Second in a two-part series.

We continue this week at the point where we left off in the story of Portland Dry Dock. The stockholders of Portland Dry Dock Company had just agreed at its meeting on July 2, 1866, to go ahead with their original plan to build a dry dock, and to move forward with plans to raise additional funds to do so.

They had no idea that life in the Portland area was about to change. On July 4, 1866, Portland was devastated by an enormous fire that burned much of the city to the ground. So the timing was perfect when, in early 1867, James E. Simpson came forward with a group of investors with a proposal to build and run a dry dock, if he were provided with the premises on which to do so.

In this 1869 photo, the steamer Chase is in the dry dock for repairs. The view is from the front of the dry dock, looking toward Cape Elizabeth, with a clear view of how the gate fit into the structure. South Portland Historical Society photo

At the annual meeting of Portland Dry Dock Company in April, 1867, the stockholders first discussed the proposal. Later that month, they reached an agreement with Simpson whereby he would construct the dry dock, roughly 425 feet long by 100 feet wide, on the land owned by Portland Dry Dock (but which they would sell to Simpson).

Construction of the dry dock, also known as a graving dock, began in earnest in the summer of 1867. Simpson had a large crew of men on site in July of 1867 when an article was published stating that it would take two years to complete the project.

Thus it was that Portland Dry Dock Company had a period of operating as a company that purchased and improved the land here in Cape Elizabeth, but it was a successor company, Portland Dry Dock and Warehouse Company that was incorporated in February of 1868, that actually constructed and operated the dry dock.

The incorporators of the new company were James E. Simpson, James E. Simpson, Jr., Thomas L. Randlett, Edward C. Gardner, Benjamin G. Green and Phinehas Barnes, attorney. Some of the funding for the new company was obtained through the issuance of $200,000 in mortgage bonds that were held by many of these same Portland men who had been stockholders in the first company.

True to his word, Simpson had the enormous dry dock finished and opened for business on Sept. 22, 1869. It was reported to be the second largest dry dock in the country, after one in New York.

A news article reported the names of the dock owners to be James E. Simpson, Charles A. Lambard of New York, and Lorenzo D.M. Sweat, attorney, of Portland, and stated that the cost to complete it was roughly $250,000.

For the opening ceremony, they hauled the steamer Forest City and the brig Martha A. Berry out of the water to show how the dock worked and to complete some repairs. The public was suitably impressed and much was made about the potential for the dock to be able to repair all Maine vessels, as well as those visiting here.

Three days later, they took the Forest City and the Martha A. Berry back out of the dock and took in the steamer Chase for some repairs. Once the Chase was completed, they took her out and brought in the bark Daring (300 tons) to be recoppered.

With this early success of the dry dock, the company immediately began construction of a second, smaller dock that fall, just to the east of the large dock. The smaller dock would be roughly 200 feet by 80 feet, with about 12 feet draft of water. Construction took about a year to complete.

These docks had a wedge-type gate that fit into grooves near the entrance. At high tide, a ship could be floated in, the gate swung into place and then compartments in the gate would be filled with water until it sunk into place. Once the gate was settled, the basin could be pumped out. To launch a ship, the compartments in the gate would be emptied until it started to float, then could be moved out of the way to allow the vessel to be floated out.

We see a glimpse of the operation in a news article published in May, 1873, in which they give statistics for the dry dock operation from 1872-1873 – for that year, the dock had taken in 30 schooners, 16 brigs, 11 barks, 15 steamers and 4 tow boats.

Later in 1873, however, the company broke the conditions of its mortgage and the bondholders began foreclosure proceedings against the company. The result was that the bondholders took over control of the company in 1877, organized a new company, Portland Dry Dock, and thus the owners of the dry dock became Jacob McLellan, J.B. Brown & Sons, Portland Savings Bank, A.B. Stephenson, L.D.M. Sweat, A.A. Strout and Jacob S. Winslow.

The dry dock continued in operation for many more years, however not all that profitably. The company failed around 1890. A public notice appeared in the 1898 newspapers, attempting to re-establish a board of directors (because most of the prior directors had died), just to allow for someone to authorize the sale of a right of way over their property to the Portland and Cape Elizabeth Railway Company.

The Portland Dry Dock land later became home to the Cape Power Plant in 1921, run by the Cumberland County Power and Light Company, and it remains home to a Central Maine Power sub-station today.

Note to readers: The South Portland Historical Society needs your financial support, especially at this time with the museum closed and our events continuing to be postponed due to the pandemic.

If you are not currently a member, or if you have not paid your dues for 2020 yet, we encourage you to find a way to help. Membership information is available on our website, www.sphistory.org (a family membership is $25) and you can donate online at our Online Museum website, https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.

The society can also be reached at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106, by phone at 207-767-7299, or by email at [email protected] Thank you.

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

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