The history of the bay is rich and full of great stories. This
page is a great place to get the foundations!
A QUICK HISTORY OF THE MERRYMEETING BAY AREA
The history of Merrymeeting Bay is closely linked to the activities
that centered around its tributary rivers, particularly the Kennebec.
Rivers were the highways of the North American wilderness, and the
Kennebec was used extensively as a route to the interior of
Indians early inhabited the Bay, reaping its bounty, and introducing
wild rice to its waters from the Midwest. Europeans first viewed the
Bay in 1605 when George Weymouth of England sailed up the Kennebec
after landing on Monhegan Island. His praises of the Kennebec's
harbors, its fish and its rich timber covered land were extravagant
enough to entice Sir John Popham to found a colony at the Kennebec's
mouth in 1607. Popham's men stayed the winter, long enough to explore
up to Merrymeeting Bay, then built the first of the Kennebec's many
ships, named her the "Virginia" and set sail for home. Over the next
twenty years a few winter fishing camps were established and by 1623
there was a village at Bath on Merrymeeting Bay.
Weymouth's arrival at the Kennebec preceded that of Champlain by only
a month. Throughout the seventeenth century, and into the mid
eighteenth century the French also had a lively interest in the area.
Both the English and French hoped that the Kennebec would provide a
trade route north to Quebec and access to the rich raw materials of
the Maine and New Hampshire forests.
A conflict between the French and English led to the French and
Indian Wars which lasted 150 years and retarded the growth of Maine
coastal towns. Consequently, ports to the south, such as Plymouth,
Newburyport, and Boston gained an advantage in establishing trade
routes in the northeast.
During the French and Indian Wars, a group ofIrishmen attempted to
settle on the eastern side of the Bay near Cork Cove in the present
town of Dresden. That attempt was abandoned in 1722 and the first
permanent settlement was made by French Protestants in 1752, called
Frankfort. The town was later called Pownalborough after Governor
Pownall of Massachusetts (which included Maine at the time) and
finally, Dresden in 1794 when the town was incorporated.
The French were finally driven from the area in the 1760s ending the
French and Indian Wars. About that same period the town of Bowdoinham
was incorporated (1762) including present day Richmond and a large
part of Bowdoin. Bowdoinham's first settlers lived along Merrymeeting
Bay and on the shores of the Kennebec and Abagadasset Rivers. A
meetinghouse was built in 1765 overlooking the Abagadasset but was
burned by Tories during the American Revolution.
In 1788 Bowdoin separated from Bowdoinham and incorporated.
Bowdoinham Village or Cathance Landing was settled in about 1800,
later to become a bustling commercial center. Richmond withdrew from
the town and incorporated in 1823.
The principal economic activities in the Bay towns in the early
history of the area included shipbuilding
(Dresden, Richmond, Bowdoinham, and Bath all were thriving centers),
ice, agriculture, and commercial fishing. Dresden also supported a
brick industry. Populations peaked in the 1850s when Bowdoinham
numbered 2,382 residents (in 1970, the population was about
The tall pines of the Kennebec first attracted the agents of the
Royal Navy and for a long time they were a principal source of masts
for ocean-going vessels. Development on a larger scale began after
the Revolution when President Jefferson decided to encourage the
construction of a domestic merchant marine. Because of its good
harbors and seeminqly endless supplies of wood, Maine builders
constructed a large proportion of these. The demand for Yankee
shipping boomed throuqh the turn of the century as American merchants
did a thriving business with the warring nations in the Napoleonic
conflicts. Rowe (1948) reports that Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar
had masts of Maine pine.
Between 1830 and 1840 the South's cotton production more than doubled
and Maine's traders played a large part in that trade. Between 1800
and 1840 the average size of Maine's many ships grew from 130 tons to
321 tons. In the decade after the 40s the "Rappahanock" and the
"Saratoga" were launched at Bath and vied with each other as the
largest ships of their day (Rowe 1948). Bath was traditionally
foremost of the Kennebec shipyards, but in this golden age of wooden
ships Richmond's full square riggers surpassed her.
After the Civil War, shipbuilding went into decline, not in
launchings or tonnage, but in spirit. There was a last extravagant
fling with the fast and graceful clipper ships, and afterward coastal
schooners were constructed until the turn of the century. But the
railroad made steady inroads into the coastal trade and the cheap
agricultural goods of the west devastated New England farming. By
1875 only Bath, Phippsburg, and Richmond of the many Kennebec towns
that once had launched ships were still in operation. In 1894 the
first American steel sailing ship, the "Dirigo," was launched at
There were other industries along the
Kennebec. During the whole shipbuilding era vast quantities of lumber
floated down the Kennebec; and when the pine was gone, the spruce
floated to the pulp mills of the Androscoggin. Pulpwood is still
trucked to mills in Brunswick on the corner of Merrymeeting Bay.
Between 1860 and 1900 Kennebec ice was a
fantastic source of prosperity. "White gold" (tidewater ice) was
famed over the entire country and was shipped as far as the West
Indies. By the end of the century, 3,000,000 tons (Rowe 1948) were
harvested in a year. Thereafter, as a result of the invention of
artificial refrigeration, the industry declined.
From 1900 to the Second World War, the economy of the Merrymeeting
Bay area depended on the pulp industry, some limited shipbuilding,
and tourism. The Eastern and Kennebec Rivers had many public
landings. In 1906 the Eastern Steamship Company built a wharf at
Cedar Grove in Dresden, where Boston steamers landed twice a day with
up to 150 vacationing passengers. Many small summer hotels were found
in the towns.
Since the Second World War the Bath Iron Works has revived the
economies of Bath and Brunswick, but elsewhere towns have
increasingly become bedroom communities supplying workers to the
major employment centers of Augusta, Bath/Brunswick, and Portland.
Out of the main stream of the major economic corridor in Maine
(centered on the Turnpike and I-95) the Merrymeeting Bay towns have
This now is being changed by the linkage of I-95 in Brunswick to the
major transportation network, the Maine Turnpike in Augusta. This
linkage will put the Bay towns back into the mainstream of activity
and will introduce a new surge of growth. Properly guided it could
mean a revitalization of the area. Unguided, it could cause
irreversible ecological damage and monotonous suburban sprawl.
The history of the area has left a rich cultural heritage worthy of
protection. Richmond has more Greek Revival homes than any other town
in Maine, and several buildings on the National Historic Register,
reminders of the prosperous shipbuilding and ice industries. Bath
contains several noteworthy homes and an Historic District which
contains l9th century residences built in the period of maritime
prosperity. Brunswick contains many historic structures and a l9th
century Historic District as do Topsham and Woolwich. Dresden has an
outstanding courthouse built in 1761, the Pownalborough Courthouse.
These are listed in the accompanying table on historic resources.
Thumbnail History by Reed and D'Andrea