Maine has never had a big gold rush. We don’t have much oil either, which makes it a wonder that George H.W. Bush liked to spend so much time here. We do have trees, however, and that made Maine a valuable territory for the British, whose powerful navy once consisted of wooden warships.

England’s own forests were exhausted by the 1500s, and they were relying on trees from the Baltic region of Europe. Maine had virgin forests and plenty of tall white pine that could be used for masts.

Not only were masts used in shipbuilding, but replacement masts were often required after a storm or battle. The Popham Colony cut and shipped the first load of Maine masts in 1608; nearly 80 years later, in 1685, the king appointed a Surveyor of Pine and Timber.

All pine trees greater than 24 inches in diameter were reserved for the navy, unless the trees were on private property. Famously, the surveyor would use a hatchet to mark such trees with the King’s Broad Arrow to show that they were the property of the crown.

Trees were cut in the winter when the ground and the rivers were frozen. They were left on the ice until spring, when the high melt mater would float them downriver toward mast landings, such as King’s Dock in Bath. They would be shaped and loaded into ships which had special doors in the stern to allow the masts onto the cargo deck.

While Maine’s forests seemed inexhaustible, they were not. The colonists not only harvested wood for shipbuilding, but also for houses, firewood and for export; and large sections of forest had to be cleared for farmland. Soon the English were encroaching on Abenaki territory, and the resulting conflict led to the Indian wars of the 1600s.

Most of the big mast trees were gone from Maine by the end of the 1700s. While early Maine shipbuilders had all the wood they needed nearby, 19th century shipyards were using wood from other parts of the country. Keels, beams and frames were made from white oak, which is most common in Mid-Atlantic states like Delaware and Maryland. Yellow pine from Georgia was preferred for planking. The treenails that held the ships together were made from locust wood. Therefore, Maine-built ships were made from imported materials.

Source: “Down East, a Maritime History of Maine,” by Lincoln P. Paine, 2000

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

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