SPAP Report No. W-2
Part A: Broad-Arrow & Cannon Balls
Part A: Broad-Arrow (& Cannon Balls)
The visit of the “OpSail” Tall-Ships-Fleet to Portland (28-31 July 2000) conjures up again the ghostly moving-forest image that used to mark the daily waterfront skyline of every seaport throughout the Age of Sail. All those masts & spars literally once were a forest moved to the shore, by land & water–and no easy task it was to do so. Yet slowing the pace of that task could be deadly: In 1775, Portland (then named Falmouth) was bombarded to ruins as punishment for hindering the forest’s scheduled movement.
Over dry land, ox-power was the sole prime-mover of the extremely-long mast-timbers, often requiring many yoked teams working together. Sebagoland’s many lakes & rivers also were used, wherever & whenever possible, to float the immense timbers toward the sea. But whether on a road or in a channel, a mast procession must have been an awesome spectacle indeed, affecting everything around it for a while at least.
Masts became a vital export from New England to Britain relatively early in the Colonial Period. In the 1660s, London diarist & Admiralty bureaucrat Samuel Pepys mentions them repeatedly if not often in writing up his activities; clearly they were routine imports by then. Pepys seems concerned mostly with the costs of the contracts for the New England masts. Yet Britannia Ruled the Waves only by accessing a constant supply of high-quality mast timber, and availability soon became the major concern, more than costs.
Admiralty Officers in Old England and their contracted Mast Agents in New England had authority over the King’s Pines in New England’s forests. Whoever might own a specific piece of land, the tallest-straightest-broadest pine-trees thereon were Reserved for the Crown and marked accordingly (after c.1690) with the Kings Broad-Arrow (the symbol of British government property) axed onto them by three neat strokes [See Illustration]. In theory that meant Do Not Disturb, but in practice many colonial homes in northern New England had some very broad boards built into their upper stories where they were less visible to inspectors.
As elsewhere, the Portland area’s contracted Mast Agents were rich & powerful persons. One-such was Colonel Thomas Westbrook, whose dams on Presumpscot River interfered with Wabanaki Chief Polin’s fishing rights in the 1730s—with impunity from colonial government decrees to open fishways for the Indians’ fishing. Probably the Colonel’s dams helped his own downstream water-transporting of mast-trees over natural waterfalls by ponding the water. But they certainly stopped the fish from their natural seasonal upstream migrations, and therefore the traditional fishing activities that the Wabanaki depended upon for subsistence food. So Chief Polin took revenge repeatedly.
Another later Mast Agent was Captain George Tate Sr, whose fine 1755 mansion was built where Stroudwater River meets Fore River, in the Stroudwater neighborhood of today’s Portland. Captain Tate took a big chance building such an elegant target for destruction during the (4th) French & Indian War—but he was lucky, and his mansion today still is a much-visited historic showplace at 1270 Westbrook Street, Portland 04102 (near today’s Portland International Jetport). This Fore River location served well as Captain Tate’s mast landing & loading port [See SIDELIGHT 1].
SIDELIGHT 1: TATE’s HOUSE and MANNING’s PICTURES
In the Colonial Period, masts & spars went to Britain in wooden sailing ships, some (called fly-boats, flights, flutes, fluyts) specially built with open-ports in the stern, on both sides of the rudder, and completely open inside.
A diorama of Captain Tate’s mast-loading area, with a model fluyt mast-ship, is among the displays at TATE HOUSE, 1270 Westbrook Street, Portland 04102, in the Stroudwater neighborhood, near Portland International Jetport.
Also at Tate House are line drawings & written descriptions of many aspects of the Mast Trade from start to finish, by SAMUEL F MANNING. These pictures & captions also appear in a 60-page book by Manning (1979), titled NEW ENGLAND MASTS & THE KING’S BROAD ARROW, available for purchase both at Tate House and from the author at P O Box 722, Camden ME 04843.
Many thanks to SFM for permission to reproduce two of his pictures:
the book cover (shown here in Part A, Sidelight 1),
and the multi-yoke of oxen hauling a mast (shown in Part C, Sidelight 3).
Nonetheless, suddenly, much of Britain’s mast supply became America’s own. After the opening battles of the American Revolution, New Englanders in various places openly disturbed mast-tree cargoes awaiting shipment to Britain. In June 1775, just such a disturbance erupted in Falmouth / Portland Harbor, when two ships arrived with orders from British Admiral Graves to secure all possible masts. However, local American Patriots already had towed many masts out of easy reach.
“On seeking to load in the Presumscot River, the British encountered an aroused citizenry who seized their boats, guns, and men. Thus the mast ships were forced to sail without a cargo. Admiral Graves warned…that if the masts were not given up he would ‘beat the town down about their ears.’ In October  this threat was made good. Captain Mowatt and his fleet bombarded the town of Falmouth [Portland] and reduced it to ashes.”—Quoted from page 43 of William H Rowe (1948) THE MARITIME HISTORY OF MAINE (NY: W W Norton & Co).
Technically, the term spar is superior to & more generic than mast, a mast actually being only a tall vertical spar. Spars are defined in nautical dictionaries as being the general term for masts, yards, booms, gaffs, bowsprits, etc. — anything pole-like, in any direction, that supports rigging & sails. What follows here now are excerpts from an 1893 newspaper account of a Portland man’s sixty-year career in making spars of all sorts, from start to finish, from tree to ship. Please remember that the present in this account means over a century ago to us today.
PORTLAND TRANSCRIPT, 6 September 1893 / PILLARS OF PORTLAND, #36
JOHN BRADFORD — SIXTY YEARS A SPAR-MAKER (excerpts only)
“John Bradford was born in Portland in 1809 and is therefore 84 years of age. After a boyhood in the common schools he began to work with his father, who was a spar-maker. But the latter died when his son was 16 years old, and John worked at his trade for other parties until he was 20 years of age when he began for himself in a small way.
“His business steadily increased. Along in the fifties [1850s] he was employing twenty to thirty men in his yard, and was the leading spar-maker in the city. At that time his old account books show that he was ‘sparring’ every year from twenty to thirty of the little brigs and barks and ships then engaged in the West India trade. Reckoning twenty-five spars to a vessel, gives a total of from 500 to 750 huge forest giants to be hewn into shapely columns. At the least estimate it cost the owners $500 to have a vessel ‘sparred’ which gives a total of from $10,000 to $15,000 worth of business annually, to say nothing of the extensive repair work and various other accessories; and that amount meant more than it does today.
“Contrast the situation with the present time . Nine years ago  Mr Bradford retired from his business, after sixty years of unremitting and successful devotion to it. His son, John K, almost an old man himself now, has taken his place at the old shop. Now there is not even an average of one vessel ‘sparred’ in a year; where the elder John Bradford could once see from his shop door six shipyards close at hand on the shore, each with a vessel in the process of construction, that he was to complete with his shapely spars, the younger John Bradford sees none at all. But when he does ‘spar’ a vessel now it means more than in the olden time. Our great schooners are bigger than the ships of before the war [Civil War] and their masts are almost fabulously valuable compared to prices of that time.
“The last vessel ‘sparred’ in Portland was about two years ago . It was a four masted schooner. The ‘sparring’ cost the owners $2400. For the four masts themselves, without the topmasts, Mr Bradford paid $1700. They came from Oregon and were 94 feet in length and 37 inches in diameter. There is a little incident about them. During the great fire on the Berlin Mills lumber wharf they lay at the head of the wharf. Everybody advised Mr Bradford to roll them into the water and many men proffered assistance, but he refused to do so. The docks were full of blazing timber and he knew that the great logs would be spoiled. Left where they were (they were too immense to be hauled away) they might escape. And they did, as the fire did not reach them.
“Since Mr Simonton removed from the city, three years ago , Mr Bradford has been the only spar-maker here. For a decade before that there were only those two. The work now is only repairing and not much of that. The son employs but three men where his father once employed thirty. Across the harbor, on the Cape shore [South Portland], is another spar shed that has not been used for twenty years. Once the son directed the labors of fifteen men there while his father had as many more on the other side. xxx During the war [Civil War] there was a great deal of ship building and as prices were high his [JB sr’s] business was more generous at that time than ever before or since. Masts brought $450 then, that sold for only $250 afterward.
“During Mr Bradford’s 60 years of spar-making he has seen the forests stripped of mast timber from one side of the continent to the other; that is, has seen the source of his supply of raw materials change from Scarboro, Gorham, and Bridgton to Oregon. In the beginning of his business, back in the thirties [1830s], he procured his timber in the forests surrounding this city [Portland]. In the next decade he began to look to Canada for a supply and before the war [Civil War] he sent to Pennsylvania after the Susquehanna masts, so called. Since the war the forests of Michigan have been stripped of mast timber and now the majority of the masts of our great schooners are the red pines of Oregon, that cost not infrequently $500 apiece when delivered here on the cars [railroad].
“There is a great difference in the nature of the wood from these different localities. In the early days, if one of the great white pine masts that grew in Maine or Canada, began to rot after ten years of service, it would have been declared rotten when first placed in the vessel. Mr Bradford has seen many 15 years old as sound as when felled in the forest. But the Susquehanna and Michigan masts frequently had to be replaced after four years. The Oregon masts however are declared to be imperishable. They do rot sometimes, but nevertheless are quite as durable as the ‘pumpkin’ pine of Maine.
“The following incident illustrates something of Mr Bradford’s business methods in the early days. He made his profits by buying his mast timber at a good bargain. During the winters he spent most of his time in the woods in Cumberland and York counties getting out his timber. On one occasion he learned that some Saccarappa [Westbrook] lumbermen had bought a forest lot in Bridgton for $10 a thousand. He found that among the trees were an unusual number of masts. He offered the men $20 a thousand for all the ‘masts’ on the lot. They agreed. He was to exercise the usual custom of discarding a tree after it was cut if it did not prove suitable for a mast. It was of no consequence to the owner of the lot since all but the masts was to be sawed into lumber. Another man took the contract to cut the timber and haul it out to Sebago Lake to be rafted across and sent down the Presumpscot. Mr Bradford felt that he must look after this man or he would lose many of his masts, for the reason that it is very much easier and cheaper to haul a tree if cut up into sections than in one entire piece. He went to Bridgton and found, just as he expected, that the man was cutting up the masts with the rest and hauling them out to be sawed up by the mill. His protests were in vain, and since he couldn’t stay there and watch him he knew very well that the other had the better of him.
” ‘See here, Goodrich,’ said he, ‘you know I’ve contracted to buy all the masts in this lot, and that I can’t help your cutting them up, because it’s cheaper for you to haul out this timber in that way. I’ll give you $250 if you’ll save my masts.’
” ‘Bradford, I’ll do it,’ said Goodrich.
“This illustrates how valuable and how scarce mast timber was even in those early days. Mr Bradford made an excellent bargain when he bought those Bridgton masts for $20 a thousand.
“It remains only to be said of Mr Bradford’s business life that he became an extensive owner in shipping by taking his pay for masts in shares of the vessel, and at one time owned [shares] in ten different ships, and also that during his six decades of extensive operations he was never [financially] embarrased in a single instance. He has been somewhat prominent in municipal politics as a Republican in years gone by and served two years in the city council. He was also one of the board of governors of the poor for many years.
“None of the white pines of Maine or the red giants of Oregon that he has prepared for service has ever been a more substantial pillar…than has he himself [Mr B] for the business interests of Portland.
“If when now he visits the quiet spar-yard and reflects with sadness upon the busy scenes of the past that will never return, he should remember…with…satisfaction, ‘I have lived a good life. I have finished my work.'”
[The 1893 article-in-full was both transcribed from microfilm printouts (an arduous task) and most graciously given to me (AHM) for use in this website, by maritime historian Nicholas Dean of Edgecomb, Maine. His generosity has made possible an immensely greater circulation of this tasty slice of the past than ever could have been imagined by its original writer or subject. John Bradford, may your masts & spars never rot on the sea of Cyberspace! — AHM]
SIDELIGHT 2: THE MIGHTY OXEN
“All oxen are steers, or castrated bulls. However, all steers are not oxen, the term ‘ox’ being applied to cattle at least three, if not four, years old. Bulls castrated after they were sexually mature were known as ‘stags.’ Mature, unaltered bulls were also commonly worked, although their thick necks required oversized bows, and often their great strength was not matched by great ambition. (Custom yokes were regularly made for individual teams, with varying bow size. Differing lateral placement of the staple and ring adjusted the mechanical advantage, evening out differences in individual strength.)
“Oxen can be of any breed, although few ‘polled,’ or hornless cattle were trained to the yoke since horns served to keep the yoke in place when cattle held back a load [in braking &/or down-hilling]. The bow yoke used in the United States was of British origin—most Europeans used yokes lashed to the horns. The ox’s great neck strength reflected the bull’s natural inclination to face an enemy and stand and fight…. xxx Cattle are generally very receptive to instruction, particularly when first trained as small calves.” — Quoted from page 24 of W H Bunting (1997) A DAY’S WORK: A Sampler of Historic Maine Photographs, 1860-1920, Part I (Gardiner ME: Tilbury House Publishers / Portland ME: Maine Preservation).
Part C: Windham Mast Landmarks
Raymondtown historian Ernest Harmon Knight (himself a descendant of mast-&-spar men) has both written-up a Sebagoland mast incident in Windham and pointed out to me (AHM) the location of it. Both this incident and its location are called Gay’s Pinch.
Knight’s write-up was a part of his article titled Lumbering, which appeared in the June 1982 Newsletter of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society. Later, that article was reprinted as Chapter VII pages 39-41 of HISTORICAL GEMS OF RAYMOND & CASCO by Ernest H Knight—the compendium of his Newsletter articles, published by the RCHS. (A second printing of GEMS is now in process–see Raymond Village Library Section of this Lakes Region website for availability info.)
This incident must have occurred between 1786 (when Lewis Gay supposedly came to the Casco area) and 1823 (when he is reported to have died at age 73). Knight’s account (from Ch VII p 40) follows. Lewis Gay lived on Quaker Ridge Road in today’s Casco (then part of Raymondtown), and, like some of his neighbors, engaged in part-time supplying of masts “as season and farming needs permitted’, especially when it was “practical in winter with frozen ground and snow for sleds”.
“After felling, these giant [pine] trees for masts, a hundred feet in length and four foot diameter at the butt, were hewn to a sixteen sided shape to reduce their weight and prove their suitability and hauled to the mast landings. This required many yoke of oxen and determined drivers with their trusty goads. xxx
“While [Lewis Gay was] hauling a long mast timber through…[a bad curve between bankings], it became pinched [i.e., jammed / stuck]…. It is not known whether the problem was solved by making the mast into two shorter spars or [if it was] somehow forced through, but…[the name ‘Gay’s Pinch’ surely has stuck to this bad curve ever since].”
Where is Gay’s Pinch? Knight’s 1982 statement “by the Wndham Dump” is a bit vague, so here is an updated amplification. Head north on US Route 302 beyond North Windham’s central business district, past the traffic light at White’s Bridge Road intersection, past the long curve beyond Seacoast Fun Park. Look on the left for signs saying “Forest Pump & Filter Inc” and “Faith Lutheran Church”. Not far beyond Forest Pump, but just before the church’s driveway, and roughly parallel to it, are two paths leading roughly to the west of 302.
Ignore the highland path ( pink trail in the image below) (it is an ATV trail atop the crude-oil pipeline to Montreal). But notice how the yellow, lowland path (just under the churchyard banking) curves southwesterly out of sight. This was once the old road to / from Portland, and it was the location of Gay’s Pinch—where Lewis Gay’s oxen-hauled mast got stuck between bankings in the bad curve of that old road.
Sidelight X: For X-Rated?, or just Extra-Curricular?
Across Route 302 from Faith Lutheran Church (red oval on left) is Kay’s Decorating Center (paint & wallpaper store) (red oval on right). The Kay’s building apparently is a very old structure which, according to local legend, formerly housed entertainment for the mast-teamsters who had to wind their loads very slowly through the challenge of Gay’s Pinch nearby (yellow trails in both images). The kinds of entertainment that were available there well may have become exaggerated over the years, as legend turned into jokelore or even fakelore. However, the active Freudian symbolism of lodged-logs easily can eclipse the passive alternative symbolism of castrated-cattle, if one thinks beyond the possibility of teamsters just stopping for water-with-a-smile. So, paint your own picture of the paint-store’s past!
Undoubtedly it was colorful, to say the least.
Beyond showing that traffic accidents blocking “The Bridgton Road” are nothing new, the story of Gay’s Pinch demonstrates more important points. For example, it is for good reason that the Maine state flag (an early 19th-century creation) shows a farmer and a sailor with a pine tree between them. Alas for total symbolic value, the animal at the base of the pine tree is a moose, not an ox, but the interdependence of inland agriculture and coastal seafaring is shown clearly nonetheless.
The lumbering aspect of Maine’s agriculture not only made possible Maine’s building & repairing of ships, but supplied much of Maine’s export cargoes as well—even to the sawdust that packaged Maine’s lake-&-river ice, which was truly a major export commodity itself. Maine’s forest not only moved to the sea but across it as well.
A second Windham mast landmark to note here is quite a success story. The Portland Observatory, on Munjoy Hill above the Portland waterfront, long served the port city as a signalizing tower, starting in 1807. Its eight, mast-like, major timbers grew in Windham’s woods, and went to Portland the very same way that regular masts did.
And these eight great cant-posts are still in use, after 193 years! Open another window to view a ground floor cross section showing cant-post locations.
The Observatory ceased signalizing in 1923, but it always has been a local showpiece, and recently (10 June 2000) has reopened for public visitation after major refurbishing. It is the last remaining former maritime signal tower in the USA. Located at 138 Congress Street (across from North Street), it may look like a lighthouse, but it is quite different. Its basic purpose was to see ships, not to be seen by them, and to signal to persons on shore, not at sea—to announce that ships were coming into port. Before more-modern means of communication, this Observatory and others like it elsewhere were about the only means of telling the news that could organize supply-&-demand interests ashore.
Many thanks to Turk, Tracey & Larry Architects, LLC (Architecture / Historic Preservation) for their assistance & Observatory drawings
What the Observatory telescope saw coming toward the harbor but still far from land, was told immediately by the Observatory signal-flags, which were watched-for constantly by shipping companies, commercial dealers, all sorts of service-providers & workers, and seamen’s families. Specific flags indicated nationality, company, type-of-vessel, etc. Everyone wanting to know of an arrival for whatever reason could then start up their preparations accordingly.
In short, the Observatory early-announced the expected news—and even some unexpected news in a general way. It was the Herald for the Harbor. Eventually higher-tech means of communication made it obsolete, but the Observatory long continued to play the public-confirmative role nonetheless, in a pleasant ceremonial way.
A March 1989 private publication, THE PORTLAND OBSERVATORY: The Building, the Builder, the Maritime Scene (Second Edition, Revised & Enlarged) by John K Moulton, on pages 11-12, tells us of the journey from Windham to Portland of the Observatory’s eight “cant-post” major timbers. The Observatory is an octagonal tower, c.65′ high, but capped by a c.21′ decked-windowed-domed cupola, which gives it a total height of c.86′ above ground-level.
“The eight supporting posts [called ‘cant-posts’], fashioned from white pines, are sixty-five feet four inches long, fourteen inches square at the butt, tapering to ten inches square at their tops. The corners were not square, but cut so that the shape is a square with its corners cut off. This was due to the removal of bark, and the desire to get maximum size from a given tree.” — Quoted from page 12.
“These eight posts, plus other timbers used in the frame, were cut on Pike’s hill* in Windham. After being squared in the woods, they were hauled to Pride’s bridge,** launched into the Presumpscot River, floated over the [first] falls, [in Falmouth,] around Martin’s Point [at the river’s mouth], to a hard sand beach at the foot of Hancock Street [in Portland]. Wheels were backed into the water and at high tide the long posts were floated to their place on the wheels. When the tide ebbed, they were drawn up the [Munjoy] hill. Then the tree trunks…were cut to desired dimensions and placed into position, under the supervision of Captain Moody.” — Quoted from pages 11-12.
Captain Lemuel Moody was the guiding force behind building & operating the Portland Observatory. The Maine Historical Society has among its manuscripts the “Lemuel Moody Collection”. In it (Collection 1931, Folder 13) is a memorandum, dated 8 April 1807, of an agreement / contract with Benjamin Goold of Windham for “eight sticks” (the eight cant-posts) of 65′ length, delivered in Portland “by the first of May at the price of twelve dollars per stick” (8 x $12 =$96 total). Other timber was to be agreed upon later.
*Pike Hill (aka Nash Hill) in Windham is located one mile (straightline) southeast of Foster’s Corner Rotary (the intersection of US Routes 302 & 202). It is half-a-mile northeast of Nash Road intersection with 302 (which is near Suburban Pines Motel). Nash Road curves northerly around Pike / Nash Hill, then straightens again, heading easterly toward Falmouth in Windham.
**Pride’s Bridge is assumed herein to be today’s Riverton Bridge on US Route 302 at the Westbrook / Portland boundary (Presumpscot River), less than a mile south of Pride’s Corner on 302 in Westbrook. This means that the 1807 roadway which is today upgraded into US 302 must have been the oxen-teams’ route involved (i.e.,The Bridgton Road then as now).
So, in conclusion, whether for masts, spars, or Observatory cant-posts, the “moving-forest” was not just an image on Portland’s waterfront skyline; it also was a total reality far inland—certainly in Sebagoland—during the Age of Sail. Today, that fact can be reinforced personally by visiting the Tate House and the Portland Observatory, as well as other maritime museums listed in a new pamphlet titled The Maine Maritime Heritage Trail (sponsored in part by Maine Office of Tourism http://www.visitmaine.com).
And county fairs which still feature oxen in pulling events can neatly frame the picture presented in this report: namely, that in the Age of Sail, there would have been no ships without the masts & spars to rig the sails to, and there would have been no masts & spars without the mighty oxen to pull the forest to the shore.
SIDELIGHT 3: LONGFELLOW’s The Building Of The Ship (EXCERPT)
Late in April 1807, the eight, 65′, cant-posts for the Portland Observatory must have been ox-teamed right past the house at 161 Fore Street on the corner of Hancock Street, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born just two months before, on 27 February.
He later would become one of the 19th-century’s greatest poets, loved worldwide, but always loving his native Portland and Maine. With that early proximity in mind it seems appropriate to end this report with a very-relevant verse of Longfellow’s poem The Building Of The Ship.
“Behold, at last,
Each tall and tapering mast
Is swung into its place;
Shrouds and stays
Holding it firm and fast!
In the deer-haunted forests of Maine,
When upon mountain and plain
Lay the snow,
They fell, — those lordly pines!
Those grand, majestic pines!
‘Mid shouts and cheers
The jaded steers,
Panting beneath the goad,
Dragged down the weary, winding road
Those captive kings so straight and tall,
To be shorn of their streaming hair,
And naked and bare,
To feel the stress and the strain
Of the wind and the reeling main,
Would remind them forevermore
Of their native forests they should not see again.”