This early lithograph shows the bark White Sea under construction at the Joseph W. Dyer shipyard in 1854. South Portland Historical Society image

Joseph W. Dyer was an interesting figure in South Portland’s shipbuilding past. Born in Portland in 1814, it was almost predetermined at birth that he would live the life of a shipbuilder. He was the grandson of Ezekiel Dyer, who built the privateer Dart and several other ships in South Portland (then Cape Elizabeth) in the early-1810s, in a yard near the intersection of High and Pine streets.

This yard was just to the east of the Eben Turner yard. Joseph Dyer learned the trade from his father, Lemuel Dyer, who operated a shipyard on the Portland waterfront, in the area where the Grand Trunk Railroad depot would later be built, near the foot of India Street.

Joseph Dyer was a skilled shipbuilder who embraced change and spent a lifetime improving his skills to stay up with the times. When he started out in the business, shipbuilding in Maine consisted entirely of wooden sailing ships – so he learned the craft of building sloops, schooners, brigs, barks and even large square-rigged ships. However, when steam engines were developed, he achieved great success by learning the trade of building steamships of all kinds. He even had the skill sets to create his own ship designs.

In 1847, Joseph’s father died accidentally. While in the process of constructing a large ship, Lemuel had traveled out to Hiram to select some ship timber. One of the men there was chopping down a tree when the head of the axe flew off of the handle and struck Lemuel in the leg. The men reportedly ran off to find help; left alone, Lemuel fashioned a crutch and hobbled a mile and a half to the nearest house.

A physician came and dressed the wound and left a vial of laudanum for the pain. Experiencing severe pain, Lemuel unfortunately overdosed on the laudanum and died. Thus, it was that Joseph took over the operation of the shipyard in Portland when he was 33 years old.

Joseph Dyer was a prolific shipbuilder, building many sailing ships similar in style to the types of vessels seen in this view from the Eastern Promenade in 1889. H.M. Payson Collection, South Portland Historical Society

Within a few years, the city of Portland decided to embrace the expansion of the railroad. In 1850, with the upcoming filling in of the waterfront to create Commercial Street, the shipyards along there were displaced.

Luckily for Joseph Dyer, the Dyer family still had the land and shipyard across the river in Ferry Village. In our research, we found that while the yard had been used for several years by Ezekiel in the early-1810s, the site appears to have had little to no activity until the launch of the 180-ton brig Marianna in 1848. The Dyers built the Marianna for Capt. Samuel Willard, the patriarch of the Willard family for whom Willard Beach is named. In 1850, the Dyer yard in Ferry Village was brought up to full capacity when Joseph Dyer vacated the Portland yard and moved all of the equipment over here to Cape Elizabeth.

Joseph Dyer built dozens of ships at his yard in Ferry Village, launching them in the area of what is now the eastern side of Davidson’s Beach. While we have a complete list of the ships that he built at the South Portland Historical Society, I’ll mention just a few of the larger and more notable vessels here:

– August, 1851, the square-rigged ship Corinthian (1,098 tons).

– November, 1853, the clipper ship Portland (998 tons).

– October, 1855, the square-rigged ship Kate Dyer (1,278 tons).

– November, 1856, the ship Bamberg (1,119 tons).

This 1871 F.W. Beers Atlas page shows the location of the Dyer yard near the intersection of High Street and Pine Street. South Portland Historical Society image

– Oct. 9, 1861, the gunboat USS Kineo (507 tons) was christened by Joseph’s daughter, Eunice, and launched. The gunboat was built under a government contract for the U.S. Navy. The USS Kineo was sent down to take part in the attack against Confederate forces at New Orleans in 1862.

– During the Civil War, he also built several stern-wheel steamers: the Gen. Berry in 1863, the Gen. Howard in 1864, the Gen. Shepley in 1864, and the Gen. Ayres in 1865.

– In 1865, he built the 800-ton steamship Dirigo for the New England Screw Steamship Company.

– In 1866, he built the schooner-rigged canal barge Dreadnought, for use on the Cumberland and Oxford Canal.

Dyer also rebuilt several vessels over the years, a notable one being the steamer, New England, that had burned and which he rebuilt from the burnt hull. He remained active building and repairing ships through the 1870s.

Joseph Dyer was also a man of public service. Starting in December of 1852, he was appointed the government inspector of steamboat hulls, a position that he held until his death. He also served as an alderman in Portland in 1860 and was elected to the Maine State Legislature in 1862. He died in 1883.

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 you can donate online at our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.

The historical 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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