Iron Works shipyard as seen from the grounds of the Maine Maritime Museum. The blue structure to the right is the drydock. The white structure is one of the assembly buildings, and the gray object between the two is the first Zumwalt-class destroyer the USS Zumwalt. The Zumwalt will go onto the drydock in a couple of weeks. Launch is set for October.
We really enjoyed the tour of the Bath Iron Works. The tour lasted about an hour, after which the trolley returned us to the museum. We still wanted to see the outdoor portion of the museum that includes several buildings of the old Percy & Small Shipyard. We'll tell you about the rest of our visit to the Maine Maritime Museum in our next post.