Maine is often viewed as a remote and rural state that is far from the center of the national economy. But Maine in the 1800s played a major role in international commerce. Its long coastline was dotted with protected harbors. Its numerous rivers provided access to virgin forests. It had an abundance of skilled shipwrights and mariners. And prior to the advent of railroads and highways, the ocean was the only viable transportation system for moving cargo. Maine had a competitive edge.

”A lot of people have the misperception of Maine in the 19th century, ” said Niles Parker, director of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. ”In some ways, people were more connected and cosmopolitan in these ports than they are today.”

In the late 18th and 19th century, Maine entrepreneurs joined the quest for fortunes to be made sailing to all areas of the globe. Maine-built ships could be found in the harbors of South America, India, the West Indians, Europe, the East Indies and Australia.

The most profitable and exotic destinations were Japan and China.

Although trade with the Orient was dominated by merchants from Salem, Boston and New York, Maine-built vessels formed a large part of their fleets, particularly after the Civil War, when Maine yards developed a new vessel type that would become internationally known as the ”downeaster.”

Although not as fast as clipper ships, the square-rigged downeasters were larger and could carry more cargo and be operated by relatively small crews. Maine led the United States in wooden shipbuilding, and many Maine men served as mariners and captains for ships financed by wealthy syndicates based in major East Coast cities.

But some Maine families – in some cases groups of families from one town – pooled their money and invested in building and outfitting vessels for the trade. The homes of Maine’s wealthiest merchant families were soon filled with exotic goods from around the world. Oriental rugs covered plain wooden floors, and colorful silk became the fabric of choice for women’s garments.

The China trade began in 1784 shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War. Because Britain had blocked the Americans from trading with the British West Indies, tea was scarce. A group of investors led by a Philadelphia merchant sent a ship to the Chinese port city of Canton to trade for tea. The Americans made such hefty profits that other ships soon followed. One of the earliest ships, the Portland, built in 1796, traveled first to Europe to trade salted fish and wooden staves for wine and cash, before preceding to the Far East.

In 1844, after the British victory in the Opium Wars, a treaty opened several more Chinese ports to American vessels, and tea and luxury products became more readily available for American traders. In 1854, United States Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its long-isolated country to trade.

The drive for profits contributed to the development of the clipper ship, which could out-sail the slower, higher capacity ”English tea wagons.” Back then, tea was difficult to ship because of its vulnerability to the elements and its seasonal availability abroad. The ship that arrived back in the United States with the first tea of the year made the highest profits.

Maine’s yards built about 60 clipper ships, which accounted for only about 15 percent of the total fleet. One of the most famous, the Snow Squall, spent its career in the China Trade. Built in South Portland in 1851, the ship had an unusually sharp bow and posted near record runs between ports on all oceans.

In 1859, the Snow Squall sailed from Shanghai to New York in 91 days.

For some Maine ships, the cargo included Chinese laborers who were taken to Cuba to work on sugar plantations.

By the late 1860s, about 150,000 Chinese laborers had sailed to Cuba. About 15 percent died en route. The Penobscot Marine Museum has a collection of papers of a Rockland captain, Thomas Pillsbury, who carried a full load of about 500 Chinese workers to Havana. He was paid for each man delivered alive.

According to the Penobscot Marine Museum research, there is some question about whether the Chinese were forced or voluntary emigrants. In any case, Abraham Lincoln signed a law in 1862 banning American ships from carrying Chinese laborers.

Beginning in the 1860s, Americans began to ship kerosene to Japan and China. At the time, the fuel was called ”case oil” because it was shipped in tins packed in wooden cases. The trade continued in sailing vessels until 1916 when steamships took over the business.

Maine captains in the late 1800s often took their wives and children with them as they traveled around the world.

In Searsport, many children were christened with names indicating the regions of their birth, such as Mindoro, Fastnet and Ionia, according to Joanna Colcord, who was born in the South Seas in 1882 during her parent’s three-year honeymoon voyage. The following year her brother was born near Cape Horn.

”In the 1890s and on the coast of Maine, ” she wrote years later in an article about her childhood, ”there was nothing unusual in such a family as ours. Incredible as though it seems today.”

Her father, Capt. Lincoln A. Colcord of Searsport, typically carried case oil on his voyages to China and Japan.

The family’s last sailing ship was the State of Maine, a downeaster built in New Castle. In 1902, Colcord took the State of Maine to China for the last time. In August of that year, the captain lamented in a letter home that a way of life was coming to a close and that he had lost his enthusiasm for routine ship maintenance.

”I haven’t devoted myself to the deck very much this time, ” he wrote. ” I have felt that might be our last long voyage, and that what I struck out and worked for all my early life has become a thing of the past.”

In a broader sense, Colcord’s statement was true for all of Maine.

Forced from world trade routes by ships propelled by steam engines, many downeasters spent their last years on the Pacific coast hauling lumber or serving as transports, or ”packets” for men and supplies in the Alaska salmon fishery. In the end, the stately sailing vessels were stripped of their masts and employed as barges. Others were left to rot on the mud flats.

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