I remember attending Bath’s Memorial Day parade when I was a kid and seeing a rare sight: A World War I veteran in uniform. Men who fought in the World War II were still common enough, but you rarely saw a soldier from the first war. None of them lived to see the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of war, which took place in the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. 

Old photos show the celebrations that took place on Armistice Day, the name given to the day the war officially ended. It must have been a huge relief to see the end of a conflict which took 116,108 American lives and left another 204,000 wounded. But the end of the war was a mixed bag for the city of Bath. Many of the city’s native sons came back alive, including Sumner Sewall, Bath’s only flying ace. But much of the population left town, as did the shipbuilding industry. 

The demand for ships had led to a doubling of the population when the war began. Many men would rather build ships than fight, naturally, and the pay was much better, too. This led to a massive housing shortage and the start of large housing projects. The White Project on Lincoln Street was constructed for Bath Iron Works employees, and it has remained occupied ever since.  

The brick project in the north end, however, did not fare as well. It was built for employees of the Texas Steamship Company, which closed after the war ended. The project was finished right as the war was ending and was quickly abandoned. The entire neighborhood was purchased by Arthur Spear, who spent decades trying to unload the houses one at a time. Landlords in Bath who had been enjoying premium rents saw their income dry up. 

The end of the war also marked the end of wooden shipbuilding, which had been Bath’s staple industry for hundreds of years. The Percy and Small shipyard launched its last vessel, the Cecilia Cohen, in 1920. Miraculously, the shipyard remained intact for decades with its buildings used as warehouses until Charles Burden arranged to purchase the property for $5,000 for the Maine Maritime Museum. It remains the only original wooden shipyard left in America. 

The Texas Steamship Company closed in 1921, along with the Kelley Spear Company; Bath didn’t build a single vessel in 1922. Bath Iron Works struggled until 1925, when it was finally sold at auction. The machinery was sold, and the place remained vacant for a few years. 

Thankfully, former employee William S. Newell bought the old BIW and brought it back to life, turning it into Maine’s one-time largest employer. One wonders what Bath would be like today if shipbuilding had left at the end of First World War and never returned. 

Source: Owen’s History of Bath, 1936 

Zac McDorr is a Coastal Journal contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]

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