Harpswell's Tall Ships

Vessels propelled by wind were a great advance over those propelled by the strength of men and animals through the use of oars and paddles. They were faster; they had greater carrying capacity, primarily becasue less space was required for crew or animals and supplies to maintain them; they allowed greater flexibility of design. Perhaps even more important, wind-driven vessels enabled daring and hardy ment ot traverse the entire globe and with them came the romance of sailing vessels, which for a time occupied the economic stage for the entire world.

From almost the earliest days of Harpswell, sailing vessels were an integeral part of its economy. At first, shipbuilding tended to be a family affair, one that combined readily with farming, fishing and lumbering. Sailing vessels built prior to 1800 were used primarily for fishing, carrying local lumber and produce to other coastal communities and delivering wood and wood products, such as clapboards, wooden backets, barrel staves and headings for molasses hogsheads, as well as meat and fish, to the West Indies and bringing back molasses and sugar for rum and domestic use. Many of these vessels and some built a few years later, had to defend themselves against French privateers, as well as the British Navy during the War of Independence and the War of 1812.

Although records of colonial shipping are incomplete, they suggest the sloop was the most popular type of small trading craft prior to the American Revolution, but thereafter formed a relatively small part of the nation's merchant fleet. According to the best available information, however, the schooner was the principal kind of merchant vessel built in Harpswell prior to1800 and, as indicated in the following table of vessels built in Harpswell, retained its popularity throughout the period of shipbuilding here:

Period in Which Built Total Number of Vessels
SCHOONER

BRIG (antine)

BARK (entine)

SLOOP

SHIP

BOAT
1761 - 1799
27
20
3
4
1800 - 1824
45
24
18
3
1825 - 1849
26
12
8
1
3
2
1850 - 1874
76
31
17
19
6
3
1875 - 1907
12
6
2
4

TOTAL





186





93





46





21





18





6





2

The following table shows the variation of range in tonnage and the approximate tonnage of the typical vessel in each class built during each of the specific time periods:

Period in Which Built
SCHOONER *****

Range Typical

BRIG (antine)

Range Typical

BARK (entine)

Range Typical

SLOOP *****

Range Typical

SHIP *****

Range Typical

1761 - 1799 10-131 45110-159 120 35-45 40
1800 - 1849 21-176 11574-221 170 31-90 75 298-536 475
1850 - 1874 7-378 60185-490 290 237-555 310 27-111 65491-628 565
1875 - 1907 9-57 30 502-550 525 7-48 10


As indicated in this table the typical schooner, as well as sloop, built during the first half of the nineteenth-century was much larger then that of its typical eighteenth-century counterpart. While the largest schooner , as well as sloop, was built between 1850 and 1875, the size of the typical vessel in each of these classes during this period is smaller than during the preceding period, and is even smaller for the last period shown. By contrast, the typical vessels becomes progressively larger during each succeeding time period. The Harpswell, built in 1855 in a Norton Stover yard, was the largest vessel ever launched in Harpswell and the fourth one to bear this name.

The records of the sites of the shipyards as well as builders of merchant vessels in Harpswell are incomplete, especially for the period prior to 1810. Even after this date the information is lacking or inconsistent. It is generally agreed, however, that the earliest Harpswell shipyards were located on the islands, but that shipbuilding was concentrated on the neck well before the middle of the nineteenth-century. Isaac Snow on Sebascodegan Island and Henry Merritt, whose yard may have been nearby, are believed to have been two of the earliest builders. The most active builders on the neck appear to have been Norton Stover and Curtis and Estes. Other yards which produced five or more merchant vessels include the Allen, Merryman, Pennell and Skolfield.

The typical vessel built in Harpswell between 1820 and 1890 was about two-thirds the size of the typical Maine - constructed merchant vessel during this period. Harpswell vessels often were commanded by men of no more then 21 years of age. Nevertheless, many carried on trade with the most distant points on the globe. While most of the trips were uneventful some vessels were severely damaged or lost in storms and others were blown out of the way. For example, the Harpswell on a return trip from Sicily in 1859, laden with oranges and wine, was blown far off course into a calm, windless region of the ocean near the equator and as a result was several weeks late in returning to its home port. As was to be expected the trip was made at a loss inasmuch as a great deal of the fruit spoiled but without it the crew might have perished since oranges were the only food they had during the last three weeks of their voyage.

Harpswell vessels not only were able to compete successfully on a commercial basis but also were adept in naval engagements. So far as can be determined the Albion Lincoln, built in 1854 in a Norton Stover yard, and the P.C. Alexander, built in 1856 by the Curtis and Estes yard, were the onlu Harpswell vessels captured by the Confederates during the Civil War.

Following the end of this conflict wooden shipbuilding was largely concentrated in Maine. In spite of increased costs the state's excess labor supply enabled it to turn out relatively inexpensive vessels for the coastal trades, in which capacity was more important than speed. They carried principally ice, lime, stone (granite, fieldstone and limestone), cordwood and seafoods to Boston and points farther south and brought back coal to operate New England's factories and mills. Some were engaged in cotton trade carrying wood and wood products from Maine to the South and bringing back cotton to New England and sometimes European mills.

Although American sailing ships -- long, sharp built, well painted and rigged -- competed successfully with steam-powered vessels much longer than those built in other countries, only ten commercial vessels are known to have been built in Harpswell after 1875, the last being the Lochinvar, a 72-foot schooner built in the Allen yard in 1907 and equipped with an engine in 1911; it went aground and was lost in 1932 near the Portland Head Light.

A century ago at least 30 merchant vessels built in Harpswell after 1849 plied the high seas. It does not follow, however, that all other vessels built here during this period had been lost. In reviewing the list of vessels active at that time, some may have been omitted because of lack of certainty of identification, others because they were sailing under another name or had been sold to owners in other nations and hence no longer appeared on U.S. Records. Still others may have been in repair or not in use for some other reason at the time.

By the turn of the century most commercial vessels were engine-driven. With few exceptions and only sailing vessels in commercial service were fairly large sloops, used primarily to carry cordwood and stone, and schooners, which continued to carry supplies to small down-east ports until they no longer could compete with trucks and improved roads. Probably the M.M. Hamilton, a III ton sloop built in 1869 was the Harpswell-built vessel in commercial use. It was sailing as late as 1934, 65 years after it was launched. It carried much of the stone for the Washington Monument, the Chicago Auditorium and the Chicago Board of Trade Building.

And now those brave captains and their men who grace the world so much are no more. Some sleep at the bottom of the ocean they dared to conquer, others sleep in our nearby cemeteries, overlooking the white-flecked water they loved as much as life itself. Gone is their clairvoyant intuition and reckless skill in steering by the stars, harnessing the waves and winds, in fair weather and foul, to reach a destination without the aid of modern communication devices. Gone are their dreams of bringing home fortune and exotic treasures. Today, we who go to sea in sailing ships do so for pleasure alone.