A submarine diving plane under construction by South Portland Engineering in Building 203. Courtesy photo

 

As we continue researching and documenting the businesses that existed on South Portland’s east end in the post-WWII years, we look this week at another major employer, South Portland Engineering Company. We’ll pick up here where we left off last week, only looking at half of what was The Prosperity Company’s business — its Heavy Military Equipment Division. We mentioned last week that the other half of Prosperity’s business, the manufacture of laundry and dry-cleaning equipment, was sold off to Ametek, Inc., in 1963 and continued to operate in the old East Yard.

In 1963, Prosperity leased off the operation of its Heavy Military Equipment Division, which had worked on missiles and parts of submarines. At the close of business on Friday, April 26, 1963, The Prosperity Company closed that division and it reopened on Monday, April 29, as South Portland Engineering Company. That encompassed two of the large buildings in the former yard, Building 25 on the north/west side of Madison Street and Building 203, the long machine shop building that ran parallel to it on the other side of Madison Street.

In 1964, South Portland Engineering was awarded a federal government contract for $1.1 million to build a new fisheries research vessel. South Portland Engineering partnered with another company, Marine Repairs, Inc., to repair slip #4 (in the middle basin) at the former East Yard. With South Portland Engineering supplying the materials, Marine Repairs went to work repairing the 19-foot tall gates that needed to be water-tight. With the old pumps no longer operational, the two companies worked together to rig up five new portable pumps to be used to empty the basin. They also overhauled two Gantry cranes so they could be put back to work at the basin.

Once they had that slip back in operation as a dry dock, in September 1964, Marine Repairs used it first — to overhaul the U.S. Army freighter training ship FS-790. Once that project was complete, South Portland Engineering began its work to construct the new research vessel, the Delaware II.

I’ve written about it previously, but for those new to this column, South Portland Engineering was the company operating out of Building 25 in 1965 when it went up in a massive blaze, known commonly as “the shipyard fire/” The building that stretched the entire length of Madison Street was engulfed in flames quickly; it was at night, and the few employees on site were lucky to be able to get out alive. With the interior of the building just a long open expanse, the flames raced across the ceiling, end-to-end, so by the time the fire department arrived, there was no chance of saving the building. There were also tanks of nitrogen, oxygen and acetylene that were exploding. The focus for the responding fire departments was on controlling the blaze and preventing the spread of fire. It took only about an hour to completely destroy the building and its contents. Because the company had been working on parts for nuclear submarines, there was great fear in the community that a disaster would happen and that homes would need to be evacuated. According to a story in the Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph on May 7, 1965, the Atomic Energy Commission sent a team to keep a close eye on radiation coming from a pea-sized piece of cobalt in the rubble. Luckily the cobalt had been protected in a heavy lead box and the radiation was deemed safe while plans were made to remove it.

The fire was a huge loss. Inside the building, the company had been working on hull sections of the new research vessel, the stern section of a nuclear submarine, and a variety of missile parts. With all of this gone, the company had to make plans to find new space and begin again. It still had two other buildings, including the massive Building 203, but with the fabrication plant now gone, there were over 100 people out of work. Within a few weeks, the company was able to work out a lease agreement with the Navy, to rent the three-story, 70,000 sq.ft. Building 5 that stood on the land used by the Naval Reserve, just adjacent to Bug Light. By January of 1966, the company was booming once again, with new orders coming in to fill and plans to begin again the construction of the $1.1 million research vessel. The Delaware II was completed and launched on January 1, 1967. The city nanager’s wife, Mrs. Bernal Allen, was given the honor of christening the ship.

In June 1966, South Portland Engineering announced that it had been awarded contracts by the General Electric Company that could amount to over $5 million in new business. By early 1967, however, with the Delaware II completed, South Portland Engineering apparently began negotiations to sell its business to General Electric. By June of 1967, negotiations were completed, and GE moved its heat transfer products division to South Portland, taking over the buildings and equipment formerly used by South Portland Engineering.

If you worked at or have any information to share on businesses that were located in the old South Portland shipyards, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact the South Portland Historical Society at 207-767-7299, by email at [email protected], or at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: