Born in 1817 in Portland, Thomas Knight learned the shipbuilding trade from his father, Robert W. Knight. Robert had a shipyard on York Street in Portland. The location description was usually given as either near the foot of Center Street or Maple Street, so that would put it in the vicinity of where you’d find Courtyard by Marriott today, just above Commercial Street.

Thomas E. Knight, a master shipbuilder, operated a shipyard in Knightville, South Portland, in the 1850s and ‘60s. South Portland Historical Society photo

The first reference that we have found of Thomas Knight starting his own shipyard here in South Portland (then known as Cape Elizabeth) was in 1848. In a news story from October 1848, the reporter mentioned that Thomas Knight was here in Cape Elizabeth building a breastwork for a shipyard.

This was near the Cape Elizabeth end of the Portland Bridge, roughly in the area where you’d find South Port Marine and the Anchorage Place townhouses off of Ocean Street today.

The first ship launch that we’ve been able to find at Thomas Knight’s yard was the 182-ton packet schooner, the Ezra F. Lewis, which was built for the Portland merchant, John B. Brown. The Ezra F. Lewis was launched on May 31, 1851. There were definitely other small wooden ships like this built and launched from the yard in these early years. We will continue our search to find documentation on them.

A larger ship, the 348-ton bark, Elton, was launched in 1853 and then Thomas Knight and his crew set to work on a large, clipper-style sailing ship for the Portland ship chandler, Nathaniel Blanchard.

They were well into the construction of this ship when disaster occurred – a fire broke out in the yard. According to a story in the July 7, 1853, issue of the Eastern Argus, the fire “first appeared in a shed connected with the yard, used for steaming timber, etc., and soon extended to the new ship of Capt. Nath’l Blanchard, on the stocks, (of 1400 to 1500 tons) about half completed. She was entirely destroyed, together with a large quantity of ship timber. Loss estimated at $30,000 to $40,000. We learn there was no insurance.”

The significant loss was also attributed in part to the inability of some Portland firefighters to make it to the yard.

According to the article, “While Deluge Engine Company was taking their machine down the steep hill leading to the bridge, it got such an impetus on as to be unmanageable – and run against the corner of the bridge, throwing Levi Denny, a member, who was on the tongue of the engine, over into Canal street, but without much injury. James Mackin who was with him, was jammed between the engine and the bridge and was rendered insensible for some moments. He partially recovered and was taken home. The engine was so much injured that she was not put to work at the fire.”

Grave of Thomas Knight in Western Cemetery, Portland. South Portland Historical Society photo

After the fire, Thomas Knight immediately set to work building a new clipper ship for Nathaniel Blanchard. They named her the Phoenix, an appropriate name for the ship that rose from the ashes. The nearly 1,500-ton Phoenix was launched in February of 1854.

Thomas Knight’s father, Robert, joined him in the shipyard operation here in Knightville in 1854. Together, the father and son master shipbuilders would continue building and launching various smaller ships. The only other specific ship that we’ve seen documented from the Thomas Knight yard in Knightville was the Echo, an 874-ton ship that he built for Nathaniel Blanchard in 1856.

In addition to building ships on a contract basis, Thomas also operated a retail business on Commercial Street in Portland with William H. Simonton. Their business, known simply as Simonton & Knight, dealt in the sale of masts, spars, ship timbers, planks, and other shipbuilding-related items. Thomas Knight would also make money in real estate, selling land, house lots, and homes. He died unexpectedly in 1868, from a stroke, at the age of 51. His father retired and the shipyard was left vacant until it was purchased a few years later by Joshua F. Randall.

As for Nathaniel Blanchard, between the loss from the fire in 1853, the cost to have the Phoenix built, and then an economic recession in 1853-54, and the economic panic of 1857, he ended up financially ruined, forced to sell off his real estate holdings. I’ll write about his impressive daughter Helen in a future column, as she found a way to overcome the family misfortunes and, in future years, build back what her family had lost.

Note to South Portland Historical Society members and friends

If you have not already, it is time to renew your memberships (or please join us if you are not already a member, we need your support).

Memberships start at $15 for individuals and $25 for a family, however, feel free to donate at whatever level is comfortable for you. A complete list of membership levels can be found on our website at www.sphistory.org. With the museum presently closed due to the pandemic, our funding is very limited. We hope our members will renew at this time so that the society can avoid the cost of mailing renewal reminders.

To renew or join, simply make your check payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us or drop off at the museum at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. You can also donate by credit card by calling us at 207-767-7299, using PayPal (our email is [email protected]), or use the donation button at our Online Museum at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com. Thank you.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of South Portland Historical Society.

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