Builders of colonial ship to open updated Bath visitors center

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BATH — Working hard the past few years to rebuild the Virginia – a small ship built at the ill-fated Popham Colony nearly 410 years ago – the Maine’s First Ship group has revamped its visitor center to bring more attention to the project, and possibly help with fundraising, too.

The completed center opens at the Virginia’s shipyard, the 19th-century Bath Freight Shed at 27 Commercial St., at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 9.

Part of the exhibit focuses on the history of the Virginia, a 51-foot pinnace that Maine’s First Ship has been reconstructing the past several years. Colonists built the original Virginia – the first European ship constructed in New England – at Fort St. George, at the mouth of the Kennebec River, in 1607-08.

A harsh winter on the shores of the Kennebec helped bring the Popham Colony, part of what is now Phippsburg, to an early end. The settlement, named for the venture’s financier, Sir John Popham, was a partner of the better-known Jamestown colony endeavor in Virginia.

The Virginia pinnace later returned many surviving colonists to England, then returned to the New World in 1609 to resupply Jamestown, according to Maine’s First Ship.

Centuries later, the visitor center celebrates that continuing legacy. The display features historical and archaeological images and text, designed by MFS shipwright Rob Stevens of Woolwich. Jim Nelson, a Harpswell author, has built a rigging demonstration of Virginia.

Roger Barry of Edgecomb, a MFS board member and the center’s exhibit designer, has created two floor-to-ceiling wall coverings – one of which has a background featuring a 1612 map of Maine drawn by explorer Samuel de Champlain.

“This serves as the context for the ship … the introduction for what we’re actually constructing,” Allison Hepler of Woolwich, MFS’s secretary, said in an interview at the Freight Shed July 2.

Contact MFS at 443-4242 or mfs1@myfairpoint.net for more information, or log onto mfship.org.

A roughly $7,500 infrastructure grant from the Maine Humanities Council, as well as a lot of labor from MFS volunteers, have helped bring about the improved visitor center. The Davis Family Foundation also recently contributed about $27,000 toward construction of the Virginia.

The center is open to the public at no charge 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday in the summer. Tours of the ship, as it is built by volunteers from all around the Mid-Coast area, are also available when the center is open.

The Virginia is more than half done, and about two or three years from completion, according to Dan Burchstead of Phippsburg, MFS’s treasurer. Most of those involved in the construction are amateurs, learning under the tutelage of the pros, he noted.

“I always say it’s doctors, lawyers and candlestick makers,” Burchstead said. “All over 55, all having a ball.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

The “ribs” of the Virginia show a complex, yet age-old design. The reconstruction is more than half complete, according to Maine’s First Ship members.

Allison Hepler, left, and Dan Burchstead are secretary and treasurer, respectively, of Maine’s First Ship, a Bath-based group that’s been working to rebuild the early 17th century pinnace Virginia. MFS will open an updated visitor center Saturday, July 9.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.