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Searsport, Maine, 'The Home of Famous Sea Captains' - 2002-09-26

Many towns in the northeastern state of Maine have a history that revolves around the sea. One of these towns is known as "The Home of Famous Sea Captains." Reporter Mary Saner went to Searsport, Maine to find out why.

Searsport, Maine is a quiet coastal town. For a small community, Searsport has a big legacy. In the 19th century, 10 percent of all ships sailing under the American flag were captained by men from Searsport about 300 commanders in all. For many, it was a family tradition passed from fathers to sons. Some locals boasted of a dozen or more captains in their family. Most of these men lived in beautiful wood or brick mansions with arched windows and large doors. Spacious sitting rooms were graced by marble fireplaces and furnished with exotic artwork and carvings. A 'widow's walk' atop the roof gave families left behind a high perch from which to watch the horizon for returning sails.

"This house is the Merithew House. It belonged to Captain Jeremiah Merithew," said Donald Mortland.

Donald Mortland is the town historian. He says Captain Merithew like many other sea captains was hard-working, wealthy… and ornery. "He was both a sea captain and a ship builder," he said. "They went to sea, became captains, were in command of ships for awhile and then they'd invest in a shipyard and build ships. And that's what he did. He was a rather cantankerous old gentleman. The Congregational Church there built a wooden sidewalk here. He didn't want it there, so as soon as they built it, he would tear it down."

Right in the center of Searsport is the Penobscot Marine Museum. 13 buildings mostly old homes and barns create a village-like feel.

People come here to learn about the amazing sailing vessels of the 1800s. Some ships were as long as 75 meters, with five masts, multiple sails and miles of lines. A replica of one of the these ships' masts looms up, outside one of the buildings.

"This was a working vessel," said Hugh Lane.

Hugh Lane is the Museum's Educational Coordinator. "These square-rigged ships were designed this way to sail the trade winds which was how they got from one continent to another, across the ocean," he said. "Maine in the 19th century was a big player in global commerce. You see on the lower sail that's just a foot off the ground there, the kids can climb up on the footrope and reach the lower yard and raise up the sail and get some idea of what it would be like to be in the rig of a sailing vessel in the 19th century, what it was like to work aloft in sometimes very bad weather in awful bad motion."

Visitors who don't want to imagine themselves seasick wander through the museum buildings looking at photographs of Searsport's 284 sea captains, and early films of their ships caught in storms with sailors perilously high up in the rigging. They see models of famous ships, 19th century navigational instruments and various treasures collected by captains in their worldwide travels. Joanne Moesswilde from Maine, and Floridian Bill Burns say what they've seen here has captured their imagination.

Moesswilde: "They have at least one exhibit about families going to sea, about how a captain would take his wife and children and how they would live on board the ship. And I'm interest in how women functioned in that setting, how they raised their kids on ships traveling all over the world."

Burns: "When you look at these ships, you look at the riggings, you look at what it must have taken to put up the sails, to take down the sails and to be able to be at sea for a hundred days or more, it's a different life."

Searsport thrived during the early and mid 1800s as a center of the shipbuilding industry. 17 shipyards were busy constructing and launching vessels. But historian Donald Mortland says late in the century, that all changed. "I've heard the best decade financially was the 1840s," he said. "It went on till after the Civil War [in the 1860s]. Then somewhere in the 1870s, 80s, things began to slack off. Steam was coming in, you see, and steel ships. So things didn't look so good."

All the shipyards are gone now from Searsport. An energy company now occupies one portion of the shoreline, docking tankers that carry oil and gas. Most of the captains' homes have become Bed and Breakfast inns to host the many tourists passing through to visit the Museum and antique shops. Lobstering is now a big business here. So even though the captains and their ships are gone, the sea and its bounty still provide the town with its prosperity.