In November 1962, a group of seven men in Bath, Maine, organized the Marine Research Society of Bath, to write and publish a maritime history of the area. Although the possibility of establishing a museum was discussed, most were leery of doing so, believing it would detract from the primary purpose of the organization. A few months later, Bill Mussenden and I, who had been added to the board after the initial meeting, opened the Bath Marine Museum in downtown Bath.

In the fall of 1964, the growing museum moved into Sewall House, a nineteen-room mansion on Washington Street, the street of shipbuilders in Bath, donated by Mrs. Walter Edge, descendant of one of the city’s major shipbuilding families.  Mr. and Mrs. L. M. C. Smith, summer residents from Philadelphia, who had purchased the Percy and Small shipyard property in Bath in 1967, donated it to the museum. It is believed to be the last largely intact yard in the Western Hemisphere where wooden merchant sailing vessels were built.

In 1975, the name of the museum was changed to Maine Maritime Museum to better reflect its statewide scope. In 1989 a state-of-the-art 30,000-square-foot temperature and humidity controlled headquarters was constructed adjacent to the Percy and Small shipyard to provide exhibition space, collection storage, an extensive library-archives, and offices. The ability to finance the building was due in great part to the generosity of then board member, Elizabeth Noyce.

Today the museum consists of five century-old shipyard buildings and six exhibit buildings on nine acres of waterfront land. Its collections comprise 21,500 objects, including 500 paintings, 7000 shipbuilding tools (believed to be the most extensive collection anywhere of nineteenth-century tools used in shipbuilding and related trades), 130 small boats, and 500 ship models, in addition to thousands of other artifacts relating to Maine’s rich maritime heritage. Its library-archival holdings total 17,000 books, 134,000 photographic images, over 2000 linear feet of manuscripts, 45,000 ship plans, nearly 2000 charts, and much other relevant material.

Celebrating its half century, Maine Maritime Museum exhibited of ninety or so selected items from its collections between November 10, 2012, through May 26, 2013. A catalogue accompanied the exhibition.

Unknown artist
Brig or snow Minerva, 1810
Watercolor, 12  x 16 inches
Gift of John W. Teele (70.13)

Measuring only seventy-six feet in length, Minerva was the next-to-smallest registered vessel built in Bath in the year 1805. Her captain, John Matthews, apparently thought enough of the vessel to have her portrait painted and now, over two hundred years later, this is the earliest Bath vessel for which there is a known painting. The style is not unlike that of North Sea area artists of that period.

An early enthusiast of the museum was Charles Morgan, an outstanding maritime history expert. One day, when attending a party at the home of his next-door neighbor in Concord, Massachusetts, he noticed this watercolor hanging on the wall. Realized its significance, he convinced his neighbor to donate it.

Liverpool pitcher celebrating Portland Observatory, Staffordshire, England, ca. 1807, Diam.: 9 x 6 inches. Bequest of Gladys Ross (74.121.02).

In 1807 Lemuel Moody constructed a tower in Portland, Maine, and called it the Portland Observatory. Financed by those who hoped to benefit from it, its purpose was to provide subscribers with an early notification service allowing them to prepare for the arrival of vessels from distant ports. An observer atop the tower could spot sailing vessels approaching the harbor a day or two before actual arrival and communicate with agents and owners by signal flags. Moody rewarded subscribers with a Staffordshire pitcher like this one, emblazoned with a view of the tower and signals. Only a few now survive.

Liverpool pitchers, often referred to as jugs, were a product of the potteries in the Staffordshire area inland from the port of Liverpool. Shops in Liverpool would carry jugs with stock American nautical or patriotic motifs, or take custom orders, decorating previously fired pottery with images from engravings and words on paper transferred onto the piece before glazing.

From a local captain’s account book we can guess about how much Moody may have paid for these custom-made jugs. In September 1807, Capt. Samuel Patterson reimbursed his brother $5.84 for one of a pair of custom-made jugs “got in Liverpool” they intended to give to a friend and business associate, William Bowman, with colorful Patterson and Bowman family crests on them.

Gladys Ross, wife of the managing owner of the Hyde Windlass ship machinery foundry in Bath, collected a wide variety of Staffordshire pottery, which she bequeathed to the museum.

James Edward Buttersworth (1817–1894) Clipper ship Warner Rounding Cape Horn, New York, ca. 1852 Oil on canvas, 29 x 36¼ inches Gift of Elizabeth B. Noyce (93.085)

The painting was almost certainly made to document the chance close encounter of two ships in mountainous seas off Cape Horn. The crew on watch aboard each vessel can be seen forward of the foremast (a common place of shelter for the watch). Many ship portraits use the same vessel to represent more than one ship. In this painting, however, the details of the two ships are different. The Warner was built in 1851 by Alford Butler at South Portland, Maine.

Of more than 20,000 vessels built in Maine, only eighty-nine are believed to have been true clippers—sailing vessels built for speed. Paintings of them are so rare that when this one became available through Terry Geaghan, a local dealer in ship paintings, even though the price was high, we asked benefactor Betty Noyce to buy it for us. And she did.

Unknown artist, The steamer
T. F. Secor, ca. 1850
Oil on canvas, 32 x 48 inches
Museum purchase (89.073

Built in New York in 1846, the T. F. Secor probably offered the latest in comfortable accommodations when she was put in service along Penobscot Bay shortly after construction. Later she would offer passenger and freight service between Portland and ports along the Kennebec from Bath to Gardiner. She was requisitioned by the government in the Civil War and destroyed by fire off Hilton Head, South Carolina.

 The painting was given to the Gardiner Public Library by John Richards with other Gardiner-related historical artifacts, probably in the 1920s. When the library put this collection up for auction in the late 1980s, we engaged folk-art collecting friends Larry and Susan Polans to bid on it for us. The bidding went over $40,000, more than the Polans were prepared to pay, but we assured them that we could scrape up the difference, which we did.

Figurehead from the Sam Skolfield 2nd
By Emery Jones, Freeport, Maine, 1886. H. 89 in.
Gift and purchase from Historic New England (2008.039)

This figurehead is from the second vessel of the same name built in the Skolfields’ Brunswick-Harpswell shipyard and named for the youngest son of shipbuilder Master George Skolfield. Built in 1884 to replace the first Sam Skolfield 2nd, wrecked in a hurricane off Bermuda, she was graced with this figurehead, which was painted all white when first used. Samuel Skolfield II, one of several family members with the name Samuel, was the ship’s first master.

The figurehead, removed when the vessel was converted to a barge in Boston in 1908, was mounted over the entrance to Sailor’s Haven in Charlestown, Massachusetts, for many years, and eventually ended up in storage with the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. When we got wind of its remarkable survival from Historic New England’s Richard Nylander, we first borrowed it, arranging for a Bath funeral home owner friend to retrieve it in a hearse for us. Sam looked grand, traveling in style on his final voyage down the interstate to Bath. The museum later purchased him, and other funds were raised for a new pedestal and mount.

Eugene Grandin (1833–1919)
Transatlantic dory City of Bath, Havre, France, 1881
Watercolor, 7½ x 10 inches
Trade with Penobscot Marine Museum, given to them by Clifford N. Carver (2012.014.1)

When Ivar Olsen, a native Scandanavian, met John Traynor, a twenty-five-year-old Maine seaman, in Galveston, Texas, the encounter changed his life. Traynor had dreamed of crossing the Atlantic in a small boat under sail and had a dory on order from a Georgetown, Maine, boat shop. Finding Olsen a compatible fellow and a competent navigator, Traynor convinced him they could make “millions”
by accomplishing the feat.

They left Bath on July 5, 1881, in the boat they named City of Bath, only 14 feet long, five feet wide, and 21 inches deep. It was decked over except for standing room aft, and rigged with foresails, a main sail, and a square topsail. After fifty-five days at sea, they arrived in Falmouth, England, where they were feted. A couple of days later at Le Havre, France, they met with an amazing reception and arrangements were made for a series of exhibitions in Paris, Barcelona, and other European cities. It was at Le Havre that Eugene Grandin, known for his miniature portraits of vessels, painted this image of one of the intrepid sailors’ crossing events. Purchased by Clifford N. Carver from a dealer in France seventy-five years later, it was donated to Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, and later traded to Maine Maritime Museum for a Penobscot Bay painting donated for the purpose of the trade.

Charles Burden, a Bath native and Harvard-trained pediatrician, has been a trustee of the Maine Maritime Museum for forty-seven years.

Photography by Ellen McDermott and Dave Garrison.