Maine’s rich seafaring and shipbuilding history is on full display at the Maine Maritime Museum, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Located in Bath on the former site of the historic Percy and Small Shipyard, the museum encompasses the country’s only surviving shipyard where large wooden sailing vessels were once built.
The museum spans 20 acres along the Kennebec River and includes original buildings, hands-on, immersive exhibits, a collection of some 200 historic small craft (displayed on a rotating basis), a 1851 American clipper ship, and the Donnell House, the original shipyard owner’s Victorian-era residence, built in 1892. There are also daily lighthouse and nature cruises, gardens, a river walk, a pirate play ship, and museum rooms filled with artwork and artifacts.
This is a fun, fascinating place to visit, and a great way to spend a day along the coast of Maine. And yes! You can get a lobster roll at the museum’s new Sail Shed café.
We began with a stroll through the museum’s expansive, waterfront campus, dominated by the Schooner Wyoming sculpture, the largest outdoor sculpture in New England. The massive art piece, measuring nearly 450 feet long with six 120-foot-tall metal masts, is meant to evoke the size and shape of the historic Wyoming schooner, built and launched at the Percy and Small Shipyard in 1909. It was the largest wooden sailing ship ever built in North America.
“The masts are not as tall as they were on the Wyoming,” says Amanda Pleau, marketing and communications manager. “But it does illustrate the massiveness of the ship and the scope of the shipbuilding that was once done here.”
In the 1740s, Bath was already an important shipbuilding hub, crafting sloops, schooners, and other small vessels to haul goods between the colonies. By the late 1850s, it was the fifth largest port in the country, with 22 shipyards operating along its protected shoreline. Ships from Bath carried goods to Caribbean ports, returning with cotton, rum, and sugar. A small exhibit in the Maritime History Building also examines Maine’s economic connections to the slave trade.
We visited the Mould Shop, an original building where skilled craftsmen designed and shaped the timbers for early schooners. Tools, materials, a furnished draftsman’s office, and a background soundtrack sets the stage and gives a glimpse of what it was like to work at the shipyard. The Blacksmith Shop, filled with tools and machinery, replicates where Percy and Small ship smiths produced the metalwork needed to build a ship. It was an important — and busy — job. For example, the Wyoming had 300 tons of iron and steel in its fittings, fastenings, and strapping. We toured two other original buildings, including the Paint & Treenail Shop and the Mill & Joinery Shop, filled with objects and artifacts that help tell the history of wooden shipbuilding from 1894 to 1920.
Of course, what maritime museum in Maine worth its salt wouldn’t have exhibits on lobstering? There’s a nice one here, with two floors of boats, traps, gear, and tools of the trade, telling the “trap to table” story of Maine’s ever-changing lobster industry. You can measure and notch a lobster (not a real one), check out the evolution of the lobster trap, enjoy the wall of colorful buoys, and peek at some older lobster boats.
Outside, kids can play on the pirate ship, or maybe watch a ship launching demonstration. How do they get those giant boats in the water? Demonstrators show how it’s done using smaller models. If it wasn’t raining, we would have spent more time outdoors, strolled the river walk, and hung out on one of the piers jutting out into the Kennebunk River. It was too early in the season for boat cruises, so we headed into the Maritime History Building.
The museum has a collection of some 20,000 artifacts, only a portion of which are on display in a variety of permanent exhibits. There are also changing exhibits hosted throughout the year.
The Tugboat Pilot House exhibit is especially fun for kids, where they can don rain slickers, listen to radio communications, read maps, and take the wheel of a tugboat. At the Into the Lantern exhibit you’ll discover what it’s like to be on the top of a lighthouse, as you step into the full-size replica of Maine’s Two Lights on Cape Elizabeth. It features a large lens that lights up when the video scene projected on the wall turns to nighttime.
And who doesn’t love a disaster? You’ll hear of several of them and get a stark reminder of the dangers and power of the sea in the Shipwrecks & Salvage exhibit, including the story of the schooner Cora F. Cressy. The five-masted, wooden ship was built in 1902 at the Percy and Small shipyard and was put to work hauling goods along the East Coast. She survived the 1924 storm that sank the Wyoming but was retired in 1928. Semi-retired. She was used as a floating nightclub in Boston, Gloucester, and Providence, before being towed to Bremen, Maine, and filled with sand to serve as a partially submerged lobster pound. Today, her massive wreck remains, and is one of the largest surviving wooden hulls in the United States. We watched the above and underwater videos, showing her deteriorating, barnacle- and seaweed-covered hulk. One day we’ll stop in Bremen for a closer look at the wreck. Maybe.
The museum’s wide hallway held more treasures, including a Wabanaki birch bark canoe, considered to be the oldest birch bark canoe in the world. We were reminded that the Wabanaki were Maine’s first ship builders.
If you go:
Maine Maritime Museum, 243 Washington St, Bath, Maine, 207-443-1316, www.mainemaritimemuseum.org. The museum is open daily, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Free 45-minute docent-led tours are included with admission and offered daily at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. There are also self-guided audio tours. Adults $18, ages under 18 free; tickets are good for two days.
A variety of boat cruises are offered, including one-, three-, and four-hour lighthouse tours and a 30-minute nature cruise for families.
The museum will host three new exhibits in 2022. The “Looking for Winslow Homer” exhibit (June 25-Nov. 27) by artist Zach Horn will include stop motion animation, painting, and projections to interpret Homer’s work in Maine. The “Unchartered: Maine Artists/Maine Waters” exhibit will examine our relationship with the sea (June 20-Sept. 18). The “Majestic Fragility” exhibit will include a life-size adolescent North Atlantic Right whale skeleton and an immersive display of photographs by award-winning National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry (date to be announced).
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.