Preserve America Community Close-ups: Bath, Maine
Bath, Maine, (population 10,000), is an old seafaring town on the Kennebec River, about 10 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Abenaki Indians called the area Sagadahoc, meaning “mouth of big river.” The town’s maritime history dates to 1607, when the first ship built in the New World by English settlers, Virginia of Sagadahoc, was launched. Bath was incorporated as a town on February 17, 1781, and later as a city on June 14, 1847.
HISTORIC TIES TO THE SEA
For centuries, shipyards that lined the river’s edge built wooden sailing ships, steel vessels, and yachts. By the mid-1880s, Bath was the fifth largest seaport in the United States. Bath Iron Works, founded in 1884, was the most prominent shipyard in Bath and still operates today as a division of the General Dynamics Corporation. During World War II, Bath Iron Works (BIW) built warships for the U.S. Navy, producing a new ship every 17 days. Post-World War II, BIW has continued to build destroyers for the U.S. Navy, including more than 25 ships in the past 20 years. As a regional hub in the southern midcoast of Maine, the availability of services and cultural amenities draws new residents and visitors alike to Bath, which aims to remain true to its historic roots.
Today, the maritime history is still a major factor in the tourism and preservation work occurring in Bath. The Maine Maritime Museum in Bath has celebrated Maine maritime history since 1962. Maine’s maritime history is explored daily through gallery exhibits, a historic shipyard, youth and adult educational programs, and narrated boat cruises. The historic shipyard includes five original 19th century buildings, while the museum itself is located on an active waterfront. The Maine Maritime Museum Library includes more than 40,000 historical photographs (all nearly Maine related), manuscripts, maps and charts, and ship plans, the majority from Bath Iron Works.
The Maine’s First Ship project aims to reconstruct the Virginia of Sagadahoc. During the construction process, the Maine’s First Ship organization will be active in educating the public and students about the importance of the Virginia. During the construction, students are allowed to participate in physical construction work. When the ship is complete, the Virginia will be used as an educational tool and heritage tourism vehicle, as it will tell the story of shipbuilding in Bath in an authentic situation.
CATALYST FOR CHANGE
More recently, the rehabilitation of the Bath Railroad Station has also greatly impacted the economic vitality of Bath and the surrounding region. The station was built in 1941 by the Maine Central Railroad, replacing an earlier station that had been torn down during World War I. In 1959, passenger service ended at the station, which led to the station remaining vacant for many years. The City of Bath was deeded the property in 1971.
In 2000, the City of Bath decided to restore the station, working with the Maine Department of Transportation to prepare the site and tracks. To expedite the restoration process, the Bath Transportation Commission was created by the city council to oversee the project. The commission consists of representatives from the city government, city council, Main Street Bath, the chamber of commerce, the Maine Maritime Museum, and the community.
During the rehabilitation, very few changes to the exterior were made. All the windows and glass are original to the 1941 building, as the city had taken care to board up the windows after the station was closed. The restored weathervane was presented by Bath Iron Works (the shipbuilder) at the reopening of the train station in 2007. The Bath Railroad Station is now home to the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber of Commerce, which hosts a visitor’s center in the structure. By bringing the visitor’s center into the downtown, it increases traffic in the downtown vicinity. Additionally, the Maine Eastern Railroad runs an excursion passenger train between Brunswick and Rockland, with stops in Bath and Wiscasset. The train has greatly aided in attracting tourism and related business development along the corridor.
PARTNERS FOR PRESERVATION
Local preservation efforts in Bath are carried out by the Main Street program, Sagadahoc Preservation, Inc., and the City of Bath. Main Street Bath is supported by the City of Bath and by volunteers. Main Street Bath holds many community events over the year, aimed at highlighting the economic vitality and history of Bath. “So You Think You Know Bath” is a chance for individuals to bond over the history of Bath. Teams compete against one another on Bath subjects such as people, events, buildings, and historical topics. The New Years Bell Ringing occurs every New Year’s Eve at noon. The community of Bath surrounds City Hall to sing Auld Lang Syne and celebrates the ringing of the Paul Revere Bell.
Sagadahoc Preservation, Inc. (SPI) works on preservation and education efforts in Bath. SPI has been vital in the preservation of endangered structures, including the Winter Street Church and the Chocolate Church. The restored Winter Street Church is now available for rent for wedding receptions, meetings, lectures, and theater productions. SPI hosts the Annual House and Garden Tour, gives out annual preservation awards, and provides outreach to local schools on the history of Bath. Every year, SPI gives fourth graders coloring books with architecturally accurate drawings of real Bath homes.
The Friends of Seguin Island, Maine’s second oldest lighthouse constructed in 1795 in President Washington’s Administration, care for this resource under an arrangement with the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard continues to control the aids to navigation.
Bath features 11 listings on the National Register of Historic Places, including two historic districts and one tugboat. The City of Bath includes a Historic District Architectural Review Committee that advises the Bath Planning Board. Structures and land in the local “Downtown Historic District” are subject to review for new construction, alterations, and demolition. The Bath Comprehensive Plan recognizes the importance of preservation and the rehabilitation of historic structures in the city.
THE VISITOR EXPERIENCE
The Bath Heritage Days is an annual event hosted by Main Street Bath. The event is held every Fourth of July weekend, with typical Independence Day events such as fireworks, a craft show, music, and a carnival. The Heritage Days Parade is the largest parade in the State of Maine, featuring over 100 entries. Parade themes tend to focus on Bath’s heritage.
A series of podcast walking tours allows visitors and residents to experience three areas of Bath’s history. These podcasts are available on the city’s Web site and are easily downloadable onto an iPod. Map-guided walking or driving tours are also available. Maps and iPods to rent are available through the Bath Visitors Center at the Bath Railroad Station. The Bath Historical Society produced a Bath Cemetery Guide, featuring five main cemeteries in the city. Each cemetery is highlighted with key individuals and graves that are artistically intriguing.
PROMOTION OF HERITAGE RESOURCES
Bath has been involved in statewide efforts to promote Maine’s maritime heritage. It is also involved in regional programming to promote tourism and culture. Bath is a member of the Five Rivers Arts Alliance, which connects arts and heritage on a regional level. During the summer months, the Alliance hosts the Bath ArtWalk every third Friday, with art exhibits and open air concerts. Bath is along the Kennebec-Chaudière Heritage Corridor, a road running from Popham Beach, Maine, to Quebec City, Canada. Two rivers form the corridor, the Kennebec in Maine and the Chaudière in Quebec.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Bath one of its annual “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” in 2005.
For more information
City of Bath: www.cityofbath.com
Main Street Bath: www.visitbath.com
Sagadahoc Preservation, Inc.: http://sagadahocpreservation.org
Bath Heritage Days: http://bathheritagedays.com
Maine Maritime Museum: www.mainemaritimemuseum.org
Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber of Commerce: www.midcoastmaine.com
Posted November 25, 2009