Part 1 of a two-part series.

In recent weeks we’ve been exploring the 19th century history of the Ferry Village waterfront. We’ve already looked at the stretch of land along western High Street, from the area of the Coast Guard Base to Pine Street. This week we turn the corner, go down Pine Street and look at the stretch of land along Front Street where Aspasia Marina is today. The piece of land at 257 Front St. is the site of one of South Portland’s oldest and longest-running businesses: Portland Shipbuilding.

The four-masted schooner Major Pickands, out of the water at the marine railway in Ferry Village. Ruth Horton Dyer Collection/South Portland Historical Society.

To truly understand the history of the site, it helps to understand the Dyer family of shipbuilders who once ran both a shipyard and a marine railway on the Portland waterfront. As I’ve covered in earlier columns, we know that Ezekiel Dyer was here in South Portland (then known as Cape Elizabeth) in the early 1810s, building ships on the Ferry Village waterfront.

Ezekiel’s son, Lemuel Dyer, would establish his shipyard across the Fore River on the Portland waterfront, at the foot of India Street, in the area that would later become home to the Grand Trunk Railroad. The little cove at the foot of India Street was called Clay Cove and, adjacent to Lemuel Dyer’s shipyard, there was a marine railway.

Marine railways were used in the ship repair business. They allowed a ship to be hauled up out of the water for repairs, then relaunched down the railway. When Ezekiel gave up his shipbuilding here in Cape Elizabeth, he joined his son Lemuel for a time in Portland, and then Ezekiel was involved at the Portland Marine Railway, while Lemuel was building ships next door.

In 1850, Portland made a decision to commit to the expansion of the railroad, which would result in dislocating a number of shipyards along the waterfront as they needed to fill the area (which would create Commercial Street) for a base on which to lay railroad tracks. As I mentioned last week, Lemuel Dyer had died in 1847, but his son Joseph W. Dyer had continued in the business. In 1850, Joseph W. Dyer moved his shipbuilding operation to Ferry Village to the yard on the corner of Pine and High streets.


The four-masted schooner Dustin G. Cressy, pulled up at the Marine Railway in Ferry Village for repairs. Ruth Horton Dyer Collection/South Portland Historical Society

The marine railway in Portland, which had been incorporated in 1826 as the Portland Marine Railway, was also impacted and had to either close or move.

Investors formed a new corporation in 1850, the Cape Elizabeth Wharf and Marine Railway, to build and operate a new marine railway. They purchased 12 acres of waterfront and mud flats from Joseph Perley and Nathan Dyer in Ferry Village and recommenced operation here.

Thus, in 1850, we had established in Ferry Village an almost mirror image of what had been on the Portland waterfront: Joseph W. Dyer building new ships at his shipyard, with the marine railway located adjacent to it on Front Street.

In William Jordan, Jr.’s book “A History of Cape Elizabeth, Maine,” there is a description of the early yard and its facilities.

“A railway was built sloping gradually across the flats somewhat beyond the low water mark. Construction activities occupied much of the period from September, 1850, to May, 1851. One of the most difficult tasks was blasting away outcroppings of ledge and building large cobb-work wharves on either side of the tracks. In addition, a covered way of 450 feet, an engine house, plus a carpenter, blacksmith, and paint shop were built.”

Jordan went on further to describe the operation:


“The vessel would first be guided onto the large cradle and firmly fixed in place. Next, cradle and ship would be hauled up the inclined track by two steam engines with a combined pull of 240 horsepower. A two and a half inch chain moving through a large sprocket wheel was utilized in moving the loaded cradle to provide a steady pull with no slippage. In this fashion, ships of 1100 tons could be drawn up high and dry in the space of 20 minutes.”

While Joseph W. Dyer was one of several investors in the marine railway, it was Ezekiel Dyer’s nephew, Nathan Dyer, who first operated the railway as its superintendent. He would continue leading the business right up until the time of his death in 1880. His son, Nathan Randall Dyer, then took over as superintendent.

Workers at the Dyer marine railway. Etta Gregory Watts Collection/South Portland Historical Society.

The marine railway has a complicated past with the land changing hands many times over the years, as well as sometimes having multiple businesses operating from the yard at the same time. While it was originally named Cape Elizabeth Wharf and Marine Railway, the company reorganized after Nathan Dyer’s death. In 1883, it became the Portland Merchants Marine Railway. The company reorganized again in 1887, becoming the Portland Shipbuilding Company (adding ship construction to its business model, which we will look at next week).

Through the 1900s, the business continued to change and evolve. In 1932, Nathan D. Dyer, along with Herbert Payson, Jr. and Clinton Randall, established a new business on the site: Portland Yacht Service, Inc.

In 1939, the site finally ended its affiliation with the Dyer family when the yard and land was purchased by Boyd Donaldson. Donaldson began business as Maine Shipyards Corporation. During World War II, he operated a second company, Marine Railway & Repair Company, with William Burnham. After the war ended, he changed his business name to Donaldson Ship Yard.

The yard was acquired by the Story family in 1950 and it became the long-running Story Marine Railway. Around 1969, a group of investors headed by the then-president of Casco Bay Lines, Norman G. Thomas, established yet another company, the South Portland Shipyard and Marine Railways Corp.


Aspasia Marina now operates from the site.

During the time that the marine railway was owned by Boyd Donaldson, World War II took place. The wartime maritime effort brought a huge influx of business. According to one newspaper account, the railway conducted repair work on nearly 1,400 Army and Navy vessels during the war.

Next week: The history of new ship construction at Portland Shipbuilding.

Note to readers: The air conditioning system in our building broke down this summer and, because we need to maintain climate control for the archives, we immediately had the repairs made. It has resulted in an unexpected $900 bill and we hope there are a few readers out there who would consider lending their assistance.

If you can help, donations can be made through our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline, or if you’d prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. Thank you.

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

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