Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Militarization of Maine's Working Waterfronts

Mainers take a lot of pride in the state's remaining working waterfronts, our in-town piers and wharves where marine industries haven't yet given way to upscale condos and quaint shoppes. People like me appreciate the working waterfront because it ties us culturally to a seafaring heritage and a tightly-knit relationship with the marine wilderness. The ragtag warehouses and stink of fish may not be pretty to everyone, but working waterfronts are a visible reminder that we still derive a good portion of our food and our livelihoods from the wild ocean.

But obviously, the working waterfronts are only a shadow of what they used to be. What's happened to Maine's shipbuilding industry has been particularly interesting and telling as a barometer of the rest of the state's waterfronts.

Maine's shipbuilding traditions have military roots from the Colonial era, when "king pine" trees (old-growth white pines) were marked and felled to build ship masts for the Royal Navy. Maine's Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was established in 1800 to build the new Union's naval fleet.

Nevertheless, Maine's shipbuilding industry flourished with the civilian, commercial trade in the 19th century. This 1901 article from the New York Times tells us that
"The Maine shipyards have on the stocks or under contract, including vessels launched since Jan. 1, 1901, 2 ships, 35 schooners, 8 barges, 5 steamers, and numerous small craft, and in all New England there are now under construction 131 vessels, with an aggregate tonnage of over 100,000. This does not include Government vessels... with a total displacement of over 50,000 tons.

"This is an era of mammoth fore-and-afters. In 1900 2 six-masters were built, one at Camden and one at Bath, including the Oakley C. Curtis... and the Rebecca Palmer. ... It is likely that Maine will produce a seven-master before the year is out."
At the turn of the century, then, New England shipbuilders were building lots of boats, and most of them, by tonnage and in raw numbers, were for civilian uses. The image above is the Rebecca Palmer five-masted ship mentioned in the article. The image is from the State Library of Queensland, Australia, and a Google search turns up genealogical references to service on the "Rebecca Palmer" from all over the world. It seems likely that Rebecca was a merchant ship, an industrial-era pioneer in global trade.

Today, though, Maine's shipbuilding industry is overwhelmingly reliant upon Navy contracts (and, depending on your perspective, pork-barrel spending brought home by Maine's swing-voting senators). The state's largest remaining shipyard, Bath Iron Works (pictured), built yachts, trawlers, and passenger steamships in its early days, but its last non-military contract was for two tankers in 1981. In 1995, General Dynamics bought the yard to officially claim Bath's working waterfront as a fixture in the military-industrial complex.

BIW is an impressive sight to see, and some part of me is glad that it's still there, even if it's spending my tax money for dubious reasons. Still, today's shipyards have nearly nothing to do with Maine's natural resources, unless you count the proximity of deep water. They have nothing to do with Maine's tall, straight trees, its fisheries, or its seafaring population. When these ships launch, their crews will rarely, if ever, have to worry about gales, currents, drinking water, or sustaining themselves with food from the sea. The militarization of Maine's shipyards has removed most of the shipyards' and the ships' distinctive relationships with nature.

And it's also removed the reasons why the shipyards should remain here, instead of anywhere else. BIW only remains here because of the inertia of history, the difficulty of moving huge cranes and laying off labor unions. Except for the inherent political difficulties, General Dynamics would probably just as soon move the whole operation to Mexico.

4 comments:

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim said...

Great post, as usual, but for: To call Snowe and especially Collins a "swing vote" implies they're something other than rubber-stampers for the Bush administration.

That may be the popular perception, but it's far from accurate.

C Neal said...

Well, to give credit where it's due, they're certainly better than the average Washington Republican. Besides, calling it "swing voting" is more diplomatic than calling it "an elaborate bipartisan cocktease."

The second description may more accurately reflect the reality, but it's not really fair to two of the Senate's rare female members.

Jim said...

maybe not, but it's funny as hell.