When it comes to shipbuilding in Maine, the first community that pops into most people’s noggins is the city of Bath, home to the world renowned Bath Iron Works. Many other communities follow along behind Bath, all of them along the coastline of this state. Therefore, it may well come as a surprise that the city of Waterville, Maine also has a history of shipbuilding, however brief as it was. Long gone are the days when a boat could ply the Kennebec from Skowhegan all the way to its mouth betwixt Phippsburg and Georgetown, thence to points elsewhere along the coast.
As early as 1794 ships were built in what was then a small village along the river, and they were launched with the spring freshets, with many orders coming from Boston. Also scores of smaller boats, such as the flat bottomed shallow draft steamboats were built which plied the Kennebec on a daily basis, transporting freight and passengers up and down the river. Construction of a lock and dam was completed in Augusta in 1837, thereby increasing the ability of larger vessels to come and go along the river during the warmer months. During the winter this same river, especially below Augusta enjoyed a thriving ice industry.
Most of the shipbuilding firms were located between where Sherwin Street and the Dam below Bridge Street. A careful archeological search may find some remnant of this once vital industry.
The following excerpt from the Centennial History of Waterville, edited by the Rev. Edwin Cary Whittemore in 1902 describes some of the shipbuilding history of Waterville:
What was once a thriving and profitable industry has long since disappeared and been almost forgotten. That Waterville was ever a ship building port will probably be news to many. Not only long boats, for home use, but schooners, brigs and even ships, were built, some as early as 1794. The abundance of ship timber close at hand made it possible to build cheaply and orders were received from Boston and elsewhere. The shipyard of John Clark was at the foot of Sherwin St., next above the yard of Nath’l Gilman, then that of Asa Redington and next north W. & D. Moor’s built many steamboats. It was necessary to launch them, the sea-going vessels, on the spring or fall freshets; they were then floated down river to Hallowell or Gardiner, where they received their rigging and outfit and took their place in the commerce of the country, but never to return to the port whence they started.
The following is probably a complete list with masters and owners.
1794. Schooner Sally, 92 tons, master, Rillae; owner, John Getchell.
1800. Ship Ticonic, 268 tons, master, Geo. Clarke; owner, John Clarke.
1810. Ship Hornet, 214 tons, master Wm. Fletcher; owner, N. B. Dingley.
1818. Brig Dingley, 106 tons, master, Thos. Jones; owner, Nath’l Dingley.
1826. Brig Elizabeth, 182 tons, master, John Sylvester; owner, Johnson Williams.
1805. Brig William Gray, 156 tons, master, Gideon Colcord; owner, Geo. Crosby.
1807. Schooner, Ticonic, 123 tons, master, Daniel Smith; owner, Nath’l Gilman.
1807. Schooner Thomas, 70 tons, master, Levi Palmer; owner, F. P. Stilson.
1810. Schooner James, 117 tons, master, Gideon Colcord; owner, Jas. Stackpole.
1809. Brig America, 136 tons, master, Wm. Pattee; owner, Peleg Tallman.
1809. Brig Madison, 160 tons, master, Caleb Heath; owner, Wm. Sylvester.
18n. Brig Hiram, 142 tons, master, Jos. Lemont.
1812. Sloop Aurora, 61 tons, master, Wm. Poole; owner, Asa Redington.
1814. Francis & Sarah, 290 tons, master, T. S. Winslow; owner, Rob’t G. Shaw.
1824. Brig Gov. King, 138 tons, master, N. Harding; owner, Nath’l Gilman.
1824. Schooner North Star, 107 tons, master, R. Crocker; owner, N. Gilman.
1825. Brig Waterville, 178 tons, master, N. Harding; owner, Johnson Williams.
1826. Brig Lydia, 178 tons, master, J. W. Lamont; owner, Johnson Williams.
1826. Brig Neutrality, 132 tons, master, R. Crooker; owner, Johnson Williams.
1827. Schooner Brilliant, 82 tons, master, R. Brown; owner, K. G. Robinson.
1829. Schooner Martha, 89 tons, master, R. Ellis; owner, Russell Ellis.
1835. Brig Wave, 47 tons, master, John Lewis; owner, J. M. Moor.
After the passing of shipbuilding came the era of steamboats. William and Daniel Moor under the firm name of W. & D. Moor were the leading captains of industry in this line. The first was the Ticonic, built at Gardiner. She made the first trip to Waterville, June 1, 1832, and was received with great demonstrations of rejoicing.
The Water Witch built by W. & D. Moor in 1842 was the first steamer launched in Waterville. It was quickly followed by others and soon a considerable fleet was plying between here and Augusta and Gardiner. In one season five steamers left the wharf daily. They were flat bottomed, of light draft, with stern wheels, and were of about 42 tons burden.
They prospered until the opening of the railroad to Augusta when the doctrine of the “survival of the fittest” relegated them to other scenes.
In 1890 an attempt was made by some of our enterprising citizens to restore steam navigation on the Kennebec. July 10th the steamer City of Waterville sailed from Bangor for this port. She has not yet arrived.
Near its close, the era of steamboats was marked by a terrible accident. May 23, 1848, the steamer Halifax, a new boat and the finest of the fleet, was making her record trip to Augusta; on leaving the lock the boiler exploded and six persons were killed and others severely wounded. Of the dead James Hasty, the pilot, and Vedo Micue, fireman, resided here.