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Thomaston: The Town that Went to Sea

1850 to 1870

John Bailey to Edward E. O'Brien, Thomaston, 1861
John Bailey to Edward E. O'Brien, Thomaston, 1861Item Contributed by
Thomaston Historical Society

Due to its active shipbuilding and trading industry, Thomaston was more directly affected by the Civil War than inland areas throughout the northern states. Successful shipbuilders owned huge tracts of land in North Carolina and Georgia, where lumber was harvested and brought back to Thomaston for new ship construction. Thomaston ships made regular runs between England and the south in the cotton export trade and, as a result of close business associations, many Thomaston residents had friends and family in the South and were torn in their loyalties. Since they also depended on clients for their shipbuilding industry from the north, support for the Union, in many cases, was reluctantly given.

Although the War was devastating for the Thomaston shipbuilding industry, once it ended, business slowly returned and some 30 vessels were launched between 1866 and 1870 and trade was resumed with the South. Shipbuilders O’Brien and Watts continued to build Down Easters and schooners in great numbers, employing large numbers of workers and tradesmen. Business was so good the two men were known as two of only seven millionaires in the country. Dry goods stores and specialty shops were in great number and merchants did a brisk business. After an initial drop in census numbers to 3600 in 1860, due to the separation of South Thomaston and Rockland in 1848, the population leveled off and remained at 3,000 over the next several decades.

Railroad Depot, Thomaston, 1871
Railroad Depot, Thomaston, 1871Item Contributed by
Thomaston Historical Society

In 1871 Edward O’Brien established a shoe factory in the Carr O’Brien Block at the Upper Corner to boost the flagging economy. He never realized a profit but he did a huge service to his town by offering jobs for the unemployed.

The Knox and Lincoln Railroad came through Thomaston in 1871 and purchased land either by choice or eminent domain, the proposed railway running through the General Knox Estate. Although many residents tried to save Montpelier, in the end it was demolished to make way for progress.

Montpelier, Thomaston, 1870
Montpelier, Thomaston, 1870 Item Contributed by
Montpelier, The General Henry Knox Museum

By this time, the mansion was in ruins, lived in by squatters, and considered too great an expense to save.

However, the small farmhouse on the estate was spared and utilized as the Thomaston Depot until 1956, when it was sold to the DAR. Purchased and renovated by the Thomaston Historical Society, to this day, this 1796 brick building survives and serves as its headquarters.

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