Incorporated in 1781 and named by postmaster Dummer Sewell, this revered port village nestles into the Kennebec River’s western bank, 12 miles north of where the 170-mile-long river meets the Atlantic Ocean. Historically, Bath played a role in many industries. Dealings in brass, iron and lumber helped develop the town, and coal and ice were popular in trade. But above all, Bath is known for its importance to shipbuilding. After all, Bath is the “City of Ships.”
While there are many reasons that led to Bath’s prominent stature in the field of shipbuilding, it is a simple matter of geography that led to the development of the industry in the first place. The city is set alongside a five-mile section of the Kennebec River that is straight and easily navigable, allowing easy access to the Atlantic. Even before the town incorporated, Jonathan Philbrook, along with his sons, built two ships, thus launching the town’s celebrated achievements in the field.
Shipyards and wharfs began to spring up throughout the town during the latter half of the 18th century, and by 1800, vessels were in high demand by local business owners involved in trade. The pinnacle of this initial period was reached in 1854, when there were at least 19 major shipbuilding companies located in Bath, leading to a tremendous population boom.
Lean times were on the horizon, as the post-Civil-War depression and a shift in focus from wooden ships to metal hulls endangered the prominence of the city’s #1 industry. Many shipyards shuttered during this period, but with an unbridled determination amongst those remaining, a concentration on the construction of schooners built for trade helped carry the town back toward more prosperous conditions.
With the city once again flourishing economically, Thomas W. Hyde expanded his foundry along Water Street and incorporated it as Bath Iron Works (BIW) in 1884. The acquisition of several shipbuilding firms strengthened the BIW empire, which despite suffering significant losses in a series of fires during the 1890s, continued to prosper.
Following World War I, the demand for ships decreased, leading to a population decrease in Bath and eventually a cease in all shipbuilding by 1925. William S. Newell proved a savior for both BIW and the city by reshaping the company and focusing production on yachts and utility vessels. Newell’s successes in this area helped Bath endure the Great Depression before once again assisting the country’s war efforts during World War II. As demand for warships decreased, BIW once again underwent a transformation, focusing on the production of fishing trawlers and other vessels.
While current technologies have altered the ways we go about traveling, it is important to remember the proud tradition shipbuilding has had on not only the United States, but the world. This tradition is embodied not only by those still honing their craft at local shipyards, but by the entire city of Bath – Maine’s “City of Ships.”