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The End of Wooden Shipbuilding - 1910 to 1950

The large ships had short life expectancies, being driven hard and fast by their masters. Profits were usually large enough that they paid for themselves before they were no longer fit for trade. When steam replaced wind power, most of the stately sailing ships were stripped of their spars and rigging and turned into barges for hauling coal and lumber.

The Reine Marie Stewart
The Reine Marie Stewart
Thomaston Historical Society

The decline of wooden shipbuilding was certainly sad for Thomaston builders and merchants alike. Symbolic of the last days of this boom in shipping was the “Reine Marie Stewart,” perhaps the best remembered locally-built vessel today. The wooden four-masted barkentine was built in 1919/1920 by Dunn and Elliot as a coal carrier. In 1928 when coal was eliminated as a cargo item, the Reine Marie was towed from Portland to Thomaston and tied at Dunn and Elliot’s wharf, where she became a floating landmark, a visual reminder of Thomaston’s shipbuilding heritage. She was sold to the New England West Africa Trading and Shipbuilding Association, and towed from Thomaston in 1937. She was the last large vessel to hail from Thomaston and the last barkentine built on the coast. “Reine Marie Stewart,” sailing out of Panama, was sunk by a torpedo in the South Atlantic during World War II on June 2, 1942.

Charles A. Morse of Friendship, established Morse Boatbuilding Co. in 1912, one of the longest operating boatbuilding businesses in Thomaston. Prior to the 1980s, the firm had worked on close to 300 vessels. Several draggers built by the Morse Boat Building Co. were put into use during the war effort, later being converted back to fishing vessels. There remains a fairly accurate list of the vessels launched from the shop in the possession of a former owner.

Gray Boats, Newbert & Wallace, Crowell and Thurlow, Atlantic Coast Company, and Edward T. Gamage were active shipyards in the 20th century with varying degrees of prominence.

About 40 years ago, Robert P. Applebee, a retired U.S. Customs Officer, gave a talk on Thomaston’s shipbuilding years, based on his research at the time, in which he provided the following statistics: 73 vessels were built before 1820; 67 were built in the 1820s; 57 built in the 1830s, 139 built in the 1840s; 128 built in the 1850s. While there is no absolute total number of Thomaston-built vessels known to date, it is believed to be nearly 1,000.

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