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Bath museum showcases 'Big Ships, Big Cargoes' in latest exhibit

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Bath museum showcases 'Big Ships, Big Cargoes' in latest exhibit

BATH – While the term “burden” tends to reflect something onerous or weighty, in the case of seafaring vessels it’s a great compliment.

“Some Burdensome: Big Ships, Big Cargoes,” the Maine Maritime Museum’s newest exhibit, runs through June 28. The display comes on the heels of last December’s 100th anniversary of the launch of the Wyoming, a six-mast schooner that the museum states is the largest wooden ship ever built. Constructed at the Percy & Small shipyard in Bath, a site now preserved by the museum, that bulk coal carrier and its fellow aquatic juggernauts are cast in the museum’s limelight.

A life-size sculpture of the Wyoming stands on the museum grounds, exemplifying the grandiose nature of the ship. The Wyoming continued to carry coal until running aground in the 1920s.

“Burdensome” refers to “a vessel that has a lot of cargo-carrying capacity,” according to Chris Hall, the museum's curator of exhibits. A vessel’s burden, or “burthen” as originally spelled, referred to the cargo that was loaded aboard.

“Our focus has been on commercial cargo in Maine, the larger picture of Maine, but it was also interesting to try to expose people to what’s coming into Maine, and how much commercial traffic we actually deal with,” Hall said. “Between Searsport and Portland and Eastport there’s a fair amount going on; people don’t always really realize that.”

The exhibit notes the continuing importance to Maine commerce of optimal solutions for carrying imports and exports. Global manufacturing is increasingly dependent on economies of scale offered by maritime shipping, and rising costs of transportation are triggering new looks at the shape and size of future vessels, right down to the revisiting of sails.

Oil tends to be one of the great cargoes these days, carried by tankers, the biggest ships in the world, Hall said.

“Although cruise ships are actually approaching that (size), believe it or not,” he added. “And in many ways, the big cargo of the future may actually be people, in terms of value.”

Among this exhibit’s offerings are detailed models of supertankers. There is also a model of the S.S. Winifred, which weighed 2,456 gross tons and was the first tramp freighter built in the U.S. Launched by Bath Iron Works in 1898, it was trumped later that year when the Arthur Sewall-built Erskine M. Phelps weighed in at 2,998 gross tons.

Visitors to the museum are greeted on the steps by another piece of the exhibit: a steam-powered grab bucket from Searsport. From 1905 to 2003, steam-powered cranes used such buckets to unload salt, coal, gypsum and other bulk items at the Sprague Energy Mack Point Terminal.

And when those visitors leave the museum, Hall hopes they will take away a better notion of how much the burdensome loads of ships actually affect their daily lives.

“I was really intrigued about how much of anyone’s daily life is actually related in one part of the supply chain to commercial marine traffic,” Hall said. “… You’ll see shipping containers being moved around, once they reach the land side of things … if there’s a container from somewhere that’s brought in by truck, and everybody sees that. But that container crossed the ocean to get to that truck depot, and there are people involved, there are skill sets that most people aren’t even aware of.”

Log onto mainemaritimemuseum.org or call the museum at 443-1316 for more information.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.