The History of Bath, Maine

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Picture of The Customs House on Front Street in Bath, Maine

Here is the fascinating history of Bath, Maine (follow link for picture gallery). Also, see our post “Historical Markers in Bath, Maine” for more historical information on this beautiful coastal town.

Bath, named for Bath, England, was first named Long Reach because its long straight bank of the Kennebec River allowed vessels to sail its entire length without changing the set of their sails. Long Reach came into being as an off-shoot from the first permanent settlements in this region on Georgetown and Arrowsic Islands. John Parker, a commercial fisherman, had come in 1630 and in 1650, Clarke and Lake, Boston merchants, began a $100,000 business of fishing, lumbering and shipbuilding on Arrowsic Island.

They did not sell any of their lands to their tenants which is probably why Christopher Lawson, one of their agents, crossed to the west bank of the Kennebec to Long Reach and bought the northern section from the Indian Chief Ramegin, also known as Robin Hood. Both titles go back to these Indian deeds. However, the Indians, angered by the loss of their hunting rounds, in 1676 killed or drove from their homes all the settlers in the river valley and burned their houses. William Phipps, who later received a title from the English King and became Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, rescued the survivors and took them to Boston on his new ship, built in the Arrowsic shipyard where he had learned his trade.

Near the end of the long French and Indian wars settlers began to come back to Long Reach and rebuild their homes. The Long Reach area was at times under the jurisdiction of the North Virginia Co., the New England Council, Sir Ferdinando Gorges’s Province of Mayne, the Plymouth Co., the Pejepscot and Kennebec Proprietors and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It had little responsible government until the Bay colony bought Gorges’s interests. Long Reach then came under the jurisdiction of Old Georgetown on Arrowsic Island and was designated the Second Parish of Georgetown in 1753. It became a town and was named Bath in the District of Maine of Massachusetts in 1781.

In 1800, when William King, later first Governor of the State of Maine, established his shipyard, wharf and store in the center of Bath, there were already shipyards both north and south on the river bank. These men were building to transport and products of forest and farm to market. A lively trade grew up with the West Indies, coastal towns, and a cotton carrying trade with New Orleans and Europe. The population of Bath had grown to 1,125 in 1800. The Embargo and the War of 1812, when the British blockaded the coast, and later the Civil War each slowed the growth of the shipbuilding industry for a time, but from the 1820’s through the 1890’s, shipyards lined the waterfront of Bath from one end of the town to the other. Bath ships became an important part of the west coast and Far East trade. Industries allied to shipbuilding flourished. Many of the lovely old houses and churches were built in Bath during this period and the business district developed a flavor of urbanity.

After 1880, the square rigger gave way almost entirely to large schooners. Contract building became as commonplace as local ownership. In the 1890’s Bath businessmen, looking into the future, began changing over to steel hulls. The Bath Iron Works, organized in 1889, took the lead in shipbuilding in Bath as most of the other yards declined.

World War I and the demand for destroyers brought Bath to its peak population of 14,731 in 1920, when the Bath Iron Works produced “four stack” destroyers for the Navy. However, by 1925, there were no contracts, no work and no shipyard. Two years later, in 1927, a group of men with a firm belief in Bath men and their ability to build ships, acquired the old yard and rebuilt it. Under the leadership of William S. Newell, contracts for yachts, trawlers and later, destroyers were obtained. World War II found the yard able to become one of the principal destroyer building shipyards in the country. One fourth of all the destroyers in the U.S. Navy were built here during the war. Following the war contracts for fishing boars and some conversion and repair kept the yard working. Presently the Bath Iron Works, now a division of Bath Industries, is undergoing a major modernization and in the future will build cargo ships larger than any ships hitherto built along the banks of the Long Reach.

In 1972, a new landmark has risen in Bath, Maine. It is the huge crane installed as part fo the modernization of the Bath Iron Works, where shipbuilding continues as the main industry of the area. From 107, when the Popham colonists built the pinnace “Virginia”, until the present, the immediate area has had a long history of shipbuilding and Bath may fairly be said to be the oldest continually active shipbuilding center in America.

Source:  National Register of Historic Place Inventory – Nomination Form (pdf)

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