We’re finishing up our shipyard series with the last of the pre-World War II shipyards: Cumberland Shipbuilding. While not nearly as grand in scale as the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding yard that would later replace it, Cumberland Shipbuilding was nonetheless a very large shipyard for its time, with four shipways and a marine railway, plus a second location in South Portland where they built a 600-foot wharf and a machinery installation plant.

The Edna Hoyt, last of the five-masted schooners, on the marine railway at Cumberland Shipbuilding in 1935. South Portland Historical Society photo

The land on the very eastern end of Broadway, the area known as Cushing’s Point, had been undeveloped up until the first World War. The 22-acre site was described as “swampy” with mud flats along the shoreline at low tide.

When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, one of the first orders of business was to develop a plan for an emergency fleet of ships to be constructed for the war effort.

James C. Hamlen, who headed up his family’s trading business, J.H. Hamlen & Son, Inc., came up with a plan to construct a shipyard in South Portland for the production of ships needed in wartime. He formed a separate business, Cumberland Shipbuilding Company, of which he was president, his son James C. Hamlen, Jr. was vice president, and Seth A. Moulton was named general manager.

By July of 1917, they secured a contract from the United States Shipping Board for the construction of nine 3,500-ton wooden cargo ships, known as Ferris ships. By November 1917, the shipping board had already appointed Ernest Patterson to be the on-site inspector for the ship hulls at Cumberland Shipbuilding.

The hull yard that was constructed at Cushing’s Point had four shipways. The first four keels were laid in January 1918. By May, the company had leased space in the Ligonia area of South Portland; the lease was from the Bancroft & Martin Rolling Mills Company, in which James C. Hamlen had an interest and where his son James Jr. served as treasurer. They immediately began construction of a large installation plant there in Ligonia. That facility, which included a 600-foot long pier, storehouses, machine shops and equipment plants, was built under contract by John W. Gulliver of Portland and was ready by summer.

Also in the spring of 1918, Cumberland Shipbuilding received a government contract for the construction of a 700-foot marine railway on their property at Cushing’s Point. Work on the railway was contracted out to the Aberthaw Construction Company and was completed in November.

Cumberland Shipbuilding was a major employer in South Portland throughout 1918. The shipyard employed 1,700 men at its peak. The huge influx of workers resulted in housing shortages in South Portland and the surrounding area.

The first Ferris ship to be launched was the Cumberland on June 29, 1918. It was then towed down to the Boston & Maine Wharf. By the time the second Ferris ship was launched, the Falmouth on Aug. 7, the installation plant was complete and ready to install the engines and machinery into these hulls.

The next two Ferris ships were both launched in October 1918.

While the launchings of the Cumberland and the Falmouth had been well-attended affairs, by October, the Spanish flu epidemic had hit the U.S. and, like today, large gatherings of people were not allowed. An article in the Evening Express described the launch of the Belgrade on Oct. 11, 1918: “The steamer Belgrade took the water yesterday afternoon as naturally as a duck, and the launching proved a great success in every way. Owing to the prevailing epidemic, there were no invited guests and the yards of Cumberland Shipbuilding Company at Cushing’s Point were not open to the general public. There was music, however, for the shipyard band and Glee Club rendered a pleasing program. The Belgrade is the regulation Ferris type. As the steamer was being towed up the harbor where she will have her machinery installed and receive the usual assortment of camouflage, she was greeted by continual tooting from all other craft in the harbor.”

The steamer Lewiston had a similar private launch on Oct. 31, 1918.

As each of these ships was launched, another keel was laid as the original government contract had been for nine ships. After the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, however, the fate of the remaining four ships had to be decided. Three of the ships ended up being completed and launched. The steamer Orhom on April 2, 1919; the steamer Wacolum on May 3, 1919; and the steamer Delmarie on July 2, 1919.

The construction of the final ship, which would have been the eighth Ferris ship, was halted when it was only about 40 percent completed. The decision was later made to scrap and reuse the materials from the ship.

An amusing event took place at the launch of the Wacolum. A news article in the Boston Herald had this to say: “Harriet Ashley Patten, aged 10, of Augusta, probably the youngest sponsor for a vessel in the United States, wept today as the Ferris steamer Wacolum, named by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, was sliding down the ways at the yards of Cumberland Shipbuilding Company. Little Harriet wept out of genuine grief, too, for in the excitement attendant upon her responsible position and the crowd gathered around her, she forgot to smash the bottle of champagne on the prow of the ship. When she had recovered her composure, the hull was out of reach and the tears began to flow. A husky workman, however, came to the rescue and reaching for the bottle he pursued the Wacolum and did the honors. This was the sixth ship to be launched from the Cumberland yards.”

Cumberland Shipbuilding did continue in the construction of ships for a time, as they built and launched a four-masted schooner in 1920, at least three schooners in 1921, and we’ve found a report of four schooners being constructed there in 1924.

In its later years, however, the shipyard appeared to be primarily in the business of utilizing its marine railway to haul ships out of the water and do ship repair. In the South Portland Historical Society’s collections, there are several photos of ships being repaired at the yard. Our last photo is from 1935 when the Edna Hoyt was up for repairs. It does appear that all activity ceased at the yard around that time. Tax bills went unpaid in the late 1930s. The land was sold by Cumberland Shipbuilding to the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation in 1940, at which time that shipyard area entered a whole new chapter of American history.

Note to readers: If you enjoy reading about South Portland history, please consider a donation to South Portland Historical Society to help support its mission of preserving local history. Donations can be made through our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com, 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. If you need to contact the society, we can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 207-767-7299.

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

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