Sunday, October 9, 2011

Yarmouth’s shipyards which reached their peak in the 1870’s are now mostly buried under the interstate highway.

 Many years ago I asked a group of Yarmouth High School students if they could imagine what their town’s snug little harbor would look like if it did not have an interstate bridge crouching on top of it. Shrugging off my suggestions about Camden and Kennebunkport, the students concluded that they just couldn’t see it. Today’s photograph brings back to life key parts of the town’s heritage that ended up under that highway bridge. The photo is also a beautifully composed image. The willow tree on the left plays off against a whole series of diagonal lines that lead you to the buildings and ships in the background.

This rooftop view of Yarmouth’s waterfront was probably taken by Charles G. Gooding in the spring of 1874, looking south in the direction of what is now the Yankee Marina on the opposite shore. The date is significant because the 1870’s represented the high water mark of wooden shipbuilding in Yarmouth. Although the scene is eerily deserted, you can see two shipyards and six different vessels in various stages of construction.

Yarmouth's shipyards were at their peak in the 1870's.

In the foreground the Hutchins and Stubbs shipyard may not look very prosperous with its heaps of scrap lumber, but they actually set a record in 1874 by launching four ships. The historian William Rowe described those ships as “modest in size, but famous for the grace and beauty of their lines.” Given the very tight schedule to construct those ships and the fact that no workers are swarming around the newly laid keel in the center of the picture, the photograph was almost certainly taken on a Sunday morning. As soon as one ship was decked over and caulked, the yard would launch it and move the vessel to a finishing pier where the cabin joinery and other details could be completed. This freed up space on the ways to lay the keel of the next ship. The three masts above the tree line in the center of the picture very likely belong to the barkentine Hattie S. Jackson that Hutchins and Stubbs is known to have completed at Union Wharf in 1874.

Tucked into the lower right corner of the picture is a rough shed that housed the shipyard’s blacksmith shop and a boiler that was used to steam the long planks so they would bend into the shape of the vessel’s hull. On the wall of the shed facing Lafayette Street you can see advertising signs for products like health tonics and Florence sewing machines. Bob Collins, a colorful old timer on Yarmouth’s waterfront, once told me that the clump of willows on the left shaded a spring that was used by the shipyard workers.

Jutting across the middle of the Hutchins and Stubbs yard, you can see the long white keel of the bark Tewksbury L. Swett.. In 1889, during a voyage from New Zealand to Hong Kong, this vessel was hurled by a typhoon onto a reef. After much hardship the crew reached one of the Caroline Islands where they were robbed and held for ransom by a conniving local tribe. Captain William H. Gooding was eventually able to convince the chief that his tribe might face severe retribution if they harmed their captives. When he finally arrived home nearly a year later, he discovered that nearly everyone assumed he was dead and the insurance company was trying hard to convince his wife to accept that fact. Although this event was later overstated into “a narrow escape from cannibals,” it still demonstrates the extraordinary dangers faced by Yarmouth ships and sailors.

Returning again to our photograph, a row of commercial buildings on Central Wharf separates the Hutchins and Stubbs shipyard from Union Wharf where the ship C..F. Sargent is being built in the Blanchard shipyard. Although two of these buildings were originally constructed as warehouses, the Yarmouth ships of the 1860’s and 1870’s were so big that they were never intended to carry their cargoes of wheat and cotton back to the shallow Royal River where they were born. The oldest warehouse, built for the West India trade, ended up holding local products like hay and pottery for small coastal schooners. The little building on the right was Sawyer’s fish market which had a huge iron kettle for boiling lobsters. In the 1870’s a nickel would buy one of those lobsters!

In a future column I will return to the bold, innovative and somewhat ill-fated efforts of the Blanchards, Yarmouth’s most well known family of sea captains and shipbuilders. Several of their largest ships were lost before they could return a profit to the family. Others, like the C.F. Sargent which is under construction in this picture, had narrow escapes from disaster. A tsunami nearly destroyed the Sargent when she was loaded with guano and ready to sail from a Peruvian seaport. According to Rowe, the ship “rose on the crest of the wave and spun like a top on the sea.” Miraculously the staunchly built vessel survived to sail another day––much like her namesake the merchant Cyrus F. Sargent who was briefly detained for treasonous pro-Southern sympathies shortly after the Civil War broke out.

If you are intrigued by pictures and stories such as these, I encourage you to visit the Yarmouth Historical Society. You can find them in person on the top floor of the town library or you can visit them online at Because they have some very exciting plans to relocate their museum and research facilities to the old Water District building on East Elm Street, I will soon share with you some wonderful photographs of what that area looked like a century ago.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful blog. I can't wait to share this with my students.