This image from the 1871 F.W. Beers Atlas shows the location of John Bradford’s spar yard in Ferry Village. Note its location on High Street, roughly across from Oak Street – in the vicinity of where Ferry Village Landing townhouses are today. South Portland Historical Society

During the 19th century, the Ferry Village waterfront of South Portland was teeming with activity. Shipyards were actively building and repairing sailing vessels and steam ships of all sizes, and these ships would become part of the maritime history of Maine and America.

We looked at Ezekiel Dyer last week, who built the schooner Dart that served as a privateer during the War of 1812. Before we continue on with the Dyer family, we take a look this week at a family and business on the waterfront that was supplying these shipyards.

John Bradford was born in 1810 and although he led a successful and long life, it was not one without its challenges. His father died when he was 16 years old. He was thrust into working life and served for a time in the military, as well. He became a skilled spar-maker (a maker of masts, bowsprits and like items for ships), set up his own spar yard in the 1830s, and began steadily growing his business.

There is an interesting anecdote in his obituary that provides some insight into the early days of his spar-making business:

“During the winters, [Bradford] spent most of his time in the woods in Cumberland and York counties getting out his timber. On one occasion he learned that some Saccarappa lumbermen had bought a forest lot in Bridgton for $10 a thousand. He found that among the trees were an unusual number of masts. He offered the men $20 a thousand for all the ‘masts’ on the lot. They agreed. He was to exercise the usual custom of discarding a tree after it was cut if it did not prove suitable for a mast. It was of no consequence to the owners of the lot since all but the masts was to be sawed into lumber. Another man took the contract to cut the timber and haul it out to Sebago Lake to be rafted across and sent down the Presumpscot. Mr. Bradford felt that he must look after this man or he would lose many of his masts, for the reason that it is very much easier and cheaper to haul a tree if cut up into sections than in one entire piece. He went to Bridgton and found, just as he expected, that the man was cutting up the masts with the rest and hauling them out to be sawed up by the mill. His protests were in vain, and since he couldn’t stay there and watch him he knew very well that the other had the better of him. ‘See here, Goodrich,’ said he, ‘you know I’ve contracted to buy all the masts in this lot, and that I can’t help your cutting them up, because it’s cheaper for you to haul out the timber in that way. I’ll give you $250 if you’ll save my mass.’ ‘Bradford, I’ll do it,’ said Goodrich.”

Ferry Village, 1871. South Portland Historical Society

Bradford showed tremendous foresight when he invested in railroad stock, at a time when railroad expansion was sweeping America. Mast timber was becoming increasingly difficult to find in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire, so the expansion of rail service greatly benefited his spar yard on Commercial Street, as it opened up a new source for mast timber from Canada.

By the 1850s, he had become the largest spar-maker in Portland. He employed upwards of 15 men in his yard in Portland and was providing masts to most of the sailing ships that were being built for the West Indies trade.

In addition to his spar yard on Commercial Street, he also maintained a yard and wharf across the Fore River in South Portland (then Cape Elizabeth) on the Ferry Village waterfront. His yards were tucked conveniently close to a large number of shipyards, making the supply of masts and other products readily available to the shipbuilders who were launching schooners, brigs, brigantines, barks, barkentines, and ships.

Bradford became a large investor in ships, as it was not uncommon for shipbuilders to “pay” for the masts by negotiating and offering shares in the newly-built vessel. Thus it was that Bradford is said to have owned shares in up to 10 ships at one point.

His son, John E. Bradford, was born in 1834 and followed his father into the trade. At the peak of the business, John Bradford had his son in charge of the Ferry Village operation, where he also employed upwards of 15 men, however when the shipbuilding industry started to decline, they discontinued most operations on the Cape Elizabeth side in the 1870s and John E. would join his father in the yard on the Portland side.

When John retired in 1884, his son took over the company and brought a partner into the business, John Oakes. Since the former company name no longer worked, John Bradford & Son, they changed the business name to John E. Bradford & Company. Much of the business by that point had become repairs and replacement of masts and bowsprits on existing ships, as there were far less wooden sailing ships being built in Portland Harbor.

The operation of a spar yard was a dangerous business. Masts for these large sailing ships were massive and one false move could result in a serious, or even fatal, accident. There are quite a number of news reports of accidents in Bradford’s yards. This report from 1874 provides one example of the dangers:

“As the workmen employed in the spar yard of John Bradford on Commercial Street were engaged in launching a large spar, the chain broke and swung around a gentleman standing near. The hook in the end of the chain struck a small boy named Martin Conley in the face, tearing the side of his face badly. The rope attached to the chain struck Mr. Bradford in the ear and threw him about ten feet.” While no one was killed in that accident, in the Ferry Village yard in 1877, a ten-year-old boy, Sumner Thompson, had been playing on some spars when he lost his footing, fell and was killed. There was a very close call at the spar yard on Commercial Street in 1897: “Sunday evening there were a group of children at play in the yard on a heap of spars near the edge of the dock at Bradford’s spar yard…several young men were on an adjacent wharf when they heard the screams of the children. Two of the little ones had climbed upon a loose spar and in some manner the big stick rolled over and the children went overboard. The young men ran over and a couple of them jumped overboard and rescued the little ones.”

As we continue our research into the Ferry Village waterfront, we’ll bring more 19th century history to light next week.

Note to readers: The South Portland Historical Society needs your financial support; we encourage you to find a way to help. Membership information is available on our website at (a family membership is $25) and donations can be made online at the Online Museum website at 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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