The history of the bay is rich and full of great stories. This page is a great place to get the foundations!


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 Maine.

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 1,400).
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 Bath.

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 grown slowly.

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