A map of the Percy and Small shipyard from a 1980s Maine Maritime Museum brochure. Courtesy/Maine Maritime Museum

The little schooner Mary E is the latest addition to the Maine Maritime Museum, which is located at the old Percy and Small shipyard in Bath. It is a tiny vessel, dwarfed by a nearby sculpture of the Wyoming, which was the largest wooden ship ever built.  Although the schooner is a new acquisition, the Percy and Small shipyard (and the museum as we know it) might not exist today without the Mary E.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at [email protected]

First built over 100 years ago, the Mary E was sunk and abandoned in the 1960s.  It was then rescued by Bill Donnell, great-grandson of an old Bath shipbuilder.  He hauled it back to Bath and restored it on the Percy and Small property, which had not been an active shipyard for a long time.

Dr. Charles Burden, my old pediatrician, went down to watch Bill Donnell restore the ship and hopefully learn something about shipbuilding.  Retired now and living in Richmond, Burden was a founding member of the Bath Marine Museum, now called the Maine Maritime Museum.  I visited him recently, and he sent me an unpublished manuscript he wrote about the first 20 years of the museum’s history.  Full of fascinating insider information, this little book tells the story of how the Percy and Small shipyard was saved.

Donnell showed Burden around the property.  It had been divided into two parcels with two separate owners, but the old buildings still existed.  The pitch oven was overgrown but still there.  The little caulking building was intact but had been moved closer to the street.  The old mold loft was being used as a shooting range by the Bath Rifle Club, and the old mill building was being rented to Sears and Roebuck as a warehouse.  A member of the Morse family had bought two-thirds of the property when the shipyard closed, and he had originally used the buildings as storage for his architectural salvage business.  This is how Percy and Small’s buildings managed to survive when every other wooden shipyard in America has ceased to exist.

Burden discovered that the shipyard and four original buildings could be purchased for $5,000.  What’s more, a member of the Small family offered to buy it for the museum. To Burden’s dismay, the acquisition was voted down by the museum’s board.  Don Small, another member of the Small family, said, “The old yard is dead, and we don’t want anything to do with it.”

Burden tried again and convinced a wealthy couple named the Smiths to buy the property.  The Smiths had already donated the land that would become Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg and Wolf’s Neck State Park in Freeport.  The museum would be free to use the old shipyard, and it would be donated whenever the museum was ready to take possession.  The board reminded Burden that the idea had already been voted down, and asked him why he kept bringing up the subject.  One board member started calling the good doctor “the Rasputin of North Street” for his frustrating efforts to save Percy and Small.

Eventually the board came around and saw the wisdom of saving the old shipyard, though the price by then had risen to $10,000.  It was the last of its kind and was the site where the world’s largest ship had been built.  While the buildings were intact, most of the machinery had been stripped by John Lord, a Bath native who used the machines to restore the USS Constitution in 1927.  The museum now had to track down as much of the machinery as it could.

Later, the Maine Maritime Museum built a new brick building at the shipyard and moved its entire operation there.  Whenever I visit, I have a strong feeling of gratitude for Dr. Burden, who singlehandedly saved the yard.  He also bought and donated 10,000 artifacts at a personal cost of $1 million dollars. As a result, he now lives in semi-poverty in his old Richmond sea captain’s home.  I know he feels that it was all worth the sacrifice, however.  Thanks, doctor!

Comments are not available on this story.