We selected the town of Searsport as our jumping off point to visit the Penobscot Bay area. And we had another great campsite right by the water. In fact, this campground, Searsport Shores Camping Resort, was quite magical, with very artsy touches, beautiful landscaping, an arts studio, goats, bee hives and a few short trails.
As an extra bonus, our campsite overlooked a fascinating tidal pool area. With a huge expanse exposed at low tide. Each tide cycle brought a new selection of slightly different places to explore and a fresh batch of sea glass.
Penobscot Bay is a body of water that is 40 mies long 50 miles wide, the largest bay in Maine. There are many fishing communities and quaint villages dotting its shores, many of them safe harbors and there are also about 200 islands in the bay, many uninhabited.
Although there have been many successful industries in this area; granite, concrete and lumber are examples, much of the area’s history revolves around the sea. The Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport recounts much of that history through collections of marine art, artifacts and maritime heritage.
The collections include a real sea captain’s house furnished with pieces from multiple sea captains’ homes, a hands-on exhibit on raising the sails of 19th century sailing vessel, regional antique and not so antique watercraft, marine art and ship and boat models, and one building dedicated to demonstrating the life and hardships of today’s fishermen.
Many Sea Captains took their wives out to sea with them, and about 70 children from Searsport were born at sea. The children grew up on the ships and “learned the ropes” (this literally means they learned about each of the ropes on their ship) from an early age.
Many of the young men married young women from families of other sea captains, and the tradition was carried on from one generation to another. Most of the Searsport sea captains came from a total of twenty families, with familiar names like Pendleton and Carver.
In addition to navigation skills (with none of the sophisticated instruments that we have today), these Sea Captains had to have business skills to ensure that their vessel made a profit, command a crew of 30 or so, and, if they were deep water captains they also had to have excellent communication and diplomatic skills in order to interact with people from other countries.
All vessels had multiple owners, and the captain usually had a few shares of his vessel. This ownership was divided so that if a vessel was lost at sea, the loss would have a small impact on many in the town, as opposed to wiping out one person’s finances. A fruitful voyage meant good fortune for many in the town, thus the phrase “our ship has come in”.
The successful sea captains made a good living and many built elaborate mansions in Searsport when they retired. But it was a life filled with risk, and many were lost at sea. In honor of these and others lost at sea, the Marine Museums’ current collections incorporate the theme: For Those in Peril: Shipwrecks, Memorials and Rescues. Photographs of those lost at sea have a black star, and paintings of those lost at sea have a black shroud draped around them.
The Sea Captains created a market for artist renditions of these vessels, and artists, many from this area, began to paint them in their full splendor. Because it was important for the paintings to show each ships’ flags, they sometimes depicted vessels in full sail with flags flying in the wrong direction. As long as the vessels looked beautiful, it didn’t seem to matter. Other works in the museum include boat and ship models and other paintings depicting storms and shipwrecks.
An additional focus of the museum is shipbuilding, which was another vital industry on Penobscot Bay. Around three thousand vessels were built here between 1770 and 1920 and fourteen clipper ships were built here in the 1850s. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, shipbuilders in the area built large four, five and six-masted schooners.
The last collection that we saw was a very educational exhibit on fishing and fishermen. I was surprised to learn that fishing is the deadliest job in America, with 121.9 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2011. I also learned a little about lobster fishing and some of its challenges. The lobster traps weigh 50 pounds when empty, and I can only imagine how heavy they are when full, and how difficult they are to haul out of the bottom of the ocean. My hats off to these men and women.
So far in Penobscot Bay, we’ve enjoyed a fabulous campground, beautiful tidal pools, a highly educational marine museum and a REALLY large body of water.