The crew of the Biddeford Shipbuilding Company gathers near the final ship produced by the business, the Jere G. Shaw, in Biddeford in 1918. COURTESY PHOTO/McArthur Public Library

The crew of the Biddeford Shipbuilding Company gathers near the final ship produced by the business, the Jere G. Shaw, in Biddeford in 1918. COURTESY PHOTO/McArthur Public Library

BIDDEFORD — Although it might not seem like it now, at one time in Biddeford’s history, ship and boat building was one of the most prominent local industries in the city. 

With its immediate proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the deep waters of the Saco River, mariners flocked to Biddeford with designs for magnificent clipper ships, schooners, barks and a variety of sailing vessels that captured the imagination of financiers and investors hoping to capitalize on growing sea trade with distant ports of call.

To remember the heyday of Biddeford shipbuilding and recognize the significant contributions made by the industry to the city, a new fireside chat presentation will explore “Clipper Ships on the Saco: The History of Boat Building in Biddeford” on Friday evening.

“Knowing Biddeford history is important,” said Denis Letellier, Biddeford Historical Society president. “It gives people the compass of context.”

He said that this first fireside chat will journey back in time to discover what made Biddeford’s boat and ship building industry so special.

“For the first time in Biddeford history, we will bring to life the resilient men who created a thriving boat building industry on the end of Marblehead Lane,” Letellier said. “In the thick of the American Depression when there was little work to be found, these resourceful men created an industry that supplied work for many in the community.”

For a time in the 19th century, Maine shipbuilders were able to compete with international demand for sailing vessels, but as production of iron and steel steamships made in Great Britain came to dominate the market, many Maine shipyards, including those in Biddeford struggled.

Investors switched their focus to America’s expanding railroads, but blessed with an abundance of raw timber and a growing population, the shipbuilding industry rebounded here some as the United States found new sea lanes to Australia and the Far East as the need for reliable sailing transportation blossomed.

As the 19th century progressed, production of the Down-Easter, a large square-rigged sailing vessel of speed and durability ramped up. Created and manufactured in Maine, the Down-Easter was a preferred cargo ship until the rise of the schooner, a rugged ship with a rigged fore-and-aft for steering into the wind.

So while sales of British steel ships were outpacing most competition in the world, Biddeford shipbuilders and those at other Mainer locations perpetuated and perfected the art of wooden shipbuilding lasting well into the 20th century.

Friday’s fireside chat about Biddeford shipbuilding will be led by Dana Peck, a local entrepreneur and Biddeford native.

“This fireside chat will offer an enchanting peek into our history and inspire all who attend to learn more about the vast history that we all should be proud of.”

The event will start at 7 p.m. Friday at the historic Biddeford Meetinghouse on the corner of Pool Street and Meetinghouse Road and is sponsored by the Biddeford Historical Society. Admission is free.           

For more details, call 468-9305 or 282-1000.

— Executive Editor Ed Pierce can be reached at 282-1535 ext. 326 or by email at [email protected] 


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